When the city of Denver decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms, many people, both in and out of Denver, were unsure what that meant exactly. Despite decriminalization applying only to possession, consumption, and cultivation of mushrooms, it’s common sense that if you want to do mushrooms, you have to get them from somewhere. Or someone. Still, under decriminalization measures, distribution remains illegal.
Kole Milner, 29, was growing and selling mushrooms in Denver at the time decriminalization passed. His operation was small – he only sold to friends and friends-of-friends through word of mouth. During his best months, he hoped to make $2,000 extra income from his side hustle, which he operated in addition to a full-time job in the cannabis industry.
When decriminalization passed, a handful of stories featuring interviews with an underground mushroom dealer popped up in the Denver Post, NPR, Vice, and Denver’s alternative weekly Westword. Each story printed identifying details about Milner, including his middle name, the fact he worked in the cannabis industry, and photos of his body, hair, and home decor. Together, the handful of stories provided enough information for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to track down the mushroom grower and raid his apartment. Federal prosecutors then charged Milner with one count of possession with intent to distribute psilocybin. Last month, Milner, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to three years probation and a fine of $5,600.
Kole Milner says he believes he only deserves one third of the blame for the outcome, but that every last bit of it has been heaped onto him and him alone. “There’s another two-thirds to the story,” Milner told me. In the end, the journalists got their “editorial product,” none of them got fired, and nobody in the Denver psychedelic community got any heat. Nobody got any heat but Kole Milner. Maybe he’s the only one who could take it.
A lot of people have been talking about Kole Milner recently. Here’s what he has to say.
Thanks for talking with us. You have a disclaimer you would like to share before we get into it.
Yes. I am doing this interview for entertainment and educational purposes. I do not support anyone starting or engaging in the unlawful activities I did in the past that I’ll be talking about. I am not currently or will ever take part in future illegal activities. Staying out of trouble is my top priority, and ever since September 11, 2019, the raid, my life has been completely different. I’ve been compliant with court proceedings and the law. I’ve disconnected from the community from which all this stemmed. I moved away from Colorado, so I’m no longer physically around or digitally through the internet in contact with anybody that this story surrounds.
Mainly I just want to share the truth. Share what actually happened and share my actual experience and my perceptions and my opinion. None of this is meant to exaggerate or give any fake stories or false narratives or say anything malicious. If anything comes across any certain way, that’s just the nature of the truth.
Also, I want to be accountable for what I did. I do not want to be deluded or be ignorant or narcissistic about what happened. I just want to try to convey what happened, as it happened.
OK. There’s your intention. So, what happened? Can you go back in time and describe the events that transpired?
It starts in 2015. I didn’t like where I was living or the people I was around, and I wasn’t making the money I wanted to make. I’d just be like, when is this going to change? When are things going to be different? I was just broke and living paycheck to paycheck.
I listened to an interview with a mixed martial arts trainer sharing his mindset and philosophy, and it stuck with me. Then I started connecting some of the dots on my own. It ranged from personal development to spirituality, to mindsets to have in the workplace, or a plan for money. It was all encompassing, the knowledge I was seeking out. That translated into a stronger work ethic in the cannabis industry I was in. I was getting raises. I got promoted and was promoted again and got another raise.
In my studies of financial success I heard that successful people have multiple streams of income, and I just started to take that seriously, thinking about what I could do to have a second income. Another part of my studies is that you should try to make money in the service of others and off of your mission or purpose in life. That’s a hard thing for a lot of people to figure out because it’s an emotional, personal decision.
I’d already done a lot of research on psychedelics. I remember listening to Alan Watts and Terence McKenna and Joe Rogan. Not that they’re “the authority” when it comes to knowledge and wisdom and psychedelics, but I found it very interesting.
When I was 23 years old I had my first experience. I was in my friend’s backyard and I think I had taken three and a half grams of mushrooms. I was just sitting in a lawn chair by myself, my friends were inside. The main thing it pointed out to me is that, maybe through my childhood or my upbringing, I was uncomfortable saying “I love you” to people, or to my dad or my family. I just wasn’t comfortable expressing love I guess. The experience opened the door to all the emotions I was missing out on that were natural to have as a human being. I remember thinking about my family, my dad in particular, and just wanting to start again, feeling that this is how I want to proceed with my relationships, from a place of love and just forgive the past. I think I was crying. I think that’s common, to have your eyes watering. It might have just been my experience.
