Lawmakers want to see more science on magic mushrooms

The movement to legalize psychedelics like psilocybin—the hallucinogenic drug found in magic mushrooms—is in full swing and lawmakers are looking for evidence of the drug’s therapeutic abilities. As interest in psilocybin grows, the call for increased access to the drug for research purposes grows with it.

Identifying Barriers

Last month House Appropriations Committee leaders released a report for the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CSJ) that included a section pertaining to psilocybin that calls on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to analyze the barriers to research that are keeping patients from accessing the drug.

“The report shall: (1) review the impact of Controlled Substances Act enforcement on psilocybin use legally sanctioned by States, local governments and Tribes; (2) identify barriers to accessing therapeutic use of psilocybin in States that have made such use legal under State law; (3) recommend ways to improve the processes used to obtain Federal authorization to conduct research with psilocybin-related substances; and (4) identify barriers to legal access to and use of psilocybin for religious, Indigenous, or spiritual practices under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The committee is requiring that the GAO produce its report within a year. While the requested report won’t necessarily lead to any sort of law reform, it is a clear sign that the Appropriations Committee is putting its finger in the air to see where the wind is blowing on the topic. And the committee isn’t the only group of lawmakers looking to get a better understanding of psilocybin.

Psilocybin For Veterans

Last week congressional leaders attempted to attach a handful of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that concerned psychedelic and psilocybin research. The NDAA is a yearly bill that authorizes funding for military agencies in the U.S.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has once again proposed adding an NDAA amendment that would allow federal grants for research into psilocybin and other psychedelics like MDMA and ibogaine to treat PTSD in soldiers.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposed an amendment for the defense bill that would change an attached amendment to include psilocybin and MDMA as well as cannabis in efforts to research opioid alternatives for soldiers. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has filed an amendment that is nearly identical to the one Ocasio-Cortez filed.

Feds Unhelpful

Meanwhile lawmakers’ interest in exploring psychedelics appears to be hindered by federal agencies. Last month officials from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)—both of which answer to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—responded to a request from senators for an update on the status of psychedelic research. The senators wanted to know what regulatory hurdles were holding up progress and what could be done to speed up the process.

In its response, the NIH admitted that federal prohibition of psychedelics has made it difficult to conduct research, but it didn’t seem to think that was a problem. “NIH does not view these regulatory considerations as barriers, but rather as necessary and beneficial safeguards,” wrote the agency. It said those safeguards are there to protect human subjects from being harmed by experimental drugs.

“Because psychedelic drugs are controlled substances, one additional regulatory consideration for basic and applied research using psychedelic drugs is that these studies must also follow Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) requirements, including registration, inspection, and certification of the drugs,” wrote the agency.

But even as the NIH appeared to duck admitting that the federal ban on psychedelics was an issue, it still signaled that the necessity for more research is undeniable. “Research on psychedelic drugs holds promise for uncovering mechanisms of illness and possible interventions, ultimately leading to novel treatments with fewer side effects and lower potential for misuse.”

Science Meanders Along

The most current research on psilocybin mushrooms seems to show a vast therapeutic potential for these misaligned fungi. A June study published in the journal Nature: Scientific Reports and led by famous mushroom expert Paul Stamets found that microdosing psychedelic mushrooms leads to measurable positive psychological changes in some people. Microdosing is the practice of taking less than 0.3 grams of dried mushrooms. Users report experiencing improvements in several cognitive areas, but there has been little research to prove or disprove its effectiveness.

After analyzing data from 1,133 microdosers, the research team found that participants saw improvements in the areas of depression, anxiety and stress after microdosing psilocybin regularly over one month. It was the largest study on microdosing mushrooms to date.

But the study was severely limited by its need to operate as a survey rather than a controlled trial. As long as psilocybin remains on the list of controlled substances, scientists will be unable to gain any significant data on the mind-altering experience of taking magic mushrooms. “Further research with control groups and large samples that allow for the examination of potential moderators such as mental health status, age and gender are required to better appreciate the health consequences of this emerging phenomenon,” concludes the study’s authors.

If policymakers can be convinced to open the doors of investigation, they might find that psilocybin has the power to change our society in positive ways that we can’t even imagine. Lawmakers appear to be doing their job. Now it’s up to the bureaucratic state to carry the ball across the goal line.