Illinois looks at legalizing psilocybin to treat mental health issues
CHICAGO - From drug addiction, to alcoholism, to those suffering from PTSD, it's being talked about as a miracle cure: therapeutic treatment using the same substance found in "magic mushrooms."
It's called psilocybin, and lawmakers in Illinois are already laying the groundwork to legalize this type of therapy in Illinois.
"I was drinking anywhere between 20 and 30 drinks in a sitting," said Jon Kostas.
For Kostas, those 20 to 30-drink binges meant multi-day hangovers.
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"I could only drink if I had maybe a Monday off, because it would take multiple days for me to physically recover from that," Kostas said.
At 25-years-old, doctors told him if he didn't stop drinking, he'd be dead by 30. So he tried everything: attending hundreds of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, checking into inpatient and outpatient addiction centers. Nothing worked, until the now 33-year-old happened upon a psilocybin clinical trial at New York University through a chance introduction.
"The only reason I went into this was I had already tried everything. So the alternative was death for me," he said.
For Kostas, the trial consisted of weekly psychotherapy coupled with three supervised psilocybin sessions, each in a clinical setting monitored by two doctors. The result: nothing short of astounding.
"I stopped drinking after my first of three psilocybin sessions and I've not done psilocybin since," Kostas said. "No upkeep. I don't have to go to any support groups or therapists. I'm totally done. That issue is non-relevant. Alcohol is not on my radar anymore. This saved my life. This treatment saved my life."
Success stories like Kostas's are not uncommon, and psilocybin has shown to help hundreds of other patients with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"There seems to be something about the quality of the experience itself. When people are under the influence of the substance, that is correlated with good findings," says Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Rush University Medical Center is hoping to generate more success stories. They’re launching a new study looking at the use of synthetic psilocybin and treatment resistant depression.
"In psychiatry, we hear the word psychedelic and we don't necessarily think these are drugs that cause hallucinations," says Dr. John Zajecka, a psychiatrist at Rush. "We're really looking at that mechanism of action."
With this promising research in mind, Illinois State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) has introduced the Illinois Cure Act, which would create safe, legal access to similar therapy through a licensing process.
"We want to regulate it and make sure it is safe and people have safe places to receive the therapy," Ford said.
But the proposed Cure Act doesn't stop there.
"It also removes the criminal penalties for the possession of the mushroom plant that we know is a natural healer," Ford said.
If passed, Illinois would join states like Oregon and Colorado in decriminalizing psilocybin mushrooms. But however well-intentioned it may be, decriminalizing mushrooms could carry a major risk.
"That could really jeopardize this whole research," Kostas said.
Because psilocybin can induce suicidality and self-harm in some patients, researchers worry looser rules might encourage bad actors to provide it to vulnerable people.
"That's why many researchers are advocating for a cautious approach, because it's exactly those vulnerable patient populations who are looking for help who are more likely to go out and seek these types of treatments," says Garcia-Romeu.
"Just because you decriminalize it, who's going to be providing the therapy? It's still illegal," Kostas said. "We want the proper medical professionals conducting this because this could be unsafe outside clinical settings."
Both Kostas and Garcia-Romeu agree the best way for safe psilocybin therapy to become truly widespread, and covered by insurance, is for states like Illinois to slow down, give clinical trials more time to provide the right data, and allow the Food and Drug Administration to remove the substance from its Schedule 1 drug status.
"I don't say this lightly. This saved my life. But we need to go about this the right way," Kostas said.
Ford says he is hoping the legislature will pass the Cure Act this spring and for Illinois to have its first clinic by year's end.
Even if that happens, psilocybin would still be illegal at the federal level, which isn't expected to change for at least two years.