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Vermont Psychedelics Working Group Bill Advances In House After Clearing Full Senate

Published on May 6, 2024

By Ben Adlin

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A House committee in Vermont has advanced a bill that, in its current form, would create a psychedelic-assisted therapy working group to make recommendations on whether and how the state should regulate legal access to substances like psilocybin and MDMA.

Before passing the measure, which has already cleared the full Senate, the House Human Services Committee narrowed the scope of the proposal, removing provisions that would have directed the task force to reconsider the “criminalization of psychedelics under State law” as well as provide “potential timelines for universal and equitable access.”

Instead the group’s work would focus on “the cost-benefit profile of the use of psychedelics to improve mental health."

  The eight-person task force would “review the latest research and evidence of the public health benefits and risks of clinical psychedelic assisted treatments” and “examine the laws and programs of other states that have authorized the use of psychedelics by health care providers in a therapeutic setting,” according to the latest version of the measure.

Vermont’s Senate passed the bill last month on a voice vote, but there have been a number of changes since the legislation landed in the House.

Rep. Anne Donahue (R), who briefly introduced the new striking amendment at Thursday’s committee hearing, said she’s “not in opposition” to further consideration of psychedelic-assisted therapy. But compared to the Senate-passed measure, she emphasized that her approach is one of “let’s just slow down a little and be careful.”

Donahue said she “felt there were elements and kind of subtle messaging” in the language of S.114 that was sent over by the Senate, which she described as “a little bit presuming some outcomes and a little bit moving fast.”

To that end, the committee’s striking amendment removed task force members representing the Psychedelic Society of Vermont and the Brattleboro Retreat, a psychiatric and addiction hospital. It adds representatives from the state Department of Mental Health and the nonprofit Vermont Medical Society.

Along with deleting the provision that would have directed the body to evaluate the criminalization of psychedelics in Vermont, the amendment also strikes a line saying that the task force would “provide potential timelines for universal and equitable access to psychedelic-assisted treatments.”

Another change removes an earlier provision directing the task force to provide an opportunity “for individuals with lived experience to provide testimony.”

Donahue said her own life experiences with mental health care have left her skeptical of assurances from psychedelic-assisted therapy advocates.

“I have lived the life of somebody who has been told, ‘Oh, this is safe, this is safe, this is safe.’ You know, ‘We in psychiatry and mental health know what we’re doing is safe. This is safe, this is safe, this is safe,’ and having my life practically destroyed,” she told colleagues at the hearing. “I see the new ads on TV about, ‘Oh, your distracted mother, calm her down with this drug!’ That’s a drug that’s prohibited in nursing homes, because it’s used to keep their behaviors in line. And it causes early, premature death. But, you know, give it to mom because she needs to be calmed down!”

“But the FDA is really actively involved in working on it,” she continued, “and I think that [Vermont should be] following their lead rather than saying, you know, we need to jump the gun potentially.”

Both MDMA and psilocybin have been granted breakthrough therapy status by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and recent clinical trials have MDMA on pace for possible FDA approval later this year.

As originally introduced, the bill from Sen. Martine Larocque Gulick (D) would have legalized noncommercial use and possession of psilocybin, but lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee nixed that section in March to focus instead on the therapeutic psychedelics working group.

“It could be that decriminalization is going to get in the way of therapeutic use,” Sen. Ginny Lyons (D), who chairs that committee, said at the time. “What we’re looking for is the value of therapeutic use.”

Thursday’s panel vote came after the committee considered the bill a day earlier, hearing testimony from Charles MacLean, a professor of medicine and associate dean for primary care at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine—who presented an informational slideshow to the panel—as well as psychiatrist Rick Barnett, co-founder of the Psychedelic Society of Vermont and legislative chair for the Vermont Psychological Association.

Barnett said he’s in strong support of the bill, though in submitted testimony he emphasized that both further study of therapeutic psychedelics and decriminalization of psilocybin—as earlier versions of the bill would have done—are important policy changes.

“Psychedelic use is on the increase, mainly for personal use and personal health, growth, and wellness,” he said. “Psilocybin is the safest of these substances, the easiest to obtain, and the most prolific in our state and around the country. Vermont has decriminalized possession of buprenorphine without a prescription and has legalized cannabis: both drugs arguably far more detrimental than psilocybin AND both with health benefits.”

