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Medical experts and veterans pitch decriminalizing psychedelics

catuses on display
San Pedro cactuses, used in traditional Andean medicine, contain mescaline, a psychedelic compound also found in peyote. (Photo courtesy of Decriminalize Nature Richmond)

Clara Haizlett reported this story

Editor's note: This story discusses suicide.

Entheogenic plants and fungi, commonly known as psychedelics, are federally classified among the most dangerous illicit substances, along with heroin and ecstasy. But some advocates and physicians say that categorization is long outdated.

Two state lawmakers, Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) and Delegate Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), are expected to sponsor legislation related to psilocybin – the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms – in the upcoming legislative session.

They recently hosted a virtual conference to discuss decriminalizing psychedelic treatments in the commonwealth. The event was organized by Decriminalize Nature Virginia, the local chapter of the national advocacy organization, Decriminalize Nature.

On the panel, medical experts pushed back against the stigmatization of psychedelics as dangerous, highly addictive drugs. Citing peer-reviewed research, they argued that entheogens like “magic” mushrooms can safely and effectively treat mental health disorders like PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Mario De La Fuente, a doctor in pharmacy and medicinal chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University, spoke at the event independently of his employer. He has been working with different aspects of psychedelics pharmacology for almost 10 years.

Fuente says a single exposure to psychedelics can alleviate severe mental health problems long-term.

“We know of no other drugs in our current arsenal of pharmacotherapies for mental health capable of doing so,” he said.

For thousands of years, entheogenic substances like peyote, ayahuasca and psilocybin have been used in spiritual and religious contexts throughout the world. Indeed, the word “entheogen” literally translates to "that which causes God to be within an individual."  

Under U.S. law, however, psychedelics are classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that they have “no currently accepted medical use” and present a high potential for abuse.

But Fuente cites a study that favorably compares psychedelics to drugs like alcohol, tobacco, heroin and marijuana, and finds  psychedelics the least harmful.

“Psychedelics carry a decadeslong stigma, which is not justified on the basis of what we know today about their safety,” he said.

Matthew Johnson, a psychiatry professor at John Hopkins University, says he’s made it a point in his career to study the safety of psychedelics, specifically psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms. 

Johnson says psilocybin can destabilize people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or a predisposition for those disorders, about 1-2% of the population. Additionally some patients under the influence of psilocybin may experience panic or confusion which can, in very rare cases, lead to dangerous behavior.

But Johnson says these risks can be easily minimized by using safeguards like screening patients, close monitoring and follow-up care.

“If psilocybin is approved as medicine, evidence suggests it should be placed no more restrictively than Schedule IV,” he said. Drugs in Schedule IV have a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence.

Last month, Johnson and his colleagues at John Hopkins received a federal grant to explore the potential impacts of psilocybin on tobacco addiction. It’s the first federal grant in over fifty years directly related to psychedelic treatment research.

Several veterans also spoke at the conference, sharing their first-hand experiences with psychedelic plant therapy.

Wyly Gray is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and founder of the Veterans of War, a Virginia non-profit that facilitates psychedelic therapy for veterans. He says death by suicide is an epidemic in his community.

According to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, 17.6 U.S. veterans take their own lives everyday.

“We're hemorrhaging men and women every day to a preventable outcome,” he said.

Gray has had first-hand experience with psychedelic-based treatment, and he’s made it his mission to make treatment accessible to other veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. He calls psychedelics “nothing less than life changing and life saving.”

That was the case for veteran Brian Filas, who had struggled with depression his whole life. Despite efforts to find healing, his episodes continued to worsen as he got older.

“I was trapped between being too scared to kill myself and too sad to go on living,” he said.

Initially, Filas says he was hesitant to try psychedelic-based therapy. He grew up during the war on drugs and had never tried any illegal substances. He was especially concerned that trying psychedelics might jeopardize his job security.

“But at this point, I was willing to do anything to treat my depression,” he said.

When he was finally ready to give it a try, he confronted a new challenge: where would he find it? After exhausting several different options, he decided to go abroad to find treatment.

“Traveling overseas was an expensive option,” he said. “But at least I would not have to risk being prosecuted for trying to treat my depression.”

In the Netherlands, he tried psilocybin - which he says was “the most profound and transformative experience of my entire life.”

Filas says he has been depression-free for over two years.

“It would be misleading for me or anyone to suggest that all you have to do is swallow a few mushrooms and you're suddenly cured of all that ails you,” Filas said.

But when integrated with tools like therapy and community support, he says psilocybin and other psychedelics can be powerful tools for recovery.

Advocates say decriminalization would make “life-saving medicines” accessible to people who need them the most, like veterans and marginalized populations.

The conference was part of a state-wide campaign by Decriminalize Nature Virginia.

Some U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C,. have already decriminalized the use of psychedelics. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin therapy.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.