Connect with us


Alaska Plan For Psychedelic Therapy Task Force Draws Skepticism From Lawmakers At First House Panel Hearing



Members of an Alaska House panel gave initial consideration on Tuesday to a proposal that would establish a state task force to explore how to legalize and regulate the therapeutic use of psychedelics in the state, a change supporters say is intended to prepare for eventual federal rescheduling of substances such as MDMA and psilocybin.

While the committee took no formal action on the bill, HB 228, some members used the hearing to express sharp skepticism about the need for the task force—as well as the underlying issue of psychedelic-assisted therapy itself.

Sponsor Rep. Jennie Armstrong (D) told members of the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee that despite the measure’s subject matter potentially sounding “quite provocative, I think you’ll find this is actually a pretty staid bill.”

“We are asking to convene a task force to make policy recommendations to the next legislature in advance of the FDA medicalizing certain psychedelic medicines,” she said. “We’re not taking a position on decriminalization or medicalization [or] asking the state or the task force to do that. It has more to do with licensing and regulation.”

With MDMA and psilocybin being granted breakthrough therapy status by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and on pace for possible approval later this year, Armstrong said it’s prudent for lawmakers to get ahead of how to implement psychedelic-assisted therapy in the event it becomes federally legal.

“These are decisions the state would have to make anyway,” Armstrong said, “but as you’ll see, because of the outsized impact these medicines can have on our state, and because I think it can save the state money to bring a group of experts together to do this in advance, we think a task force is necessary.”

Supportive lawmakers filed the legislation last month in both the House and Senate, and last week a Senate committee heard that chamber’s version of the bill for the first time.

“Crucially, this bill does not legalize anything,” Sen. Forrest Dunbar (D), a member of the Senate panel, told colleagues at that hearing. “Rather, it creates a problem-solving task force in anticipation of federal legalization of certain substances in controlled medical settings.”

The legislation would establish the Alaska Mental Health and Psychedelic Medicine Task Force under the state Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development. The body would comprise government representatives and experts in mental health, psychiatry and more.

Members would be charged with assessing the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelics for mental health treatment, barriers to equitable access and “licensing and insurance requirements” for practitioners if any psychedelics receive federal approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

At the beginning of the House panel hearing, Armstrong explained a number of amendments made in a committee substitute, which members adopted. The changes made a number of relatively minor adjustments to the bill’s statement of purpose and the makeup of the task force. It also does away with travel expenses for members and set an expiration date of the task force to be January 2025 rather than January 2027 under the legislation as originally introduced and as in the current Senate bill.

Armstrong told panelists that it’s “highly likely that the FDA will begin approvals this August” of the first psychedelics, pointing out that some other states, such as Oregon and Colorado, that have already legalized therapeutic psychedelic use at the state level and begun undertaking licensing.

“What we’re proposing here is basically the most conservative thing,” Armstrong emphasized, noting that “the policy recommendations that would be brought forth [from the task force] would only be enacted if and when FDA approves these medicines for prescription.”

“This medicine has the chance to have an outsized impact in our state due to the fact that we have some of the worst rates of mental health issues, addiction, violence and, of course, we have the most number of veterans per capita,” she added. “So we are poised to be a state where a large number of our citizens could be potential candidates for this type of therapy.”

Rep. Andrew Gray (D), who had a number of questions about the bill, asked why a task force is necessary around psychedelics when numerous other pharmaceuticals are approved federally on a regular basis.

Armstrong replied that psychedelic-assisted therapy, unlike many other medications, isn’t something where patients simply take a pill and let its beneficial effects happen in the background. Therapists and other trained professionals are crucial to the process, she said, noting that in one therapeutic application, “you take the MDMA three times over three different eight-hour therapy sessions with a therapist and a secondary monitor” in addition to follow-up integration sessions.

“You don’t take this this medicine and go home,” she said. “You’re in a very prescribed setting.”

Gray also questioned whether the state could issue licenses and regulations over the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where he said the “vast majority” of veterans in the state receive care.

Armstrong said she believed “about six or seven different insurance groups in our state” cover veterans, including VA, Medicaid, Medicare and other programs.

“This task force will be looking at all of those different insurance groups and what they’re able to do and what levers they can kind of pull or what they’re even allowed to do for each of those,” she said. “So you may be correct, and I’m not very familiar with how the VA works, but we would still want to make sure, in case that person is maybe perhaps married to someone who has a different insurance and they want to seek their care outside of the VA, that they would still have that best care and be able to afford that care.”

Rep. Dan Saddler (R) was more critical of the idea of the state examining psychedelic therapy at all in advance of FDA approval.

