Legislators want to study how psychedelics can help treat veterans, first responders and terminal patients suffering from PTSD who do not respond to traditional treatments. Photo: Getty Images.
Editor’s note: This story mentions PTSD and suicide. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
North Carolina’s Compassionate Care Act, a bill that would legalize medical marijuana for certain patients, faces an uncertain future in the state House this session. But State Rep. John Autry has turned his attention to another set of drugs. The Mecklenburg County Democrat is working to advance research on psychedelics.
Hallucinogens like “magic mushrooms” conjure up a certain image in some circles, but Autry said it’s time to get past the stigma and look critically at the benefits of psilocybin, ketamine and other such drugs, when carefully administered.
Dr. Raymond Turpin, executive director of the Pearl Psychedelic Institute in Waynesville, has been studying therapeutic uses of psychedelics since the mid-1980s.
“We have been conducting ketamine-assisted therapy for several years,” Turpin told reporters last week. “We are currently participating in the FDA’s Expanded Access Program, treating people with treatment-resistant PTSD using MDMA-assisted therapy.”
Turpin described one patient as a completely disabled veteran.
“In his first MDMA-assisted session, he felt like it was 10 years of therapy in six hours. And we’re seeing some incredible changes just within the last few weeks. These compounds have been around a long time.”
Turpin and other members of the recently formed NC Psychedelic Policy Coalition stress they are not talking about recreational drug use at home. Patients receive a medical screening and the supervision and support of a trained therapist and medical practitioner.
Rep. Autry’s proposal would allocate $4.5 million to support two psychedelic medical studies conducted by North Carolina’s research universities.
A proposed psilocybin study would focus on reducing anxiety and fear in people with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
A separate MDMA study would focus on reducing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by veterans, first responders and sexual assault survivors.
The legislation would also create an advisory board of experts to make recommendations about how these medicines can responsibly be made more available in North Carolina. This bill would not make psychedelics available for retail purchase.
The Pearl Psychedelic Institute is currently one of just a handful of clinics in the country with the FDA’s permission to perform psychedelic-assisted therapy.
‘A life changer’
Jonathan Lubecky, a retired Army sergeant, believes psychedelic medicine and research could help countless veterans.
Two months after returning from deployment to Iraq in 2006, he contemplated ending his life.
At Womack Army Medical Center he said he was given six Xanax, told to go home, give his guns to his neighbors, and come back after the holidays.
“Instead, I drank a bottle of vodka. I put it loaded 9mm to my temple and I pulled the trigger,” Lubecky told reporters. “A manufacturing defect in the ammunition is the reason I’m alive today.”
In battling PTSD and his traumatic brain injury, he attempted to take his life on five occasions before he discovering MDMA-assisted therapy.
He took his first dose of MDMA in November 2014.
“I’ve been PTSD-free ever since. I took MDMA three times eight years ago. I had not taken MDMA since.”
Lubecky said while he still goes to traditional therapy when he feels triggered, MDMA has been ‘a life changer.’
Rep. Allen Chesser (R-Nash) served with Lubecky in Iraq and has joined Autry as a primary sponsor of the pending legislation.
He carries with him the obituary of another service member who did not get help for his PTSD.
“This isn’t something that you have to do every day for the rest of your life to maintain some semblance of normalcy. This is something that can give you a normal life back,” Chesser said.
A peer-reviewed study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last November found a 25 milligram one-time dose of psilocybin reduced depression significantly in patients who previously had treatment-resistant cases.
Like Lubecky, Ken Maxwell wants to see the use of psychedelics expanded.
The Asheville resident says psilocybin has helped him manage a rare type of cluster headaches that he developed after a brain injury in 2012.
“It feels like a hot poker or a hot knife stabbing at the back of my eye,” Maxwell said in describing his condition.
His debilitating headaches were helped with microdoses of psilocybin.
“I have never once asked God why I got this disease. But I have asked God what I’m supposed to do,” said Maxwell. “I want something good to come out of it. And if I can help advocate and promote using these compounds in a responsible manner for their conditions, then that is what I’m calling it right now.”
The lone pharmacist in North Carolina’s General Assembly also believes in the potential of psychedelic research.
“I’m in the treatment business,” explained Rep. Wayne Sasser (R-Montgomery). “I give you pills that you take for the rest of your life. This is a cure. We need to follow up with this bill.”
Sasser said while the therapy is FDA approved, more research is needed to make sure any treatment is administered correctly. “This bill will allow that to happen,” he said.
The “Breakthrough Therapies Research and Advisory Act” is still in draft form but could be introduced when legislators return from their spring break.
If North Carolina takes that step, there will be others to learn from.
In January, Oregon became the first state to legalize adult use of psilocybin.
According to Stateline, Texas, Utah and Washington are also funding their own research into the medical benefits of psychedelics.
In February, Australia became the first country to approve psychedelics and MDMA as a medical option for people with treatment-resistant mental illnesses.
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