Magic mushrooms or bad trip? Oregon voters weigh psilocybin therapy

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Measure 109 would task the Oregon Health Authority with developing regulations for legal psilocybin use within a licensed facility

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CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — When Mara McGraw found out she had neuroendocrine cancer — a terminal diagnosis — she felt hopeless, afraid, and depressed. She did more than a year of talk therapy and even tried mainstream drugs like Prozac, but nothing helped. Until she tried psilocybin therapy about five weeks ago.

“One psilocybin therapy session gave me more lasting effects than I did in a whole year of talk therapy,” McGraw said.

Oregon voters will decide in November whether to approve a first-in-the-nation measure to legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin — a psychoactive compound found in so-called “magic” mushrooms.

Psilocybin is listed as a Schedule 1 drug federally and is not legal in any state, though some cities like Denver and Oakland have decriminalized it. A growing body of research, including from Johns Hopkins University, has demonstrated therapeutic effects in people suffering from a range of conditions including addiction, anxiety and depression. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has also granted “breakthrough therapy” status to two clinical trials.

However, those trials are still several years from completion, and many in the medical community oppose legalizing mushrooms until then.

FILE – In this May 24, 2019, file photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Measure 109 is spearheaded by Tom and Sheri Eckert, psychotherapists working in Portland who do individual, couples, and family counseling. They became passionate about psilocybin in 2015 and launched the Oregon Psilocybin Society as a way to craft and promote the measure, which would create a program for administering psilocybin to people over the age of 21. Clients would only be able to buy and consume psilocybin at specific facilities, under the supervision of a licensed facilitator.

“There’s a lot of people suffering out there who need therapeutic options,” Tom Eckert said. “We’re actually in the midst of a mental health crisis in Oregon. We have some of the highest rates of mental illness in the country. So the status quo really isn’t working.”

Read the full text of the measure

McGraw, who was a social worker and therapist before her diagnosis, only found out about psilocybin through her connections in the mental health community. She connected with a facilitator in Oregon and participated in a six-hour session at an outdoor location where McGraw thought she would feel the most relaxed and receptive.

“Even though I chose to do it outdoors, it definitely felt like a very clinical and therapeutic session,” she said. “It was like going to the doctor and taking a medication.”

She said the facilitator administered three doses (in capsule form) throughout the session, keeping McGraw at a steady pace.

“The facilitator was there the entire time, but for the most part it was a lot of internal processing,” McGraw said. “I was very relaxed in my body. I was smiling most of the time, even when thinking about things that were very serious like contemplating facing the end of my own life.”

Now she says she feels more relaxed, uplifted, and has a completely new outlook on her future.

“This type of treatment is invaluable,” she said. “Especially for people who have tried like me, so many different things, and nothing really got to the root of the anxiety or the depression.”

Medical organizations look to trip up Measure 109

Several high-profile medical organizations have come out in opposition to the measure, though, including the American Psychiatric Association, the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association (OPPA), and the Oregon Medical Association (OMA).

“(Psilocybin is) really in its infancy in terms of development and studying,” OPPA president Dr. Nicole Cirino said. “We have no idea what could happen, what it could cause, if it’s going to interact with a medication or their medical condition.”

Known side effects include hallucinations, persistent flashbacks from bad trips, changes in blood pressure, and nausea and vomiting, Cirino said.

The OMA told KOIN 6 News in a statement that, while it supports increased access to behavioral health care services, psilocybin is still too early in the development stages and “scientific studies do not yet indicate that it is a safe and effective medical treatment.”

The measure also directs the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to develop an advisory board, and iron out best practices, ethics and regulations for psilocybin therapy, all within a two year timeframe. Cirino said she doesn’t know of any precedent for tasking the OHA with something like that.

“A two year time period where they’re essentially acting like the FDA is really unrealistic,” she said. “They don’t have the resources for that or the expertise for that.”

She and the OPPA also object to the fact that facilitators are not required to have any sort of degree.

“This measure does not require a prescription, does not require that you’re in a medical facility or that it’s administered by either a mental health professional or a medical professional,” she said. “In some ways it is more like setting up dispensaries than actual medical treatment.”

Though this is not a recreational ballot measure, the Eckerts are following a trail blazed by marijuana advocates in Oregon, first with the 1998 measure legalizing medical marijuana, then the 2014 recreational marijuana initiative.

“When a substance has been prohibited on unscientific grounds, then it makes sense putting all that together to take it to the people and ask Oregonians if this is a good idea,” Tom Eckert said.

Fast Facts

Who supports it? Democratic legislators and candidates, as well as individual doctors, nurses, therapists, businesses etc.

Who opposes it? Medical organizations including the American Psychiatric Association and the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association.

Who’s funding it? According to Ballotpedia, Measure 109 has raised almost $1.3 million in contributions. More than $1 million of that comes from the Washington, D.C.-based New Approach PAC.

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