As a former Navy SEAL and Republican congressman from Texas, Rep. Morgan Luttrell might not necessarily seem like someone you’d expect to become a leader on federal psychedelics policy reform. And he might not have, either—if it weren’t for his own experience with plant-based medicine.
But at a clinic in Mexico in 2018, Luttrell says he experienced firsthand the transformative effects of ibogaine and 5‐MeO‐DMT, which he equated to offloading a “500-pound rucksack” that had weighed him down since suffering a traumatic brain injury from a helicopter crash.
The congressman told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that his experience with the psychedelics was “very, very aggressive” compared to others he knows who went through it, including his twin brother Marcus, a fellow Navy SEAL veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
But the “horrific” treatment, as he’s previously described it, was also profound and life-changing, and he’s since come to believe that the novel therapeutic option should be made available in the U.S. to people in psychological distress.
With an academic background in cognition and neuroscience research, Luttrell wants the science to guide policy. And to that end, he helped lay the groundwork last year, with the introduction and eventual enactment into law of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring the Department of Defense (DOD) to conduct clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for active duty military.
The congressman says he’ll be meeting with military leaders in the coming weeks to “more or less create expectation” for the $10 million research initiative. He’s optimistic about the potential, and he intends to build upon the reform in hopes of eventually giving people access to clinically administered psychedelic substances. But he’s also protective of the process—for example, voicing concern that any attempt to broadly decriminalize the Schedule I drugs as an interim step could undermine the research-led approach.
When he started advocating for the issue on Capitol Hill, a lot of people would ask him what an “extremely conservative guy” was doing with psychedelics policy.
“I understand I’m fairly conservative,” he’d tell them. “But this saves lives. This is changing the landscape of the medical space in a way that is safe and it’s effective.”
Luttrell discussed his personal and legislative experience with psychedelics, and his hopes for future reform, in a phone conversation with Marijuana Moment last week. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Marijuana Moment: At a time of heightened partisanship in Congress, what did it mean to see your psychedelics research amendment to the NDAA get adopted by both chambers and signed into law by the Democratic president?
Morgan Luttrell: Shocked may not be a good word because we’re in Washington, D.C., but I was kind of beside myself that it actually went through both chambers and got signed into law. Given that, we talked to every member of both sides. We didn’t discriminate in the conversations that we were having, just because of the importance of what this is. As a whole, I think the body understands that we need to take that next step of evolution in the treatment of our veterans and our service members. Of course, it’ll transcend these spaces into globally. I just scaled that up dramatically.
MM: What motivated you to publicly disclose your own experience with 5-MeO-DMT and ibogaine? And how important do you think that transparency was to getting your colleagues to take this seriously and allow the research amendment to be passed?
ML: Because of my research background, and how I presented the academic perspective—but also being a veteran myself and having gone through the treatment—it obviously gave relative perspective to the members that didn’t understand what it was because of the narrative that was created in the past around these medications. Understanding that in front of everyone is just normal guy that has a belief in what this can do [helped], but it was challenging to choke that down.
I consider myself a pretty quiet guy. But I felt this was something I needed to stand up in front of everybody and share my experiences because they’ll look at me like, “Hey, look at everything that this guy has accomplished.” You know, I’m hoping that that may mean something to somebody that they can appreciate—like, “This guy served in the military, he did the things that he did, he went through the academic portion of it, he did the research, he’s promoting the numbers. I think we can stand beside that.”
And that’s inevitably what happened.
MM: You’ve described the experience as simultaneously “horrific” and “life-changing.” Can you share more about how the process actually worked and what it was like for you?
ML: That pretty much defines it. It’s different for everyone—everybody’s experience with the medications—because it’s so involved with the person. My experience was completely different than my brother’s experience. I mean, it was life-changing, so at the end, it was amazing. But the experience itself—because I’m a straight edge, I’ve never done a drug, never smoked anything, I’m that guy—so that transition was hard for me when I was going through this.
When I was doing my research in school and visiting facilities that focused on emotional instabilities, cognitive deficits, traumatic brain injury, you know, those therapies weren’t hyper-aggressive. They weren’t overly aggressive. This experience itself, you’re all-in. I mean, there’s no get in the ring and get out. Once you start, you’re in until the medication is complete—good, bad or indifferent, right? Some people have amazing experience, if you’ll let me define it as an amazing experience, where it was a very casual walk down the road, where mine was very, very aggressive.
