A top U.S. health official on Wednesday touted the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA, and he also slammed ongoing federal restrictions that are inhibiting research into marijuana.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was asked about psychedelics and cannabis by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
The senator said there’s been “potentially promising peer-reviewed clinical research” into the substances and referenced a letter NIH sent him in 2019 that recognized the medical value of certain psychedelics. He asked for a status update on how the agency is navigating the issue.
“There has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs, which for a while were sort of considered not an area that researchers legitimately ought to go after,” Collins replied. “And I think as we’ve learned more about how the brain works, we’ve begun to realize that these are potential tools for research purposes and might be clinically beneficial.”
He proactively brought up psilocybin as an example, noting that clinical trials have found that the compound appears to effectively treat depression, and that “could be quite exciting because we all are looking for new approaches to that.” The official said MDMA and LSD are also being investigated, but psilocybin is currently getting the most attention.
Watch the NIH director discuss psychedelics and marijuana research, starting around 1:41:00 into the video below:
Asked about next steps for NIH when it comes to psychedelics, Collins said he’s been communicating with other federal agencies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) “about whether it’s a good moment to consider having perhaps a workshop to say, ‘OK, what have we learned so far and what more might we want to do as far as designing the next generation of clinical trials to see where these provide benefit—going beyond depression to such things as PTSD?”
“I think over the course of the next year we’re going to want to have a hard look at this,” he said.
Federal agencies are already in the process of exploring psychedelics, with the The National Cancer Institute (NCI), which is part of NIH, holding a speakers series that kicked off last month that involved a discussion on the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
At the hearing, Schatz followed up to ask Collins about marijuana research and if NIH has had any progress in removing barriers to studying the plant—an issue he inquired about in a 2019 letter that the agency later responded to, with a recommendation to allow researchers to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.
“We’re making some progress,” Collins said. But because of the Schedule I status of cannabis, researchers have to overcome significant hurdles to access it. On top of that, there’s currently only one federally authorized source of marijuana for study purposes at the University of Mississippi.
He joked that “when I became NIH director, I was told, ‘hey, you’re running a marijuana farm.’ Who knew?”
The director said researchers have “had all kinds of limitations” and there’s “limited opportunity for access.” He noted that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has recently moved to expand the number of marijuana manufacturers, but he said what the government “really needs” to do is “moderate the Schedule I limitation.”
He said he’s spoken with NIDA Director Nora Volkow about the issue and feels there should be a modified Schedule I category called Schedule I-R, “which would be basically a different pathway if you’re going to use this material for research.”
Collins, who has discussed federal barriers to cannabis science at several past congressional hearings, also committed to work with Schatz’s office on legislation to further remove marijuana research barriers.
The tone of the drug policy conversation in the Senate subcommittee was markedly different compared to the House side, where a panel also held a hearing on the NIH budget on Tuesday.
During that meeting, lawmakers asked Volkow a series of marijuana-related questions and one about kratom.
She discussed the risks of cannabis use during pregnancy and adolescence, the age when the brain stops developing in adults and the importance of research into the risks and benefits of kratom, a plant-derived substance that some have used as an alternative to opioids.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), a longtime opponent to legalization, asked Volkow “is recreational use of marijuana in youth with a still-developing brain a good idea?”
“No,” the director said flatly.