“I don’t know if it’s appropriate for this committee to argue the benefits of psychotropic drugs or psychedelic drugs. That’s kind of beyond our mission,” he told Armstrong, adding that while he understood she wasn’t taking a formal position on legalization, he could hear “interest and maybe excitement in your voice, just about you as you speak about this.”

“The word premature comes to mind,” Saddler said.

Another Republican on the special committee, Rep. Ben Carpenter, at one point seemed dismissive of the therapy, calling it “an eight-hour psychedelic vacation for the clinically depressed.”

“Kind of in a nutshell, what I hear is a business idea,” he said.

Carpenter also asked about the addictive potential of psychedelics. “We have a problem with prescription drug abuse in this country right now,” he said. “Is it possible we’re trading sort of one addiction for another?”

Armstrong responded that among drugs with addictive risk, “psychedelics is at the absolute lowest end,” adding that the bill also envisions facilitated use under the care of a trained therapist, not personal possession or use more broadly.

“It concerns me that something that would be popular with society—with such strong impact, that someone needs to be under physical care for eight hours—could be abused by the public,” Carpenter pressed.

“You’re helping me make the argument for the task force,” responded Armstrong.

A handful of public speakers offered comments on the bill, including a military veteran and cancer survivor who said psilocybin therapy changed her life.

Another speaker, Michael DeMolina, president of an integrative healthcare center in Anchorage, spoke to what he said were “remarkable” results in clinical trials looking at the use of MDMA-assisted therapy to treat PTSD.

Carpenter told DeMolina he wanted a “high-level understanding” of what psychedelics are actually doing, expressing apparent concern that it might be “rewiring” the brain’s pathways.

DeMolina replied that rewiring the brain’s pathways is precisely what forms of exposure therapy, even without the use of psychedelics, are intended to do.

“What psychedelic-assisted therapy does is it takes a one-year or two-year process in which we can have some success,” he explained, “and reduce it to three months, and get a higher level—a 10-percent higher level—of success by activating the same neural pathways in the brain.”

The lone public speaker against the bill was Kathleen Wedemeyer, from the from the nongovernmental Citizens Commission on Human Rights, in Seattle, who also appeared in opposition at last week’s Senate committee hearing. While Wedemeyer’s comments mirrored her earlier ones, her reception at the latest meeting was markedly different.

At the end of the meeting, Gray, despite being skeptical himself of the psychedelics task force proposal, seemed to undercut the speaker’s testimony with two abrupt questions about her organization.

“Can you please explain the relationship between the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and the Church of Scientology?” he asked.

“We are sponsored by the Church of Scientology,” Wedemeyer replied, explaining that “We’re not an arm of it, we’re not a part of it, we’re not a branch of it. But we do have a sponsorship relationship.”

“Thank you,” answered Gray. “My second question is what is the Citizens Commission on Human Rights’s position on the use of traditional antidepressants, SSRIs such as Prozac or Zoloft?”

“We’re not big fans of the use of chemicals,” Wedemeyer said.

The group’s website describes psychiatry on its website as “an industry of death.”

Other states recently advanced psychedelics research bills during their ongoing legislative sessions, including New Mexico and Indiana.

Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Meanwhile at the federal level, FDA is actively considering a new drug application for MDMA as a possible treatment option for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As the agency weighs the application, new standards from the American Medical Association (AMA) have officially taken effect that assign psychedelics-specific codes to collect data on the novel therapies.

In another milestone, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently issued a request for applications to conduct in-depth research on the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD and depression.

In California, meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker filed legislation last month month to create a state workgroup that would be tasked with exploring a regulatory framework to provide therapeutic access to psychedelics like psilocybin and ibogaine and eventually allow health professionals to administer certain psychedelics to military combat veterans.

Massachusetts officials have separately certified that activists submitted enough valid signatures to force legislative consideration of a psychedelics legalization initiative before the measure potentially heads to the state’s 2024 ballot.

Nevada psychedelics activists said late last year that they had a “productive meeting” with the Republican governor’s office about the need to expeditiously form a task force under a law enacted last year in order to inform future reform—including the possible legalization of plant-based medicines.

Also, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) earlier this year confirmed that the spores of psychedelic mushrooms are federally legal prior to germination because they do not contain the controlled substances psilocybin or psilocin.

DEA Failed To Explain Rejection Of Psilocybin Waiver To Treat Cancer Patients, Federal Appeals Court Challenge Says

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
Become a patron at Patreon!

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.


Marijuana News In Your Inbox

Get our daily newsletter.

Support Marijuana Moment

Marijuana News In Your Inbox


Get our daily newsletter.