But everybody’s transition is different, too. When they go through their experience, inevitably, on the backside is where you see the outcome.
MM: What was the moment that you realized the treatment worked? How did you measure that success?
ML: It was about an hour later. I was on a beach with hundreds of people, and I was just beside myself comfortable. Because normally I’m in a very protected state. When I was in Mexico, didn’t speak the language, normally in that kind of situation, I’d be very cornered. But I realized that the medication allowed me to release all of that.
The best analogy I’ve heard is, guys like us, we don’t ever, you know, safe our weapon system. We’re always in the ready mode. My experience allowed me to safe my weapon and kind of let it hang down on my chest and just relax, turn the page and realize that not everything is overly aggressive.
You have to build off of that. That was just the first step. My experience was in 2018, so it’s something to work on every day, right? But because the experience was very, very aggressive when I came through—mine was nothing short of an exorcism, I guess I could say that. And then when it was all said and done, and that first deep breath that I took, where you’re like, “Man, I just offloaded a lot.” Therapy in three days type of thing. Like, good Lord, where is that?
The best way I can describe it, it was like literally I had offloaded a 500-pound rucksack. Your shoulders, your chest feel great. Your mind is not struggling with the weight. You’re like “Oh, good. I mean, this is a great start.”
MM: Since you’ve had that experience, and know others including your own brother who have similarly benefitted from these novel therapies, what are your expectations for the DOD clinical trials that will be carried out under your legislation?
ML: I want this to be a touchpoint. I don’t want it to be something that’s hanging on the wall or put on a bookshelf in between two bookends. I want this effort to be where we have these clinicians, psychologists, psychiatrists and medical professionals actually touching our service members and our veterans, having them go through the treatment and have the outcomes. Not, “Hey, let’s just talk about it. Let’s maneuver in a certain direction and conduct some research where we don’t touch anybody.” That’s really pointless.
We didn’t work this hard to get the legislation, to get the money to save lives, protect lives, reorient people and just let it go to waste. So our aggressiveness on this has not stopped, slowed or halted in any way. We are still very forward-leaning.
I want this to grow in a way that it’s understood that, “Hey, this is something that we do now. This is how important this is.” We want this done correctly. This is why this is clinically based research. DOD could take the lead, VA could get in there with them, leading the way, utilizing the medications, the assets they have in place and getting the results.
MM: Why was it important to have active duty military participate in the trials, as opposed to veterans?
ML: When we usually start working with our veterans, they’re already damaged and broken. There are injured brains and bodies when they finally get to them.
I’m speaking to you as a researcher now. When I was working on veterans like, “Hey, look, I don’t know where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you’ve seen—all I know is that you’re severely broken. And I’m trying to get you back to a baseline that really doesn’t exist because we never tested it.”
With the active duty component, we can catch them along the way. We can literally start baselining our members in the active space, as they are here right now. “You’re good, you’re clean. We have nothing that is presented. You go on deployment, you’re in a training evolution, you get hurt on the weekend, we have a substantial brain injury, we have some emotional loss of some sort, we test you.”
Now we see the glide paths start to form. We know that. So now we can cut to trajectory off of individuals that might inevitably fall. Starting earlier allows us not only to prevent—it’s preventive medicine—prevent an issue. It may inevitably cut the numbers [of long-term cases]. I’m always gonna be optimistic. We just cut the numbers in half. It was over 6,000 vets [who died from suicide] last year. That’s terrible. So this is another tool that we’re putting in our toolbox to help our service members.
MM: Have you had conversations with military leaders or others who will be involved in conducting these trials? Did you get any pushback from the proposal?
ML: I had a few conversations with some leadership, and I know that there are a few more being teed up at the end of this month or early next month that I’ll have to sit down in front of senior leadership and and more or less create expectation, if you will. I don’t know what that looks like, honest. We did our part as legislators, but now it’s who at what level will be receptive, in any given space and in any given branch.
MM: If the trials come back with findings that this is an effective and safe treatment option, what comes next? Would it be more studies for a broader population or do you think that would be suffice to initiate rulemaking at FDA to get some kind of prescription drug approval?
ML: FDA is moving in parallel with MDMA right now, which should be approved this year. And then other medications, hopefully along the way to scale this thing.