I have had that. The love is so big, and you are just in awe of it. I associate it with certain relationships in my life and I feel it for them, but at the same time I realize the love is way bigger than all of us, and we’re like these silly dollhouse characters. It’s so terrifying how big the love is and also how chaotic it can be. I’ve wept at the majesty and insanity of it.
Great. This—my experience, along with my studies, hearing about other people’s experiences, and then starting to see some science supporting it—all fed into making the decision. To me, cultivating psilocybin mushrooms was one of the most beneficial things I could do for other people. That would be my way of serving other people, giving them access to this mind medicine.
And it’s medicine in so many ways. To your personal life, spiritual life. It seems like there’s no limit as long as you have a strong intention. And even if you don’t, you’ll receive information that is valuable as long as you surrender to it and accept it and don’t run from it. Just say, what can I learn from this? Whether it’s difficult or beautiful.
It is significant how you call it medicine.
There’s an information war happening very prevalently right now. Whether it’s political, social or cultural, it seems like there’s all these narratives circulating. I get the impression that it’s meant to distract us like a noise, to pull us away from connecting with each other and uniting.
For somebody to advocate for plant medicine and people healing is a humanitarian endeavor. It’s to reconnect to what’s natural. To reconnect to ourselves. It allowed me to experience that we’re sort of in a Matrix, if I can use that analogy. Like, a paradigm. And you’re not aware of it. And through certain insights or experiences you can sort of see the Matrix. It’s almost like mental entrapment or mental imprisonment, confining yourself to limited views of the world, limited views of yourself, and then to be awakened and see through the noise and see yourself and the truth so clearly is the greatest gift, you know? That’s why it’s humanitarian.
I decided, this is what I want to do for a second income, and I taught myself everything. Nobody told me anything. I just started watching YouTube videos, reading forums, finding out the equipment I need. I do not encourage anybody to look up this stuff and do what I did.
My inspiration was strong and my intuition was strong on this. I was able to learn and enjoy the process.
How did you get involved with the Decriminalize Denver campaign?
I eventually heard through work: “Hey, did you hear people are working on a decriminalization for mushrooms?” That intrigued me. Then I saw on Facebook that this was a real thing and they were having a meeting. This was March of 2018. This was the first meeting of trying to do this. And the people there for that weren’t necessarily the same people that were there when it was actually approved and passed and able to get petitions.
I think I was within the first group of volunteers to get involved in the campaign. I’m not sure how many of them are verified, but I got about 300 signatures. It was fun. We all had a common goal. We were coming together to do something good and it wasn’t just for us. I was thinking about how many people were going to benefit from us doing this, making this effort.
When did you first appear in the media talking about growing mushrooms?
I think it was April 2019 when I got the first interview. It kind of came out of nowhere. I didn’t expect it. It was Harvest Public Media. Esther Honig was the first journalist I spoke to.
For the most part I don’t have any complaints about her other than she took a photo of my person. For the first interview it was like, meaningless, but after all the others it probably gave more context. But she didn’t know like, this guy’s about to do a string of interviews. [Laughs.]
What were your questions with Esther Honig from Harvest Public Media, a local NPR station, like leading up to this story? Did you talk about being anonymous? What did you think that meant to be anonymous?
I think whenever she was there I said, no, I don’t want my person to be in the photos, but I think maybe she asked again. I know that my initial response was, no, don’t take a photo of me. I think maybe she said, ”What about we just don’t show your face?” I remember not wanting to, but… just… she did. Of course I could have been like, ‘delete that,’ but I don’t know. I was going with the flow, giving each other the benefit of the doubt that neither of us were going to compromise each other.
I don’t know if we had a conversation about her using my middle name. But maybe at that time I was thinking,this is the only interviewI’m going to do, so I’ll just use my alias as Douglas. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, I should maybe not use this name. [Laughs] But I guess I did anyway.
She went to the extra effort to point out that Douglas is your middle name, rather than just printing Douglas. Here is how her story reads: “‘I mean, it’s a relatively quiet thing to do. There’s just lots of waiting,’ says Douglas, which is his middle name. He didn’t want to be identified because this is an illegal grow and sell operations.”
These stories got their quote from you—get the quote from the drug dealer, your color for your story, move on. NPR, Esther Honig, alerted the feds your middle name.
Oh, I didn’t realize they said, “This is his middle name. Oh yeah, and it’s federally illegal.” That’s like, two contradicting statements that don’t protect me.
Pretty much! The Denver Post article was your second interview?
