Will Utah legalize ‘magic mushrooms’ this year?

Alaina Chatterley said she’s experienced firsthand how powerful psilocybin can be for self healing.

As a licensed clinical social worker who has worked for almost 18 years in Utah, she said in her experience the most “lasting change” for clients comes from treatments that dive into “a different level of the psyche.”

So naturally, she said, she’s been intrigued by mounting evidence that psilocybin — more commonly known as “magic mushrooms” — could be a positive and effective treatment for patients with anxiety, depression and PTSD.

“Seeing all the promising research, I really wanted to understand it better for myself,” she said. “And I’ve had some traumas in my own life that I wanted to better understand.”

Chatterley said she went out of the country — because psilocybin currently remains a federally prohibited drug in the U.S. — to experience two different guided doses. From those experiences, she said she gained a “deep understanding of my own power and my own worth at a grander perspective than I can even explain.”

“It’s almost like finding the antidote, in my mind, to depression, to anxiety, because the antidote is (discovering) that you are ultimately powerful and ultimately lovable and loved and worthy,” she said. “And if you can find that antidote to depression and anxiety … you’ve gotten to the root cause, and everything else gets easier.”

Chatterley said she’s had people reach out to her and ask her for help accessing psilocybin, “and of course, I can’t. It’s illegal and I love my license.”

But she’d like that to change.

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A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles on Monday, May 6, 2019. Voters decide this week whether Denver will become the first U.S. city to decriminalize the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic substance in “magic mushrooms.”

Richard Vogel, Associated Press

This year, Utah lawmakers are slated to consider whether to narrowly legalize psilocybin for use by patients with depression, anxiety, PTSD or who are in hospice care.

Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring SB200, a bill that was made public Thursday. It would legalize psilocybin in a similar way the state currently regulates medical cannabis.

The Utah Legislature in 2018 created a compromise regulatory framework for medical marijuana after Utah voters approved a ballot initiative that legalized the use of medical cannabis for qualified patients.

Now, Escamilla says it’s time for Utah to do the same with psilocybin — perhaps well before it’s pushed to the ballot.

“Cannabis has given us a really good opportunity to understand that we can use other natural things … to help us. Now, we have to be careful, and I think we have really good safeguards,” Escamilla said, adding her bill would also “heavily regulate” psilocybin for medicinal use.

As currently drafted, SB200 would allow Utahns over the age of 21 to receive a psilocybin treatment directly from a psilocybin therapy provider. Qualifying conditions would include depression, anxiety “if the patient has tried at least one other treatment which has not proven effective,” PTSD and a condition for which individuals are receiving hospice care.

The bill is likely to face hurdles in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Escamilla said she’s prepared to propose changes to narrow the bill even further to a pilot program capped at 5,000 participants.

“This is not a free-for-all,” she said. “This is not for everyone, but if it’s for someone that is desperate (for help) with their anxiety, depression and PTSD — that’s pushing many, unfortunately, to suicide, I want them to have access in a way that’s safe, that we can regulate.”

Escamilla noted Utah is a top-ranking state for rates of mental health illness, and she said psilocybin is a “great alternative” to opioids. She pointed to promising results from studies by Johns Hopkins University into the use of psilocybin.

“We have a crisis. Unless someone gives me a solution to the crisis we’re facing, I’m just putting another tool in the toolbox,” she said.

Groups including the Libertas Institute, a Utah-based libertarian think tank, and the Utah Patients Coalition are backing the bill. Escamilla hopes it could be considered in a Senate committee as early as next week.

“Numerous studies are showing how profoundly psilocybin can benefit people with mental illness, especially depression and anxiety,” said Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, calling it a “promising” solution for people with mental illness.

“Psilocybin in many cases is helping uproot the underlying issues that are leading to some of the depressive and anxious feelings,” he said. “Patients who use psilocybin will often say they feel hope for the first time in years … (It) appears to offer relief that few other options provide.”

Desiree Hennessy, executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition, said patients shouldn’t be deemed “criminals” for exploring psilocybin.

“Many Utahns currently use psilocybin illegally and are seeing profound improvement in their mental health,” she said. “This medicine should be legalized so these patients don’t jeopardize their legal rights in pursuit of health.”

Currently patients who want to legally explore psilocybin either have to go to another state — so far, only Colorado and Oregon have legalized it — or travel out of the country, perhaps to Costa Rica or Jamaica.

Or, Boyack noted, the far less expensive option is the “black market,” which comes with a whole set of risks.

That “underground movement,” Chatterley said, is “growing at an alarming rate, and there’s no way to know what’s safe.” She said she supports the bill’s regulatory framework to ensure patients would take psilocybin in a controlled, safe environment with a medicinal guide.

This isn’t the first time Utah has explored medical magic mushrooms. Last year, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, successfully ran a bill to create a psychotherapy drug task force charged with weighing the potential benefits with potential dangers of legalization or decriminalization.

The task force met and largely determined that studies support positive effects of psilocybin — however the executive summary of the task force’s report stated the “most rigorous and cost-effect approach to ensuring that the people of Utah have safe access to the most effective programs in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy would be to wait for the fast-track FDA rulings for psilocybin.

The task force never discussed specifically waiting for the FDA, Boyack said.

“We can wait a decade or two (or more) for the federal government to catch up, and make patients suffer as criminals in the meantime,” Boyack said. “Or, we can thread the needle like we did with cannabis and create an opportunity for Utahns in need to get the relief they need without being threatened with jail time and the removal of their children.”

Escamilla said she doesn’t think Utah should have to wait for the FDA to take action. “I’ve been waiting for the FDA for a lot of things, including cannabis,” she said. “We’re all waiting. So I don’t know that waiting is truly the Utah way … we have a chance to be a really good laboratory.”

The biggest hurdle likely facing SB200? The same hurdle that so-called “magic mushrooms” have faced for decades ever since they were demonized and criminalized under the U.S.’s war on drugs.

“Stigma is always going to be hard,” Hennessy said. “The stigma is the hardest part to get over. And that just takes time. And it takes I think knowing somebody that has true need and seeing the benefits.”


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