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US Sen. Brian Schatz’s Subtle Push For More Psychedelic Research

The Hawaii senator has spent the past few years pressing agencies to bolster support of studies that look at the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen Brian Schatz has become a vocal advocate for expanding research into therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs such as ketamine, MDMA, LSD and psilocybin to treat depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“For me, this isn’t about whether psychedelics should be legalized for recreational purposes,” Schatz said. “This is about continuing the research that showed promise in the 1970s for people with severe, persistent mental illness.”

Study of hallucinogens was commonplace in the 1950s and 60s, but after drugs such as marijuana and LSD became associated with the counterculture movement the U.S. government’s so-called war on drugs all but put an end to the scientific inquiry.

Drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin, were criminalized and classified as Schedule I controlled substances, and the stigma associated made it all the more difficult to secure funding for studies.

Public attitudes, however, are shifting and politicians from both sides of the aisle have followed suit, especially in light of recent breakthroughs showing the potential benefits of psychedelics in mental health treatment.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House has formed its own caucus to promote clinical research of psychedelics.

And in the U.S. Senate, an unlikely pair of allies — Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Rand Paul — teamed up on legislation that seeks to eliminate the red tape that presents hurdles to researchers and others hoping to use psychedelics for critical medical treatments.

The bill, known as the Breakthrough Therapies Act, also has bipartisan sponsors in the House.

Schatz said he first became interested in psychedelics after reading Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”

He started doing his own research into the history of psychedelics and the various barriers presented by government regulations to see where he might be able to have some influence.

In recent years, he has sent a number of letters to officials at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration calling for more studies. He’s also pressed them for answers during public hearings.

So far, he said, they’ve been “surprisingly responsive.”

In 2021, the NIH awarded its first grant in nearly 50 years to psychedelic researcher Matthew Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, to study whether psilocybin could be used to treat people for tobacco addiction.

The agency followed up in 2022 by hosting a virtual workshop with scientists from across the country to discuss opportunities and challenges for deploying psychedelics in the real world.

Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recently told Schatz during an Appropriations Committee hearing that promoting psychedelic research has become a priority at NIH and that she expects the agency’s work in that space to “expand and accelerate.”

“This is an area of great interest,” she told Schatz.

Several states have already taken action to loosen restrictions on psychedelics, whether through decriminalization or by approving the drugs for medicine.

In Arizona, Gov. Katie Hobbs recently signed budget legislation that included $5 million to help fund psilocybin research in her state.

Hawaii lawmakers, too, have pursued a series of measures meant to encourage the use of psychedelics for therapy, but none passed during the 2023 legislative session, including a bill that would have created an advisory council to evaluate new treatment options.

Johnson, who received the NIH grant, said Schatz’s advocacy is welcomed, especially given his position on appropriations. While researchers face a series of challenges when it comes to obtaining controlled substances for research, the biggest challenge remains access to federal money.

“It’s the funding for this work that’s been the big holdup,” Johnson said. “And it’s true that most pharmaceuticals are built on a mountain of public research funded by NIH.”

Still, Schatz is careful when talking about the future of psychedelics in America.

He said he has a relatively liberal take on marijuana policy.

In 2022, a bill he sponsored to expand federal marijuana research was signed into law by President Joe Biden. He also recently introduced legislation that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe medical marijuana to former service members in states and territories where medical marijuana is legal.

But hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are different, he said. He still considers them “quite dangerous,” which is why he is not advocating for wholesale decriminalization.

To the extent that MDMA, LSD and psilocybin are legalized, he said, it should be only as a medicine that’s prescribed by a doctor for a specific purpose.

“I think it’s an open question whether psychedelics have a therapeutic benefit, and I don’t think it’s for politicians to declare the answer because we don’t know,” Schatz said. “That’s what a double blind study is for.”