I think so. I was a little bit hot headed when the Denver Post came over. I didn’t feel like what I was saying to them was calculated and thoughtful. I was just in a weird headspace for some reason. I’d given them a testimony: this is what I’m doing, mushrooms are great and they should be decriminalized. But then after a while I thought about it and I was like, ”Hey guys, can we do another one because I don’t like what I said. I’d rather make a better, more thoughtful statement.”They said OK. I can’t remember if it was over the phone or if they came back to do that.
Then there was another time where an actual photographer from Denver Post came over and took those photos. One of them is in the affidavit, which shows my face covered by the tent, but you can see my body. That was the second instance of a photographer getting photos of my person. The Denver Post video also showed my living space, including my art on the walls, which the DEA later tied to my Facebook page.
The first sentence of the Denver Post story is, “The young man with a tent full of psychedelic mushrooms in his closet isn’t afraid of the cops.”
It was kind of used in the prosecution where they’re like, Kole’s bragging about what he’s doing. But in this age of news we understand there’s like, a slant or a direction they want to go, and they’re attributing these journalists and the direction they want to paint it. The prosecutors are saying, this is actually who he is. They’re trying to tie that into my character.
At no point am I thinking like, screw the cops, or I don’t care about the cops. I think it might be a common thing amongst people doing illegal stuff. They’re not worried about getting caught, until they get caught.
What were your thoughts like at this time?
At this point I’m just having a good time. I’m in this cool community and I’m helping other people get what they want. I was making money, living a little bit better. I think that all tied into my naivete. I started doing this and it became something. The fact that I’m seen by the community in a good light, that they would come to me and ask me to do these interviews, it’s like I’m selected to be a part of this thing that’s going to help so many people. So definitely my judgment’s clouded.
The mindset I had was to give all the journalists the benefit of the doubt. I’m just having fun because of all of the validation I’m getting. I think that’s what made me think, well, why would they come after me? I’m not a criminal and I always said good things in my articles, like, “I’m doing this because this is good.” Why would somebody want to take somebody out that’s doing something good?
Of course that’s not how it goes. You’re breaking the law and the news is saying you’re not scared of the police. I even heard from people in the community say, “Don’t you think these articles are poking the bear?”
What was your response to that?
Probably denial. Like, no. Hindsight!
In several of these stories you’re wearing the Happy Fox Edibles logo t-shirt, which turned out to be your brand. What’s the story with that?
I was just having fun, enjoying the moment. Then I was like, let’s have more fun, let’s have a brand. I was basically just selling to people that I knew. It’s not like I was going to be an international trafficker. No particular reason why I wore it during the interviews other than I’m having a good time.
One of the reporters told me you “insisted” on wearing it.
I mean, maybe I did. My dumb, naive self probably did want to.
OK. And then next you were in the video for Vice?
Yes. I got that interview from the same source that sent me Denver Post, Westword, and USA Today. I was approached with, “Hey Kole, would you like to be on ‘HBO Tonight Vice News?’” It was presented as like, wouldn’t this be cool? Doesn’t this sound cool? Do you wanna do it?
And I’m just like, holy shit, more affirmation. More validation of, you get to do this, Kole, you get to experience this. You get to share what’s happening. I was like, yeah!
The guy who interviewed me for Vice, he bought me lunch. He was like, yeah, you’re the star today. I was like, oh boy.
What’d you have?
It was tacos or something. I was just hanging out with them and it was cool. Then we went to this ice cream place. We met Kevin Matthews in that parking lot. And Kevin had just made t-shirts for the campaign. I still have two of them. This is after we had collected all the petition signatures and submitted them to Denver Votes. I think it had even been approved, so that’s why Vice wanted to do a story.
I was told about Westword by the same person who told me about most of the other stories.
Who was that?
For this I would like to pose a question. Based on Vice, the Denver Post, the Westword – who would all of these media outlets be reaching out to? Who would know how to get them a story that they want? That person is in the community and they know as well as I do what decriminalization means and what the consequences are around Schedule One substances. But I’m the stupid one. OK.
It sounds like you have some issues with the characterization you received following the news stories about you, which was basically – and I heard this from sources in the community when I asked them about your case – “This guy went out and bragged to the media. It’s on him.”
