Can magic mushrooms help fight mental illness? A bipartisan group of Pa. lawmakers think so

And it has the backing of a New York attorney, veterans, and a growing body of research

By: - October 22, 2021 7:21 am

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Marijuana legalization may hit partisan stumbling blocks in Harrisburg, but lawmakers in both parties have united around a new drug policy — letting Pennsylvania researchers look into how to use magic mushrooms to address mental health issues.

In a rare show of cross-party support, it is sponsored by 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats have thrown their support behind the proposal sponsored by Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, R-Montgomery. 

And advocates and lawmakers say that if all goes well, it could reduce the stigma around mental health treatment and psychedelics while helping veterans and cutting care costs.

The bill would authorize university studies of how psilocybin — the active ingredient in some mushrooms that causes psychedelic trips —  could treat depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and other mental conditions.

According to Pennycuick, the bill is an attempt to get Pennsylvania ahead of the curve on mental health treatment, particularly for veterans. Pennycuick served in the Army for 26 years.

 “I have PTSD, so it interests me,” Pennycuick said. “Not every treatment works for every veteran. So you have to be always leaning forward into treatment.”

There already is some research to go off. A Johns Hopkins University study released this year on psychedelics found that people suffering depression had a substantial decrease in symptoms after taking psilocybin in controlled capsule form twice. The effects were found to last for at least four weeks.

In particular, what excited Pennycuick and other veteran advocates was the prospect of a limited run of psychedelic treatment taking the place of the expensive, regular prescription of normal pharmaceuticals.

The seed of the push is Brett Waters, a 33-year-old Lower Merion native who’s now an attorney in New York with the Chicago-based law firm Winston & Strawn.

Waters — who also runs his own organization, Reason for Hope, which advocates for psychedelic-assisted therapy — said he got in touch with Pennycuick about the proposal after working on a similar push in Texas to approve psilocybin research. The bill became law in the Lone Star State in June 2021. 

A combination of this family history, new research on psilocybin, and his own mental health struggles led Waters to realize that “there is so much more potential here for healing beyond my own experiences.”

Waters, whose grandfather, a veteran, and his mother, a civilian, both died by suicide, said that by setting up a state research program, Pennsylvania could tackle mental health and attract private investors to finance the efforts.

Overall, Waters said, the bill allows Pennsylvania to take “control of the public health and safety of its citizens.”

There is a small restriction. The bill states that when the Department of Health allocates funds for clinical studies of psilocybin, the department must “prioritize the approval of clinical studies specific to the treatment of veterans and retired first responders and their family members.” 

Veterans suffer higher rates of mental illness and suicide than those who did not serve in the military. A 2018 study by the federal government found veterans had double the suicide rate of civilians, for instance.

Pennycuick said that the rider on state funding made sense as a way to give back to those who “raised their right hand to say, I’ll give you what you need for your [and] for my country.”

Waters added that the language wouldn’t preclude privately funded research from including any participants, and pointed out there is no specific funding mechanism in the bill yet.

If the General Assembly passed the bill, Waters expected a funding mechanism could be added later on, and that the commonwealth would attract private funders.

Oregon is the only state to decriminalize psilocybin on a statewide level. Some liberal bastions, such as Denver, Colo., Cambridge, Mass., and Oakland, Calif. also have done so on a municipal level.

William Smith, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said that the Pennsylvania research bill still casts a wide net of possible conditions that could qualify for studies.

“A lot of populations in most need are specifically excluded from the current psilocybin trials,” Smith told the Capital-Star, such as people suffering from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The former qualifies for trials in Pennycuick’s proposal, the latter does not. 

Smith said he didn’t think more research was needed to begin decriminalizing psilocybin for the general public, which is still a schedule one narcotic under federal law. 

But more research, however, could shed light on if an individual with bipolar disorder can safely use psilocybin. He hoped the General Assembly, or further regulations, could expand qualifying conditions to be in trials.

“We ought to be making people aware if it’s risky, or at least if it’s not known yet,” Smith said.

It’s unclear if it will see the light of day. The bill is currently in the House Health Committee. The office of its chairperson, Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, did not reply to a request for comment.

But the proposal likely will have the backing of the veteran community. Ron Millward, a 32-year-old Lancaster native, is an Air Force combat veteran who served for seven-and-a-half years. 

After he left the Air Force, Millward was prescribed as many as nine different pharmaceuticals at one time for his PTSD. However, starting in 2018, he transitioned off of them using a combination of cannabis, therapy, and other lifestyle changes like yoga.

He dropped his final antidepressant after discovering mushrooms in 2019, and hasn’t taken any of his old medication since. He also founded Balanced Veterans Network, which links former military members with the same alternative treatments for mental illness that stem from their service.

Millward said he hoped everyone would have access to psilocybin eventually. But he compared the current push to medical marijuana. While there may be skeptics in the Legislature, letting veterans lead with their experiences battling battlefield trauma may challenge preconceived notions about who takes drugs and why.

“I think that we [can] change the narrative,” Millward told the Capital-Star. “There were a lot of lies, there’s a lot of stigma that was built up around all this, so I’m following in the footsteps of how we did it, where we got folks to understand that cannabis is a medicine. I believe we can do that similarly through education and research with psilocybin.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.