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WA bill to legalize psychedelics stalls, but pilot program still possible

Chenae Garcia, a psilocybin therapy facilitator, speaks on Dec. 2 during a training course in Portland run by Fluence, an education and training consultancy.  (New York Times)
By Esmy Jimenez Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Washington psychonauts will have to wait at least another year before therapy using psychedelic mushrooms is broadly legalized in the state, but legislators could still approve a small pilot program to give veterans and first responders early access to the treatment.

During the 2022 legislative session, Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, originally sponsored a bill modeled after Oregon’s Measure 109, which created a framework for mental health practitioners or “guides” to lead people on psychedelic trips after ingesting psilocybin. Oregon became the first state to allow adult use of psilocybin on Jan. 1.

The hallucinogenic compound naturally occurs in many species of mushrooms that grow in the Northwest and other regions around the world. When ingested, it produces powerful effects from changes in vision, thoughts and emotions.

Research has rekindled in the past few years on psilocybin’s ability to treat a slew of mental illnesses, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, anorexia and smoking cessation. Many of the trials have been small in size but with positive results. The substance remains illegal at a federal level, though some researchers believe the Food and Drug Administration might some day approve the use of psychedelics in clinical settings.

Salomon’s bill that would have allowed Washington residents to ingest the drug at certified facilities with mental health guides ultimately failed. Another version, SB 5263, was reborn during this year’s session and has eked through part of the state Legislature – just not as expected.

The bill, which passed the Senate and more recently, the House Committee on Health Care and Wellness on Wednesday, is mainly dedicated to research but a newly amended version also includes a pilot program that would allow first responders and veterans early access to the drug through the University of Washington’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

“It’s got a pretty good initial stamp of approval in the House and (Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle) made it a stronger bill by adding a pilot,” Salomon said. “So you can draw some implication from that, but it’s not across the finish line.”

If passed, participants in the pilot study would have to be 21 and older, and have experienced substance use disorder, depression or anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

They would also have to pass an initial assessment before being accepted into the program. (Psychedelics are not recommended for people with more severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia because their symptoms can be exacerbated.) The pilot program would need to be implemented no later than Jan. 1, 2025.

The bill would also create three separate collaborations. One would be a Psilocybin Advisory Board through the Department of Health that would advise and share recommendations with the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board as well as the state Department of Agriculture.

A separate work group among those three agencies would also develop a regulatory framework, essentially a blueprint that Washington could use in the future if psilocybin legalization were to pass locally.

The Health Care Authority would also be tasked with delivering a final report to the governor and legislature by the end of this year that includes much of that information. An initial report published by the HCA was submitted to the Legislature late last year.

The bill heads next to the House Appropriations Committee and ultimately would need to be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. His office declined to comment on the proposed legislation, though it had a part in winnowing down the original bill that would have created a statewide infrastructure for therapeutic use.

“The bill as proposed would create a system for regulation and use of psilocybin that is not supported by the available scientific and medical evidence,” reads an email that Samantha Pskowski, Inslee’s policy adviser for public health, sent to Salomon in early February.

Officials state research is limited and the bill puts the “health and safety of Washingtonians at risk.”

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said that while she understands the interest in psilocybin, she thinks the pilot program is the best step at this time.

“I’ve just seen recently some real critiques of the national research, too,” she said “I think it’s a worthwhile idea to start small and then to apply some research standards to it.”

Dr. Anthony Back, a researcher at UW who is working on a trial about psychedelic-assisted therapies’ ability to support health care workers with burnout, testified in favor of the original bill earlier this session.

The UW declined to comment further about their potential participation in the program, but Back shared with legislators: “I think waiting for three years or waiting for more years, is not doing justice to the mental health crisis that I’m seeing now.”