A top federal drug agency is funding a study into how psilocybin could help people quit smoking cigarettes—one of the latest examples of the government’s growing interest in psychedelic therapy.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently approved the grant, which will enable researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), New York University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham to explore how so-called magic mushrooms can help people curb their addiction to cigarettes.
Matthew Johnson, a professor at JHU who will be a lead investigator in the study, announced the grant funding on Monday. He said he believes that this is the “first grant from the US government in over a half century to directly study therapeutics of a classic psychedelic.”
The research initiative will be a “multi-center, high-risk clinical study” into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin in tobacco addiction. It would build on earlier research that’s indicated that the psychedelic could play a valuable role in substance misuse disorders.
“This is extremely encouraging. Public funding for psychedelic science is critical,” Peter Hendricks, a University of Alabama professor who will be involved in the study, told Truffle Report. “My hope is that this opens the door to further scientific inquiry, and ultimately, the advancement of a treatment paradigm that has the potential to alleviate suffering across the globe.”
Johnson at JHU has been proposing a pilot study into the medical value of psilocybin for this treatment since 2014, stressing in a paper for the Journal of Psychopharmacology at the time that “despite suggestive early findings on the therapeutic use of hallucinogens in the treatment of substance use disorders, rigorous follow-up has not been conducted.”
Now NIDA is putting money toward the research project. But the parameters of the study and the level of funding is unclear. Johnson didn’t reply to several requests for comment.
There’s a sense of urgency to invest in psychedelics research, especially given that a new federal survey identified a rise in the use of hallucinogenic among young adults at the same time that alcohol consumption is declining.
NIDA Director Nora Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that the increased media attention to psychedelics research, and the reform movement to loosen restrictions on these substances, is contributing to that trend.
“People start to discover the potential that these drugs have for therapeutics and the current trials that are ongoing,” she said. “This takes on a momentum because the ideal world of having a drug that can cure things very dramatically [is appealing].”
It makes sense that JHU would be take a lead role in the NIDA-backed research project.
Researchers at the university have been studying psychedelics for decades, and in 2019, it launched a first-of-its-kind psychedelics research center. The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has focused primarily on potential therapeutic uses for psychedelics, such as smoking cessation and treatment for depression, Alzheimer’s disease, anorexia and opioid withdrawal.
Interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics is growing, and there are some early signals that the issue may even be bipartisan.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), a veteran who recently moderated a conversation with a top psychedelics reform advocate, recently filed an amendment to a defense bill that would have allowed the secretary of defense to approve grants for research into the medical value of certain psychedelics such as MDMA, psilocybin, ibogaine and 5–MeO–DMT for active duty military members with post-traumatic stress disorder. That measure wasn’t allowed a House floor vote to the large-scale legislation, however, but it’s another example of how the issue is gaining momentum at the highest levels of government.
A former Republican congresswoman also recently touted the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, sharing the story of how a close family friend was able to recover from alcoholism with the help of psilocybin.
The psychedelics reform movement is also continuing to grow.
Last week, California activists were cleared to begin collecting signatures for a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state.
Detroit could also become one of the next Michigan cities to decriminalize psychedelics, with the reform proposal making the local ballot for this November.
The Ann Arbor City Council has already elected to make enforcement of laws prohibition psychedelics like psilocybin, ayahuasca and DMT among the city’s lowest priorities—and lawmakers recently followed up by declaring September Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Awareness Month. Advocates have also introduced a reform resolution to the Grand Rapids City Council.
Oregon voters passed an initiative last November to legalize psilocybin therapy.
Washington, D.C. voters also approved a ballot measure last year to deprioritize enforcement of laws criminalizing psychedelics.
Meanwhile, Denver activists who successfully led a 2019 campaign to make the city the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin possession have their eyes set on broader reform, with plans in the works to end the criminalization of noncommercial gifting and communal use of the psychedelic.
Massachusetts cities that have enacted the policy change are: Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge. In July, state lawmakers heard testimony about a bill to create a task force charged with studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
The governor of Connecticut recently signed legislation recently that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Texas also recently enacted a bill to require the state study the medical benefits of psychedelics for military veterans.
A New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to similarly research the medical value of psychedelics.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution in December that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.
The Aspen, Colorado City Council discussed the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and proposals to decriminalize such substances at a meeting in May. But members said, as it stands, enacting a reform would be more better handled at the state level while entheogens remain strictly federally controlled.
Seattle lawmakers also recently sent a letter to members of a local task force focused on the opioid overdose epidemic, imploring the group to investigate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like ayahuasca and ibogaine in curbing addiction. In response, the task force issued a recommendation for the widespread decriminalization of all drugs. The group said psychedelics in particular could represent a promising treatment to address substance abuse disorders and mental health issues.
Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon activists are mounting a push to have local lawmakers pass a resolution decriminalizing the cultivation, gifting and ceremonial use of a wide range of psychedelics.
In a setback for advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted against a proposal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that would have removed a spending bill rider that advocates say has restricted federal funds for research into Schedule I drugs, including psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and ibogaine. However, it picked up considerably more votes this round than when the congresswoman first introduced it in 2019.
Report provisions of separate, House-passed spending legislation also touch on the need to expand cannabis and psychedelics research. The panel urged NIDA to support expanded marijuana studies, for example. It further says that federal health agencies should pursue research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for military veterans suffering from a host of mental health conditions.
There was an attempt by a Republican congressman to attach language into a defense spending bill that would promote research into psychedelics therapy for active duty military members, but it was not made in order in the House Rules Committee this week.
When it comes to broader drug policy reform, Oregon voters also approved an initiative in November to decriminalize possession of all drugs. This year, the Maine House of Representatives passed a drug decriminalization bill, but it later died in the Senate.
In May, lawmakers in Congress filed the first-ever legislation to federally decriminalize possession of illicit substances.
Image courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.