A U.S. Special Forces veteran with crippling mental health issues was suffering from debilitating pain and rapidly deteriorating cognitive abilities that brought him to the verge of a vegatitive state. Then, when he first smoked a hallucinogenic toad venom, he reached a state of “pure awareness and bliss.”
Under the influence of 5-MeO-DMT, the powerful psychedelic inside the bufo venom, Andrew Marr communicated and grieved with the parents of his slain comrades. He began to unblock the traumas which he believes were clogging his body and riddling him with excruciating mental and physical pain.
News of his and others’ experiences, while anecdotal, led the Texas legislature to make the unlikely decision to become the first U.S. state to fund a psychedelic medicine trial last summer. The study will assess the use of psilocybin to ease post-traumatic stress disorder among war veterans, many of whom live in the state and are struggling with serious treatment resistant mental health conditions.
The bill H.B 1802 had the vocal support of arch-conservative former governor Rick Perry, who has become an unlikely champion of psychedelic medicine. His support surprised many people, even himself.
“If you would have told me five years ago that Rick Perry, knuckle-dragging, right wing Republican governor of Texas, was going to be in the same sentence with the word ‘psychedelics,’ I would have bet you the farm, baby,” Perry told a recent conference hosted by Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS).
Perry’s apparent transformation from self-proclaimed “historically very anti-drug person” to therapeutic magic mushroom advocate came after a well-known and decorated veteran with extreme PTSD he knew experienced dramatic benefits from consuming the psychedelic African shrub ibogaine at a popular clinic in Mexico for U.S. veterans.
“People can clearly see that nothing else has worked, but then witness a stark transformation after psychedelic therapy,” says Jesse Gould, a former mortarman who founded nonprofit organization Heroic Hearts, which advocates the use of psychedelic therapies for veterans, after overcoming post-war PTSD with the Amazonian hallucinogenic medicine ayahuasca.
“It’s just hard to deny it. Like he said, to his credit, Rick Perry is actually putting his money where his mouth is: he wants to help veterans. I don’t know where he’s at in terms of decriminalization or legalization, but he’s definitely adamant about pushing forward the research side of it. Still, it’s less about the study and more about the acceptance.”
Clinical Results Shows Efficacy
With up to one-in-five former U.S. military personnel reporting PTSD, depending on where they served, according to official figures, and about 18 veterans committing suicide per day, it has become increasingly difficult for policymakers to ignore growing clinical evidence of the efficacy of psychedelics in treating mental health disorders. This growing recognition takes place amid the failure of mainstream psychiatry to advance more effective treatments over recent decades.
There has been increased pressure on health services in Texas from veterans managing depression and anxiety disorders related to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the pandemic. At the same time, former Navy Seals and Special Forces personnel who have become bodyguards for politicians have been espousing the benefits of their experiences at a psychedelic clinic in Mexico.
Veteran advocates across the U.S. are increasingly vocal in their support for psychedelics. “Psychedelic medicines hold unparalleled promise in addressing veteran issues,” says Amber Capone, co-founder of VETS. “These therapies have the potential to end the veteran suicide epidemic. Time is of the essence.”
“Many of our grant recipients report no longer being dependent on prescription medications after a psychedelic journey, and that they feel they are finally living and thriving, as opposed to merely surviving.”
It is not uncommon for antidepressants to cause more mania or increased suicidal ideations, adds Gould. “So then they get on an anti-psychotic that stacks on that, and a lot of these guys will also need like Viagra for sexual issues, which then causes sleep problems.”
Other State Lawmakers Step Up
Amid a perfect storm of mental health and socioeconomic issues in Texas and the U.S. more widely, Perry has won many plaudits. But Democrat Texas Representative Alex Domínguez has been the driving force behind the move among state lawmakers.
“Psychedelic medicine has the potential to completely change society’s approach to mental health treatment, and research is the first step to realizing that transformation,” said Dominguez, who sponsored the bill, in a statement at the time. “It’s said that, ‘As goes Texas, so goes the nation.’ While states across the country consider how best to address the mental health crisis facing our nation, I hope they once again look to Texas for leadership.”
Even though Texas has become an unlikely epicenter for the U.S.’ increasing volte-face on the war on drugs, some believe it is not as surprising as one may first think.
“There’s a rich story to tell and infer about Austin’s underground psychedelic culture,” says Jamie Wheal, author of Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex, and Death in a World That’s Lost Its Mind. “Way back to the 70s, it had this cross pollination of country and hippie culture and it was always the southernmost stop on the psychedelic circuit.
“At the same time, it always had a specific Texas flavor of effectively cognitive libertarianism: like, ‘What goes on inside a man’s head is his own business’.”
The Texas study, however, has quite the opposite intention. A minimum of 30 people will be enrolled and it is expected to be underway within nine months – making it among the first studies of the effect of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy on PTSD, and the only one with a specific focus on veterans.
Texas’ move appears to be encouraging lawmakers in other states to follow suit and introduce bills. “When you have a state like Texas, and they are passing the same language and legislation, it makes things a lot easier…to go hey, this is not crazy,’ said Florida representative Mike Grieco, a Democrat, recently.
But some psychedelic medicine advocates claim that the changes do not go far enough and that Texas should follow the lead of Oregon, which is already moving to roll out psilocybin therapy and is training therapists.
“I’m delighted Texas has funded this bill but there is the piece of me that wants to just scream and pull my hair out because people are dying every single day,” says Texas study lead Lynnette Averill, an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “We lose someone in the U.S. to suicide every 11 minutes. Psychedelic medicine and assisted therapies aren’t going to be a golden cure but there is a mounting body of literature that says these are safe, effective, rapid acting and have so much potential to do so much good.”
Federal approval for both MDMA and psilocybin-assisted therapies appears on track for FDA approval for certain conditions within the next three years. However, advocates believe that the so-called underground railroad to access psychedelics for conditions like PTSD in the U.S. and abroad will continue to operate.
“We should have the right to choose,” says Marr, the Special Forces veteran. Marr co-founded the Warrior Angels Foundation to help veterans access psychedelics after his own experiences with hallucinogens, which he claims has made him more productive than ever before. “The government doesn’t solve problems, so you got to figure out how to solve them yourself. That’s very much what’s been happening here with the underground psychedelic scene.”
In Texas, the government appears to be listening. “All of that properly done in the right type of clinical setting will save a multitude of lives,” Perry said of psychedelic therapy for veterans in an interview before the bill was voted on in April. “I’m convinced of it. I have seen it enough of these young men.”
“This isn’t a conservative or Republican issue. It’s a right or wrong issue,” the former Republican presidential candidate told a Wisconsin meeting in August. “Ten years ago, if you’d made a bet that Rick Perry’s name and ‘psychedelics’ would be used in the same sentence, you could have won a lot of money.”
Image: Nicki Adams