The legal future of medicinal psychedelics in Washington, D.C. may depend, in part, on the efforts of advocates with deep and longstanding ties to the Republican political establishment.
It’s all part of an outreach initiative by Melissa Lavasani, CEO and co-founder of the Psychedelic Medicine Coalition, to secure a broad spectrum of political support by working to ensure that psychedelic research and questions of legislative and policy change remain bipartisan issues.
“PMC is the only Washington, D.C.-based member association working on psychedelic medicine policy, and we see this as an opportunity to engage with the U.S. government in a very practical way, and that means lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” explained Lavasani.
That practical approach characterized Lavasani’s first psychedelic success; in 2020 she proposed a Washington, D.C. ballot measure, Initiative 81, to decriminalize psilocybin and other plant medicine in the nation’s capital. It passed with overwhelming support, in large part because Lavasani shared her own story as a “professional, working mom facing terrible depression,” as she put it, who was helped by psilocybin.
She observed, “I had a completely normal life, a steady job, I didn’t have any trauma in my childhood. So I wanted people to know that this could happen to quote-unquote ‘regular’ people. And I wanted everyone to know there are solutions out there.”
Enter the Conafay Group
This inclusive approach means ensuring a wider base of political support for psychedelic policy. In February the Psychedelic Medicine Coalition engaged the Conafay Group, D.C. health care lobbyists. The group has a track record of having secured $1.2 billion in federal funding for its clients.
Such a move is essential for the future viability of psychedelic medicine in America, explained Lavasani, noting that “the National Institutes of Health is the largest funder of scientific research in the world.”
She envisions a time when some of the NIH’s budget of $45 billion for medical research will go to funding psychedelic medical solutions. In 2021 the NIH broke a 50-year freeze and made its first federal grant for psychedelic research, a $4 million grant to Johns Hopkins to investigate whether psilocybin could diminish tobacco addiction.
Lobbying for Psychedelic Research
Lavasani notes that Conafay Vice President Darin Gardner is a former chief of staff for the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), and that he began his career working for Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR). Such a background is essential, she said, for the task of meeting PMC’s goal of securing $100 million in federal research grants.
Gardner’s background, although primarily in government, is equally grounded in the pharmaceutical industry and he has worked at Roche. The Conafay Group’s work for PMC is pro-bono.
According to Gardner, “I handle government affairs for PMC because it’s the right thing to do. And I’m not the only one at Conafay; others at Conafay have also offered their help pro-bono.” Gardner sees secure appropriations as a priority. In addition to the NIH, he says he envisions securing psychedelic funding for appropriations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Veterans Affairs Administration.
Gardner says his determination to help support legal psychedelic medicine is forged by his own individual experience and health challenges, including surviving a broken neck, six crushed ribs, and the clinical depression that followed his injuries. A significant element in his healing journey, he said, was psychedelic-assisted therapy. It worked to put his depression into remission, Gardner said, after 14 traditional medications did not.
This experience gives his work an urgency, he says. “Millions of Americans are suffering from mental illness that could be treated with psychedelic medicine.”
PMC’s Patient Approach
Although the work of PMC is urgent, the approach is “considered and intentional,” says Lavasani, who describes an incremental program of educating lawmakers and members of the Biden administration through regular briefings and one-on-one appointments, an annual Congressional Psychedelic Fly-In with members of Congress on Capitol Hill that has featured guest speakers, ranging from the author Tim Ferriss to the founder of MAPS, Rick Doblin, as well as leadership from veterans health advocacy groups.
“We are in a long term commitment,’ said Lavasani about the Psychedelic Medicine Coalition. She added, “by building trust through education we ensure we can continue to have conversations about psychedelics and ensure we don’t have doors slammed in our faces. Our work is to ensure these doors remain open.”
The First Psychedelic PAC
Breaking down barriers is a not unfamiliar task for Ryan Rodgers, the president of The Strategy Group Company, a conservative political and media consultancy. Along with Lavasani, the two serve as co-founders of both the Psychedelic Medicine Political Action Committee (PAC), which launched in March, and of Psychedelic Medicine Advocacy, an education and advocacy initiative that has applied for 501( c) 4 status, which launched this month to prosecute a broad national campaign to raise voter awareness about issues related to psychedelic medicine. Lavasani serves as the group’s president, and Rodgers is the executive director.
“We are committed to electing leaders who prioritize science and research,” said Rodgers. That means “electing leaders who will address the alarming rates of suicide, overdose, and mental health challenges.” The Strategy Group Company, with its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, and offices in Washington, D.C. and Austin, has worked with a constellation of Republican candidates that includes over 100 members of Congress, 7 U.S. Senators, 5 governors, and over 1,000 “down ballot” elections.
The Strategy Group was founded by Rex Elsass, once described by GQ magazine in a headline that read: “The Most Powerful Man in the GOP (And You’ve Never Heard of Him.).” While Rodgers is now the Group’s president, Elsass, its founder, now serves as the Strategy Group’s chairman.
Elsass says his primary focus is on the REID Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to finding creative and music-therapy based solutions for mental wellness named for his son, Reid Elsass, who died June 2, 2019 following struggles with mental health and addiction. Rex and Reid Elsass visited both Peru and Ecuador “in pursuit of healing the trauma that led to his addiction,” Elsass recounted, and he observed that Reid “was given many extra years of life,” because of the psychedelic medicine experiences.
Rodgers says the loss of Reid Elsass drives his leadership of the Psychedelic Medicine Coalition, but he notes that his interest in psychedelic medicine also has its roots in his own family’s health. A sibling, he said, “struggled with horrific addiction.” After years of failed treatment Rodgers discovered an iboga program in Mexico and approached his parents for approval, “I said hey, Mom, you may think this is crazy, but what do we have to lose?” The intervention with his sibling was a success and now the Rodgers family, including his mother, is supportive of legal psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Rodgers has been treated with psychedelic-assisted therapy and found it helpful, noting that most Americans who consider themselves “healthy normal” struggle with “a little anxiety. They struggle with some depression. It’s a mental health question.” For the veteran community, he adds, the issue has reached a crisis.
All of those elements give Rodgers the confidence that a national campaign to raise voter awareness, and eventually to influence elections, will create important momentum for psychedelic support. After all, he said, “90 percent of Americans agree we are in a mental health crisis and that current treatments are not working.”