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A Mushroom Festival attendee praises Denver’s decision to decriminalize psilocybin during Saturday’s parade down Main Street. (Photo by Reilly Capps/Telluride Daily Planet)

This year, the Telluride Mushroom Festival sold more tickets than it ever has. There were many reasons: forays into mushroom-filled hills, fascinating talks and a hilarious mushroom parade.

The most popular and quickly sold-out events were the edible mushroom hikes and the mushroom dinners, said Ashley Smith, festival manager.

But there is another reason the fest was more popular than ever: More people than ever are tripping on magic mushrooms. And studying them. And talking about them.

For 39 years, the Telluride Mushroom Festival has been pretty much the most psychedelic mushroom festival in the world.

“This was the only mushroom festival where you could talk about that stuff,” said Britt Bunyard, festival executive director. “Pretty much still is.”  

This wasn’t always necessarily a boon. Psychedelics in the 1980s and ’90s were called brain-fryers, and Nancy Reagan had a fit over drugs. And, perhaps not coincidentally, there were a few years when only 40 or 50 people came to the Mushroom Fest, said Art Goodtimes, grand poo-bah of the whole shebang.

But now psychedelics are having a renaissance. Psilocybin was called a “breakthrough treatment” for depression by the FDA, when used with therapy. A book on psychedelics by Michael Pollan — “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” — vaulted to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.

Last year, the headliner was Paul Stamets, an expert in psilocybe. And, for the first time, perhaps not coincidentally, the festival sold out, Bunyard said; selling about 550 four-day passes. The fest sold out again this year, selling about 650 four-day passes, plus about 200 single-day and special event passes.

The theme this year was “Healing the Mind, Healing the Planet,” and mind-bending species of mushrooms were more front and center than ever. About a dozen events featured psychedelics, including history, chemistry, benefits and risks.

“We’re lucky to be living at this time,” said Peter S. Hendricks, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham studying how psilocybin can treat cocaine addiction. “Not many people get to see a paradigm shift, and we’re seeing one happen in real time.”

From the talks by David Nichols, one of the world’s greatest psychedelic chemists, to talks by Tradd Cotter, a mushroom grower who hosts magic mushroom retreats in Jamaica, where the drug is tolerated, the weekend was filled with magic.

“Pretty outrageous and fun,” said Nichols, as he watched the wild mushroom parade on Saturday evening that stretched from Elks Park to the Buck.  

A number of attendees, including Nichols, said they made the trek to the valley to talk about magic mushrooms specifically.

Harry and Alina Haigler of Sonoma County, California, said they came to the Telluride Mushroom Festival for the first time last year, in large part to hear Paul Stamets talk about the magic kind. Even in liberal Northern California, gabbing about psychedelics is still taboo.

“This festival is one of the things that has brought interested academics out of the closet to talk about the potential of these drugs,” said Harry, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at UC-Irvine.

Said Alina, “I’m surprised how big this conference has gotten.” The 2019 fest felt far busier than 2018, she said. “I was worried I wasn’t going get to into talks.”

And then there were the unofficial, unapproved side shenanigans, also appreciated. Psilocybe spores were traded in hotel rooms. Mushroom chocolates were handed out to strangers like, well, candy. A bro brought fancy psilocybin gummies. And well-dressed California tourists in town for another weekend festival started randomly asking hippie-looking dudes on Oak Street for magic mushrooms.

Tripping is still illegal, of course, but it’s less flagrantly illegal than ever. In Colorado, thanks to new legislation, possessing any drug is now a misdemeanor, not a felony.

And in May, Denver voters elected to make shrooms the “lowest priority” for cops and the district attorney, basically lifting the worry of jail time for small-time users over 21. Selling remains a priority for prosecution. A small troop of Denverites who ran the campaign drove to the mushroom festival, and were sometimes greeted with thank yous and high fives.

“Telluride should decriminalize next,” said Travis Tyler Fluck, former field director for Decriminalize Denver, who came to the festival.

There was talk about psilocybin businesses.

At every festival in Telluride, a banner hangs over Main Street. For the Mushroom Festival, the banner had three mushrooms. Two front and center and one in the back, hiding behind the others — a fly agaric, the famous Super Mario magic mushrooms.

More and more, the trippy mushrooms are moving toward the front, both in the valley and elsewhere, and making the mushroom fest, always a hidden treasure of the Telluride valley, more magical than ever — with better attendance.

Reilly Capps, a former Daily Planet reporter, covers psychedelics for Rooster Magazine on the Front Range.