For decades, mainstream culture has associated psychedelics with impairing the mind rather than improving it. But advocates, researchers and officials are starting to paint a different picture—that substances including magic mushrooms, mescaline, LSD and MDMA can actually help treat serious mental health issues.
After the Food and Drug Administration designated MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) as “breakthrough” therapies in 2017 and 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs launched clinical trials this year to study the effectiveness of the drugs to treat military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders and other behavioral conditions.
During a September 26 House Veterans Affairs Committee Meeting, representatives from Reason for Hope, a nonprofit that advocates for psychedelic therapies for veterans, presented a letter asking lawmakers to push for more federal funding for research. “There is urgent need to investigate novel therapeutics with potential to offer relief and healing to individuals who have been failed by current treatments, especially those which can offer rapid and robust improvements,” the letter reads.
It goes on to say that current treatments—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs—are known to be slow-acting and largely ineffective,even more so among the veteran population than the general population.
Bruno Moya has been working with impacted veterans and advocating in the Las Vegas community for nearly a decade. He transitioned from active infantry service in 2008 and says he experienced challenges with his mental health and relationships afterward—until a guided experience with psilocybin improved his mental health and enhanced his familial relationships.
“My first experience completely changed my life. … The next day, I came home and my wife was like, ‘What did you do? And you need to do it more,’” he laughs. “My 15-year-old now kind of notices the difference … [from] when I was getting out of the Marine Corps to watching me raise her little sister. … Now, I’m playful with both of my kids, and I really have no issues with my wife.”
As one of seven co-directors of Decriminalize Nature Nevada, which launched in 2021 as part of a national organization working to create a coalition and provide educational resources about psychedelic therapies, Moya pushes for increased access for veterans and “everybody else that can benefit from it.”
“Right now, the only people that really have access to this are 1) people who are willing to risk their freedom and risk doing it with somebody who might not know what they’re doing, or 2) people who can go to Mexico, Peru or anywhere else in the world where they have legal access to a spiritual center, which is a small population in our community,” he says.
Although the group took root in Nevada less than two years ago, it’s already seeing state lawmakers come to the table. After discussing with stakeholders, Democratic Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen has filed a draft request for the 2023 Legislative Session for a bill that “revises provisions governing controlled substances” and deals with matters of decriminalization, regulation and research on psychedelics.
Nguyen tells the Weekly that it could potentially help with the growing mental health crisis. She adds that Nevada can benefit from lessons learned in jurisdictions that already have passed decriminalization measures, including Oregon, which became the first and only state to fully legalize psilocybin in 2020.
Gordon Brown, spokesperson for the Nevada State Democratic Party, says the state party is calling for “the legalization, regulation and taxation of therapeutic and recreational psychedelics, as well as the broad decriminalization of drugs, the end of policies relating to the so-called ‘war on drugs,’ and call for greater funding for addiction treatment services.”
Not everyone is on board with efforts to decriminalize and legalize psychedelics. After Oregon voters legalized psilocybin by ballot initiative, at least one county has proposed a ban on the psychedelic therapy, citing safety concerns for children and teens.
Earlier this year, Maine lawmakers voted against a bill that would have allowed patients 21 and older to access psilocybin if they had received a doctor’s recommendation. As first reported by Pew Charitable Trusts, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said a lack of “clinical practice guidelines and FDA-approved treatments” would make it difficult to “ensure safe and appropriate use of the therapy.”
Nevertheless, an increasing number of people have shared their stories, painting an alternative narrative about psychedelics.
In August, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers said during a podcast interview that his experience with ayahuasca helped get him in shape for some of the best-played seasons of his career. And in 2021, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds told Rolling Stone that his experience with ayahuasca helped him make “leaps and strides” in his mental health, and might have saved his marriage.
Research and multiple recent studies have shown psychedelics to be successful in treating a range of mental health issues, from depression to obsessive compulsive disorder. According to Decriminalize Nature, which helped pass psychedelics decriminalization resolutions in localities in at least four states and Washington, D.C.—decriminalizing before legalizing is essential to ensure that treatments remain accessible and affordable.
“We will pursue legalization of community-based enterprise models that enable payment for services, but we will not support commodification of the plants and fungi materials themselves,” the organization’s website says.
Decriminalize Nature emphasizes that naturally-grown psychedelics, such as mescaline-containing cacti, iboga and ayahuasca, have been used in centuries-old ceremonial practices. Like cannabis, full legalization of psychedelics would come with regulations and oversight that might restrict indigenous communities and traditional users from growing and freely using the plants in ways they see fit.
But legalization will be necessary for psychedelic therapies to expand more widely in structured programs and clinics, which could provide safer and more predictable experiences, Moya acknowledges. “Clinicians would be able to provide services,” he says.
“They’ll be able to have retreats where people are going to have experiences that are well-structured with professionals that have training.”
Legalization will also be necessary to allow psychedelic drugs to be sold commercially—something on which local researchers are already working. Earlier this year, scientists Dustin and Rochelle Hines, who conduct cutting-edge research from their laboratory at UNLV, founded the pharmaceutical company Tessellate, which is developing and researching the effectiveness of “synthetic versions of psychedelics.”
“Synthetic versions don’t have a sustainability issue,” Rochelle Hines says. “If we can develop a synthetic psychedelic that doesn’t require a slow-growing cactus to be killed to get it, then we see that as an important avenue to pursue. The other big upside of developing a synthetic is that you can make it more specific, so it may have less off-target effects.”
After conducting research in psychedelics for about 10 years, the Hineses say they see an opening to make waves in the landscape of mental health treatments—and make them even more effective.
“We really haven’t had any innovation in drugs since the ‘50s,” Dustin Hines says. “Tessellate is looking at making novel compounds that treat specific disorders. … You need to understand the patient [and] understand how different compounds work together in the brain. These are ideas that shamans have known for thousands of years.”
Tessellate has developed and holds provisional patents covering 30 compounds that are under preclinical development as psychedelic therapies. The company is seeking funding to begin clinical trials.
Whether through decriminalized use or legalized clinical use, advocates and researchers warn that, while psychedelics offer new possibilities for treatment, they’re not a panacea. Though psychedelics have “very low abuse liability,” a certain level of education and guidance is necessary to yield best outcomes, they say.
“There is this public perception that it’s a magical pill: You take it and then all of a sudden all your problems dissolve away. … The truth of it is, you take the medicine and you have a very deep and sometimes challenging experience,” Rochelle Hines says. “That’s why, sometimes, it’s important there’s a therapist or at least some interpersonal connection there, some person to work with. … It may not work for everybody. And it may be difficult and require working through some issues.”
Moya emphasizes that the communal aspect of psychedelics can be an important part of the therapy. “This sounds corny, but … you get to realize the importance of connection, even with people that you disagree with. And that’s extremely important. With somebody with PTSD, there’s numbness. And when the numbness goes away, you’re able to feel the people next to you and appreciate them,” he says. “Even that simple thing changes somebody from having a decision to take their life or do something irreparable, to having an ability to connect with themselves and others.”
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