Statehouse bills push for study of magic mushrooms

Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 7:58 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Psilocybin -- commonly known as magic mushrooms -- aren’t just about taking someone on a wild ride. There’s growing evidence that mushrooms could be used as medicine to treat everything from depression and PTSD to substance use disorder and even to help people cope with dying. Dom Amato spoke with two people who had life-altering experiences with psychedelics and a Vermont doctor involved in reviewing clinical trials of psilocybin-assisted therapy.

Psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics were lumped into a category of dangerous drugs in the 1970s under the Controlled Substances Act. Any research being done came to a halt, despite some preliminary findings showing positive results. Through efforts by advocates and scientists to revive research work finally started up again, offering groundbreaking data in the early 2000s. Even more work has been done since, and doctors are now taking notice. Even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now says that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for depression shows some promise.

It’s a similar story that a growing number of people share. “I went off to college, and I happened to one night do psilocybin mushrooms,” recalled Melinda Moulton, a Burlington developer and community leader.

The DEA defines psilocybin as a hallucinogenic chemical obtained from certain types of fresh and dried mushrooms. They say large amounts could cause panic attacks or in extreme cases psychosis. But for Moulton, her experience with mushrooms changed everything for the better. She says she had struggled with an eating disorder after losing her mother at a young age. She stopped having her period and doctors assumed she would just never have children.

“And that night, my period came back and within a couple of years I was pregnant with my son,” Moulton said. She credits the psilocybin mushrooms for helping her to heal, emotionally and physically.

Moulton isn’t the only one who says a psychedelic experience changed her life. Rory Van Tuinen says he lived with an opioid dependency for around 10 years. An opportunity to try a form of ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic that produces a similar effect to psilocybin, changed his perspective and gave him new motivation. “I had this experience and it motivated me to actually... I stopped using heroin overnight,” he said. “Kind of like brought me back to like, this sense of like, who I really was.”

After the psychedelic experience, Van Tuinen and his brother started the Waterbury-based nonprofit Cultivating Connections, which aims to grow relationships among people dealing with mental illness and addiction. The brothers are using YouTube videos and podcasts to help to spread their message. “It’s not necessarily about the substances you’re using, it’s just about being there with people that want to connect and be there together,” Van Tuinen said. The two Vermonters who faced totally different challenges both claim they were cured by psychedelics. And some researchers say they may be right.

“I’m really excited about the field,” said Dr. Robert Gramling, an epidemiologist who holds the inaugural Holly and Bob Miller Chair in Palliative Medicine at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. He recently completed a year-long course in psychedelic-assisted therapy to learn more about it and explore its use during end-of-life care. “The evidence is mounting -- and it’s consistent and the magnitude of the effect -- for things that have been very hard to treat effectively.”

Researchers are conducting numerous studies right now examining the potential benefits of psilocybin as a therapeutic drug for mental illnesses from PTSD to depression to alcohol and opiate use disorder to helping people quit smoking. Many studies show similar positive results in therapy sessions that only require one dosing. Both animal and human studies show low abuse and physical dependence potential. “They’re not a type of medication that people develop this compulsive drug-seeking definition that the national institute on drug abuse defines ‘addiction.’ it’s just not that,” Gramling said.

He says he’s involved in research in Vermont using data and video from clinical trials in other states, looking at the connection between a participant using psilocybin and specialized psychedelic therapists or caregivers and how that relationship impacts the experience. “How much of these extraordinary benefits are due to the substance, how much is due to the relationship?” Gramling said.

Volunteers in one study say their psilocybin experience ranked as one of the most meaningful and spiritually significant moments in their life. Both Moulton and Van Tuinen agree and hope their experience can be shared by more people. “I think these substances have a massive potential to help people change in a very empathetic way,” Van Tuinen said.

“I think that it’s time for Vermont to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms so that people who need it can take it without the fear of going to prison,” Moulton said.

And that’s coming closer to reality. Companion bills that lay the groundwork for study and the decriminalization of psilocybin are awaiting action in both chambers of the Vermont Statehouse.

State Senator Martine Gulick, D-Chittenden County, and Rep. Chip Troiano, D- Caledonia-2, submitted the legislation. The goal is to make findings regarding the therapeutic benefits, decriminalize, and establish a working group to eventually permit health care providers to administer psychedelics in a therapeutic setting.

Senator Gulick said it’s time for a new solution in the face of what leaders call a mental health crisis in Vermont. “To me, when I hear the word crisis, it says that it is time to do something different time to look outside of the box, and to try to solve problems in creative and new ways,” she said.

Senate Bill 114 and House Bill 371 are not likely to pass this session, but Senator Gulick does plan to present her measure in front of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee in the next few weeks.

Connecticut, Colorado, and Oregon recently relaxed laws or policies regarding the possession and use of psilocybin.

Click here for the latest research from the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.