A movement led by military veterans has embraced using psychedelic medications to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression, citing an urgent need to make them widely available in Pennsylvania.
They further say treatments and medications prescribed for veterans by the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs commonly provide little or no relief, often worsening problems including depression and suicide. Standard treatments for severe depression haven’t changed in decades, and psychedelic medications have the potential to revolutionize treatment, said veterans and others who spoke at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
“The bottom line is it’s not working and we know that because we’re losing 20 veterans a day [to suicide],” said state Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, R- Montgomery County, herself a retired Army combat veteran.
Pennycuick was part of the effort on Wednesday to raise awareness of psychedelics and lay groundwork for them to become an approved therapy — something they say is on the brink of happening.
Pennycuick has introduced a pair of bills that would allow study and further the effort toward legalization.
However, she said her bills have become unnecessary now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a pilot program that will allow the ingredients used in the psychedelic drug psilocybin to be grown in Pennsylvania for use in a clinical trial that could begin this fall.
The trial will be open to Pennsylvania veterans and former first responders who are dealing with trauma-related problems such as PTSD and depression. Pennycuick hopes it will include about 200 people.
The FDA recently deemed psilocybin and a similar drug known as MDMA as investigational drugs with “breakthrough potential.” It has begun the studies needed for approval as standard treatments. Pilots are expected to occur in multiple states, according to Pennycuick.
The use of the drugs dates back hundreds of years and they were widely used among Indigenous populations. However, the U.S. government long ago made them Schedule I drugs, saying they had no therapeutic benefit and great potential for harm and abuse. The designation means there are severe penalties for possessing them and has hampered research on their potential as treatments.
However, there has been a resurgence in interest in psychedelic drugs, with major institutions including Johns Hopkins in Baltimore embracing their potential.
Assorted groups around the country have arisen to push for further study, based on their ability to help veterans.
Some of the groups are headed by veterans, including several who spoke Wednesday in Harrisburg.
Mark Keller, a retired Navy fighter pilot with a long combat record, said he grew increasingly traumatized and depressed over his role in a mission that killed 12 innocent people.
He said he sought help from the VA, ending up in an “administrative maze” and dealing with “incompetent providers” who put him on powerful medications which left him numb, addicted and incapable of addressing his trauma.
He said he initially regarded psychedelics as “some fruitcake, hippie stuff.”
However, Keller learned they had helped a trusted fellow veteran and went outside the United States to obtain the treatment.
“I will tell you that my experience was absolutely profound. I felt peace that I have never known before. I felt God’s love,” he said. “I wouldn’t have said God in a public place before this experience. I came to understand that we are all connected. We are all one and there’s healing for all of us if we seek that out.”
Treatment with psychedelic drugs involves talking and related therapy before and after taking the medication for a limited number of doses, sometimes only once, said Gina Vensel, the co-founder of Plant Media Project, which helped organize Wednesday’s event. The event was called “PA Psychedelic Education Day.”
She said the effort to legalize the medications is focused solely on therapy and involves no recreational use. In general, the people who receive the therapy don’t use the drug after their round of treatment, according to Vensel, who said the drugs seem to “rewire” the brain.
Some of the research done by institutions such as Johns Hopkins have found that psychedelic drugs hold great promise for helping people overcome alcohol and smoking addictions.
©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit pennlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.