Tucked in to a 453-page report accompanying a new House appropriations bill is a beacon of hope for advocates working to secure federal funding for research on psychedelic-assisted therapies.
“This is kind of like a smoke signal to federal agencies that people on the Hill, the House Committee specifically, are kind of curious about this subject,” said Melissa Lavasani, co-founder of Plant Medicine Coalition, an advocacy group that’s been working with lawmakers on the issue since January of this year.
The report, issued by House Appropriations Committee for Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (known as LaborH), asks the National Institute of Health “and other relevant Federal agencies to undertake, and where appropriate expand, research to evaluate the effectiveness of psychedelic therapies in treating PTSD, major depressive disorder, and other serious mental health conditions.”
Focusing on military veteran suicide rates, Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), chair of the House Appropriations Committee and lead author of the report, wrote:
“Despite the recent Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report that showed there were no significant increases in the veteran suicide rate from 2017 and 2018, the Committee is concerned that over 17 veterans on average continue to commit suicide each day, which is a number that has remained persistent over the past decade.
“There have been many recent studies and clinical trials demonstrating the positive impact of alternative therapies, including psychedelics, for treatment resistant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder, particularly for veteran participants.”
While the report language does not guarantee that an appropriations bill (which is months away from Congressional approval) would allocate funding for psychedelic therapy research, the acknowledgement of interest is promising for advocates like Lavasani.
“For the last six months, PMC has been educating members of Congress about the incredible potential of psychedelics,” Plant Medicine Coalition posted on Facebook earlier this week. “Any formal indication that Congress is supportive of psychedelic research is a step in the right direction and will send a signal to other parts of government that the old consensus is breaking down.”
Earlier this week, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) introduced an amendment to a separate Congressional spending bill that calls for government-funded psychedelic research. Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment seeks to promote federally-funded research into psychedelics like MDMA, psilocybin and ibogaine. A Democratic House majority blocked a similar proposal from the New York Congresswoman in 2019.
PMC’s goal since January has been to advocate for and promote government-funded research of psychedelic therapies, Lavasani said, with the ultimate objective “to create a psychedelic ecosystem that benefits as many people as possible.”
Speaking to the varied and distinct approaches of recent decriminalization and legalization movements and the slow but promising policy shifts away from the punitive war on drugs at local, state and federal levels, Lavasani said anticipating the government’s need to evaluate psychedelic substances with government-funded studies is a first step on the road to broader reforms such as full decriminalization of all drugs at the federal level.
“We thought that the LaborH committee is the most appropriate place for this,” she said. “My co-founder, Molly Ahearn Allen, has great relationships with people on the committee. So we literally just started having conversations with them about this.”
And those conversations have been with lawmakers across the political spectrum.
Psychedelic Therapy Research: A Bipartisan Curiosity
“I think everyone always assumes that [psychedelic advocacy] is a liberal issue, and it really isn’t,” she said. “Republicans have issues in their jurisdictions that are really pressing, like addiction and mental health, poverty and violence. They have all these issues that they have to address. This is not something that [tows] a party line.”
“I think Texas is a really great example of a true bipartisan effort,” she said, referring to bipartisan legislation passed this year that will allow for the state to study medicinal risks and benefits of psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine therapies for military veterans.
“It helped to have a Rick Perry Republican come out in support of the state bill,” Lavasani said.
“Everyone knows somebody who has an addiction issue or a mental health problem,” she continued. “So these arguments are really resonating with Republicans, and so far, we haven’t had anyone slam the door in our face. I think they’re all really open to having these conversations with us. And it’s been pretty positive.”
While Lavasani hasn’t seen an outsized presence from the pharmaceutical lobby in these early-stage conversations, she understands that it is in the interests of drug developers, venture capitalists and others to join the discussions, which, she points out, is important, particularly because synthetic psychedelic substances will have a definite place in the future of psychedelic-assisted therapies in particular in the United States.
“We’re absolutely going to have synthetics available,” Lavasani said. “If we want prices down, if we want sustainability issues addressed, synthetic psychedelics are going to be a factor here.”
Looking ahead, Lavasani said it is imperative that President Joe Biden fill outstanding vacancies in key federal agency positions including at the National Institute of Health, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Drug Administration, which would allow grassroots organizers, citizens and others to engage the agencies directly in their advocacy work. Still, she’s excited to see progress being made, one step at a time.
“I was elated to see this [report],” Lavasani said. “ Everything that you could want, aside from the funding, is for the House Committee to send this message across government.” There are people at all of the relevant federal agencies, at the NIH and FDA in particular, Lavasani said, who are supportive of research into psychedelic assisted therapies. The LaborH report “Kind of gives everything a jumpstart.”