Florida could become latest state to study 'magic mushrooms' as mental health treatment
Two proposed companion bills in the Florida legislature would, if passed, direct the Florida Department of Health and and the Board of Medicine to study the therapeutic efficacy of three "alternative therapies," MDMA, psilocybin (the substance found in "magic mushrooms") and ketamine.
The search for treatment of common mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, has led researchers to hallucinogenics, which have shown promise when used in clinical, strategic ways.
The Florida bills' language is identical to a bill passed in Texas earlier this year, said Rep. Michael Grieco, the House sponsor. A similar bill was signed into law this year in Connecticut, while Oregon has approved the use of psychedelics in supervised, clinical settings beginning in 2023.
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At the start of this year, Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat, filed a very different, 48-page bill taking note of what has happened in Oregon and elsewhere and "trying to sound the alarm that Florida needs to start taking this seriously." The bill didn't get a Senate sponsor or go anywhere in the 2021 session, but it did attract a lot of media attention.
"(Other lawmakers) want to joke around. The average person thinks of people taking mushrooms and going to a Grateful Dead concert, or listening to Pink Floyd in the basement, but that's not what this is," Grieco said.
Even with the jokes, Grieco said now is an opportunity to talk about the real medical benefits hallucinogens offer.
"It allowed me to spend last session speaking to my colleagues, especially those across the aisle who might be more skeptical the way the marijuana law went down in Florida," Grieco said.
He said he "plagiarized" the Texas bill, which is two pages, in the hopes that the Republicans who control the Florida Legislature will follow the lead of the GOP-led legislature in the Lone Star state.
Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat who represents part of Broward County, is the Senate sponsor.
Former sheriff advocates for bill
Grieco and Book have found an ally in former St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar, a Republican who served for 16 years before retiring at the end of 2020.
"We're getting to the point in our profession where the mental-health issues are everywhere," Shoar said. "Sixty percent of the issues are somehow related to mental-health issues."
Shoar said he's followed psychedelic therapies for more than 10 years, and was convinced of a coming revolution in medicine after reading "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Depression, Addiction and Transcendence," a 2018 book by journalist Michael Pollan.
"That book really brought it home for me," Shoar said. "This, in my opinion and a lot of other people's opinion, is going to be the third revolution of mental-health care."
Talk therapy was a breakthrough, Shoar said, but it often takes years to be successful. Medication, including antidepressants, was another, but there remains a segment of people who could benefit from psychedelic treatments.
Grieco and Shoar say treatment will be different from the way marijuana is made available to individuals with a card issued by a doctor. It would be taken in a clinical setting, a controlled environment where people would be guided through the process by medical professionals.
"I keep stressing it's a very different silo (than marijuana)," Grieco said.
A wave of public-opinion change, including Florida voters' approval of medical marijuana in 2016, is accompanying promising medical studies, including one study at Florida State University examining ketamine as a treatment for alcoholism.
"Society is open-minded toward it. Now is the time," Shoar said.
What are psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine?
The psychedelics under study have, to some extent, been tainted by the 1960s and 1970s culture of recreational drug use. But they predate the concept of turning on, tuning in and dropping out.
Psilocybin is the "magic" part of "magic mushrooms." It is naturally occurring and has been used by civilizations, including those in Mexico and Central America, for centuries.
Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychology and neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, announced in late 2020 that his research showed two doses of psilocybin can relieve symptoms of major depression for at least a month.
"It appears the fundamental mechanism underlying how psilocybin works is very different than any other treatment we currently have for depression. The how and why that works is still largely a dark mystery," Griffiths said in a video on the Johns Hopkins website.
Brain-imaging studies have been interesting, he said.
"It appears that psilocybin is modulating areas of brain responsible for emotional regulation and the psychological correlate of that is that people have increased psychological flexibility after this kind of treatment," Griffiths said. "They feel more empowered to take control of their life, to see their life in a new way, and engage with it in a way that opens up entirely new repertoires to them of engaging with life and behavior."
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MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, has also been used in clinical trials, including one earlier this year published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine that showed it to be effective in reducing symptoms of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ketamine, an anesthetic developed in Belgium as an alternative to PCP, was approved for human use by the FDA in 1970, and was used by U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam war. It has served as a treatment for severe depression and anxiety and appears to show promise as a treatment for alcoholism.
Greg Rovner, cofounder and CEO of Getheally.com, a holistic and alternative medicine platform, said the Florida bill is important because while some communities — including Oakland, California — have decriminalized hallucinogenic drugs, the most effective use can only be determined through science.
"That's actually what's most important. Decriminalization not paired with studies is not going to solve the situation and could lead to addiction and misuse," Rovner said. "They've been studied in other countries and the studies have been successful."
One psychedelic not mentioned in the Florida bill is LSD, or acid. It, too, has shown promise as a treatment for mental-health issues, Rovner said.
"Down the line, there’s a set of psychedelics I think are going to hit the market as treatments for depression. LSD is one," he said.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Florida could study psychedelic therapies as mental health treatment
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