WASHINGTON — Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry may not be able to dance with the stars, but his endorsement of psilocybin research – aka shrooms – has turned heads in the nation’s capital. For the state’s two US senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Perry’s new push to study the medicinal properties of “magic mushrooms” has them now open to studying the federally prohibited substance for the first time. But their changes of heart (if muted) are “upsetting” to progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she was derided by some on the right for pushing the same idea just two years ago.
In 2019, her freshman year in Washington, AOC introduced many of her fellow lawmakers to psilocybin – the natural psychedelic compound that puts the ‘magic’ in some mushrooms – for the first time. Her measure, which also sought to open up research for substances like marijuana and MDMA, was destroyed on the House floor: 91 to 331.
Back then (two years ago) only Denver and Oakland had bucked the DEA and moved to locally decriminalize the federally prohibited substance, which was mocked by many on the right. But with Perry’s surprise endorsement, the two senators Texas voters sent to Washington are suddenly woke — well, at least woken up to AOC’s idea, but seemingly only when it’s presented to them as Rick Perry’s idea.
“I did see that – first time I had heard of it. I don’t see how research could hurt,” Sen. John Cornyn told The News Station. “I mean, there’s ancient uses for, you know, natural remedies, herbs and cures, so maybe there’s something there; maybe there’s not, I don’t know.”
While Cornyn has studied drugs in his role as co-chair of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control and was prepared for an impromptu interview in the basement of the Capitol with The News Station, his Senate underling, Ted Cruz, was initially reluctant to discuss federally taboo substances.
“I haven’t seen the comment,” Cruz resolutely said, as if that would end our unscheduled interview.
After some awkward silence and a dad joke – “I like mushrooms on pizza, but that’s about it” – Cruz slowly realized The News Station wasn’t going to stop asking questions. As we briskly walked along the trams running under the Capitol, Cruz unexpectedly joined Perry and Cornyn – albeit, merely verbally — in signaling an openness to researching the medicinal benefits of psilocybin.
“I’m always open to medical studies, but it’s not — this is not a question I’ve examined,” Cruz said.
The Harvard educated Republican lawyer was thrown off by the initial question, but as we walked and talked he then revealed a depth of knowledge of substances he hasn’t previously revealed (and having a staffer “admit” you toked as a teen doesn’t count).
“Many drugs were developed in a medicinal context, and they regularly have both legitimate medicinal uses and illegitimate abuses,” Cruz lectured. “If you look at opioids, when an individual is coming out of surgery or facing severe pain — opioids can be very helpful for getting through it. But they can also be severely addictive and deadly. So there may be a host of different drugs that have legitimate medicinal uses but nonetheless need to be carefully regulated to prevent their abuse.”
AOC was not elated upon hearing the news of powerful Texas Republicans (verbally) joining her bipartisan effort. Rather, she was disappointed upon hearing powerful Texas Republicans were putting Perry – the formerly popular, longest serving governor in the state’s history – and his conversion above the failed effort she spearheaded as a freshman lawmaker.
“That’s very upsetting, because that was our amendment last term and a lot of people voted it down,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station while walking across the Capitol grounds. “So I’m quite surprised to hear that, but I’m certainly willing to — you know, I’ll take support wherever it comes from.”
Still, while walking from a presser on the Senate side of the Capitol to the House chamber for a vote, AOC seemed to move past frustration. After all, Perry is following her lead on an issue she helped make bipartisan.
That’s why AOC isn’t fazed. Rather, she sees a path opening when it comes to substances, which is partly why she focused her initial amendment on veterans.
“100%, 100%,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station. “That’s how I designed my original amendment. You know, we cited and worked with a lot of veteran advocates on this, because some of this initial research is focused on treatment of PTSD.”
Veterans have historically been shielded from (most) of Washington’s political BS, even if that’s made both parties treat them as pawns in the recent past. They may just be the last block of citizens today’s political class views in an a-partisan way.
That’s how Perry and AOC landed on common ground — even if while remaining coasts apart, both physically and ideology. And why some prominent Republicans aren’t as dismissive of the idea. It’s also why the debate is no longer theoretical: It’s happening locally without Congress. Just ask Rick Perry (or DC residents, Oregon ones, etc..).
While localities across America continue to lap the political class on all things ‘drug’ and criminal justice reform, AOC and a handful of others helped bring this policy area into the marble halls of the Capitol for the first time in decades.
Proponents are now eager for a thorough debate. They say there should be no discussion when it comes to whether or not to research a potential cure for veterans.
“I think, especially, when it comes to issues of trauma, which is so difficult and complex to treat,” AOC said, “I do think that there’s absolutely an opening and there are veterans that are supportive of it.”
For other Democrats, the slow evolution of some in the GOP on formerly illicit and now locally legal substances makes sense after decades and decades of tangibly false rhetoric.
“Holistically, okay, we’ve had 70 years of a war on drugs — ‘say no to drugs’ — that’s been a flawed policy,” California Democratic Rep. Lou Correa told The News Station. “It’s been a flawed policy, because it’s based not on scientific research but on politics.”
Correa’s upset about these Texas Republican’s (mini)evolution for other reasons: Their party has remained the biggest roadblock to healing medicines for decades.
“Now we’re beginning to recognize a lot of these things that have been illegal may actually have some medical properties that may be good to address the issues that have been afflicting us all these years: mental health, depression, PTSD,” Correa said. “These are good, cost effective solutions, if we just do what we’re supposed to do, which is instead of saying no to drugs, you say yes to scientific research.”
While Cruz is nibbling on (Cancun?) pizza, his senior senator says he’s looking into the issue.
Cornyn’s remained one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s top generals, even after he had to relinquish his coveted title of “whip” (or number two in command, in congressional parlance) after GOP rules forced him to relinquish the title at the end of 2018.
“I think we need to be making evidence-based policy,” Cornyn told The News Station. “And, frankly, I need those answers before I’m ready to vote on anything related to a currently scheduled drug.”
Even with psilocybin now effectively decriminalized in Washington, D.C., the senior senator from Texas told The News Station he’s never tried the psychedelic fungi.
“Ever tempted?” I asked.
“No,” Cornyn said through a laugh as he was getting on an elevator in the Capitol, “I’m not.”