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 5396, which would earmark $3 million for psychedelic-assisted therapy research, was approved by the Connecticut General Assembly’s joint Public Health Committee on Friday.
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 Addiction Services to provide qualified patients with the funding necessary to receive MDMA-assisted or psilocybin-assisted therapy. The program would be implemented as part of an expanded access program approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“The pilot program ends when the federal [Drug Enforcement Agency] approves MDMA and psilocybin for medical use,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, the committee’s co-chair. “We should say ‘When and if,’ but we’re presuming ‘when.’”
The proposal also establishes an advisory panel 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 board to make recommendations on the “design and development of the regulations and infrastructure necessary to safely allow for therapeutic access to psychedelic-assisted therapy upon the legalization of MDMA, psilocybin and any other psychedelic compounds,” according to the text of the bill.
Lawmakers heard testimony at a hearing held by the Public Health Committee last week. Martin Steele, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and the founder of psychedelic therapy advocacy group Reason for Hope, told lawmakers that it is time to end the “misguided stigma” associated with the drugs.
“While we still have much to learn, psychedelic medicine, when used safely, responsibly, and in the right setting, may be our best hope to combat the suicide and opioid crises burdening our nation,” Steele said.
The Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelics
Research into psychedelics including psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine has shown that the drugs have potential therapeutic benefits, particularly for serious mental health conditions 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 and quick-acting treatment for a group of 24 participants with major depressive disorder. Separate research published in 2016 determined that psilocybin treatment produced substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. Rep. William Petit, a lawmaker who used to work as a practicing physician, said the legislation is supported by the research.
“PCP and other compounds have been fabulously successful in a small number of people with severe PTSD and other severe mental illnesses that have been refractory to other therapies,” Petit said. “It certainly needs to be explored.”
HB 5396 also establishes funding for psychedelic treatment centers by providing “grants to qualified applicants to provide MDMA-assisted or psilocybin-assisted therapy to qualified patients under the pilot program.” Qualified patients would include military veterans, health care workers, retired first responders and patients from “historically underserved communit[ies], and who [have] a serious or life-threatening mental or behavioral health disorder and without access to effective mental or behavioral health medication.”
Not all testimony at last week’s hearing was in favor of the bill. In a joint memo to legislators, the state commissioners of consumer protection, mental health and addiction services, and public health provided written testimony citing a report from a legislative panel. The working group reported that the potential of psychedelic drugs is promising, but federal action on the issue was expected no sooner than 2025.
“The sister state agencies that collaborated on the report are concerned that HB 5396 is much more expansive than the report findings,” the commissioners wrote. “The bill contains premature provisions related to a complex psilocybin program that state agencies are not resourced to implement.”
When asked about the concerns expressed by the commissioners, Steinberg said that the state is “treading 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 bill,” Steinberg said. “We’re really trying to move it forward in a consequential way.”
Steinberg also expressed frustration at the slow pace of federal action on psychedelic-assisted therapy.
“Sometimes we have to struggle with the feds,” he said. “Sometimes we just wish they’d get out of our way but that doesn’t happen very often.”
Connecticut Rep. Michelle Cook said she welcomed the input of the state agencies. But she also expressed determination to guide the legislation to passage with or without the support of the commissioners.
“If this is something that they feel they can’t get behind, then we need to figure out another mechanism,” Cook said. “But doing nothing, I think, would be criminal in this regard.”