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Psychedelic Therapists Petition Government For Permission To Dose Themselves In Order To Better Treat Patients

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As a group of terminally ill patients in Canada awaits word from the minister of health on whether they can legally access psychedelic mushrooms for end-of-life care, their team of clinicians has tacked on an additional request: The therapists want to be able to dose themselves, too.

The group behind the request, Victoria, B.C.–based TheraPsil, a nonprofit that aims to expand access to psilocybin-based psychotherapy in Canada, says the additional step of providing safe access for therapists will ensure they gain firsthand experience into the psilocybin’s effects and its applications to psychotherapy.

“The fundamental reason to expose therapists to their own experiences with psychedelics is that, unless you have visited these realms, you are unlikely to understand their importance.”

“Part of ensuring a very high-quality psychedelic treatment for patients is to ensure high-quality training for therapists,” Spencer Hawkswell, TheraPsil’s executive director, told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “It’s greatly beneficial if therapists have had psychedelic therapy themselves.”

Few people, he offered by analogy, “would advise going to a sex therapist who’s never had sex before.”

TheraPsil, founded by clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Bruce Tobin, has been fighting for expanded access to psilocybin end-of-life care for years. In 2017, the group first filed a petition to exempt patients with certain terminal conditions from Canada’s ban on psilocybin. It was reportedly the first time a therapist had asked the Canadian government for such an exemption.

It wasn’t until this past January that TheraPsil finally heard back, Hawkswell said. “After three years of back-and-forth, they got back to us and said, ‘We’re going to be rejecting this application.’” The agency said there was no obvious medical necessity for the psychedelics.

TheraPsil was undaunted. “They say there’s no necessity,” Hawkswell said. “Maybe it’s because they haven’t met that person yet.”

In April, the group helped four more people with terminal illnesses file petitions with Health Canada and Health Minister Patty Hajdu seeking exemptions that will allow them to access psilocybin. In an interview with Marijuana Moment, Hawkswell said patients had gone months so far without a word from Hajdu, who with a stroke of a pen could allow the patients to access the drug.

“What we are working on right now is ramping up our messaging,” Hawkswell said. “We are going to try everything we can to get to the minister to make sure she sees these patients and responds to them.”

Efforts to allow TheraPsil’s clinicians to use psilocybin themselves are more recent. Dr. Sean O’Sullivan, an emergency room physician and psychotherapist who serves on TheraPsil’s board of directors, said the exemptions are necessary so that therapists can be better trained and more familiar with how psychedelics work in a therapeutic setting.

“The fundamental reason to expose therapists to their own experiences with psychedelics is that, unless you have visited these realms, you are unlikely to understand their importance,” O’Sullivan told Marijuana Moment. “The point is to allow therapists to understand the field they’re plowing in.”

Therapists need to be alert and able to recognize how psychedelic experiences manifest themselves in therapy, O’Sullivan said. Patients might bring up material having to do with their own birth, a traumatic experience or interactions with otherworldly beings. “If you’re not attuned to this possibility, not aware of this possibility, then it’s just going to slide by you,” he said. 

“It’s a bit like describing Beethoven’s Fifth,” O’Sullivan added. “You can describe it all you like, but at some point you have to play the music.”

As psychedelic therapy is more widely sought by patients, O’Sullivan said, demand for qualified therapists is likely to go up. “We are expecting that as we get more permission for patients to access psilocybin at the end of life,” he said, “that there will be an increase in demand for therapists that have had that psychedelic experience.”

Public opinion in Canada generally supports allowing access to psilocybin therapy for the terminally ill, TheraPsil says. A poll released by the group last month found that 59 percent of Canadians support legal access. Including respondents who said they were “ambivalent,” TheraPsil said, acceptance increased to 78 percent.

“What’s unreasonable is the political decision” to deny patients access to psilocybin, Hawkswell argued. “It’s not a scientific one, it’s not a democratic one. It’s political.”

Patients facing their imminent death often experience feelings and fears that psychedelics can help to ease, he said. Among them are demoralization, anxiety and depression. Existing treatment includes pharmaceuticals, talk therapy and occasionally inpatient treatment.

