Studies demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics could be leading more people to experiment with substances like psilocybin, a top federal drug official said in a new interview with Marijuana Moment. And when it comes to cannabis research, she said scientists should be allowed to investigate products from state-legal dispensaries instead of using only government-grown plants.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow also spoke in the Thursday interview about the need to decriminalize drug possession and her surprise that teen marijuana use has not increased as more states enact legalization.
Volkow, who closely monitors emerging drug trends, particularly among youth, also discussed a new federal survey reveling that fewer college-aged adults are drinking alcohol and are instead opting for psychedelics and cannabis.
Monitoring the Future (MTF), a long-term epidemiological study, is meant to highlight patterns of behavior for the use of legal and illicit drugs, and its latest iteration found that past-year use of psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD among college students nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020, from five to nine percent.
At the same time, past 30-day alcohol use for that group decreased from 62 percent in 2019 to 56 percent last year. Volkow said the coronavirus pandemic likely helps explain that trend, as young people tend to drink alcohol more in social settings, and the health crisis ground much social interaction to a halt. But what’s to account for the abrupt change in behavior when it comes to psychedelics?
The survey itself doesn’t speculate about the reason for the shift, but Volkow says the surge in research and early clinical trials showing signs that these substances hold significant therapeutic value is a factor. She said people “start to discover the potential that these drugs have,” and they gravitate toward them.
Mainstream media outlets have started to take notice of the psychedelics research renaissance, feeding information to a larger audience that might be enticed by a substance that some studies show effectively addresses conditions like treatment-resistant depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Volkow also said that she’d be “very surprised” if activist-led efforts to decriminalize or legalize certain psychedelics hasn’t also contributed to the new trend. And the timing makes sense. Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019—and that set off a wave of reform movements in cities across the U.S. that continue to gain traction and attention.
In other words, there’s a newfound awareness within the general public that psychedelics are generally safe and potentially therapeutic and that laws criminalizing natural plants and fungi are loosening in various jurisdictions.
John Schulenberg, a University of Michigan research who is the principal investigator for MTF, told Marijuana Moment that he agrees with the director’s assessment.
“I think that’s what’s going on here. That is a societal change in terms of the [perception of] danger and possible benefits,” he said. “This is part of what’s happening society—that there are perceptions of the drug’s medicinal purposes, and science seems to be backing it up.”
Marijuana use among college students also increased in 2020, with 44 percent of that demographic reporting past-year cannabis consumption. Volkow again pointed to the COVID-19 crisis as a possible explanation, but it’s also the case that this has been a consistent trend for young adults in recent years.
But notably, that trend has not been observed among teens, with rates of past-year use for high school seniors remaining stable at 35 percent. It’s yet another datapoint that supports what reform advocates have long been arguing: just because more states are legalizing marijuana, that doesn’t mean more young people will start to use it. And in fact, having regulated markets that require proof of age can act as a deterrent.
In another recent interview, Volkow conceded that advocates were “right” that teen cannabis use wouldn’t spike after legalization was enacted. But while that’s encouraging, the official has been a consistent voice pushing for more and more research into marijuana, which is made all the more urgent amid the reform movement.
To that end, the director told Marijuana Moment that scientists have been unnecessarily limited in the source of cannabis they’re permitted to study—and it makes sense to enact a policy change that expands their access to products available in state-legal markets.
“Since dispensaries are selling products that are supposedly very specific for certain characteristics—there is not any one plant—without access to that variety and diversity of plant products, researchers cannot advance that question,” she said.
Volkow touched a wide range of drug policy issues in her conversation with Marijuana Moment. The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Looking at the 2020 MTF survey, do you have any thoughts on what might be driving the trend of increased use of psychedelics and marijuana among college students and the decrease in alcohol use at the same time?
