Veterans have become unlikely lobbyists pushing to legalize psychedelics

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VALLEY OF APPLES, California. – Jose Martinez, a former Army gunner whose right arm and both legs were blown up by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, has a new calling: he has become one of the most effective lobbyists in a campaign for legalize the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs nationwide.

During a phone call on Zoom this spring with Connie Leyva, a Democratic lawmaker in California who has long opposed the relaxing drug laws, Mr. Martinez told her how psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, had finally helped to quell the physical pain and suicide thoughts that had plagued him.

Ms. Leyva says she changed her mind even before the call ended, and afterwards voted yes on the bill, which is expected to become law early next year.

“We are asking these men and women to go and fight for our freedoms,” he said in an interview. “So if this is something that is helping them to live a more normal life, I feel I shouldn’t be hindering them.”

In the two years since Oregon, Washington, DC and half a dozen municipalities decriminalized psilocybin, veterinarians have become major advocates in an effort to legalize psychedelic medicine, which they credit for helping to relieve stress. post-traumatic, anxiety and depression that are often related to their experiences in the military.

The campaign was spurred on by the suicide epidemic among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but also by the national showdown on mass incarceration of people on drug charges that has softened public attitudes towards of prohibition.

More than 30,000 service members took their own lives in the years since 9/11 – four times the number of those who died on the battlefield – and the Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to address the crisis with the traditional repertoire of drug interventions.

The recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan may have marked the end of America’s “war forever,” but the psychological fallout from two decades of military conflict continues to affect many of the 1.9 million people who have served in the US. abroad.

“I’m not going to be told no to anything that prevents humans from killing themselves,” Martinez said.

Jesse Gould, a former Army Ranger who started Heroic Hearts Project, an organization that connects veterans to psychedelic therapies available in Latin America, also measures desperation in the daily barrage of emails it receives from vets seeking help.

The waiting list for a treatment slot, he said, has grown to 850 people.

“The federal health system has let us down, which is why veterans have to seek assistance outside the country,” he said. “They are already turning to psychedelic options in droves, so we can decide to call these criminal veterans, which is what we do now, or we can make sure they can get effective treatment here at home.”

Recent studies have reinforced anecdotal reports of benefit and helped quantify the therapeutic value of substances such as LSD, psilocybin and MDMA, the drug better known as Ecstasy. A study in Medicine of nature found that MDMA paired with counseling brought significant relief to patients with severe PTSD. another in New England Journal of Medicine highlighted the potential of psilocybin therapy for the treatment of severe depression.

Although current federal law largely prohibits the medical use of these compounds, researchers expect that MDMA-assisted speech therapy to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration in the next year or two, followed shortly thereafter by psilocybin, which has already received agency approval as “Revolutionary therapy” for severe depression. In 2019, the FDA approved esketamine, a nasal spray derived from the anesthetic ketamine, for treatment-resistant depression. Off-label use of ketamine for depression has also become increasingly popular.

Kevin Matthews, a military veteran who drove a 2019 electoral measure in Denver that decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms – the first city in the United States to do so – said personal testimonies about psychedelic therapy have been instrumental in convincing skeptics who fear decriminalization will fuel more recreational use.

“The key to doing this is getting the right people to the right constituencies,” he said.

Advocates of decriminalization have made significant progress over the past two years. Last month Seattle has embraced decriminalization psilocybin and other plant-based psychoactive drugs, and Michigan and many other cities across the country are ready to do the same.

But as psychedelics have gained acceptance among mental health professionals, even enthusiastic advocates of decriminalization recognize the potential dangers of doing so without proper regulation or professional guidance. Overdoses are rare and the compounds are not considered addictive, but experts emphasize the importance of escorted drug trips given anecdotal reports on adverse reactions among people with severe disorders such as schizophrenia.

At first glance, the ex-military might seem unlikely champions of the illegal and mind-altering drugs that many Americans associate with the countercultural pacifists of the 1960s and 1970s. But veterans have become powerful emissaries for psychedelics across the political spectrum.

Juliana Mercer, a veteran of the San Diego Marine Corps who helps connect former service members to psychedelic therapies, says her lobbying efforts are especially helpful with Republican lawmakers who often harbor anti-drug attitudes but highly value veterans.

“It helps that I’m not a stereotypical hippie who does LSD for fun,” he said. “But I think our voices have an impact because we have put our lives on the line for our country and, after 20 years of war, we need help to heal because so far nothing has worked.”

Recent converts include Rick Perry, the former Republican governor of Texas, who returned to the Capitol earlier this year to join Democratic lawmakers who are promoting a bill to authorize the clinical trial of psilocybin. The approved bill both legislative chambers in June, and became law.

Mr. Perry declined an interview request, but during a Press conference in April he claimed that his conversion from anti-drug advocate to psychedelic therapist champion was inspired by his personal relationship with a war veteran who had turned to opioids to address his post-traumatic stress disorder.

US Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican and former Navy SEAL who had consistently opposed efforts to relax drug laws in Congress, also changed his mind after hearing fellow veterans. In September, he introduced an amendment to a defense spending law that would have allowed the Pentagon to fund psychedelic research. The amendment, however, failed to advance by a House Rules Committee.

The legalization campaign’s focus on veterinarians as major advocates is not without controversy. Carlos Plazola, co-founder of the advocacy group Decriminalize nature, said he was disappointed by the movement’s over-emphasis on service member struggles. He said a broader cross-section of people of color should make their experiences felt.

“We understand the value of pushing patriotism and advancing the American flag in the front row of the parade if we want to, but if we want to be successful we also need to talk about the trauma of black, brown and Asian populations and indigenous communities,” he said.

However, military veterans have proven to be effective messengers. Mr. Gould, the former Army Ranger, founded Heroic Hearts in 2019, not long after embarking on his first psychedelic trip to Peru with ayahuasca, a plant-based hallucinogenic drink that he demonstrated extraordinary promise in the treatment of a number of psychological diseases.

Mr. Gould said a traumatic brain injury caused by the numerous rocket launches he supervised during three deployments in Afghanistan left him with uncontrolled spasms of anger and anxiety. Healthy romantic relationships, he said, were out of the question.

“It defragmented my brain in a way that allowed it to heal,” he said of the ayahuasca withdrawal, adding that his new frame of mind allowed him to meet the woman who would later become his wife. “He definitely saved my life.”

Researchers are still trying to understand the mechanisms of psychedelic-assisted therapies, but it is widely believed that they promote physiological changes in the brain, sometimes after just one session. On a psychological level, medications can provide a new perspective on seemingly intractable trauma, giving patients new tools to process pain and find inner peace.

Mr. Martinez, the former army gunner wounded in Afghanistan, has become a particularly effective evangelist for psychedelics. He underwent 19 surgeries and incessant pain that left him addicted to opioids. Beneath the physical agony lay an unresolved wound: childhood abuse at the hands of a relative.

“For a long time I didn’t understand why I was so mad at the world,” said Martinez, 33, who grew up in South Los Angeles and lives with his wife on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Psilocybin, he said, changed everything. Although he is still in constant pain, his drug “journeys” allow him to get out of himself and focus on the good and what’s possible in life, which ultimately includes side activities as a Paralympic surfer. , archer and a weight- training enthusiast. He also runs a nonprofit that seeks to connect veterans to nature through wilderness trips.

“Psychedelics have helped me understand that my problems are small compared to the biggest problems in the world like hunger and cancer,” she said. “And now I understand why I’m here in this world, which is to make people smile and remind them that life can be beautiful even when it’s not that easy.”

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