Psychedelics play a role in treatment by inducing what Hawkswell and others refer to as a “mystical experience”—a collection of psychoactive and sometimes spiritual events that accompany a psychedelic journey. The experience can reorient a person’s way of thinking, dissolving barriers between an individual and the world around them. For end-of-life patients, he explained, it can help them embrace that death “is natural—just as natural as being born.”

Practitioners note that psychedelic therapy doesn’t work the same way as many other pharmaceutical drugs, such as antidepressants or even medical marijuana. Patients usually take those substances under their own supervision and allow them to work in the background. With therapeutic use of psilocybin and other psychedelics, patients typically take the drug and undergo guided psychotherapy. Psychedelics’ unusual, sometimes disorienting effects are believed to allow patients to better approach and engage obstacles, then emerge with a fresh perspective.

Another psychedelic therapy group, Field Trip, which uses ketamine in therapy, describes the treatment on their website as a way “to press reset on your mental health.”

The emerging promise of psychedelics in recent years have caught the attention of academics, public policy reformers and even the U.S. government. Last month, the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced a $27 million project funded by the department of defense to research and develop psychedelics-inspired drugs.

That project’s researchers seem to believe they can separate psychedelics from what they describe as “disorienting” side effects, despite what Hawkswell and others say about the importance of a “mystical experience.”

“Although drugs like ketamine and potentially psilocybin have rapid antidepressant actions, their hallucinogenic, addictive, and disorienting side effects make their clinical use limited,” said Bryan L. Roth, a professor of pharmacology at UNC School of Medicine and the research team’s leader. The government partnership, UNC said, “aims to create new medications to effectively and rapidly treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse without major side effects.”

In September of last year, Johns Hopkins University announced the launch of the nation’s first-ever psychedelic research center, a $17-million project to study the use of psychedelics to treat conditions such as opioid use disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, activists in the United States have advocated for state- and local-level reforms to research, decriminalize and in some cases even legalize psychedelics themselves.

At the municipal level, Denver became the first U.S. city to enact such a reform, with voters in May 2019 approving a measure to effectively decriminalize possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Soon after, officials in Oakland, California, decriminalized possession of all plant- and fungi-based psychedelics. In January of this year, Oakland activists unveiled plans to allow go further and legalize the commercial sale of natural entheogenic substances. That same month in nearby Santa Cruz, the City Council effectively decriminalized psychedelics by voting to make the enforcement of laws against them among the city’s lowest enforcement priorities.

Reformers are now pushing for similar changes in other jurisdictions. In Washington, D.C. this month, Decriminalize Nature D.C. submitted signatures to qualify a measure for November’s ballot that would decriminalize all natural psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine.

Other reform efforts are ongoing in Oregon, where voters later this year will decide whether to legalize psilocybin therapy—the very therapy TheraPsil’s patients are pushing Canadian Health Minister Hajdu to allow. Oregon voters will also see a separate measure to decriminalize the possession of all drugs and expand access to treatment for problem use on their November ballot.

Lawmakers in Hawaii earlier this year approved a plan to study psilocybin mushrooms’ medical applications with the goal of eventually legalizing access.

In Canada, for now, psilocybin remains illegal. Hawkswell of TheraPsil, however, believes a constellation of other national policies—including medical marijuana, safe injection sites, and physician-assisted dying—support extending psilocybin access to patients in palliative care. And Canada already permits certain religious groups to use ayahuasca as religious sacrament, Hawkswell noted.

“At this point psilocybin is a reasonable medical choice for these individuals,” he told Marijuana Moment. “This is about the minister being compassionate and using her ministerial abilities to help give patients access to something that’s going to help them.”

Patients waiting to hear back from Hajdu’s office, he said, don’t have time to wait for lengthy, bureaucratic processes. “We’re not just going to keep waiting,” he told Marijuana Moment. “We do have a legal team prepared, but that’s all I’ll say.”

Psychedelics Decrim Activists Mark First Anniversary Of Denver’s Historic Psilocybin Mushroom Vote

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman

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.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Politics

Alabama Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

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The Alabama Senate on Wednesday approved a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Weeks after the chamber’s Judiciary Committee advanced the legislation, it cleared the full floor in a vote of 21-8 following a brief, 15-minute discussion.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson (R), would allow people with qualifying conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes.

Melson is the same lawmaker who sponsored a similar bill that was approved by the full Senate last year but which later died without a House vote amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This latest proposal would establish an 11-member Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to implement regulations and oversee licensing.