Nora Volkow: Based on what we know, the first interpretation that I would make about why alcohol drinking has gone down pretty significantly—and particularly, alcohol drinking to intoxication and alcohol drinking in binging. And it’s among this population, what this is basically telling us, is that young people drink together, they go to bars, they go to a party. And to the extent that in COVID, we’ve been basically isolated, the opportunities for them to be physically in those spaces have gone down. And ergo, drinking has gone down. Whereas marijuana is a more solitary type of drug taking. People use it to relax and to stone themselves out. There are kids that go together, they actually go and smoke together, but it’s not the way that it is in alcohol, that social interaction.
MM: With respect to psychedelics specifically, do you feel like the activist-led push to reform laws governing substances like psilocybin over the past couple years has contributed to the increased use we’re seeing in this survey?
NV: I would be very surprised if he doesn’t influence it because that narrative actually has caught attention. These states are legalizing, so the media writes about it. And people start to discover the potential that these drugs have for therapeutics and the current trials that are ongoing. This takes on a momentum because the ideal world of having a drug that can cure things very dramatically. And there’s always that feel, like a fairy tale, that tells you something that is very appealing, and you immediately embrace it. This is the way that our brain works, we embrace theories that are within what we would like to see, much more than those that we would reject. So yes, I do suspect that it is the case.
I was speaking to my sister yesterday, and she lives in Mexico. And we were discussing the notion and she says, ‘Nora, I cannot go to museums, I cannot see my friends, my life has become very, very boring. And we need to live with this boring life.’ And it’s just occurred to me, that this is my older sister, and she’s complaining that her life has become very boring because of the isolation. How do you compensate for these these exciting activities? Psychedelic drugs is one of them. And so in that respect, it’s a very different drug from the others. It allows you to modify the perception of your environment. If you cannot go to a different environment, you can modify the way that that environment enters into your consciousness.
I think that those two components are facilitating the increase, because the increase was huge. It’s almost double in a one-year period. It’s a gigantic.
MM: The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently released updated quotas for the production of drugs for scientific use, and they greatly increased the allowed amounts for marijuana and psilocybin. Is that a sign that federal officials are seeing greater interest from researchers in investigating these substances? And if so, what are some of the areas you’d hope to see more research into?
NV: We’ve been working with the DEA and multiple agencies to try to actually address the challenges that have existed all along. Whether we approve or not, these drugs are being used. And if we don’t have access to research that informs us on these drugs, first of all, we cannot comment on what are their effects, if they have negative effects. And the fact that a lot of places are claiming that they have therapeutic potential, it becomes very, very difficult to do research with them. So we are working with the DEA to try to figure out ways that can facilitate doing research and expanding knowledge.
I think that this is actually a response to that. And I’m very grateful that this is happening because it will make it easier for investigators to understand the nature of the problem, but also importantly, to be able to provide the treatment if in case they are needed—if someone intoxicates and has an untoward reaction, that we understand how to treat it. But also the possibility—I mean, again, that’s why we do science—that some of these molecules, chemicals in these drugs, may have therapeutic benefits. If we don’t do research, we’ll never know.
MM: You’ve been a longtime critic of the monopoly on federally authorized marijuana production for studies. DEA also announced it will be approving additional manufacturers, but there are still some who feel strongly that scientists should have access to cannabis products available in state-legal markets. Where do you stand on that?
NV: I think it would be theoretically ideal to understand the actual products that people are consuming, as opposed to trying to understand it with a different compound—a different plant that will vary in terms of the contents of ingredients. And since the dispensaries are selling products that are supposedly very specific for certain characteristics, there is not any one plant so without access to that variety and diversity of plant products, researchers cannot advance that question. That’s something, again, that DEA has to enable, but from the the scientific perspective it would be valuable.
MM: You often discuss the societal consequences of criminalizing drugs, particularly on communities of color that are disproportionately targeted. What do you think would be a superior, alternative model?
NV: I would use what we have learned from other places that have tackled the issue with positive outcomes, and I’m very specifically thinking of Portugal.
