The Hawaii Office of Wellness and Resilience recently announced that the Breakthrough Therapies Task Force held its first meeting on Aug. 29.
The task force consists of 11 individuals whose role is to research and explore the therapeutic potential of MDMA and psilocybin. “It comprises local physicians, psychiatrists, mental health professionals and government partners,” a press release from Hawaii Gov. Josh Green stated. “This first meeting represents a significant milestone in advancing the recognition and understanding of the potential benefits of therapeutic psychedelic access in Hawaii. Members include Hawaii-based mental health professionals, government agency representatives, legislators, physicians, therapists and more.”
The press release explained that “modern science is now catching up” to the benefits of specific psychedelic substances, despite the fact that many indigenous cultures have used those substances for thousands of years. Inspired by states such as Oregon, which passed a therapeutic psilocybin access program in 2020, and Colorado, which passed a similar program in 2022, Hawaii is dedicating an effort to also examine its benefits. “Research has shown that both psilocybin and MDMA have significant and unprecedented efficacy in the clinical treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, end-of-life anxiety in terminal patients, eating disorders, treatment-resistant depression and more,” the press release continued.
One of the task force members, Sean Munnelly, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and addiction specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who prepared a statement about the importance of the task force. “We are now on the precipice of an exciting movement in health care and consciousness,” said Munnelly. “The FDA designation of MDMA and psilocybin as breakthrough therapies ushers in a potentially paradigm-shifting moment. For this to be done safely, it is crucial to create a multidisciplinary task force of experts. These individuals will be responsible for creating guidelines for safe and responsible practices here in Hawaii.”
The task force is required to submit a report on its findings by the end of 2023, which will include an analysis of both Oregon and Colorado’s currently existing psychedelic therapy programs. The report will also address other crucial questions about psilocybin supply, licensing in relation to both guides as well as integration coaches, administrative requirements, and discuss patient “safety, access, and affordability.”
Four members of the task force are involved in an organization called the Clarity Project, which strives to raise awareness regarding the therapeutic benefits of plant medicine. Through the Clarity Project, a public in-person event called “Breaking Through Trauma: The Case for Psilocybin & MDMA” is set to be held on Sept. 8 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“In line with Hawaii’s commitment to wellness, resilience and mental health care, the Breakthrough Therapies Task Force underscores the state’s dedication to exploring effective and innovative approaches to mental health treatment,” the press release concluded. “By embracing the potential of breakthrough therapies and creating a regulated psychedelic therapy program, Hawaii aims to provide its residents with comprehensive, compassionate and effective therapeutic care options.”
While the potential of psilocybin is still being researched, the case for cannabis in Hawaii is growing strong. The state began licensing medical cannabis dispensaries back in July 2015, 15 years after former Gov. Ben Cayetano signed the bill to legalize medical cannabis. Since the first dispensary began operating in 2017, a total of 22 dispensaries have opened up across the state (two on Kauai, five on Maui, nine on Oahu, and six on the big island of Hawaii). In 2018, the state implemented a new policy that allows those who hold medical cannabis cards in other states or U.S. territories to obtain a special permit to buy cannabis in Hawaii.
As of July 2019, the state has decriminalized small amounts of cannabis, but legalizing adult-use cannabis is still a work in progress. The Hawaii Senate passed a legalization bill in March 2021 but did not proceed further.
Earlier this year in January, Hawaii Rep. Jeanné Kapela joined with members of Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, and ACLU Hawaii to announce new efforts to end cannabis prohibition in the state. “We all know, and Hawaii’s people know, that it is high time to legalize recreational cannabis use for adults in Hawaii. This year we stand on the precipice of history,” Kapela explained. “Following the recommendations of a task force devoted to addressing cannabis policy, we now have a roadmap for legalizing recreational cannabis in our islands,” she said in reference to a December 2022 report published by the Hawaii Department of Health.
In January, a legalization bill called SB669 SD2 was introduced and by March it was overwhelmingly passed in a Hawaii Senate vote. However, it failed to proceed in the House before an important legislative deadline.
If a cannabis legalization bill is able to fully pass in congress, there’s a good chance that adult-use cannabis is in Hawaii’s future. Gov. Green has previously said that he would consider signing legalization into law under certain conditions. “First of all, if marijuana is legalized, it should be very carefully monitored, and only done like cigarettes, or I’ve been very careful to regulate tobacco over the years,” Green said in November 2022. “We should take the $30 to $40 million of taxes we would get from that and invest in the development and recreation of our mental healthcare system for the good of all.”