It’s like my judgment is clouded in a way that is different than why judgment is clouded for the journalists, or why the judgment is clouded for the one referring me to the interviews. We’re all suffering from a clouded judgment, or giving the benefit of the doubt, “you know what not to say.” We were all afflicted by that naivete. I imagine anyone paying attention, which I’m sure the person who connected me with the journalists was, knew what I had said and shown in interviews already. Now, what would a story about “underground mushroom dealing” in the Westword add to what’s already out there? I feel like that’s them passing that buck on me. Like, “Kole will think about it; I don’t have to.”
So you agree to do the Westword interview. What was that experience like?
Conor [McCormick-Cavanagh] and I spoke a little bit and then we had a phone call. I gave him the gist of what was going on, and how I do it. I’m telling him this so he understands from a journalistic standpoint, so he can see the bigger picture. I assume he’s going to condense it, but I’m not exactly sure me and him had that conversation. It was the benefit of the doubt. Like, it’s implied that you’re going to protect me, right?
Did you and Conor McCormick-Cavanagh from Westword have a conversation outlining your condition of anonymity?
No, I don’t think I told him that. And I don’t think he told me explicitly that he would keep me anonymous. It was really unspoken, him and I.
This is the article that stated that you worked in the cannabis industry, which is how the DEA eventually found you. They searched “Douglas” in the directory of cannabis industry employees.
I was naive to not draw the connection. That’s my mistake, my short sightedness. And it seemed like [McCormick-Cavanagh] also missed the boat on that correlation. But, at the same time, he doesn’t know that Douglas is my middle name. I can’t blame any of the reporters for not knowing that Douglas was my middle name. That was my fault.
Obviously he didn’t know about the database, or was careless to not think about putting the fact that I work in the cannabis industry in his story, because of the database. Or maybe I’m stupid for telling him what industry I work in to begin with.
Whenever that article was released I said to him, Jesus Christ, you said everything I said. I didn’t want you to do that. I feel like you didn’t protect me. You’ve compromised me. I asked him to remove things but he said no. What stood out to me was that he published that I work in the cannabis industry, and I receive payment digitally, so there’s no cash involvement. He was just playing it off. Like, I know you feel this way but it is what it is. That sort of vibe.
I heard from an anonymous source that during the course of his reporting on you, Conor McCormick-Cavanagh had his first ever mushroom trip. I understand you had a conversation with him about his trip. Do you want to say anything about that?
Yeah. There was a get-together meeting about what’s next for the campaign. Conor showed up. The Westword has a photo of the journalist, and I recognized him from that. I just started talking to him. I didn’t bring up his article because I already brought up all those concerns through texting, so I just tried to keep it civil. I asked him what his first experience had been like. He told me it was good and he was at home with his girlfriend on the couch in his living room. He said he had had a lot of love for his family, and that was the highlight of the experience.
What was it like when your apartment was raided by DEA agents?
I woke up. Regular day. Tended to my projects. Got my breakfast ready. Pretty sure I let my dog outside. I think I did that in the morning. I walked out the door, going to my car, and there’s two guys standing there by the elevator. They said something like, “We know what’s going on, and we have a warrant.” At this point I’m thinking, this is the worst thing. The worst thing is happening. As I’m talking to those two I hear something behind me, and it’s this other, bigger officer coming out of the storage and laundry area.
At this point, I’m surrounded. I’m not going anywhere. Am I getting arrested? Am I going to jail? What’s going to happen to my dog? What’s going to happen to my apartment? My stuff? I’m going to have to tell my family. It’s all just hitting me as they’re talking to me, but I’m having this sensory overload of fear. And it’s really intense – all I hear is my thoughts, and I don’t really hear what they’re saying, and I kinda feel like I’m going to shit myself.
They put me in handcuffs. They had on their bulletproof harness getup and DEA and badges and shit. They were giving me my Miranda rights.
They didn’t blast my door down and do all that. I was able to unlock my door. From the moment we encountered each other, I was cooperating with them. I wasn’t frantic or yelling or anything. I think they got the impression that I’m not going to be a problem for them, so they kinda eased up or something. They had taken my handcuffs off and they allowed me to sit on the couch in my living room and watch everything happen. At this moment I’m like, is this real? Is this really happening?
They lay out this black tarp in my living room, and they bring out my mushroom containers. They start picking all of them out. At this point they’re just little babies, like maybe they’re the size of your pinkie. And they’re pulling them all out of the nutrients and putting them on the tarp.
They took all the mycology stuff. They took my computer and my phone. I had twelve bins of mushrooms and I remember them all stacked up in this SUV outside my apartment. As soon as I could, I left and went to the Sprint store to get a new phone, and a new phone number.