I’m not specifically thinking in terms of Portugal as it relates to legalization because, overall, my concern with legalization is that it promotes the growth of a market of a problem which actually is optimized to make people addicted. And that leads to very negative consequences. I’m very concerned about the process of legalization unless there is a very good regulation that ensures that there’s not a profit that drives and jeopardizes the wellbeing of people. I’m very much against it. That’s one of the aspects that I see—I mean, has been so very negative. We pay a huge price with tobacco. How many people died that should have died because of that greed of the industry that’s selling these products?
But when I look at Portugal, what to me is very interesting is that they completely decriminalized—but what they’ve done in parallel is provide a treatment that is necessary. And that’s what we have not done in the United States. So when you say, why would I like to see? Absolutely, I’d like to see decriminalization of the individual that is taking drugs. There is no justification to put them in jail or prison. And in fact, it jeopardizes their outcome. But instead provide them with treatment.
What we do [now] is we throw people in jail, we remove their access to insurance, if they have any through Medicaid, and then they are thrown out. We have no support for reentry. It’s not surprising that leads to terrible outcomes.
MM: What steps can you, or NIDA, take to encourage lawmakers to enact a policy change to that end?
NV: We have a pretty large initiative, in part in partnership with the Arnold Foundation and the Justice Department, to do research that can help us develop strategies that provide alternatives.
MM: You said in a recent interview that advocates were ultimately “right” that state-level legalization wouldn’t increase youth use despite your initial fears. Is there anything else that’s surprised you about the impacts of the reform?
NV: Well, there are several issues that are concerning to me about what we’re seeing. First of all, we’re seeing that it has increased consumption across all ages other than teenagers. It has gone way up. And that includes pregnant women, so certainly that is very concerning. The other issue that is concerning to me, and we have keep an eye on it, is we’re seeing very strong associations between marijuana exposure and suicidal behaviors. And that is concerning. We’ve seen it in men and women, with or without depression. So that is an aspect that will have to be actually aware of.
It was a surprising finding [that past-year teen use has remained stable]. We’re also starting to see an increase in teenagers [who regularly use cannabis], not occasional use. It’s the regular use that is going up, which is the most dangerous, the daily use. And again, this may reflect, as you think about it, the notion that while legalization does not per se affect the likelihood that teenagers may be able to get marijuana because it’s widely available. The legalization, though, may have facilitated the ability to get marijuana right away. That is why we may be seeing this distinction.
We need to actually see what happens with those indicators because, right now amid the COVID pandemic, it’s difficult to judge because teenagers are at home and what we see is parents may have, particularly those that stay at home, have greater supervision of those kids. So, taking drugs is going down. But on the other hand, kids whose parents are out there working, no supervision, this may lead to higher drug consumption. And that’s sort of where we’re seeing. But as it relates to overall regular marijuana, when we go back to whatever normal is, we will get a better idea if these trends keep going up or not.
Image element courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.
House Officially Passes Defense Bill With Marijuana Banking Protections, But Key Senators May Block Path Ahead
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a large-scale defense spending bill that includes an amendment to shield banks that works with state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Now advocates and industry stakeholders are left wondering: what’s the fate of the reform in the Senate? And can it make it to the president’s desk?
New comments from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—who’s helping lead the charge to advance comprehensive marijuana legalization and who has been severely critical of efforts to enact banking reform first—signal that the path to pass the incremental policy change through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be in jeopardy in the Senate. Other key senators have also expressed skepticism about the reform’s prospects through this process.
For supporters, things may have been more simple if the Senate had moved to include cannabis banking reform in its own version, but the text of NDAA released by Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday does not contain that language. That means the matter will need to be settled in a bicameral conference committee after the full Senate formally passes its bill. At that point, negotiators from both chambers will work to resolve differences between their separate proposals.
