Psychedelic medicine task force would lay groundwork for therapeutic use in Alaska

A grower holds psilocybin mushrooms in growing medium. Psilocybin is an illegal psychedelic being studied for potential therapeutic use. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

State Sen. Forrest Dunbar, D-Anchorage, introduced a bill this legislative session that would create a psychedelic medicine task force. Most psychedelics are illegal at the federal level but research shows that they have therapeutic benefits.

Last summer, the FDA released draft guidance for researching psychedelic drugs, acknowledging they show promise for treating mood, anxiety and substance use disorders, with the aim of “supporting future drug applications.”

The bill would set up a year-long task force to look at the role psychedelics could play in addressing Alaska’s mental health crisis. It would examine barriers to psychedelic access, insurance and licensing requirements, and pathways to regulating the medicines in Alaska.

Dunbar introduced the Senate bill because he anticipates the federal government will legalize some psychedelic substances for medical use soon, starting with psilocybin, the main active ingredient in several types of so-called “magic” mushrooms. 

“We want Alaska to have a regulatory framework to potentially allow medical providers to use the substances, which had been shown in sort of the early data of the tests to potentially have really positive impacts on people dealing with trauma and with addiction,” Dunbar said.  

Psychedelics can dramatically alter mood, perception and cognition but generally aren’t considered addictive. 

The synthetic stimulant and psychedelic MDMA goes by street names of “ecstasy” or “molly.” It was researched in the 1970’s and ‘80s as an aid for psychotherapy before the Drug Enforcement Administration banned it in 1985. Recent research has shown that it’s useful for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is common in Alaska Native and veteran populations.

Psilocybin was banned by the U.S. in 1968. Oregon and Colorado have legalized psilocybin for medical use and several cities in the U.S. have decriminalized psilocybin or made it a low priority for law enforcement. 

Studies show psilocybin is effective for treating addiction and depression in some people and it also shows promise in helping people cope with a terminal diagnosis to process emotions around death.

Dunbar said it’s important to figure out regulations before psychedelic medicines become legal in order to make sure people who can benefit from the therapies have access to them.

“The hope is because these are medical treatments that we would find a way to bill insurance like anything else,” Dunbar said. “How do we make sure we can bill Medicaid and bill private insurance? And I know the indigenous community in particular needs to think about, and will help guide the task force, so that we can make sure we’re getting funds into the traditional healers’ hands as well.”

The year-long task force in Alaska would include people representing healthcare needs of Alaska Natives, veterans, and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Dunbar said it’s especially important the task force represents Alaska Native communities; he said some states have not included indigenous communities and traditional healers when crafting regulations and legislation for psychedelic medicine. 

Melissa Bradley, an epidemiologist based in Anchorage who researches psychedelic medicines, became interested in the topic when she saw the strength of the research data. 

But Bradley notes psychedelics are not a simple therapy. Research shows psychedelic therapy can be difficult or challenging during treatment, but for some people it provides long-lasting relief from symptoms of mental illness. Bradley said figuring out how to offer the medicines outside of the controlled environment of formal research studies will require a lot of creative problem solving. 

“To really figure out the mystery of psychedelics is figuring out the mysteries of consciousness,” Bradley said. “And, we’re kind of poking at that, on the research side of things, but it’s also moving forward, in terms of policy. And so, it will be kind of a Wild West in terms of policy and regulations.”

Bradley supports starting a task force so Alaska can start to address the challenge of introducing psychedelic medicine gracefully and equitably. 

Dunbar said psychedelic medicine could ultimately help a lot of Alaskans because the drugs have shown promise treating some of the toughest mental health issues in the state, like trauma, addiction and suicide. 

“It doesn’t work for everyone, but there are certainly people who could access these substances and potentially have life changing medical results,” Dunbar said.

There’s no hearing planned yet for the psychedelic task force bill but Dunbar said he hopes there will be one in early February. State Rep. Jennifer Armstrong, D-Anchorage, introduced a corresponding House bill

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Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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