To qualify for the program, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers.

Advocates say they’re encouraged that medical cannabis reform is advancing in Alabama, but they’ve raised concerns about a number of aspects of the bill.

One problematic provision, they say, is that patients with chronic or intractable pain could only be recommended medical marijuana in cases where “conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or has proved ineffective.”

The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.

Patients would be allowed to purchase and possess up to “70 daily dosages of medical cannabis.” Under an amendment approved on the floor, the maximum daily dose was reduced from 75 to 50 milligrams. However, the amendment’s sponsor said it could be increased to 75 milligrams in some circumstances.

The revision also calls for a label on marijuana products to indicate that cannabis can cause drowsiness.

It also calls for a nine percent gross proceeds tax on medical marijuana sales. After covering implementation costs, 60 percent of revenue would go to the state’s general fund and 30 percent would go to research into the medical potential of cannabis.

Patients, caregivers and and medical cannabis businesses would receive legal protections under the proposal, preventing them from being penalized for activities authorized by the state.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 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.

For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.

Under the bill, regulators would be tasked with developing restrictions on advertising and setting quality control standards. Seed-to-sale tracking and laboratory testing would be mandated.

Other changes approved on the floor would add language to stipulate that gelatinous cannabis products cannot be sugar coated and insert provisions promoting good manufacturing practices and tamper-evident packaging.

A separate amendment that cleared the chamber added sickle cell anemia as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

Applications for cannabis business licenses would have to be accepted starting September 1, 2022 and then proceeded within 60 days.

The commission would be required to approve at least four cultivators, up to four processors, up to four dispensaries for the first year of implementation (more could be approved after that point depending on demand) and as many as five vertically integrated operators.

This bill’s reintroduction has been greatly anticipated by advocates. The Senate approved a separate medical cannabis bill in 2019, but the House later severely compromised it. The legislation as enacted would not have legalized patient access; rather, it set up a study commission to explore the issue and make recommendations.

The commission came back with its report in December 2019, with members recommending that medical marijuana be legalized.

The Senate’s president voted against medical cannabis in 2020 but said he is open to letting the issue advance again in the new session. Meanwhile, the House speaker said that “if the bill comes up and it has proper restrictions in it, then I’m open to at least debating it.”

There could be additional pressure on the legislature to enact legalization given that voters in neighboring Mississippi approved a medical cannabis reform initiative during the November election.

New York Marijuana Legalization Proposals Get First Joint Legislative Hearing Of 2021

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New York Marijuana Legalization Proposals Get First Joint Legislative Hearing Of 2021

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New York lawmakers on Tuesday held the first public hearing of the year on proposals to legalize marijuana, specifically focusing on budget implications.

In a joint session with members of the Senate Finance Committee and Assembly Ways & Means Committee, legislators heard testimony from two pro-legalization industry representatives and one opponent, Kevin Sabet of the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Notably, despite their ideological differences when it comes to legalization in general, all three panelists were critical of the reform proposal that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included in his budget request.

NY Cannabis Growers and Processors Association President Allan Gandelman and NY Medical Cannabis Industry Association President Ngiste Abebe both said they favor a legalization measure out of the legislature—the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA)—arguing that its tax structure and social equity provisions are superior to the governor’s plan, even after Cuomo submitted amendments in hopes of shoring up support among skeptical lawmakers.

“We deeply appreciate the possibilities offered in the MRTA. New York will need to balance issues involving taxes, licensing and speed to market,” Gandelman said. “The MRTA does an excellent job allowing for social consumption, cannabis home grow, microbusinesses, home delivery and funding for social equity applicants. These policies should be, without question, integrated into any final legislation enacted by the state.”

Watch the joint public hearing on marijuana legalization in New York below: 

Cuomo did propose amending his legalization plan to add a home delivery option and specify how social equity grants for cannabis businesses would be distributed—but advocates say it still falls short of the MRTA, sponsored by Sen. Liz Kreuger (D), chair of the Finance Committee.

Abebe, who also serves as public policy director for Columbia Care, said that her organization believes “the governor’s proposal could be improved as well—and then, between the [Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act] and the MRTA, there is a pathway to effective legalization in New York.”

