VSHAD KUSKE was a navy SEAL for 18 years. When he retired, he found himself “struggling with depression, drug addiction and anger.” Various treatments had failed, until another ex-SEAL suggested psilocybin, the mind-altering compound in “magic mushrooms.” “It fundamentally changed my life forever,” says Mr. Kuske. “I realized I was living in my own personal hell and holding myself there by my own choices and had the power to change that.”
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Mr. Kuske’s experience is not unusual. Scientists began investigating the potential of psychedelics to treat mental illness more than 60 years ago, before anxiety over the drugs’ countercultural popularity in the 1960s put an end to the research. Luckily, it has rebooted, and studies show that psychedelic drugs have the potential to treat several thorny mental health issues. Voters in Oregon approved psilocybin for supervised use in 2020, and other jurisdictions may soon follow suit. This is good news not only for people suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but also for American drug policy: it shows that evidence-based decisions replace moral panic.
That doesn’t mean Oregonians can pick up a few mushrooms on the way home from work and spend the evening tripping. Measure 109, which nearly 56% of voters approved, does not legalize psilocybin or make it available in dispensaries, as cannabis currently is (a separate measure passed in the same election decriminalized possession of psilocybin). small amounts of any drug, punishable by a fine of $100 which can be reversed by passing a health examination at an addiction treatment centre). Instead, it makes psilocybin therapy available at treatment centers under the supervision of a trained facilitator.
The Oregon Department of Health will license centers, facilitators, psilocybin producers, and testing labs. People seeking therapy will not need to provide a diagnosis of depression or PTSD. Tom Eckert, a psychotherapist who, along with his late wife, Sheri, began efforts leading to Measure 109, said he wanted such therapy to “sit outside of a conventional medical model… It will be open to anyone who can safely benefit from it.” The selection process should exclude those who are not suitable. What exactly this means is under discussion. Oregon is still fine-tuning its rules, with the goal, according to the state health department, of having treatment centers operational in the spring of 2023.
Psychedelic drugs place users in an altered state of consciousness. They include compounds synthesized in the laboratory such as LSD and MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) as well as natural herbal substances such as psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca and ibogaine. George Goldsmith, whose company, Compass Pathways, developed a synthetic version of psilocybin, explains that the drugs act on “a brain network that integrates perception with prediction” and thus help to break “the dysfunctional thought pattern characteristic of so many mood swings. .
They also appear to stimulate the growth of neural connections that stress and depression tend to erode, suggesting they may have a restorative function. Studies have shown that psychedelics have the potential to treat addiction, PTSD and severe depression, as well as to alleviate end-of-life anxiety in terminally ill patients.
These studies have mostly small sample sizes. Some worry about overstating the benefits of psychedelics, including microdosing, a trendy practice of taking small doses of psychedelics on a regular basis. A study from Imperial College London found that people given placebos and actual microdoses reported equal levels of well-being and happiness.
Yet the US Food and Drug Administration – barely a cheerleader for illegal drugs – has called psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy” for depression. This designation is intended to expedite the development of drugs that can represent a great improvement over current treatment. Mr Goldsmith says his conversations with European regulators have been like “pushing an open door”.
It’s not just Europeans and coastal liberals interested in the potential of psychedelics. Texas legalized research on them last year; the state’s flagship medical school opened the Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy in December. Graham Boyd, who heads a political action committee that backs criminal justice reform, credits veterans with persuading Rick Perry, the state’s arch-conservative former governor, to support the measure. Jesse Gould, a former Army Ranger who runs a charity that sends veterans overseas on psychedelic retreats and credits ayahuasca with helping him overcome his PTSDsaid he initially resisted therapy because “I didn’t identify as someone who used drugs.”
At least ten cities have made psychedelics a low priority for law enforcement. Washington state lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would replicate the Oregon model, and the California legislature is also considering a bill. Politicians in about 12 other states have introduced legislation to decriminalize or study the benefits of psychedelic drugs.
Such openness is welcome not only for the benefits it may bring to traumatized soldiers or those suffering from severe depression, but for what it indicates about America’s changing attitude towards drugs. . “Building prisons and filling them with people who use these substances was the worst policy,” Boyd says. It “obliterated our ability to think clearly about what good policy would look like…Once we get rid of the extra criminal prohibition, I think we can come up with a better policy for all of these substances.” “. ■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Turn on, listen”