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Alaska House Passes Bill To Create Psychedelics Task Force In Anticipation Of Federal Legalization



Alaska’s House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly approved amended legislation that would create a state task force to study how to license and regulate psychedelic-assisted therapy in the event of federal approval of substances such as MDMA and psilocybin.

After adopting a handful of changes to the bill a day earlier, the body passed the measure on a 36–4 vote following sometimes charged testimony from lawmakers.

If it becomes law, HB 228 would not change the legal status of any drugs in Alaska. Rather, it would create a legislative task force that would spend the rest of the year studying how to license and regulate psychedelic therapy in the state. A report from the group with recommendations would be due on or before January 31, 2025.

A Senate companion, SB 166, has already passed out of one committee in that chamber and had another committee hearing in February.

Both MDMA and psilocybin have been granted breakthrough therapy status by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and recent clinical trials have MDMA on pace for possible FDA approval later this year.

“This August, it is widely anticipated that FDA will approve the most significant medicine for the treatment of mental health in decades,” sponsor Rep. Jenny Armstrong (D) told colleagues ahead of Thursday’s House vote, adding that approval of psilocybin could happen in the “next one or two years.”

“House Bill 228 before us today would create a task force that would put forth recommendations for the next legislature to consider as it relates to this treatment,” she said. “Whether you are excited about the idea of psychedelics getting approved, you’re neutral or you’re flat-out against it, I think we can all agree that if it is coming. We should be prepared and be thoughtful in how we approach it.”

The bill’s few opponents attacked the proposal as premature and irresponsible.

Rep. Dan Saddler, the Republican majority leader in the House, said he worried the bill “reflects an uncritical acceptance of the idea that use of psychedelic drugs are beneficial.”

“I rise against this bill because I don’t believe we should be going off in a direction in what I believe to be a premature fashion,” he said, claiming that the task force also “to some degree encroaches on the purview of the legislature.”

Rep. Jamie Allard (R) said she found it offensive that veterans and their mental health needs were being used “as a platform” to further the cause of psychedelic medicine.

“Using our military veterans as experiments? We aren’t experiments,” she said. “We are human beings who deserve to have things done in the proper manner, and slowly and concisely.”

The most dire warnings came from Rep. David Eastman (R), who said that “what you can use for good can also be used for ill.”

“I look at the history of medicine in this country, and it was not that long ago that we were told—and our entire government, you know, echoed—that lobotomies were a good thing, and they were carried out in our country,” Eastman said. “I hope that we will not look back some number of years now and see that hallucinogens were also a mistake.”

But most members who spoke Thursday said they were open to the task force as a meaningful step toward addressing the state’s mental health crisis. As Armstrong noted, Alaska has “the highest number of veterans per capita and, unfortunately, some of the highest rates of violence in our country.”

“I’m in support of this bill because I’ve been affected by it directly,” said Rep. Laddie Shaw (R). “As the former director for state Veterans Affairs, I’ve had veterans come to me regarding this bill, and they have said, ‘We’ve done nothing for the past 50 years. Let’s do something.'”

“This task force gives us an opportunity to move forward with some productivity on behalf of our veterans,” Shaw added. “We haven’t done anything for the last 50 years. Let’s move forward with something.”

Rep. Sarah Vance (R) said the matter was “a challenging and uncomfortable topic.”

“Even though psychedelic drugs make me very, very uncomfortable—I’m very, very reticent to say yes to the use of these medicines—I want to know what the impact is,” she said. “And that’s why I’m standing in support of this task force, to ask the appropriate questions.”

During a House floor session a day earlier, the body adopted a number of amendments to the bill.

Among them, a change from Rep. Justin Ruffridge (R)—who voted in support of the bill on Thursday—added a member to the task force selected by the board of directors of the Alaska Pharmacy Association. An amendment to that amendment, from Eastman, removed a University of Alaska faculty member from the task force in order to “maintain the same size of the task force,” he said.

A more substantial amendment from Eastman made a number of adjustments, for example extending the due date for the task force’s report to the legislature until January 31, 2025 instead of December 31 of this year, as the bill previously specified. It also sunsets the task force at the end—rather than at the beginning—of the next legislative session. Other changes allow legislators on the task force to send designees if they cannot attend a meeting, and it clarifies that task force meetings could be held virtually.

“These are all items that we were looking to clean up with the other body if they weren’t tackled today,” Armstrong said after Eastman explained the new provisions,” and so I fully support them.

