Alaska Legislature establishes psychedelic task force for FDA-approved therapies

A woman smiles and holds a plastic cup in the state legislature.
Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, speaks with colleagues on the House floor on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Armstrong introduced the house version of the bill establishing a state psychedelic task force. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Legislature passed a bill May 10 to start a psychedelic medicine task force to help the state prepare for likely federal legalization of psychedelic therapies. 

Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, who introduced the House version of the bill, said the task force doesn’t take a stance on whether psychedelic therapies are good or bad. But she said studies, especially those looking at treating post-traumatic stress disorder with MDMA, show a lot of promise.

“When you look at the rates of trauma, and harm and mental health issues and addiction issues, and suicide rates in our state…you can just imagine how profound that is going to be on the state of Alaska, if we can ensure that those who qualify and need this medicine can get access to it,” Armstrong said. 

MDMA, also known as molly or ecstasy, is being studied as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, eating disorders and anxiety. The federal Food and Drug Administration is poised to approve it as a treatment for moderate to severe PTSD this fall. 

PTSD is experienced by some people after trauma and can include vivid flashbacks, nightmares and intense distress and anxiety. Veterans, first responders like firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and Alaska Native people are more likely to experience PTSD than the general population. 

In a recent study, people with severe PTSD were treated with three MDMA sessions and extensive follow-up therapy. After treatment, two-thirds of people no longer had enough symptoms for a diagnosis of PTSD. Armstrong said that can be life-changing. 

“In such a short period of time to go from having this extreme PTSD to essentially being in remission, it changes their lives and their ability to be a productive member of society, to be healthy and be healthfully integrated into their families,” Armstrong said.

Psychedelics have a long history of being used therapeutically and ceremonially in Indigenous cultures. But western study of therapies has been slow because most psychedelics are illegal federally. But Armstrong said she wants Alaskans to know that the work being done to approve MDMA therapy for PTSD has not been hasty.

“The application that was put in at the end of last year to the FDA followed 20 years of clinical trial data for the MDMA medicine alone,” Armstrong said. “So, this is something that has been very thoughtfully carried out for a very long time. It is very, very well researched.”

Psychedelics have been decriminalized or legalized therapeutically in several states. But Armstrong said the task force is not aimed at legalizing psychedelics recreationally. 

“I don’t see us having some of the kinks that you’ve seen in other places where they have legalized ahead of the FDA or decriminalized,” Armstrong said. “This is going to be a highly controlled substance in our state with, I would dare to say, very little to no negative public health or public safety impacts.”

Armstrong said a main focus of the task force is making sure any legalized therapy would be covered by insurance, including Medicaid. 

“My goal is to see equitable access across the state,” Armstrong said. “A lot of the time, the people who need this medicine, it can be out of reach because of cost and access. And so the taskforce will be looking at any of the barriers to implementing this new medicine.”

The year-long task force will include people representing the healthcare needs of Alaska Native people, veterans, and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. They will be making recommendations for licensing, insurance, and regulatory pathways for any legalized psychedelic therapies. The bill is awaiting a signature from Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

RELATED: Medication is an important tool for people struggling with alcohol addiction in Alaska

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

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