It seems like you have an ongoing beef with Westword because they continued to write about you. In February they ran a story about you and your comment was, “Fuck the Westword.” What is going on?
And this is where the salt starts. As soon as it was public, Conor [McCormick-Cavanagh] hits me up and he’s like, ”Hey I’m about to write a story on you getting busted. Do you have a comment?” I’m thinking about the dynamic going on here, that I already talked to you about your article and how I didn’t like it, how I wanted you to remove things but you said no. He participated in the outcome but is now trying to capitalize on my downfall.
I had already expressed to him, like, dude, are you some kind of fucking sociopath? You’re gonna do this to me? You’re gonna destroy my income and try to make more of an income for yourself off of me? Even though you participated? It is just a conflict of moral and ethical principles. It’s a man-to-man sort of thing. This is how you’re gonna do me? You’re gonna show me this disrespect?
You get to be in the community and drink the Kool-Aid and have an experience but you’ll also help compromise the community? He’s a traitor. He doesn’t belong in that community if he’s going to harm people and benefit from it. And the people in the community should see that and not offer to contribute to his articles.
At the same time I’m like, I’m stupid. But you took advantage of me and now you’re disrespecting me.
How do you feel about being categorized as a criminal or a drug dealer?
I am not a drug dealer. I was a mushroom grower. A mycologist.
What is justice? Is justice taking somebody with no history and no criminal record and destroying their life? Is that how justice represents itself? Why are mushrooms Schedule One? Why is cannabis Schedule One? Why are mind altering substances considered criminal?
It’s just dogmatic and arbitrary, what things are legal and illegal, which drives people crazy. Which is why people congregate and make an effort to change the law. They know what they are doing is the right thing to do. Help change immoral laws. Help change laws that are not aligned with reality. I hope I speak for a lot of people when I say we just want to be more free. We just want to make decisions for ourselves that don’t harm other people.
In the end, despite facing months or years of prison time and up to a $1 million fine, you got sentenced to $5,600 and three years probation. At your sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court of Colorado Judge R. Brooke Jackson said, ”I don’t think putting this guy in prison for six months is going to accomplish much in terms of deterrence, or that it will benefit the community in terms of safety, or that it will provide any kind of benefit for the defendant.” He added, “I don’t see this guy being in prison.” Can you elaborate on why you think you got such a relatively light sentence?
The stakes were high. The sentencing guidelines were high. I just think that my sentencing is a result of who I am. I’m somebody who deserves a second chance, deserves lenience, because I’m not a bad person in any way. That’s why I had zero criminal history, because I’ve done good to myself, I’ve done good to others. I don’t harm other people. I don’t instigate things with other people. I just want to have peace of mind and good things in my life, so naturally that’s what I’ve attracted and it reflects in my criminal history. It reflects in all of the 14 recommendations that were written for me to be given to the judge. All the important people in my life, all the kindness I showed to people, all the friendships I’ve cultivated, all the loyalty I’ve shown to people in my life. It all cashed out for me there. All of my positive influences were there to back me up. And I earned that by virtue of who I am and my values.
I am lucky, because anything could have happened. Something could have happened outside of my control that would have reflected on my record, bit me in the ass at that moment. But that’s not what happened. So I’m just grateful for what is.
I eventually moved to Kansas City with my family. I didn’t do it just because it looked good for the case. This God damn coronavirus, all you can do is earn money and then go home. I was like, the world sucks – I want to be with my family.
How has it been?
It’s good but it’s a compromise. It’s just something you learn in your life. Everything comes at a price.
Would you care to share anything else before we go?
There are ways you can frame things that happen in your life, or attitudes you can take towards them. Typically we don’t want difficult things to happen to us. But this is real life. Anything can happen. In your control or out of your control. One way to think about things is, how is the worst thing that happened to me the best thing that happened to me? Under pressure, what characteristics can I practice that help me out of it? Because you’ve gotta live your life. You’ve gotta save yourself. Nobody can save you for you. You gotta have a mental discipline to go through the pain, go through the trials, and not let it defeat you. This is my self talk: I’ll analyze what’s happening and go like, “This is uncomfortable.” “Emotionally, this is hard.”
I think that’s part of Stoicism, not letting your emotions control you. Your mind is not in control of you, you’re in control of your mind. You can be your own worst enemy. And that’s based on how much self control you have, I think.
Before, I used to be confused as to why things were the way that they were. Now I’m no longer confused as to why I get the results that I get. I’m either disciplined, or I’m neglecting something.