I’m small steps, because I don’t want to come off the rails. This is one of those things where if something goes drastically wrong—which I’m not saying, I’m just speaking out loud—I’d hate to see that we lose it. But as it starts to progress and people start to see the results, the effective results—I’ve given this a lot of thought as far as what the footprint looks like. Can we add a psychedelic treatment facility or do we just engage with [Walter Reed Army Medical Center]. Like Walter Reed would have private psychedelic therapy? And then, you know, you can go to Hawaii, you can go to Texas, you can go to the West Coast and so forth.
As far as FDA and what pharma looks like and how that develops, that’s most likely the question that I don’t have an answer to, because who knows?
MM: Getting to a point where people can access these substances could take years. In the interim, would you support legislation to decriminalize these substances so that those people who are seeking this experience while formal approvals are considered aren’t subjected to criminal enforcement action?
ML: No, I’m not trying to get out in front of the horse. That’s moving too fast. I want this to stay well inside left-right flank so those things don’t happen. I’ve had discussions with a lot of parties like, “Hey, look, we don’t want to see this thing go expansive and we lose control of it like we did with the opioids.” This is to replace the opioids because of what we’re seeing and the problems with those narcotics.
MM: What about an administrative reform? DEA is currently looking at a recommendation from HHS to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act. Do you think agencies should similarly reevaluate the scheduling status of other plant based medicines like ibogaine as these trials continue?
ML: We had this conversation in committee last year, and my response was, “Hey, pump the brakes. Let’s get the concrete laid first.” So I’m very apprehensive of saying yes on that because I want to make sure that we are really buttoned-up before we say, “Alright, hey, look, these are the absolute results. These are longitudinal studies that are showing this. Okay, now let’s start talking about reclassification in certain areas.”
Again, I’ll always fall back to, I do not let this thing get out of control and move too fast on this because of how much this benefits us. If it goes completely 1960, we’re done.
MM: Even though we’re talking about research, the idea of conservatives like yourself not just supporting but leading on psychedelics policy reform might surprise people. Especially in Congress, where GOP members have historically represented the most significant barrier to cannabis reform, even for medical or research purposes. How should we square that? What makes this issue uniquely bipartisan?
ML: I’m presenting the numbers. I’m really breaking down the science. I’m fortunate enough to be a scientist and a member of Congress and a veteran, so I’m multilingual. Members on my side that are very, very, very conservative, they’re very uncomfortable with this. And I can appreciate their perspective. I do 100 percent.
It’s the outcome measures that I really rely on in hopes that they could go back to their districts like, “Hey, look, you know, I understand exactly what we’re doing, I’m not trying to cut this thing loose.” I would never cut this thing loose in Texas, right? I would never say, “Hey, look, run with it when it comes to THC.” But in the medical space, what the results are showing is it’s very profound. I respect that as a scientist.
That was the tricky part about getting it in the NDAA, and it will continue to be that way. But a lot of people were like, “Whoa, hey, you’re extremely conservative guy. What’s going on here?” Like I understand I’m fairly conservative, but this saves lives. This is changing the landscape of the medical space in a way that is safe and it’s effective. If you were talk to me about this stuff five years ago, I’d be like I’m not even having that conversation.
MM: Where do you see this issue advancing in 2024? Do you have any plans to introduce additional legislation or throw your support behind other existing proposals?
ML: For me, I will continue to push forward. I’m going to continue to expand this. I’m not trying to ask for the moon, but in order to advance clinical research, we’re gonna need the support from our side. So it’s on me to present that to the body.
MM: We have seen Oregon and Colorado move to legalize psychedelic services that are actively being implemented under voter-approved ballot initiatives. How do you expect states will address this issue in election cycles to come?
ML: Those two states, you can appreciate how they maneuver. In Texas, I have to make sure that I do this correctly. I can’t speak profoundly on that, honestly. I don’t know how that’ll play out. It’s one of those things—we’re gonna have to unpack that along the way. I don’t want to give you an answer and then it just completely fails.
MM: What are your views on marijuana policy? There are some parallels there when it comes to how veterans and others are using cannabis for therapeutic purposes. But most states have enacted some form of legalization. Would you support federal legalization legislation?
ML: I wouldn’t vote for it because I’m a medicinal guy—unless it was for medicinal purposes only.
MM: What about cannabis banking reform? That may come to your chamber this year if it goes through the Senate as leaders are aiming to do.
ML: I’ll definitely sit there and hear that out. I’m an optimistic guy. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I understand that. I’ll sit down and read through that. If it absolutely makes sense and it’s for the betterment of the country and the betterment for this space, sure. But we’ll have to see what that looks like.