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Connecticut Lawmakers Advance Psychedelics Therapy Bill

The Connecticut legislature approved last week a bill to examine the possibility of using psychedelic drugs such as ketamine or psilocybin to treat serious mental illnesses. 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.

However, the bill doesn’t legalize therapeutic use in Connecticut of psychedelic drug. The legislation will instead create a pilot program in partnership with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services that would provide funding to qualified patients to access MDMA-assisted and psilocybin therapy. This program will be part of an expanded access program that has been approved by 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.’”

It also creates an advisory board to be appointed by both the governor and legislators to prepare regulations for any expected changes in federal policy concerning the therapeutic use of psychotropic 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.

At a public hearing last week by the Public Health Committee, lawmakers were able to hear testimony. 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

Studies into the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, including MDMA, Psilocybin, and Ketamine, have shown promising results, especially for those suffering from serious mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and addiction. In a peer-reviewed study, JAMA Psychiatry published a 2020 study that found that psilocybin assisted psychotherapy is an effective treatment option for a 24-person group with major depression. A separate 2016 study found that patients living with terminal cancer experienced significant and lasting decreases in anxiety and depression after psilocybin therapy. Rep. William Petit is a former practicing physician who said that the research backs the legislation.

“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]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. A joint memo was sent to the legislators by state commissioners of mental health, consumer protection and public safety. The written testimony referenced a report that had been provided by a legislative committee. Although the working group noted that psychedelic drugs have the potential to be very promising, federal action was not expected until 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 was also frustrated by the slow federal progress on psychedelics-assisted therapies.

“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.”

Michelle Cook, Connecticut Rep. said that she was open to the suggestions of state agencies. She also stated her determination to see the legislation through, with or without support from 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.”