Psilocybin helped a former Navy SEAL cope and could help others if Oregon voters say yes
By BRYCE DOLE | The Oregonian | Published: September 2, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — The former Navy SEAL walked into a house somewhere in California late on a December evening. Inside a large candlelit room, ominous spiritual music swelled as he approached nearly a dozen veterans seated in a circle.
It had been nearly three months since his first treatment, in Mexico. And overall, things had been better. But eighteen years of service, on missions across the world and in combat zones, had taken a toll.
He struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and often turned to alcohol and drugs to cope. Worst of all, he said, he ignored the people who loved him.
So he’d come to California to try something new: psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
A man and his two assistants walked around the room, handing out capsules of the psychedelic drug. For the next five hours, the former SEAL’s mind flooded with memories of combat, his fellow soldiers, his family and friends. He listened to the stories of the other veterans and felt empathy for their struggle. Afterward, he felt relief, like a weight he didn’t know was there had been lifted off his shoulders.
“I couldn’t get out of my own head, my own suffering and need,” Chad Kuske, the SEAL, said in August from his home in Lake Oswego. “I knew that I wasn’t there. I was pretending. I couldn’t even acknowledge the PTSD or the things that affected me. I was in total denial.”
The session Kuske attended in 2019 was part of a loose network of underground psychotherapy groups that have formed during what many have come to call a psychedelic renaissance.
Studies from numerous universities have shown promising evidence that psilocybin — and other psychedelic drugs such as LSD — can help people who struggle with mental illness, end-of-life anxiety, addiction and PTSD.
Today, multiple cities have decriminalized the drug. But only Oregon is looking to legalize it for therapeutic use. If passed, Ballot Measure 109 would make it the first state to make it legal to use psilocybin in the presence of a trained therapist.
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring compound found in more than 200 species of mushrooms. The hallucinatory fungi have been ingested for their mind-altering effects for hundreds and possibly thousands of years.
Scientists say psilocybin can occasion hallucinations, shifts in perception, changes in sense of time, moments of euphoria and spiritual experiences that can have longstanding positive effects.
Psilocybin research at Johns Hopkins University showed that over two-thirds of participants had “mystical experiences” that ranked among the most profound in their lives, resulting in increased well-being and life satisfaction.
Federal law, however, classifies psilocybin as a Schedule I drug, like LSD and marijuana, and the Drug Enforcement Agency cautions it may cause temporary physical or mental harm in some cases. Federal officials note that it is not addictive.
When taken in an uncontrolled setting, the drugs have been known to cause panic and anxiety. People with certain mental illnesses — like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia — are deliberately screened out of therapy by scientists, who fear it could induce psychosis.
Ingesting the wrong kind of mushroom, which may look nearly identical to a psilocybin mushroom, can cause paralysis and death.
That’s why leaders of the Oregon initiative don’t seek to make the drug recreational. Tom and Sheri Eckert, the husband and wife chief petitioners behind the measure who both practice therapy in Beaverton, insist that the drug be legalized only for supervised therapeutic use. Its use must be rooted in science and regulated with the guidance of scientists and health care professionals, the Eckerts say.
The initiative’s focus point is one that the Eckerts believe is a national crisis that is especially dire in Oregon: untreated mental health conditions. The state has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We need options. And this is a valid therapeutic option that could help thousands of people,” Tom Eckert said.
But the treatment isn’t only for Oregonians struggling with mental health problems. If voters pass the measure in November, anyone age 21 or older who passes a screening will be able to access the services for “personal development,” the Eckerts said.
Research from the University of Amsterdam has shown that psychedelic drugs can also help healthy people, “with single doses capable of producing lasting changes in well-being and purpose,” the study said.
Despite the influx of positive research from prominent U.S. and British universities and elsewhere, some people remain skeptical that psilocybin should be legalized except in rare circumstances.
At least one Oregon specialist who’s researched the drug’s positive effects says its use should be highly regulated. Some advocates of constrained use of psilocybin worry the use of the drug will be contorted for profit.
“I don’t think it’s just about making people love rainbows and want to hug trees,” said Chris Stauffer, an award-winning researcher and psychiatry professor at Oregon Health and Science University who studies psychedelic treatments. “It does things to the mind that are powerful. But if our motivation changes from wanting to heal to something else” that could be problematic, he said.
Kevin Sabet, a former longtime senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has said that legalizing psilocybin should be contingent upon science.
“Big tobacco is already involved in marijuana. I’m not surprised to see efforts to decriminalized other drugs,” Sabet said in an interview with The Daily Signal after Denver decriminalized psilocybin. “Mushrooms are the next easiest argument. It’s low-hanging fruit. They’re not going to call for legalizing crack cocaine now. But they are not going to stop with mushrooms in Denver.”
Even Michael Pollan, a journalist and professor who wrote a book on psychedelics and their benefits, “How to Change Your Mind,” has expressed concerns.
“As much as the supporters of legal psilocybin hope to follow the political playbook that has rapidly changed the status of cannabis in recent years,” Pollan wrote in the New York Times, “they need to bear in mind that psilocybin is a very different drug, and it is not for everyone.”
NEW RESEARCH SHOWS PROMISE
Stauffer, now a Portland doctor specializing in research, became interested in studying psychedelics, trauma and addiction after a failed acting career. He quickly saw parallels.
