A Magic Mushroom Test Case, and the Man Behind It
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Legal mushrooms could be a micro version of marijuana legalization.
By Carly Stern
After years of debilitating depression, Kevin Matthews credits a transformative mushroom trip in 2011 as his turnaround. “It allowed the clouds to clear and kind of gave me the perspective to see my life in a whole new context,” he says.
Matthews, 34, doesn’t look the part of a drug activist. Neatly dressed in a pale blue button-down, the young dad talks over the noise of clattering plates at a trendy Denver coffee shop about what fun it was to wander between parks that night. When he laughs, his brown eyes crinkle behind no-nonsense rectangular glasses that look like they belong on a teacher rather than an impassioned organizer trying to make “magic mushrooms” mainstream.
Yet as Decriminalize Denver’s campaign manager, Matthews drove his city’s push to decriminalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms that causes hallucinations. Initiative 301 secured 50.5 percent of the vote in May, making Denver the first U.S. city to decriminalize the drug for those over 21 years old. Arrests for possession or use of psilocybin are now Denver’s lowest law enforcement priority, though the drug still can’t be sold or used for medical treatment.
After the narrow victory, Matthews and others from the campaign launched the nonprofit Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform and Education (yes, that’s SPORE). Matthews, who will be the group’s executive director, supports city officials who provide extra training to law enforcement focused on harm reduction. He hopes SPORE will evolve into an information and strategy hub for other grassroots campaigns as psychedelics gain political attention nationwide. Oakland, California, decriminalized psychoactive plants and fungi in June, while medical legalization of psilocybin could be on Oregon’s ballot next year and petitions are circling California for a 2020 decriminalization ballot measure.
Unlike the legalization of cannabis, this mushroom push isn’t expected to create a booming industry or begin correcting decades of criminal inequities (psilocybin is identified in less than 0.5 percent of drug lab reports). Instead, supporters point to a small but growing body of research suggesting that psilocybin can be an effective tool to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction. Growing acceptance of marijuana helped pave the way. “This shouldn’t be considered alternative anymore,” says Matthews. “We have a national emergency right now with our mental health and addiction crisis.”
This shouldn’t be considered alternative anymore.
While this was Matthews’ first brush with organizing, he’s been oriented by a sense of duty for decades. Since age 9, the Denver native dreamed of joining the Army and following in the footsteps of his adoptive father and grandfather. In 2005, he headed to West Point, where he was treated for depression. Suicidal ideation led to a medical discharge in 2008.
The discharge crushed him. “The military doesn’t really have the cultural infrastructure to work with people who are suffering from major depression,” Matthews says, steady and soft-spoken, as sunlight pours into the café. He moved home with his father and bounced among odd jobs. Today, he speaks openly about the sense of abandonment he traces to being adopted and without a mother figure. It took a cocktail of therapy, yoga, meditation and alternative spirituality for him to reach a place of clarity.
Self-medicating with mushrooms was part of that soul-searching. In 2011, Matthews moved in with Sheva, who would become his wife. (They met at a poker game: “I got my ass kicked,” he says with a laugh.) The couple worked at an outdoor rehabilitation center for at-risk youth until 2013, when the company shut down, after which they packed up their Subaru and moved to Mendocino, California. They lived off the grid in the redwood forest until Shevah became pregnant; in 2014, they returned to Denver — “back into the real world,” Matthews says.
By 2017 he was working as a social media consultant and became captivated by the idea that psilocybin could alleviate others’ suffering as well as his own. Matthews helped to craft the ballot initiative, found the 10-person committee, canvas for signatures and coordinate more than 100 volunteers, with a boost of $48,000 in campaign donations.
An expanding body of research has been exploring psilocybin’s therapeutic potential to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, cigarette and alcohol dependence, and treatment-resistant depression. Some research also indicates low abuse and dependence rates. A University of California, San Francisco pilot study suggests it is feasible to combine medically supervised psilocybin use with regular group therapy, says Brian Anderson, a UCSF psychiatrist with a background in substance use (the study has not yet been published).
Still, Anderson urges caution, saying psilocybin use can go wrong — for example, triggering psychotic episodes in people with schizophrenia — and must take place in highly controlled settings. Neither Denver’s nor Oakland’s initiatives authorize doctors to recommend psilocybin as treatment, though Oregon’s ballot measure would allow medical use. “Decriminalization at a local level is not legalization, and it’s not regulation,” Anderson says.
There’s also the broad cadre of public health and safety concerns about recreational use. Trips, which can last up to six hours, cause hallucinations that impair judgment. People on psilocybin have died jumping from buildings or walking into traffic. Matthews understands these concerns: SPORE’s focus has shifted to educating people about how to use mushrooms safely (e.g., knowing strains and appropriate dosage) through TV public service announcements, radio spots and billboards, possibly in conjunction with city government. “After seeing his success in Denver, I expect that he will be aggressive in his efforts to educate the population and decriminalize its use,” says Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who brought in Matthews for a psilocybin primer after the initiative passed.
While advocates note that hallucinogenic plants have been used in community settings since the shamans and medicine men of antiquity, modern psychedelic politics remains in its infancy. Organizing efforts have bubbled up in cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., Phoenix and Dallas, while medical research on the drug continues. Matthews is fully aware that national curiosity, scrutiny and criticism will focus on Denver as the petri dish of this experiment. “In many ways,” he says, “we kind of catalyzed this movement for the rest of the country.”