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AOC Introduces Legislation To Make It Easier To Research Psychedelics

A photo of one of the comfortable rooms at Johns Hopkins University used in clinical studies to determine the effects of psilocybin and other hallucinogenic drugs. Two guides are monitoring the experiences of the subject, and provide reassurance when the volunteers experience anxiety.
A photo of one of the comfortable rooms at Johns Hopkins University used in clinical studies to determine the effects of psilocybin and other hallucinogenic drugs. Two guides are monitoring the experiences of the subject, and provide reassurance when the volunteers experience anxiety. December 2007 (Photo: Matthew W. Johnson)

One of the most striking things about the recent (limited) psychedelic research is that the drugs do not appear to be addictive or have adverse effects when a guide is involved.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposed on Friday to remove legal hurdles to the scientific research of psychedelic drugs including MDMA and psilocybin. The freshman congresswoman’s proposal comes one month after Denver became the first American city to decriminalize psilocybin, as newfound evidence of psychedelics’ ability to help people suffering from conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression has inspired a resurgence of interest in the substances.

“From the opioid crisis to psilocybin’s potential w/ PTSD, it’s well past time we take drug use out of criminal consideration + into medical consideration,” tweeted the New York Representative. “That begins with research. I’m proud to introduce an amendment that helps scientists do their jobs.”

Ocasio-Cortez’ amendment would eliminate a rule in the Controlled Substances Act that forbids the use of federal resources for “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.”

In the past few years private companies like Atai Life Sciences and Peter Thiel’s Compass Pathways, as well as institutions including John Hopkins University and New York University, have spearheaded research into the medical benefits of psychedelics. Ocasio-Cortez’ legislation would remove the legal barriers scientists and academics say have inhibited their ability to perform clinical trials on the substances.

Inspired by early results, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified psilocybin and MDMA as “breakthrough therapies” last year, a designation the FDA applies to speed the review process for treatments with potential to meet unmet needs.

In a 2014 John Hopkins study, 80 percent of smokers who underwent psilocybin therapy remained free of their former addiction six months after the trial completed, and in a 2016 study, 81 percent of cancer patients reported increased feelings of well-being six months after a single experience with the substance. Brain scans suggest psilocybin diminishes the activity of neural circuits associated with depression.

Similarly, a year-long study found MDMA to have transformative effects on patients suffering from PTSD. After the trial “some three-quarters of the participants no longer met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis,” according to Business Insider.

Researchers note the studies are still preliminary with relatively small sample sizes and warn the drugs can be dangerous without medical supervision. MDMA, for example, raises blood pressure and body temperature, and has been linked to side effects including insomnia and headaches. Despite the drawbacks, supporters of psychedelic research are optimistic the substances could help people who don’t find relief from traditional antidepressants, which also come with a broad range of side effects.

Vox’s Sean Illing, who spent several months with researchers, guides, and former drug addicts who claimed to have overcome their addictions after a single psychedelic experience, believes psychedelic drugs have the potential to “revolutionize mental health care.” Illing argues our current legal system permits drugs with proven addictive and harmful properties but prohibits scientific inquiry into psychedelics despite promising preliminary research.

“Our current laws sanction various poisons, including booze and cigarettes. These are drugs that destroy lives and feed addictions. And yet one of the most striking things about the recent (limited) psychedelic research is that the drugs do not appear to be addictive or have adverse effects when a guide is involved. Many researchers believe these drugs, when used under the supervision of trained professionals, could revolutionize mental health care,” wrote Illing.

Federal regulators are willing to reclassify psychedelics upon more encouragement from the medical community.

“We’re happy to see the research progressing at institutions like Johns Hopkins,” Rusty Payne, the DEA’s spokesperson, told Illing. “When the scientific and medical community come to the DEA and say, ‘This should be a medicine, this should be recategorized as a schedule 4 or 5 instead of a schedule 1’; then we will act accordingly.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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