Already, there’s pushback from key senators to including the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in the NDAA that’s ultimately sent to President Joe Biden. That’s not especially surprising considering that leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has insisted on passing comprehensive justice-focused marijuana legalization first rather than advance an incremental reform on banking. But recent statements do raise questions about the prospects of enacting the reform through the defense bill.
It’s not that the SAFE Banking Act is partisan or especially controversial on its face; it’s a matter of legislative priorities for certain senators and a question of germaneness in NDAA. As of Tuesday, when the reform amendment was officially attached to the House version of the bill, it has now passed five times in the chamber, usually along largely bipartisan lines.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, spoke with Marijuana Moment about the process moving forward in a phone interview on Wednesday. He was optimistic about the measure’s prospects with NDAA as the vehicle, though he conceded that he hadn’t spoken with Schumer or other key senators who are actively finalizing legalization legislation that they hope to see move first.
“I think the fifth time is the charm,” he said. “I mean, obviously, we still have to do some work to make sure that it remains part of the NDAA as the House and the Senate go to conference. So we still have work to do with the Senate to make sure that it remains part of it. But I think that it will.”
“I mean, the fact that it deals with cartels and national security, on top of the need for the public safety piece of this thing, I think that we’ll be able to convince the conference committee and the conferees generally to keep it in,” he said. “But we still have work to do.”
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Some advocates have expressed support for enacting the achievable banking policy change while working to build support for more comprehensive reform.
“Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would improve public safety and business efficiency in the 36 states that currently permit some form of retail marijuana sales,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “The Senate should ensure this provision remains in the final version of this funding package and enact it swiftly.”
“The SAFE Banking Act is only the first step toward making sure that state-legal marijuana markets operate safely and efficiently,” he said. “The sad reality is that those who own or patronize these currently unbanked businesses would still be recognized as criminals in the eyes of the federal government and by federal law. This situation can only be rectified by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.”
Schumer and certain other senators, meanwhile, have insisted the banking issue should be tackled by holistically ending marijuana prohibition. They argue that it is inappropriate to pass what is seen as an industry-focused reform that helps businesses and investors while leaving unaddressed the harms of decades of racially disparate prohibition enforcement that should be addressed with equity-focused legalization.
Booker, who is helping Schumer alongside Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) to produce a final legalization bill has said he would proactively work to block any senators who attempt to get marijuana banking reform passed before enacting social justice-focused legalization legislation.
And Booker told Politico on Wednesday that cannabis banking is “something that should not be included” in NDAA.
Senate likes to send NDAA amendments to a vote by unanimous consent. If one senator raises an objection to an NDAA Amendment, it can kill or stall it. Booker wouldn’t discuss his plans but said has “a lot of options as an individual senator” should the amendment be proposed.
— Natalie Fertig (@natsfert) September 22, 2021
“It undermines the ability to get comprehensive marijuana reform and the kind of things that are harder to get done like expungement of people’s records,” he said, echoing a point that Schumer made in an interview with Marijuana Moment in April. And a spokesperson for the majority leader affirmed that his position has not changed in light of the House development.
Should a senator propose a floor amendment to the chamber’s version of the defense bill to incorporate SAFE Banking, Booker left open the possibility of standing in its way.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), sponsor of the standalone Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act, also declined to say whether he would push to attach the reform to NDAA and told Politico he’d “love to see if we can even do the more comprehensive [reform]—that’d be even better.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI), meanwhile, told Roll Call that the issue hasn’t been discussed by members of his panel. And bipartisan supporters of the reform—including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rand Paul (R-KY)—told the outlet they weren’t certain that the Senate would pursue marijuana banking through NDAA.
Schatz also said that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “doesn’t like” the marijuana banking proposal, and so “he’s going to have to consult with the Republicans in his conference who are in favor of this reform, but so far he’s been blocking it.”
Based on these comments, it seems increasingly clear that the effort to enact SAFE Banking through the must-pass defense bill faces a tough road ahead. And despite bipartisan support for the proposal on its own, it’s an open question as to whether the negotiators in committees of jurisdiction will be able to reach a consensus.
