PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers are giving a big thumbs up to the drug known as Ecstasy and to hallucinogenic mushrooms, too.
But don’t take this wrong — they’re not advocating the drugs for the usual recreational uses.
Instead, bills that would fund a $30 million research program to study psilocybin mushrooms in treating post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression, and another to legalize the drug formally called MDMA for the same uses, are advancing amid strong emerging evidence they may be highly effective new therapies.
That’s why former Pinal County sheriff’s deputy and Marine Corps combat veteran Robert Steele went to the Capitol earlier this month. The 39-year-old married father of two told a House committee that PTSD and the effects of traumatic brain injuries had nearly crippled him, leaving him suicidal and unable to work, and nearly destroying his family life.
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Despite being so driven to serve in the military and law enforcement that he had never even tried marijuana, Steele described how he turned to magic mushrooms “out of sheer desperation’’ as a last-ditch effort to get relief after hearing it might help.
He called the effects “profound.’’
“I felt like I think clearly for the first time in years,’’ Steele told a House committee. “It was like seeing a color 4k TV after watching black and white an entire life. My wife, my kids, they all noticed that I was happy again.’’
Steele said that because of psilocybin he is a happier person, has an improved memory — and no longer has suicidal thoughts.
“This medicine has restored my relationships, brought me closer with my wife and children and allowed me to have a life worth living again,’’ he said.
Hoping ‘to lead with science’
Dr. Suzanne Sisley told the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee that the grants included in House Bill 2486 would put Arizona on a different path than states like Oregon and Colorado that simply legalized magic mushrooms under voter initiatives.
“We’re hoping that our state could actually lead with science first before we establish a regulated system for selling mushrooms,’’ Sisley said.
She is a psychiatrist and primary care physician who has spent years researching alternative medicines for treating PTSD and other disorders.
This isn’t Sisley’s first dealing with state lawmakers — and drug politics.
She was let go by the University of Arizona a decade ago while planning to launch a medical marijuana research program that had received federal approval to proceed. The action happened as she tried to overcome opposition from Republicans in the Legislature who were blocking her hopes of getting state funding.
Sisley was backed by veterans who looked to her research into PTSD to show results. She called the university’s decision to release her political, although she had no definitive proof. She ended up starting the Scottsdale Research Institute, which aims to develop treatments for PTSD and pain management using marijuana and other natural compounds.
At the hearing earlier this month, Sisley told lawmakers that clinical trials conducted by Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research show promising results. But she also said they are using synthetic psilocybin, while the proposal that received unanimous backing from the committee would look at the natural whole mushroom.
Drugs remain illegal under U.S. law
Although anecdotal evidence has led veterans and law enforcement officers like Steele to band together to push for treatment using psilocybin mushrooms, they remain a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, with no legal use, medical or otherwise.
That means no federal funding for research into potential treatment using mushrooms has been available until recently, when Sisley said pressure from veterans groups led to money to test it in a nicotine addiction study, with other addiction treatment studies possible.
Although in a different treatment area, Sisley said the federal money is important because “this is the first federal grant we’ve seen that will actually look at this as a medicine and not as a drug of abuse.’’
Republicans and Democrats on the Arizona House panel embraced the proposal and its $30 million state funding after some asked whether mushrooms were addictive. Sisley told them it appeared they have much lower potential for that than even caffeine and that the Johns Hopkins study suggests mushrooms may have a major impact in treating addiction.
A separate bill that would allow MDMA to be prescribed if the federal government removes it from Schedule 1 restrictions would open another avenue for treatment of PTSD and similar disorders.
Clinical studies show that MDMA, illegally used for decades as a party drug with the street names Molly and Ecstasy, can be highly effective if administered in the right setting.
Mike Williams, a lobbyist for a company that conducts clinical trials, said the drug is generally administered by a physician after several visits with a counselor. The patient stays in the doctor’s office while under the effects of the drug.
“Eighty percent of those that have received this treatment have been now cured of the diagnosis of PTSD,’’ Williams said. “It is an amazing drug.’’
Potential impresses doctor in Legislature
Although Williams’ comments were based on limited trials, Democratic Rep. Amish Shah said he is persuaded there is big promise in treating people with PTSD and depression using MDMA.
Shah, an emergency room physician at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix who represents a north Phoenix district, said he’s read of the research on MDMA and is impressed.
“This is actually causing some ripples in the medical community and it was found to be very efficacious at helping people with PTSD when done in a controlled setting with the appropriate therapist who is trained to do this the right way,’’ Shah said last week as he joined the other 14 members of the House Appropriations Committee in approving House Bill 2489.
“I think it’s a really great thing when something like this happens,’’ Shah said.
“We know of a drug and use it in another setting and it gives people a lot of cure,’’ he said. “So I am resoundingly in support of this. And I hope that we can get relief to a lot of people suffering from PTSD by using an older drug in an innovative way.’’
Republican Rep. Kevin Payne of Peoria, who champions legislation addressing issues affecting veterans and law enforcement officers, is sponsoring both bills. He called the unanimous approvals by both committees “kumbaya moments.’’
If the measures pass the full House they will head to the Senate for action.