Barnett included a graph of “harm potential” caused to users and others by various drugs, as rated by experts in the United Kingdom. It shows psilocybin mushrooms as the least risky of any of the specified substances.

Also this week in Vermont, the full Senate passed a bill to legalize and fund a facility in Burlington where people could use currently prohibited substances in a medically supervised environment—part of a pilot program aimed at quelling the ongoing epidemic of drug-related deaths.

Lyons described that measure as an evidence-based approach to reducing opioid-related deaths in the state.

“As long as there’s demand for addictive substances, these problems will persist,” she told colleagues. “H.72 will allow for the establishment of a safe haven for those with addiction at overdose protection centers.”

“I know that many of you in this body think of this as a controversial topic, and I had been with you for a long time,” Lyons continued. “I had my reservations as this issue was discussed over the past seven years. And now we have a robust body of research having multiple positive effects of overdose prevention centers and no negative ones. It’s time for us to move forward.”

Lawmakers in a growing number of other states have also considered psychedelics legislation this session, with many focusing on psilocybin reform and increased research.

For example, the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates have both passed legislation to create a psychedelics task force responsible for studying possible regulatory frameworks for therapeutic access to substances such as psilocybin, mescaline and DMT, sending the proposal to Gov Wes Moore (D). It would be charged specifically with ensuring “broad, equitable and affordable access to psychedelic substances” in the state.

And Indiana’s governor recently signed a bill that includes provisions to fund clinical research trials into psilocybin.

Utah’s governor, meanwhile, allowed a bill to authorize a pilot program for hospitals to administer psilocybin and MDMA as an alternative treatment option to become law without his signature.

Maine lawmakers sent the governor legislation to establish a commission tasked with studying and making recommendations on regulating access to psychedelic services.

An Arizona House panel also approved a Senate-passed bill to legalize psilocybin service centers where people could receive the psychedelic in a medically supervised setting.

A Connecticut joint legislative panel approved a bill to decriminalize possession of psilocybin.

The governor of New Mexico has endorsed a newly enacted resolution requesting that state officials research the therapeutic potential of psilocybin and explore the creation of a regulatory framework to provide access to the psychedelic.

Alaska lawmakers are considering legislation to create a task for to study how to regulate access to psychedelics following federal approval.

An Illinois committee also recently held a hearing to discuss a bill to legalize psilocybin and allow regulated access at service centers in the state where adults could use the psychedelic in a supervised setting—with plans to expand the program to include mescaline, ibogaine and DMT.

Lawmakers in Hawaii also considered a bill that would provide some legal protections to patients engaging in psilocybin-assisted therapy with a medical professional’s approval.

New York lawmakers said that a bill to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy in that state has a “real chance” of passing this year.

A Nevada joint legislative committee held a hearing with expert and public testimony on the therapeutic potential of substances like psilocybin in January. Law enforcement representatives also shared their concerns around legalization—but there was notable acknowledgement that some reforms should be enacted, including possible rescheduling.

The governor of Massachusetts recently promoted the testimony of activists who spoke in favor of her veterans-focused bill that would, in part, create a psychedelics work group to study the therapeutic potential of substances such as psilocybin. Last month a Massachusetts joint legislative committee held a hearing to discuss an initiative that would legalize psychedelics that may appear on the November ballot if lawmakers decline to independently enact it first.

Currently, there are no psychedelic drugs that are federally approved to prescribe as medicine. But that could soon change, as FDA recently agreed to review a new drug application for MDMA-assisted therapy on an expedited basis.

At the start of this year, VA separately issued a request for applications to conduct in-depth research on the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD and depression.

In October, the agency also launched a new podcast about the future of veteran health care, and the first episode of the series focuses on the healing potential of psychedelics.

FDA also recently joined scientists at a public meeting on next steps for conducting research to develop psychedelic medicines. That came months after the agency issued historic draft guidance on psychedelics studies, providing scientists with a framework to carry out research that could lead to the development of novel medicines.

Meanwhile in Congress this week, a House panel approved GOP-led bill that would instruct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to notify Congress if any psychedelics are added to its formulary of covered prescription drugs.

Read the revised version of S. 114 that was advanced this week by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee:


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