But the April 1 deadline to get those improvements included in Cuomo’s budget plan and pass the legislation is quickly approaching, and legislative leadership has indicated that they’d prefer to pass the MRTA first and then begin negotiations with the governor’s office.

“It is my hope and desire that New York will legalize adult-use of cannabis this current session in 2021,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), who has been especially critical of the governor’s proposal, recently said.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told Marijuana Moment in an interview that there would be room for revisions to the governor’s plan, stating that “much of it is going to be negotiated with the legislature, and all these details can be resolved with their input as well.”


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 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.

Cuomo said that the changes in his bill reflect “the conversations we’ve had, but I’m hopeful that we can come to an agreement and we can get it done. He added that he believes, “because I’ve seen this movie before, “if we don’t get it done by April 1, we won’t get it done.”

This is the third year in a row that Cuomo has included a legalization proposal in his budget plan. The last two times, negotiations with the legislature stalled amid disagreements over certain components such as the tax structure for the market and funding for social equity programs.

Regardless of which direction the legislature ultimately goes on this issue, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.

The top Republican in the New York Assembly said in December that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.

Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.

The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.

Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana have been filed in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.

Biden Cabinet Pick Defends Proposal To Use Marijuana Tax Dollars To Fund Schools

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Biden Cabinet Pick Defends Proposal To Use Marijuana Tax Dollars To Fund Schools

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President Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of the Interior Department on Tuesday defended a past campaign promise to support marijuana legalization as a means to diversify her state’s economy and help fund public education.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) was pressed on her 2018 remarks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the panel’s ranking member, asked whether it was still her position that tax revenue from cannabis sales could be used to support schools as a replacement for oil and gas royalties as part of a plan to shift away from fossil fuels.

“Well, I think the point of that, ranking member, was to say that we should diversify our funding streams for education and not just rely on one,” she replied.

“Is selling marijuana among what the Biden administration calls ‘better choices’ that the Biden administration has promised to give displaced oil and gas workers?” Barrasso asked. “Is that the better choice? Marijuana?”

“I honestly don’t know what President Biden’s stance is on cannabis currently,” the nominee said.

The president’s position on marijuana does depart with Haaland’s, as he has maintained an opposition to adult-use legalization and hasn’t signaled that he’d be interested in enacting the reform as a way to raise revenue for any particular initiative. He supports legalizing medical cannabis, decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession, modestly rescheduling the plant, expunging prior cannabis convictions and letting states set their own policies.

In any case, the senator—along with the Republican National Committee (RNC), which circulated Haaland’s 2018 comments ahead of the hearing—apparently feels that the marijuana position of his nominee to head Interior are damning, despite the bipartisan public support for legalization and broad sentiment that tax revenue from cannabis should be effectively utilized for public services.

“We know what your stances on replacing the revenue, the energy jobs, the jobs that power our economy and the energy that powers our country. And your preference is to turn to drugs is what you’ve recommended to the voters,” Barrasso said. “At a time when there’s high unemployment and energy workers lose their jobs—we’ve seen it in West Virginia, we’ve seen it around the country—there’s been an opioid crisis in this nation. And yet what I hear from you is the answer in a better choice world is marijuana.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) returned to the ranking member’s line of questioning and said “just to be clear on the marijuana issue, this isn’t a Seattle issue. Out of 39 counties, 20 to 25 counties in the state of Washington supported legalizing cannabis.”

“I don’t blame our legislature or others from getting revenue from that and put it towards public health issues in the state of Washington,” she said. “This is respecting the wishes of the voters and then putting it to good use.”

Watch Cantwell’s marijuana comments, starting around 55:45 into the video below: 

Marijuana also came up during Haaland’s initial committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday, with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) introducing Haaland and joking about her energy policy by saying that “anybody who thinks you’re going to cut off fossil fuel immediately is smoking pot—that’s legal in the state of Alaska, by the way.”

Watch Young’s cannabis comments, about 37:00 into the video below:

For advocates, while it’s encouraging to see administration nominees embrace pro-reform positions, this was not the most consequential cannabis comment during a confirmation session this week. On Monday, Merrick Garland, the president’s nominee for attorney general said it is not “a useful use of limited resources” to go after people who are complying with state marijuana laws. He also citied cannabis enforcement as an example of the racially discriminatory impact of the criminal justice system.

Another New Mexico House Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill

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