Utah Legislature passes bill creating task force to study mental health benefits of psychedelics

ST. GEORGE — Passing the Legislature with the support of all but two Utah lawmakers last Friday is a bill that creates a task force to study possible benefits of using psychedelics, also known as “magic mushrooms,” for the treatment of mental illness.

Rep Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, speaks to House Bill 167 on the Utah House floor, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 10, 2022 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

The bill, Mental Illness Psychotherapy Drug Task Force, officially designated HB 167 in the 2022 Utah Legislature, creates a task force to review studies examining the use of psychedelics in mental health treatment. Dependent on what they conclude, the task force would then make recommendations to the state about potential uses of psychedelics for Utahns experiencing mental illness otherwise unresponsive to current treatments.

Prompted by the review of medical studies published by John Hopkins University over the last two decades involving psychedelics, HB 167’s sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer of Pleasant Grove, told a House committee in early February that psychedelics “show indications of benefits for treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, addiction” and distress experienced by terminally ill patients, also known as “existential distress.”

The task force itself would not legalize what is still categorized by the federal government as a schedule I drug, but rather make “evidence-based recommendations” to the Legislature concerning the potential use and management of the drug for mental illness within the state.

“If this is a tool we can use, then it needs to be in our toolbox, and we need to do it the right way,” Brammer said.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, speaks against House Bill 167 on the Utah House floor, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 10, 2022 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

Brammer also told his colleagues in the hearing and on the House floor that the task force was also a way to “get ahead” of ballot initiatives that could force the state to act on the issue like what happened with medical marijuana in 2018.

“This is a reasonable and scientific approach,” Brammer added.

The only member of the House who opposed the measure was Rep. Merrill Nelson of Grantsville, who said he objected to the idea of creating a task force to research the use of an illegal drug.

“I have a hard time getting past that,” he said and subsequently voted against the bill.

Despite its continuing schedule I status – a status also shared with marijuana despite its medicinal and recreational legalization across various states over the years – John Hopkins researchers were able to receive regulatory approval to continue research on the potential mental health benefits of psychedelics. The results of these studies can be found on the John Hopkins website.

Stock image | Photo by Yarygin/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

As with marijuana, psychedelics are beginning to see a measure of legalization below the federal level within the United States. A 2020 ballot initiative passed in Oregon to create “psilocybin service centers” where adults can legally take the drugs under supervision after a preparation session, according to an article published by Reason Magazine. Some major U.S. cities are also beginning to decriminalize, at least to a point, the use of psychedelic plants and fungi.

The U.S. government is also considering the approval of psilocybin and MDMA as treatments for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder respectively.

With no direct and legal avenue to access psychedelics readily available to Utahns suffering from mental health-related issues, Brammer said, there are many who are going underground or out of state in search of relief.

“There’s a significant number of our population that are already self-administering these, or that are engaging in medical tourism in order to receive these treatments,” he said. “It’s because they are desperate to treat something that they are not finding relief from, and they are finding some level of relief in this.”

Compiled image used for illustrative purposes only | Stock image, St. George News

One man who spoke in favor of HB 167 in the House and Senate committee hearings was retired Lt. Colonel Matthew Butler of the U.S. Army Special Forces. He served 27 years in the military with the majority of that as a Green Beret. During that time he said he served 42 months over six deployments in combat zones that included Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When I retired in 2017, I denied I had PTSD but (my) behavior was quite contrary,” he said, adding that he drank heavily, abused opioids, lost his job, had several encounters with police and was eventually arrested. At that point he admitted to himself that he had PTSD and needed to find a solution beyond the traditional systems that hadn’t worked.

“Nothing had done anything to put a dent in it,” he said.

Butler then said he began to research veterans who claimed to have cured their own PTSD through entheogenic, or plant-based psychedelics, and chose to do the same.

“I’m here to tell you that although I didn’t understand the science, I did trust my fellow veterans and I followed their path,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that I am no longer depressed or suicidal. … And more importantly, I am at peace. I am the person I was 30 years ago.”

HB 167 was brought before the Senate floor last Thursday and Friday by Sen. Evan Vickers of Cedar City who sponsored the bill on the Senate side. All senators present voted in favor of the bill with the exception of Sen. Kieth Grover of Provo.

The bill has since been sent to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk where it waits to be signed into law.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2022 Utah Legislature here.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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