Psychedelics advocates in New York are looking ahead to the new state legislative session this year with great anticipation. Two separate reform bills are being proposed, one of which has already been introduced. Advocates have been working with both bill sponsors and are hopeful that at least one bill will pass this session, after three bills did not pass last year. Following recent successful reform efforts in cities and states across the country, there is a sense of growing momentum and optimism.
Assemblymember Pat Burke, a Democrat who represents South Buffalo, is revisiting his bill from last year, which called for the creation of a pilot program to make psilocybin-assisted therapy available to qualifying New Yorkers. The new version Burke, which he plans to introduce to the Assembly Health Committee by the end of this week, would establish a pilot program for psychedelic-assisted therapy using psilocybin and MDMA. It would also create a 13-member advisory board to develop procedures for medical licensing and practice, as well as set protections for psilocybin and MDMA use in a clinical setting. This approach to legalizing the therapeutic use of psychedelics follows the path set recently in Oregon and Colorado.
The pilot program would enable “lawful medical use” by New York State residents who have been evaluated by care providers, who Burke’s team says will include psychotherapists, nurse practitioners, and social workers. Patients will need to meet criteria that will be determined by the advisory board. Burke’s team has specified that the board will be required to appoint at least one member of a Native American tribal congregation. Burke’s district suffers from high rates of substance abuse-related fatalities, and he cited the need for alternative treatments for addiction as a lending urgency to his bill’s passage.
In keeping with the medical focus of the bill, a psilocybin or MDMA “facilitator” is the person who administers the compounds. The bill would restrict the facilitator role to licensed medical professionals, including: mental health counselor, psychoanalyst, physician, physician assistant, registered professional nurse, clinical nurse specialist, nurse practitioner, occupational therapist, occupational therapy assistant, or licensed clinical social workers. The bill also states that the advisory board would determine the additional training necessary to qualify for a facilitator license.
The Burke bill seeks $5 million to create a “Psychedelic Assisted Therapy Grant Fund” to help cover treatment costs for veterans, first responders, and low-income individuals. “I know that getting these treatments included in any regular healthcare plan with insurance providers in our state will most likely take changes at the federal level first,” Burke told Lucid News, anticipating future FDA approval for the therapeutic use of MDMA and psilocybin. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something more for New Yorkers right now, and the grant program will allow patients who cannot afford expensive treatment alternatives to get help as soon as possible.”
Burke also voiced his support for a recently passed “trigger” bill that requires the State Department of Health to reclassify any Schedule 1 drug once it is rescheduled by the federal government. The bill would move MDMA and psilocybin off of the state’s list of illegal compounds following FDA approval of their use.
Burke’s staff is confident that it has the votes necessary to pass the bill in the Health Committee and move it to the Assembly floor. Conversations are also taking place with New York State Senator Nathalia Fernandez, current chair of the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, to introduce the bill in the Senate.
Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat who represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is charting a different route to psychedelic legal reform by proposing her own bill, A00114, which focuses on reforming the state’s penal code. The bill, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Assemblymembers Jo Anne Simon and Karines Reyes, “legalizes adult possession and use of certain plant based hallucinogens” including ibogaine, mescaline, psilocybin and psilocin, DMT, and peyote, removing them from the list of Schedule I controlled substances. The bill does not include possession limits, an issue that has been a point of contention among advocates. While it protects gifting, it prohibits all sales of these substances.
“My psychedelics decriminalization bill is part of a larger strategy to really tackle the various aspects of drug policy that we need to address in our state,” Rosenthal said. She is also the sponsor of another bill which will seek to expand overdose prevention centers and normalize the use of needle exchanges to help tackle the opioid epidemic. Her psychedelics bill includes a number of protections for individual use, such as making it unlawful for the state to penalize users by suspending public assistance or professional licenses, or to prevent parolees from using psychedelics legally. The measure would also make it illegal to investigate child welfare cases solely because of a parent’s use of psychedelics.
Rosenthal says that her new bill is an update to a bill to decriminalize psilocybin that she first introduced in 2019. She is making it a legislative priority, saying that she’s “starting to understand the urgency of doing this now.”
Rosenthal has introduced her bill independently from Burke’s initiative. This approach, she says, will create a more equitable groundwork for other reforms, including a medical therapeutic model. “[Psychedelic] drugs have been known to us for decades, and to religious and indigenous groups for a lot longer, so it doesn’t make sense to me that we would set up a medical model that regulates them further before we protect the rights of New Yorkers to use psychedelics without fear of being arrested,” says Rosenthal.
When asked if she could support a single bill that includes both descheduling and a legal therapeutic framework – which advocates refer to as the “dual pathways model,” as was recently passed in Colorado – Rosenthal said that she’s open to the possibility.
For his part, while Burke is supportive of any legislation that provides access to psychedelics that can find enough votes to pass in the Assembly, he believes that a broad legalization bill is unlikely to garner enough support in the current political climate. He sees a bill focusing on psychedelic-assisted therapy as more likely to pass. “The federal government is already starting to consider psilocybin as breakthrough technology, and the overwhelming consensus amongst experts is that [MDMA and psilocybin] specifically can be used in a medically-supervised setting effectively,” he says.
An advocate who met with both lawmakers is Aaron Genuth, a member of the legislative board at the New York Psilocybin Action Committee, a coalition of organizations brought together in the last year to push forward statewide psychedelic legal reform. “These bills represent different approaches and do different things” Genuth says. “The goal would be to support both, recognizing that the Burke bill is more crafted to be something incremental, and targeted to pass this session or in the nearest possible future. Whereas the Rosenthal bill focuses on decriminalization more systemically.”
Genuth says that many expect Rosenthal’s legalization, which he helped to craft, may take longer to pass. But he added that it “represents a lot more of where we’re trying to get, and what we’ll be using as a reference point as we push for other local policy changes.”
In preparing her bill, Rosenthal also consulted with Corinne Carey, secretary to the board of New Yorkers for Mental Health Alternatives, a state-wide advocacy group, and a volunteer with NYPAC. Carey says that her intention is to educate lawmakers about the beneficial uses of psychedelics, and to support both bills this session. Doing so, Carey says, helps state lawmakers see that each of the two pathways is possible, and hopes to dispel any notions that one model is superior to the other. “NYPAC believes that we should be pursuing full decriminalization,” as called for by Rosenthal’s bill, “but we’re cognizant that lawmakers don’t always keep up with the pace of public opinion,” Carey explains.
“It’s likely that Burke’s more narrow approach could bring relief to people sooner,” she adds.
Burke argues that leading with a medical therapeutic model is the most practical way to pass legislation that conservatives support. He points towards the pushback that came from rural parts of Oregon as an example of the political challenges facing psychedelic legalization. “I’m not saying that we should stop there, but this is how you get this legislation done right now,” Burke says.
Zhana Vrangalova, a member of the NYPAC legislative board and an adjunct professor at New York University, offers the perspective of many activists. “NYMHA and NYPAC support both pathways – decriminalization and therapeutic access. We believe doing both at the same time is the best way to bring access to these life-saving substances to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, and as safely as possible.
“Psychedelic medicine is still a relatively new issue on the modern political landscape, and many New York State legislators aren’t very familiar with it yet,” Vrangalova says. “We are working on educating lawmakers about the benefits of both of these processes, but if one of these bills needs to happen before the other, we will support it. Some progress is better than no progress.”