House lawmakers are set to meet next week for what’s believed to be the first-ever congressional hearing focused on psychedelic-assisted therapy for veterans’ mental health.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health was originally scheduled to meet October 19 to discuss the matter, but that hearing was postponed as Republicans scrambled to elect a House speaker.
Now the panel is set to convene Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m. for the event, titled “Emerging Therapies: Breakthroughs in the Battle Against Suicide?”
Since the meeting’s postponement last month, two new witnesses have been added to the calendar. One is Brett Waters, the co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group Reason for Hope, which works to expand access to psychedelic medicines to reduce deaths of despair.
Waters, who lost both his mother and grandfather—a fighter pilot in World War II—to suicide, is also a former policy and advocacy chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The other newly added witness is Juliana Mercer, a Marine Corps veteran who now leads advocacy and public policy at the nonprofit Healing Breakthrough, which helps veterans access MDMA-assisted therapy to treat PTSD.
Others set to speak next week include three Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials, a veteran who participated in a clinical trial of MDMA that successfully treated his PTSD, the chief operating officer of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Public Benefit Corporation, a psychology professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and the co-director of the RAND Corporation’s RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute.
Waters, who was added with Mercer as a witness on Wednesday, submitted 32 pages of testimony and supporting material.
In his comments to lawmakers, he wrote that five years after his mom’s death, “I cannot help but think she would have benefitted immensely from psilocybin-assisted therapy. This is one of the many lingering questions I live with for which I will never know the answer.”
Waters’ written testimony urges Congress to support the Breakthrough Therapies Act, bipartisan legislation that would streamline the rescheduling of federally designated “breakthrough therapies” such as psilocybin and MDMA in order to promote research and drug development.
Waters appears to replace another witness, his Reason for Hope co-founder and CEO Martin Steele, who is a Marine Corps veteran and president of the Veteran Mental Health Leadership Coalition.
Witnesses are divided into two panels for next week’s event. The first group consists of select officials from VA, while the second is made up of outside stakeholders.
Carolyn Clancy, VA’s assistant undersecretary for health for discovery, education and affiliate networks, said in her written comments that the agency’s top goal is veteran safety.
“Based on our assessment of the literature to date, there is still much to learn, and much yet to be understood, about the potential benefits of psychedelic compounds,” she wrote. “Our Department is not only focused on finding the best innovative treatments and cures, but doing so safely.”
Clancy noted that last month that VA hosted a so-called State of the Art conference in early September to address two major objectives. “The first objective was to better understand the current state of scientific evidence and to identify a strategic framework to consider future psychedelic treatment research for select mental health conditions,” she wrote. “The second objective was to determine the necessary next steps for potential VA system-wide clinical implementation for psychedelic compounds for potential future use.”
While studies do indicate that psychedelics can help treat mental health conditions, she acknowledged, one of the “key gaps in research” is how to apply treatment to the “unique and diverse population” of veterans who receive care through the Veterans Health Administration.
Among those set to testify from outside the government is Frederick Barrett, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. In written comments, he said that studies from his institution and others “are building a growing record of information demonstrating both the relative safety and potential efficacy of psychedelic therapies in a wide range of psychiatric indications.”
“These studies have been funded nearly entirely by private philanthropy,” he noted. “Only recently has the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health come through with a notable grant for the investigation of clinical use of psychedelics.”
Barrett said psychedelic-assisted protocols still need further refinement as the therapies become more widely available, pointing to recent Phase 3 clinical trials into MDMA’s potential to treat PTSD.
Another witness, Michael Mullette of the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation, which led the clinical trials that now position MDMA for possible FDA approval as soon as next year, said VA “has the opportunity to create innovative care models to ensure treatments for PTSD are scalable, accessible and, importantly, covered in a timely manner for veterans in need.”
A number of the subcommittee’s members—Republicans especially—have expressed interest in psychedelics reform before. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI), for example, is the co-founding member of the Congressional Psychedelics Advancing Therapies (PATH) Caucus, a bipartisan group relaunched this past March.
Another member, Rep. Morgan Luttrell (R-TX), has publicly shared how treatment with ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT “changed my life” and was “one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.” Earlier this year, he and several other GOP lawmakers spoke in favor of a bill to create a $75 million federal grant program to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for certain health conditions among active duty military service members.
And the House subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), led a roundtable this summer to discuss emerging therapies for PTSD and substance abuse.
Republicans have been notably open to stories from veterans about the life-changing effects of psychedelics, especially at the federal level. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said in a recent documentary about psychedelics for mental health that GOP lawmakers are more open to psychedelics reform than Democrats are—at least among those in Congress.
At the state level, however, blue states have taken the lead on psychedelics reform. Oregon in 2020 legalized psilocybin therapy in addition to decriminalizing possession of all drugs. The state approved the first legal psilocybin service center this past May.
And in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed a psychedelics regulation bill into law in May, setting rules for a psychedelics legalization law that voters passed last year.
In California, meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) recently vetoed a psychedelics legalization bill. In a veto message, however, he said he wants the legislature to send him a new bill next year establishing guidelines for regulated therapeutic access to psychedelics and also consider a “potential” framework for broader decriminalization in the future.
California officials cleared a campaign this summer to begin signature gathering for a 2024 ballot initiative to legalize the possession, sale and regulated therapeutic use of psilocybin. It’s one of two campaigns in the state that are seeking to enact psychedelics reform through the ballot process next year. The other, formally filed last month, would legalize all psychedelics for medical, therapeutic and spiritual use and allow the home cultivation of entheogenic plants and substances.
Across the country, in Massachusetts, campaign organizers said last week they believe they’ve collected enough valid signatures to force lawmakers to consider a psychedelics legalization initiative—the first option for the reform before activists move to put it on the state’s 2024 ballot.
Meanwhile, VA recently launched a new podcast about the future of veteran health care, with its first episode focused on the healing potential of psychedelics.
Some feel the agency still isn’t doing enough to prioritize therapies that involve controlled substances, even as states have legalized medical marijuana and some move to legalize possession of some psychedelics.
Earlier this year, House lawmakers passed a spending bill with a number of veteran-focused marijuana and psychedelics amendments. One would allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to former servicemembers, and the other would encourage research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
In August, three bipartisan co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus wrote to VA Secretary Denis McDonough expressing “deep concern” over a recent VA marijuana directive that continues to prohibit its doctors from making medical cannabis recommendations to veterans living in states where it’s legal.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), one of the authors of that letter, recently sent a separate letter to McDonough and Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary Lloyd Austin slamming their departments for perpetuating a “misguided denial of services” by recommending against the use of medical marijuana by veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
VA and DOD “have a long history of claiming the best interest of our veterans and service-members only to deny the reality of medical marijuana as a key treatment option for those impacted by PTSD,” he wrote, referencing recently updated joint clinical practice guidelines that the departments released in July.
In a recent Harvard University-hosted panel featuring former VA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials, speakers broadly agreed that psychedelic substances like MDMA and psilocybin hold powerful potential to help treat PTSD and curb suicide rates in service members, but they cautioned against hasty, unsupervised use of psychedelics given the possibility for further harms.
Earlier this month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it’s seeking proposals to develop psychedelics into treatments for substance use disorder (SUD), with plans to issue $2 million in grant money toward the research projects during fiscal year 2025.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.