Psychedelic therapy debate returns to Missouri General Assembly
Republican lawmakers are once again pushing legislation that would require Missouri to conduct a clinical study on using psilocybin, more commonly referred to as “magic mushrooms,” to treat depression, substance use or as part end-of-life care.
Last year, the House overwhelmingly approved the measure. But it never made it to a final House vote.
Hearings on versions of the bill will take place in both the House and Senate this week.
In the House Veterans Committee on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Aaron McMullen of Independence plans to present an amended version of the bill that would limit its scope to only veterans.
The suicide rate among veterans in Missouri is nearly double the state rate and one of the highest in the country.
“Substance abuse and suicide are escalating in the veterans community,” McMullen, a veteran who served in a combat unit in Afghanistan, told The Independent. “While psilocybin is not a panacea for every issue, it represents a first true scientifically-validated hope that we have to address this crisis.”
A day later, Republican Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder will present an identically amended bill to that chamber’s Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
“Many of our veterans experience high amounts of PTSD due to serving their country – due to protecting us,” she said. “There should be no limits for them when it comes to access to mental health treatment, including non-pharmacological treatments.”
Both bills would require the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to provide grants totaling $2 million for the research, subject to lawmakers approving the appropriation. The state would collaborate on the study with a Missouri university hospital or medical center operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Missouri. The focus of the treatment is on patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance use disorders, or for those who require end-of-life care.
Veterans have already had much success recovering from struggles that some of them have dealt with for decades, said veteran William Wisner, executive director of the Grunt Style Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists veterans.
Some veterans, he said, have experienced “dreadful” side effects to prescription antidepressants that they haven’t with psilocybin.
“My experience with these types of modalities has been that the side effects make you more empathetic,” he said. “They make you kinder. They make you more open to kindness. It gives you a psychological and spiritual component to which you can engage in your own recovery.”
If he hadn’t seen the great strides his fellow veterans had experienced, Wisner said he probably would have never tried it, especially as someone who grew up during the 80s watching the “This is your brain on drugs” commercials.
Committee Chairman Dave Griffith, a Republican from Jefferson City, said he understands the measure may be outside some legislators’ “comfort zones.”
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be chairing a committee and listening to psychedelics, I would have told you, ‘You’re crazy,’” he told The Independent on Friday. “But I really have a passion for the struggles that my veteran brothers and sisters are going through, and I think we’ve got to look at the big picture.”
The committee members who will hear the bill Tuesday are the same members who voted unanimously to pass the bill out of committee last year, he said, “so they’re up to speed.”
Griffith encourages people to look at the “extensive” research coming out of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
“I’ve probably spent, I don’t know, 20 hours reading materials that came out of Johns Hopkins,” he said. “The data that comes out of these studies that they’ve done is remarkable.”
In a 2022 study, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers showed that psychedelic treatment with psilocybin relieved major depressive disorder symptoms in some adults for up to a year.
Psychiatry researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were the first in Missouri to give a legal dose of psilocybin in 2019.
They have been using a brain-imaging technique to learn how psilocybin affects certain networks in the brain. Their initial findings will be published in a couple of months.
Psilocybin helps people break harmful habits and ways of thinking, which applies to PTSD and psychosis as well, said researcher Joshua Siegel, an instructor of psychiatry at Washington University.
“Habits are extremely hard to break,” Siegel said. “The reason that people who have one depressive disorder are prone to have more is because their brain is more likely to fall into these self-perpetuating kinds of states, that I think of like habits.”
All antidepressants make the brain’s emotion circuits more “plastic and adaptable,” he said, which makes them more open to change.
“Psilocybin just happens to do that very rapidly,” he said.
Combined with preparation and help from therapists processing the experience afterward, he said psilocybin successfully helps people choose new patterns of behavior and thinking.
“At this point, there’s a critical mass of studies of clinical trials that have shown positive responses,” Siegel said. “So I think that’s hard to deny.”
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.