Research on Psychedelics, Marijuana as Alternative Treatment for Vets Advancing in Congress

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace
A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace on May 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Psychedelic drugs and marijuana could be evaluated as treatments for post-traumatic disorder and other conditions afflicting veterans under bills advancing through Congress.

The version of the annual defense policy bill approved by the House Armed Services Committee last week would require the Pentagon to conduct a clinical trial on treating service members' PTSD, traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy with drugs including MDMA, commonly called ecstasy, and psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms.

The defense bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, would also require the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to study the effects of marijuana use in service members and veterans with PTSD, depression, anxiety or chronic pain.

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Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee is using its annual VA spending bill to encourage, but not require, the VA to help with privately funded research on the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD and depression.

Including the measures in the must-pass bills signals a growing interest from both parties in finding alternative treatments for conditions that have been seen as signature injuries in the 9/11-era wars. But the bills still have several hurdles to overcome before passing into law, including continued skepticism in the wider GOP conference about legislation that could lead to easing restrictions on currently illegal substances.

The marijuana and psychedelic provisions in the NDAA were added to the bill with no debate last week as part of a bipartisan vote to add a package of amendments considered noncontroversial to the bill. Both were sponsored by Republicans, with Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina proposing the marijuana amendment and Navy SEAL veteran Rep. Morgan Luttrell of Texas proposing the psychedelics one.

At a news conference earlier this month, Luttrell said he underwent psychedelic-assisted therapy in a foreign country after his marriage and personal relationships suffered from anger issues he developed when he left the military. Luttrell said his treatment included ibogaine and DMT, which would both be studied by his amendment in addition to ecstasy and mushrooms.

"I can honestly stand in front of all of you and the American public and say I was reborn," Luttrell said. "This changed my life. It saved my marriage. It is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me."

But despite the backing from veterans in Congress, legislation to research marijuana and psychedelics has still struggled to get across the finish line in recent years.

Last year's House-passed NDAA included a similar proposal to research marijuana and psychedelics, but it was taken out of the final bill that became law after negotiations with the Senate.

And earlier this year, a bill to require the VA to conduct a study of veterans who use marijuana and have chronic pain or PTSD to see how the drug affects their health failed in the Senate. Despite the bill unanimously advancing out of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Republican senators outside the committee derided the idea of treating veterans with marijuana.

Now Senate appropriators are also trying again to allow the VA to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where it is legal.

Currently, the VA is prohibited from recommending, prescribing or paying for marijuana, though department policy allows for discussion about marijuana use between VA providers and patients. Still, advocates say the drug's ambiguous legal status leaves veterans feeling stigmatized and uncomfortable discussing it with their doctors.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the 2024 VA spending bill to allow a "health care provider of the department to make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms or take steps to comply" with state medical marijuana programs. Similar amendments have been approved by the committee in previous years but have not made it into the final appropriations bills that became law.

"Outdated laws should never censor veterans' doctor-patient relationships," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the amendment's sponsor, said in a statement last week. "Thirty-seven states now have legal cannabis programs, and it is unacceptable to treat veterans as second-class citizens and force them to find a different doctor to simply ask questions and seek treatment if they choose to access state legal medical cannabis programs."

The Senate Appropriations Committee also expressed interest in studying psychedelic drugs but did not go as far as the NDAA in mandating a study. A VA official testified to Congress last year that the department was "very, very closely" monitoring private research on psychedelics but stressed that the VA is not funding the research.

"The committee recognizes the increased interest in studying psychedelic therapies and their potential therapeutic effects for veterans," the Appropriations Committee wrote in the nonbinding report accompanying the spending bill. "The committee encourages VA to explore opportunities to assist with privately-funded research programs to evaluate the efficacy of psychedelic therapies in treating PTSD, major depressive disorder, and other serious mental health conditions."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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