An official with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) told Congress on Thursday that the government is monitoring research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics “very, very closely,” but that treatment involving the substances is not yet part of the “standard of care” for military veterans.
At a hearing before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX) reiterated his interest in “alternative treatments” for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder “and other suicide risk factors,” including MDMA and psilocybin.
Veterans service organizations like the Special Operations Association of America (SOAA) and Reason for Hope also submitted written testimony for the hearing touting research into psychedelic-assisted therapy and calling for administrative reform.
Allred, for his part, asked Veterans Health Administration (VHA) clinical researcher Lisa Brenner about the status of research into alternative treatments given early studies showing that psychedelics hold promising potential to reduce symptoms of “psychological distress.”
“Obviously, when it comes to preventing veteran suicide, we should be looking at all avenues of research, of new ways to try and treat [veterans],” the congressman said. “Is the VA tracking these studies? Are there any plans for the VA to conduct its own research into this area?”
Brenner said that it’s an “important topic” and VA wants “to be tracking everything that’s happening out there.”
“We are watching very, very closely, both in terms of clinical care and research,” she said. However, “at present, psychedelic treatments are not part of the standard of care.”
“That being said, VA researchers are to be engaged in research around this. However, they need very specific safety and [Institutional Review Board] approvals to ensure that we are keeping our veterans safe,” the official said. “While we are exploring these new interventions, these current projects are not funded by Office of Research and Development, but VA is engaged and watching closely.”
Allred asked if VA needed congressional approval to facilitate the research or if it was an administrative matter, and Brenner said that she would “take that back [to VA] for the record.”
This exchange comes almost exactly one year since Allred and Brenner had virtually the same discussion in the same committee.
Meanwhile, although representatives of VSOs did not raise the issue of psychedelics in oral testimony at Thursday’s hearing itself, other groups did bring up the need for research into these alternative therapies in written testimony posted by the committee.
“Recent trials with psychedelic-assisted therapy have shown promising results in abating or neutralizing a wide range of [comorbidities] in patients, significantly improving quality of life,” SOAA said.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has designated substances like psilocybin as “breakthrough therapies,” the organization said that without full approval, veterans “are unable to access these psychedelic-assisted therapies” because of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) “policy guidelines.”
It also referenced DEA’s ongoing blockade despite federal “Right-to-Try” (RTT) laws that are meant to allow access to investigational drugs, including those in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, for seriously ill patients.
“The Special Operations Association of America recognizes the desire of our members to receive care that works, and believes that providing access to psychedelic-assisted therapies for treatment-resistant SOF Veterans through VA pilot programs will: help ensure SOF Veterans remain within the VA health care system; receive the care they need in safe conditions; and, provide valuable data for further research.”
The testimony also calls for funding to create a federal task force as an interim step to “guarantee safe and affordable access to these novel treatments upon their eventual approval, while also facilitating and assisting the implementation of pilot programs.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently said that it is actively “exploring” the possibility of creating a task force to investigate the therapeutic of certain psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA in anticipation of federal approval of the substances for prescription use.
Both SOAA and Reason for Hope said in their written testimony that the current federal policy has led hundreds of veterans to seek psychedelics treatment outside of the country.
Brett Waters, executive director of Reason for Hope, said “we believe that it is morally unacceptable that Veterans who exhausted available options here at home should be forced to seek out this form of treatment in other countries.”
“We believe based on the available evidence (both quantitative and qualitative) that psychedelic-assisted therapies offer relief and healing for Veterans suffering when used safely, ethically, responsibly, and in the right setting,” he said. “We urge the VA to join us in this lifesaving initiative.”
As mentioned, bipartisan congressional lawmakers filed companion bills in the House and Senate in July to reaffirm that the scope of Right to Try policy should include psychedelics.
The legislation would make a technical amendment to the text of the existing statute, with the primary purpose of clarifying—in the face of DEA objections—that RTT policy as signed into law by former President Donald Trump already means that patients with terminal health conditions can obtain and use investigational drugs that have undergone clinical trials, even if they’re Schedule I controlled substances.
The bills were filed about six months after bipartisan members of Congress sent a letter, led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), requesting that DEA allow terminally ill patients to use psilocybin as an investigational treatment without the fear of federal prosecution.
In May, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) separately pushed top federal officials to provide an update on research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, arguing that ongoing federal prohibition has stymied studies.
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Activists staged a demonstration outside of DEA headquarters in Virginia in May, demanding that the agency allow terminally ill patients to access psilocybin therapy.
Meanwhile, in a procedural win for scientists and advocates, DEA recently retreated on a proposed ban on psychedelic compounds that experts say have research value. The development came just one month after the agency abandoned separate plans to place five tryptamine psychedelics in Schedule I.
DEA faced significant criticism over the latter proposal, receiving nearly 600 messages during a public comment period, with most opposing the rule change and requesting a hearing. The agency’s own administrative court subsequently agreed that there was a need to hold a hearing on the matter before the prohibition could be enacted—but DEA pulled the proposal instead.
The agency has separately increased production quotas for the production of certain psychedelics like psilocybin in an effort to promote research, but its scheduling decisions have continued to represent obstacles for scientists.
Photo courtesy of Dick Culbert.
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