Considering that psychedelics offer access to such profound epiphanies, it’s sobering that one of the catalytic factors driving legalization and decrim efforts is the shockingly high suicide rate among vets. For years the number in circulation has been 22 per day. But last year, the Veterans Administration said that it could be as many as 44, once death cases from drug overdose, drowning, accidental gunshot and other causes are factored in. This tragedy is motivating a loose network of veteran activists whose personal healing experiences with psychedelics have inspired them to make these therapeutic opportunities available to their peers.
Jonathan Lubecky, a 12-year retiree of the U.S. Armed Forces, was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. He attempted suicide five times. Then as a participant in a MAPS clinical trial, he received MDMA-assisted psychotherapy which he credits for saving his life. Since 2016 he’s been MAPS’ Veterans & Governmental Affairs Liaison on Capitol Hill.
It’s different. Lubecky makes a distinction between the psychedelic activists who are veterans like himself and those from other backgrounds. “We’re motivated by having friends who are committing suicide on the regular, while others are often in it for the culture and ending the drug war,” he says.
Jesse Gould is a former U.S. Army Ranger who deployed in Afghanistan three times. In 2017 he founded Heroic Hearts “to spearhead the acceptance and use of ayahuasca therapy as a means of addressing the current mental health crisis among veterans,” according to the group’s website. Gould tells Lucid News that suicide among vets “is a very common thing. I’ve served with a double digit figure of people who have taken their own lives.” Few people outside the military are likely to know so many suicide victims personally, he noted.
Vets whose war trauma resists conventional treatments have been finding their way to shamanic healing ceremonies since at least the early aughts. Many of these retreats took place in Mexico or Peru where ibogaine and ayahuasca, respectively, are not illegal. By 2013, interest had grown to the point that the first nonprofit group, Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy, was founded to sponsor and facilitate these retreats.
Media interest. Soon CNN was taking note, sending Lisa Ling to cover an ayahuasca ceremony that included vets led by a “gringo shaman” in Iquitos. Despite prohibition of psychedelics in the U.S., Soul Quest retreat center began serving vets ayahuasca in Florida, as captured in the documentary “From Shock to Awe.” While the DEA refused to grant Soul Quest legal exemption as a church under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the group continues to operate.
Gould says he first noticed in December, 2019 that politicians from both sides of the aisle pay closer attention to testimony about psychedelic therapies by veterans. He was among the speakers at a Capitol Hill briefing where “From Shock to Awe” was also being screened. Veteran’s stories garnered the strongest reaction from both Democrats and Republicans, and were able to bypass the typical dismissal of psychedelics for medical use that was common on the right because the history of psychedelic activism has roots in the Sixties anti-war movement.
Know your audience. “Our trauma is socially acceptable,” says Lubecky, referring to the receptivity by conservatives to vets who share their stories. While veterans may be only a portion of those who suffer from PTSD, he notes, “if you talk about PTSD from racial trauma or sexual assault, it depends on who the politician is if they listen or not.”
It’s now standard practice for advocates, when briefing politicians and their staffs, to pair a vet who has a personal story of war trauma and psychedelic healing alongside a medical researcher who speaks authoritatively about scientific findings, says Gould. It has proven to be a powerful combination.
The effectiveness of veterans as messengers was recognized early on by Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS. Doblin first attempted to study MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat veterans with PTSD in the 1990s, though it took nearly a decade of persistent effort before the studies finally got underway. To build political support, Doblin formed alliances with vets like Lubecky, who spoke candidly in public about their own healing experiences. While some of the veterans who testified in these political briefings report feeling exploited by the process, there is no denying that veteran participation has transformed the political calculus.
Right turn. Support for using psychedelics to heal is no longer a third rail issue among conservatives. The most prominent example of this shift is Rick Perry. The former governor of Texas was converted on the issue by his friend Marcus Luttrell, the decorated Navy SEAL whose story inspired the movie “Lone Survivor.” Luttrell healed his own war trauma with ibogaine in a treatment facility in Mexico.
But Lubecky explains that while GOP support tends toward the medical use of psychedelics, it is wary of broader decriminalization, which they consider an invitation to lawlessness. He points to the Republican-backed bills that passed in red states like Texas and Utah, which focus on research, in contrast to the decriminalization that has become the law in blue cities like Denver, Oakland and Washington, DC. He cites the difference as particularly true at the federal level.
Last year saw the founding of the bipartisan Congressional Psychedelics Advancing Clinical Treatments caucus by Democratic Rep. Lou Correa and Republican Rep. Jack Bergman, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general. The caucus, which had its first meeting of Representatives and staffers last month, is singularly focused on psychedelics becoming legal through the FDA approval process, an approach that is attracting interest from both sides of the aisle. Bipartisanship is key to the PACT caucus’s mission. New caucus members will join in pairs, a Democrat hand in hand with a Republican, which organizers hope will lend momentum to the cause. But supporters of decrim need not apply. According to Lubecky, Bergman will “shoot down” any discussion of decriminalization within the caucus.
Next? Hopefully with more education and societal familiarity, resistant politicians will acknowledge the pitfalls of prohibition. That’s why activists are calling for a vocal psychedelic legalization movement – to lead them in that direction.
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Image: Nicki Adams