“When someone’s going through a (psychedelic) treatment, it’s almost like a waking dream,” Stauffer said. “As a researcher, you get to know the characters within them that are holding them back.”
Stauffer’s research began during a neuroscience fellowship at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Today, he works at the Portland VA Medical Center and specializes in the treatment of PTSD and substance use disorders in veterans and LGBTQI+ populations.
Stauffer has conducted multiple therapeutic studies using psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin and MDMA. His studies, which have included combat veterans, long-term AIDS survivors and methamphetamine users, have shown overwhelmingly positive results, with significant reductions in depression and PTSD.
Patients were also often more able to confront grief and felt a sense of connectedness to themselves, friends and families that had been lost to years of unresolved trauma, Stauffer said.
“In trauma, your mind creates these riddles and puzzles to keep your consciousness away from these things that are so overwhelming,” Stauffer said. “But when MDMA and psilocybin are on board, you go on these metaphorical journeys.”
Though his colleagues often voiced skepticism, Stauffer says that the stigma toward psychedelic drugs has shifted over the past several years. Research has made radical progress from when psilocybin was initially designated as a Schedule I drug decades ago to signify it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Psilocybin — like LSD and other psychedelic drugs — was tested in the 1950s and 1960s for treatment of addiction and mental illness, and often yielded positive results. Tests were also conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Army to determine if the drugs could be used as truth serums, deterrent against enemy forces and mind-control.
In 1970, amid concerns of an anarchistic youth uprising fueled by psychedelics and tales of suicides, murder and psychotic breaks, the Nixon administration placed most psychedelic drugs on Schedule I. Though many horror stories eventually proved untrue, studies largely came to an end for a half-century.
In recent years, research at prominent universities like Johns Hopkins, Imperial College in London and UCLA has dispelled many longstanding preconceptions of harm.
The research has proved so convincing that psilocybin was designated by the Food and Drug Administration as a “breakthrough therapy” in 2018 and 2019. The designation recognizes that the drug may have greater benefit over current depression treatments and promises to accelerate its development and review.
In guided psilocybin therapy, a therapist first gets to know the patient’s life story and prepares them for the experience. On the day of the treatment, the patient is provided with dark eyeshades and a high dose of the drug, which “blasts you off into the cosmos,” Stauffer said.
The therapist sits beside the patient as they endure the journey, helping them navigate and confront difficult moments. Without the therapist’s help and encouragement, the patient could resist the drug’s effects, resulting in anxiety and panic.
After the session, the facilitator and the patient work to distill the meaning of the experience in a process called “integration” and figure out how the patient can put the lessons learned into daily practice.
For those with unresolved trauma, Stauffer says psilocybin can prompt a reconciliation that would have been impossible for the patient to withstand on their own.
“You literally see yourself taking the chains off the locks in your own mind, which brings with it a flood of trauma memories that can be terrifying,” Stauffer said. “Our job is just to keep encouraging them to keep looking. And then, when they go back to the box, most often those chains are gone.”
NATIONAL WAVE COULD FOLLOW
What Oregon voters decide in November could have ripple effects across the country. It wouldn’t be the first time.
In 1973, just three years after federal officials classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the state became the first to decriminalize it, making possession of small amounts similar to a traffic ticket. Over the next five years, eleven other states would follow suit.
More recently, Oregon helped lead the nation in legalizing medical use of marijuana, and then, years later, legalized its recreational use. Other states, once again, followed suit. Oregon also was the first state to pass a bottle return law and to legalize assisted suicide. Both have spread to many other states.
“Oregon does tend to be the catalyst,” Dustin Marlan, an assistant law professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law, said.
The ballot measure contains safeguards, including a two-year period for state and local health officials to determine training, licensing, regulation and safety standards. The measure does not allow home use of psilocybin, and patients are not allowed to exit a treatment facility under its influence.
Since gaining enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, helped by $1 million from Dr. Bronner’s soap company, proponents of the initiative have raised about $33,000 and spent just $4,300 since June, according campaign finance disclosures. Successful statewide ballot campaigns typically raise and spend millions.
Among the proponents are 42 doctors and nurses, 14 therapists and three elected officials, including Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Portland Democrat, Sen. Jeff Golden, an Ashland Democrat, and Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the Portland Democrat who has long advocated legalizing marijuana.
Kuske is one of 10 veterans who formally has endorsed the campaign. Four of the 22 organizations endorsing the initiative are veteran groups.
In the Navy, Kuske was “top tier” he says. He likens it to playing for the New York Yankees but says that the pressure came with a price. The Navy medically retired him after 18 years on grounds his PTSD had become disabling.
“Living that way — being on all the time, ready all the time, judged all the time — there’s no room for mistakes,” Kuske said. “And when you’re taken out of that, you’re like ‘What now? I’m lost. I don’t have that mission anymore.’ … It’s really hard to just enjoy things anymore.”
After taking psilocybin, Kuske said, he found it much easier to feel content. His awareness has improved, and when his pain and grief return, he knows how to get through it. Psilocybin has helped him overcome obstacles he never thought he could, he said.
He no longer uses hard drugs or alcohol. He meditates and does yoga daily. And every several months, he returns with his fellow veterans for another session.
“You are shown the truth,” Kuske said. “I’ve spent two decades wondering where I went wrong. I was always searching for something I’d forgotten about. Something that made me as angry as I was. But this medicine shows you the unclouded truth. I didn’t forget anything; I just had the blinders on.”