Another amendment, from Rep. Andrew Gray (D), requires that some groups choosing task force members, such as the Alaska State Medical Association, specifically select physicians as representatives.

Now that it has cleared the House, the bill has been scheduled for a Monday hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The House State Affairs Committee approved the legislation in early April after adopting an amendment that changed the proposed name of the task force and clarified its objective.

The amendment “simply changes the name of the task force to make it clear what the task force will be taking part in,” Rep. Ashley Carrick (D), who proposed the change, explained at the time, “and that they will not be taking a position on legalization, decriminalization or medicalization of psychedelic drugs.”

The name of the body would be the Alaska Task Force for the Regulation of Psychedelic Medicines Approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Initially it would have been called the Alaska Mental Health and Psychedelic Medicine Task Force.

Lawmakers rejected another proposed title change this week from from Eastman that would have added “the advisability of” to the task force’s name, thus making it the Alaska Task Force for the Advisability of the Regulation of Psychedelic Medicines Approved by the FDA. Eastman said was intended to acknowledge that not all members of the group would support the state’s eventual FDA-approved psychedelics. That amendment failed 3–36 on the House floor.

Another change from Eastman that colleagues denied would have put the governor in charge of appointing some task force members, rather than the legislature. Armstrong noted that the proposal initially would have created an executive task force, but it became a legislative one as the result of state legal guidance.

The amendment was rejected on a 1–39 vote. Armstrong again emphasized to colleagues that the task force “is not going to be immediately implementing anything” and would instead “simply be making policy recommendations that then come to the legislature, for the legislature to consider—and then you introduce bills and go through that whole process.”

“I kind of say this a lot,” she continued. “The task force is not taking a position on whether this is good or bad… There might be people in the task force who think the FDA doing this is terrible, and those in the task force who think the FDA doing this is great. We’ve really narrowly limited this to insurance, licensing and other legal and other regulatory changes.”

Armstrong has made similar assurances at committee meetings this session.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to safely maximize the benefit of these medicines for Alaska,” she said at last month’s State Affairs Committee hearing. “This is not something where we are here to defend or promote or take a position on psychedelics. Rather, this is something that is coming. The clinical trials on this began 20 years ago. And so I think, perhaps, even if you are a little nervous or you are unsure, that is the reason why we want to have a task force.”

She reminded members at the time that psychedelics are far from the only controversial class of medically beneficial drug. “There are many prescriptions that are controversial,” Armstrong said. “Everything from birth control to painkillers and even ibuprofen can be controversial sometimes.”

Armstrong has also noted in past hearings that Alaska has “the highest share of veterans per capita and one of the highest suicide rates in the nation,” arguing the state could benefit more than others from preparing for federal changes.

“Coupled with also being a state where 43.3 percent of women and 30.2 percent of men in Alaska experience domestic violence and related crimes in their lifetimes and where 84 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native women experience violence,” she said in March, “there is a potential for these medicines to have a profoundly positive impact on the mental health crises we see statewide.”

A fiscal note from the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development says the state would incur no cost from the change.

Members of a separate House panel previously adopted amendments to bring the bill into alignment with its Senate companion, SB 166, which has already passed out of one committee in that chamber and had another committee hearing in February. Among the changes, the amendments made the task force a legislative group rather than an executive one—designed to reduce the proposal’s fiscal note to zero—and added a member to the task force representing psychiatric nurse practitioners.

Also, rather than have the task force elect a chair itself, the latest version of the bill says that the members appointed by the president of the Senate and speaker of the House of Representatives would by default serve as the group’s co-chairs.

Sponsors filed the legislation in both chambers in January.

Alaskans generally support reforms to policies around psychedelics, especially with regard to mental health. Just under half (49.4 percent) of those surveyed in a recent poll said they favor broadly removing criminal penalties around substances such as psilocybin mushrooms. When respondents were told that Alaska has particularly high rates of mental illnesses that could potentially be treated with psychedelics, however, support for the reform rose to 65 percent.

“It’s inspiring to see such a positive shift in how people view the use of these plant medicines,” said the Alaska Entheogenic Awareness Council (AKEAC), an advocacy group that published the new poll. “More people are recognizing the value of these substances in addressing certain mental health conditions.”

Congressional Committee Approves GOP-Led Psychedelics Bill Focused On Military Veterans’ Therapeutic Access

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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