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Connecticut Lawmakers Advance Psychedelics Therapy Bill

A Connecticut legislative panel last week gave its approval to a bill to study the potential of the psychedelic drugs psilocybin and ketamine as treatments for serious mental health conditions. The measure, HB 5396which would dedicate $3 million to research into psychedelic-assisted therapies, was approved Friday by the Joint Public Health Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly.

The bill does not legalize the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs in Connecticut. Instead, the legislation would create a pilot program with the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to provide qualified patients with funding to receive MDMA or psilocybin-assisted therapy. The program would be implemented under an expanded access program approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

“The pilot program ends when the federal government [Drug Enforcement Agency] approves MDMA and psilocybin for medical purposes,” noted Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, co-chair of the committee. “We should say ‘when and if’, but we assume ‘when’.”

The proposal also establishes an advisory committee to be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders to draft regulations in anticipation of an expected change in federal policy regarding the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs. The bill directs the council to make recommendations on “the design and development of regulations and infrastructure necessary to safely enable therapeutic access to psychedelic-assisted therapy upon legalization of MDMA, psilocybin and any other psychedelic compound”, according to the invoice text.

Lawmakers heard testimony at a hearing held by the Public Health Committee last week. Martin Steele, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and founder of the psychedelic therapy advocacy group Reason for Hope, told lawmakers it was time to end the “misguided stigma” associated with drugs.

“While we still have much to learn, psychedelic medicine, when used safely, responsibly and in the right setting, may be our best hope for combating the suicide and opioid crises plaguing our nation. “Steele said.

The therapeutic potential of psychedelics

Research on psychedelics, including psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine have shown the drugs to have potential therapeutic benefits, particularly for serious mental disorders such as depression, addiction, and anxiety. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2020 found that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy was an effective, fast-acting treatment for a group of 24 participants with major depressive disorder. Separate research published in 2016 determined that psilocybin treatment resulted in a substantial and long-lasting decrease in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. Representative William Petit, a lawmaker who worked as a medical practitioner, said the legislation was backed by research.

“PCP and other compounds have been fabulously effective in a small number of people with severe PTSD and other serious mental illnesses who have been refractory to other therapies,” Petit said. “That definitely needs to be explored.”

HB 5396 also establishes funding for psychedelic treatment centers by providing “grants to qualified applicants to provide MDMA or psilocybin-assisted therapy to qualified patients under the pilot program.” Qualified patients would include military veterans, healthcare workers, retired first responders and patients from “historically underserved communities.”[ies]and that [have] a severe or life-threatening mental or behavioral disorder and without access to effective mental or behavioral health medications”.

Not all of the testimony at last week’s hearing was in favor of the bill. In a joint memo to lawmakers, the state commissioners of consumer protections, mental health and addiction services, and public health provided written testimony citing a report from a legislative group. The task force reported that the potential for psychedelic drugs is promising, but federal action on the issue was expected no earlier than 2025.

“Sister state agencies that collaborated on the report are concerned that HB 5396 is much broader than the findings of the report,” the commissioners wrote. “The bill contains premature provisions related to a complex psilocybin program that state agencies lack the resources to implement.”

Asked about the concerns expressed by the commissioners, Steinberg said the state was “stepping into new ground here.” He noted that lawmakers would soon meet with mental health and addiction services officials to address their concerns.

“This is, in some ways, a bold piece of legislation,” Steinberg said. “We’re really trying to move things forward in a meaningful way.”

Steinberg also expressed frustration with the slow pace of federal action on psychedelic-assisted therapy.

“Sometimes we have to struggle with the federal authorities,” he said. “Sometimes we just wish they would get out of our way, but that doesn’t happen very often.”

Connecticut Representative Michelle Cook said she welcomes the input from state agencies. But she also expressed her determination to guide the passage of the legislation with or without the support of the commissioners.

“If it’s something they think they can’t get, then we have to find another mechanism,” Cook said. “But to do nothing, I think, would be criminal in this respect.”

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