At an initial meeting of the House Rules Committee about NDAA on Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), who is managing the bill for the chamber, acknowledged that while some members might consider certain amendments “superfluous” to defense spending matters, the annual legislation has been used as a vehicle to advance non-germane legislation in the past. He added, though, that doing so has historically required the issues at hand to have broad bipartisan support in order to survive the House-Senate conference committee process.
He didn’t specifically cite the cannabis banking proposal, but Perlmutter himself said earlier in the hearing that “whether something is superfluous is always in the eyes of the beholder,” signaling that he feels his measure’s germaneness in this context is up for interpretation.
Smith said that “whatever superfluous items the Rules Committee decides to put in order and get attached to this bill, we go to conference, and in conference, we work in a bipartisan fashion.”
But beyond Smith and Reed, it will also be up to leading members of key committees that handle banking issues to decide whether the measure gets a ride to the president’s desk in NDAA.
“We’re not going to pull one over on anybody here. We’re going to have to work with committees of jurisdiction—not just the chairs, but the ranking members as well—to come to some agreement on those before we go forward,” he said. “So if you see an item that you consider to be superfluous being added to the bill, don’t freak out.”
The chair’s comments about needing support from leaders of committees of jurisdiction raise questions about whether the amendment stands a chance in conference with the Senate following House approval. Not only did House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC) vote against the standalone SAFE Banking Act this year and in 2019, but on the Senate side, even Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has been generally unenthusiastic about advancing the reform.
On the flip side, House Finance Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) is a supporter of the banking reform and brought it through her panel last Congress. Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA), for his part, has previously voiced support for advancing the SAFE Banking Act.
Perlmutter has said that he appreciates that Senate leadership is pushing for a more comprehensive end to federal marijuana prohibition—and he agrees with Booker that promoting social equity is an important objective—but he feels the SAFE Banking Act is urgently needed to address public safety issues resulting from the industry’s lack of access to traditional financial institutions.
Some of the strongest proponents for broad reform like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) voted in favor of the SAFE Banking Act in April despite the body yet having taken up a legalization measure this session.
Mississippi Lawmakers Reach Deal On Medical Marijuana Legalization, Plan To Request Special Session
Lawmakers reached a deal on key provisions such as which agencies should be responsible for regulating the medical cannabis market.
By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today
Legislative negotiators and leaders have agreed on a draft of medical marijuana legislation, and are anticipated to ask Gov. Tate Reeves (R) as early as Friday to call the Legislature into special session, sources close to the negotiations said Thursday.
Legislative leaders on Thursday released some details of the proposal—which had been kept close to the vest for months—such as that cities and counties will be allowed to “opt out” of having medical marijuana cultivation or dispensaries, although local voters can override this.
Negotiations have dragged on throughout the summer on crafting a medical marijuana program to replace one passed by Mississippi voters in November but shot down in May by the state Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality.
House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) in a Thursday interview on a Supertalk radio show said he believed the House and Senate leadership and negotiators are “in agreement” on a draft bill, and he believes both chambers have the votes to pass such a measure. He said he planned to get together with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R), then barring any last minute glitches “inform the governor we are ready.”
Other sources close to the negotiations on Thursday told Mississippi Today they anticipate that request to the governor would happen as soon as Friday. Reeves has sole authority to call lawmakers into special session, and would set the date and parameters of a special session. Although legislative leaders have expressed interest in dealing with COVID-19 and other issues in a special session, Reeves has appeared unwilling but said he would call a session for medical marijuana, pending lawmakers are in agreement and he agrees with the measure.
