Federal health officals want congress to let them study psychedelics research

Federal Health Officials All but Beg Congress to Let Them Study Psychedelics

Health officials at all levels see great promise in psychedelics for treating everything from anxiety to depression, but now federal health officials are starting to speak out against the restrictions on research they’ve been saddled with due to the “war on drugs.” Some of these unelected health leaders are now pressuring the nation’s elected political leaders to unshackle them and loosen restrictions keeping federal experts on the sidelines in the midst of America’s psychedelic revolution.

On Capitol Hill, most lawmakers still crack dumb jokes about shrooms and LSD. Health experts aren’t laughing — they’re deploying flare guns to try and wake perpetually slumbering lawmakers up. Health officials, now including those in the federal government itself, are clamoring to study psychedelics for research. Some are warning Congress won’t get the last laugh if they let states and municipalities outpace the federal government on yet another potentially healing substance lumped into the nation’s decades long and utterly failed “war on drugs.”

This week it was Sean Belouin, a senior science policy advisor with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), publicly calling for the federal government to partner with localities implementing new psychedelic policies. But the week before it was National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins who turned heads while testifying in the staid US Senate about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, like psilocybin and MDMA.

“There has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs, which for a while were sort of considered not an area that researchers legitimately ought to go after,” Collins — who also slammed federal restrictions inhibiting marijuana research — told United States senators. “And, I think, as we’ve learned more about how the brain works, we’ve begun to realize that these are potential tools for research purposes and might be clinically beneficial.”

Collins even endorsed a bipartisan proposal to flip the script on the Drug Enforcement Administration by removing some psychedelics from the DEA’s vice-like grip that’s stifled research by confining them to the list of Schedule 1 controlled substances, alongside the likes of heroin.

“What we really need is to moderate the Schedule 1 limitation,” Collins testified, before backing the creation of a new “Schedule 1R” category which would enable scientists to more freely research an array of psychedelics.

This may be news to lawmakers at the US Capitol, but it’s nothing new to many health professionals and scientists.

Just this April, an array of leading neuroscientists and psychologists from top programs like UCLA and the Johns Hopkins University spoke favorably about these still federally outlawed substances during NIH’s first-ever Psilocybin Speaker Series.

The common complaint from those experts is federal anti-drug laws continue undermining the research the scientific community is desperate to freely conduct.

Local leaders already know that, hence a diverse assortment of states and localities are already bypassing Congress and cutting the federal government out of the equation completely, just as the majority of states have done when they legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational uses.

Psilocybin is now legal in Denver, Washington, DC, Santa Cruz and Oakland, Calif., Ann Arbor, Mich., along with Cambridge and Somerville, Mass.

That’s just the start. This week, the California state Senate approved a measure to legalize the possession of psychedelics, including LSD, DMT and ibogaine.

Down in the Lone Star State, legislators recently sent a bill to study the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for veterans inflicted with PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas-sized desk. Surprisingly — or maybe inevitably — the conservative state’s two Republican US senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, recently told The News Station they’re also open to supporting studies focused purely on the nation’s many ailing veterans — a position they couldn’t imagine entertaining even five years ago.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Photo by Lorie Shaull

But experts are especially watching Oregon, as local leaders are now implementing the very specific will of voters. See, this past November residents didn’t vote to usher in a technicolored dream world: They legalized psilocybin for use under hyper-controlled, therapist assisted settings.

That’s seen as potentially revolutionary by many therapists, scientists and doctors — and now (at least publicly) also by a top federal health official.

In this week’s NIH Psilocybin Speakers Series, Belouin of the Mental Health Services Administration called research into psychedelics “compelling.” Which is why he fears the expertise and resources found only in the federal government may soon be left out of this vital debate.

“The state of Oregon has explicitly stated in their initiative…that psychotherapy facilitated by psilocybin mushrooms will have protection under state law,” Belouin, who also holds the rank of captain in the US Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps, continued. “Knowing this, the federal government must consider engaging states and municipalities that are actively pursuing, or who have already passed ballot initiatives, to medicalize and decriminalize psychedelics.”

It’s almost unheard of for federal health officials to break with the laws they’re mandated to carry out — and the “war on drugs” remains firmly enshrined in federal statute.

Still, even while serving under an anti-marijuana president, Belouin says it’s time for Washington politicians to get out of the way and allow health experts and scientists to assist localities implementing psychedelic reform measures.

That’s partly because many in the health community are almost giddy to join these unprecedented experiments unfolding in real time — in real communities, with real humans, like you and me.

The Oregon ballot measure creates a first-of-its-kind program for people to access psilocybin in a supervised clinical setting. In March, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown appointed an advisory board to facilitate her state’s implementation of the new initiative.

Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. Photo courtesy of Oregon taxpayers.

While Oregon is where the action is, it’s also making many nervous, especially as wealthy speculators are carving out seats at the head tables for themselves and their seemingly bottomless bottom lines.

“Dovetailing with the battery of safety and ethical considerations with psychedelics are a series of issues being raised and debated, given the rapid rise in interest by many venture-capital-funded entities entering the marketplace,” Belouin added.

One of the main issues is the prospect of companies pursuing patents for certain psychedelic treatments, he said, noting the potentially troubling trend should compel the federal government, state boards and other stakeholders to confront the issue at the front end of this growing national (and global) trend.

“Everyone’s state regulatory agencies will need to collaborate with stakeholders on how best to eliminate disparity, thus ensuring equitable access of psychedelic therapy for all patients regardless of income status, insurance plans, no insurance or other disparity-limiting factors,” he said. “Everyone’s state regulators will need to engage medical stakeholders in conjunction with non-profit, non-medical stakeholders who may seek to be involved in providing this service.”

PTSD and the resulting tragically high veteran suicide rates have plagued America for generations, while tainting the records of recent presidents from both parties who left office with the shame of having failed thousands of Americans who sacrificed their lives for the nation.

That’s another reason federal health experts are eager to join local officials in setting up these promising new experiments. All sides hope we’re in the midst of a mental health revolution that finally turns the tides in this battle — a battle federal health officials have utterly failed to contain for generations now.

A battle they’ve promised to win. Yet one the government they’ve devoted their lives to serving has forbidden them from fully exploring, even in the face of all the evidence

This piece was originally published by Marijuana Moment and has been edited and modified by The News Station as a part of our content sharing agreement.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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