Psychedelic therapies show promise. Is California ready to bring them into the mainstream?

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Psychedelic therapies show promise.

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Psychedelics are having a moment. A nationwide push to bring magic mushrooms and other psychedelics into the mainstream is gaining traction, and some Californians want in.

Growing research portrays the drugs as a promising tool in helping people heal from various mental illnesses, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Now several proposals floating around in California seek to make psychedelics more accessible for therapeutic and personal use. These include one legislative proposal that would decriminalize use of certain natural hallucinogens and two pending initiatives for next year’s ballot, one that would legalize the use and sale of psilocybin mushrooms and a second that would fund a $5 billion agency to research and develop psychedelic therapies.

One recent UC Berkeley survey offers a glimpse of where the public currently stands on these types of reforms. For example, more than 60% of those surveyed supported psychedelics for therapeutic use. Seventy-eight percent supported making it easier for researchers to further study psychedelics. Meanwhile, 49% said they supported removing criminal penalties for personal use.

Some researchers, doctors and parents urge caution around personal use because psychedelics aren’t for everyone and potential risks are still not all that well understood.

The bill to decriminalize plant-based psychedelics faces a key test this week at a hearing that could determine whether it moves forward this year.

Decriminalizing these substances, he argued, promotes responsible use

Food and Drug Administration.

This is the second time Wiener has tried to decriminalize psychedelics; the first failed last year. This time around his bill is more narrow in that it excludes synthetic psychedelics, such as LSD.

Benefits and risks of psychedelics

Supporters of decriminalization point to promising data about some psychedelic-assisted therapies now in end stages of clinical trials, such as the use of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) to treat symptoms in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Additionally, psilocybin, found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, is being studied for treating depression. For example, early data from The Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has shown that psilocybin therapy can reduce major depressive disorder symptoms for up to a year.

Wiener has taken combat veterans and retired first responders to testify before the Legislature about their “transformational” experiences using psychedelics to help relieve suicidal thoughts and PTSD symptoms.

According to the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, about 6% of the U.S population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. About 1 in 5 adults live with a mental illness, according to some national estimates.

Researchers believe public attention on the worsening mental health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic may also play a role in this renewed interest in psychedelics.

“Suddenly you’ve got this discussion about mental health issues in a way that, at least in American culture, we really hadn’t been discussing,” said Jennifer Mitchell, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco who has been working on the development of psychedelic therapies and collecting safety data.

Mitchell opposes Wiener’s decriminalization bill because she believes access to psychedelics for therapeutic use should come before personal use.

“[Psychedelics] are actually exceedingly safe physiologically; psychologically, is where we get into trouble,” Mitchell said. “Because if you take a drug and think you can fly, you’re capable of self harm. If you take a drug and think you can breathe underwater, you are capable of self harm.

A California mother’s campaign

One powerful voice opposing Wiener’s bill is a coalition led by mothers who have lost a child to an adverse reaction after ingesting psychedelics. Kristin Nash, for one, has widely shared the story of her son who died two months before his college graduation. In blogs and Op-Eds, Nash has shared that in 2020, Will took two grams of psilocybin mushrooms and in his altered state mistook a jar of protein powder for a water jug and suffocated.

Nash now runs a foundation named after son, William, through which she works to raise awareness and advocates for harm reduction efforts, such as better tracking of adverse reactions and training for college campus responders. Nash said she is not against allowing veterans and others to use these substances for treatment, but she’d like to see Wiener’s bill amended so it includes safety measures for personal use.

Mushrooms on the ballot

California voters may hear more about psychedelics next year even if Wiener’s bill fails as advocacy groups attempt to qualify ballot initiatives for the November 2024 election.

One group, Decriminalize California, is looking to legalize hallucinogenic mushrooms. Its proposal goes further than Wiener’s bill by legalizing not only possession, but also the sale and commercialization of these substances. If approved by voters the measure would go into effect in January 2025.

A separate measure would ask voters to approve $5 billion in bonds to create a government agency that would focus on psychedelic research with the goal of developing therapeutics. The idea, according to proponents, is to dedicate more resources to research that shows promise but has for long been underfunded.

Dr. Jeannie Fontana, the chief executive officer of TREAT California, who is spearheading this initiative, said California’s lead on innovation makes it the ideal location for this type of research. TREAT stands for Treatments, Research, Education, Access and Therapies.

“The federal government is not there yet. They recognize the problem, but they just don’t know how to deal with this psychedelic hangover from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Fontana said. “California is a progressive citizenry. We are innovators and leaders in many things.”

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