Gunn in his radio interview on Thursday gave some particulars of the bill, but said “don’t hold me to it” and deferred to Rep. Lee Yancey, (R), the lead House negotiator on the measure. Yancey has worked with Sen. Kevin Blackwell, (R), the lead Senate negotiator. Blackwell could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
Yancey gave Mississippi Today some highlights of the draft bill, which would be subject to changes by the full Legislature. They include:
Cities and counties could opt out. Voters could opt back in. City councils or aldermen, or county boards of supervisors, within 60 days of passage of legislation, could opt out from allowing cultivation or dispensing of medical marijuana within their borders. However, voters could gather 1,500 signatures, or signatures of 20 percent of voters, whichever is less, and force a referendum on the issue. If such a referendum to allow it fails, voters could try again in two years, similar to state alcohol referenda. Yancey said that under the draft measure, “Once it’s in, it’s in,” meaning once approved, a locality could not come back and ban it.
“This gives businesses the certainty they need to get started,” Yancey said. “No licenses will be issued the first 60 days after passage for cultivation and processing, and licenses (for cannabis use) and dispensaries wouldn’t start until the 90th day.”
Smoking cannabis would be allowed. There had been debate on whether Mississippi’s program would allow smoking of cannabis by patients, as most states with programs allow, or prohibit it, as Alabama does with its recently approved program.
“There are those who have certain debilitating conditions who need the effects of medical cannabis to take effect immediately,” Yancey said. “Ingesting a gummy or something like that could take 45 minutes to an hour. Whether it’s terrible seizures or pain and suffering or not being able to eat, there are those who need relief as immediately as possible… There are those who look at this from a bias of recreational use, but that’s not apples to apples, not fair. There are people who are suffering, who need the palliative relieve medical cannabis can provide, and our main goal is to allow people who are suffering terrible illnesses to get relief.”
Medical marijuana would be subject to sales tax and an excise. The state’s sales tax, currently at 7 percent, would be levied on medical marijuana, as well as a $15 an ounce excise. Yancey said the goal was to have a 5 percent excise, but that going rates for marijuana vary by potency and product, so the weight-based tax was the easiest way to get near that mark. Weight for edibles and other product would be based on the cannabis weight, not food or other product. Yancey said this tax rate would put Mississippi roughly in the middle of states with legalized medical cannabis.
“The going rate for mid-range (marijuana flower) is about $300 an ounce, so if you do the math, $15 an ounce would be around the 5%,” Yancey said. “If a product sold for lower, you would pay higher than that rate, if sold for more, you would pay less.”
Outdoor growing would not be allowed. Lawmakers during hearings this summer were told by officials from other states that regulating growing and safety of medical marijuana is easier with indoor growing facilities.
State Health Department would be in charge, with Department of Revenue, Agriculture Commission sharing some responsibilities. The Mississippi State Department of Health would oversee the state’s medical marijuana program, but the state’s taxing and agriculture agencies would share some regulatory duties. State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson has told lawmakers he will not participate in regulating medical marijuana because marijuana is still federally illegal. Gipson has threatened to sue if lawmakers try to force him to participate.
Yancey said the proposal would allow Gipson to subcontract growing regulations to someone else.
“For instance, if the Board of Pharmacy said it was interested in regulating the plants—like they do with compounding pharmacies—they could do it,” Yancey said. “In a sense Andy wouldn’t have to do it himself, he could farm it out, no pun intended.”
Preference would be given to in-state companies. Yancey said cultivators would be licensed in tiers—from “micro cultivators” to large ones, based on square footage of canopy space. Micro growers, under 2,000 square feet, would have to be “100 percent Mississippi resident participation.” Larger ones initially would have to have 35 percent Mississippi ownership, but that requirement would be repealed after one year. Yancey said this could help Mississippians be involved in the business, but help the state avoid lawsuits other states have faced from out-of-state growers. Yancey said there would be a similar setup for processors, based on amount of pounds of product they produce.
Potency would be regulated. Yancey said there would be THC potency limits of 30 percent on flower, 60 percent on concentrates and infused products. He said any product above 30 percent THC would have to have a warning label.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Feds Fund Study Into Whether Psilocybin Can Help People Quit Smoking Cigarettes
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.