Psilocybin mushrooms, known as magic mushrooms or shrooms. Credit: Yarygin / Shutterstock

Connecticut would dedicate $3 million to explore psychedelic-assisted therapy using doctor-supervised MDMA or psilocybin treatment under a bill advanced unanimously by the legislature’s Public Health Committee on Friday.

The committee’s action on the bill followed a public hearing last week when supporters pointed to psychedelic-assisted therapies as a promising alternative to the available treatments for conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The bill creates a pilot program within the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and establishes an advisory panel to help craft state regulations in advance of possible federal action expanding access to the treatments.

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“The pilot program ends when the federal [Drug Enforcement Agency] approves MDMA and psilocybin for medical use. We should say ‘When and if,’ but we’re presuming ‘when,’” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who co-chairs the panel.

Lawmakers from both parties said they heard compelling testimony during the bill’s public hearing, especially as it pertained to military veterans seeking relief from PTSD-related conditions. 

During the hearing, Martin Steele, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general who co-founded the psychedelic therapy advocacy group Reason for Hope, told lawmakers it was time to cast aside the “misguided stigma” associated with the substances.

“While we still have much to learn, psychedelic medicine, when used safely, responsibly, and in the right setting, may be our best hope to combat the suicide and opioid crises burdening our nation,” Steele said. 

On Friday, Rep. William Petit, a Republican and formerly-practicing doctor from Plainville, called the proposal an interesting step by the committee.

“PCP and other compounds have been fabulously successful in a small number of people with severe PTSD and other severe mental illnesses that have been refractory to other therapies,” Petit said. “It certainly needs to be explored.”

But while the legislative panel approved the measure on its consent calendar, meaning no lawmaker sought the opportunity to cast a vote against it, the executive agencies close to the issue submitted testimony last week with concerns about the bill.

In a joint memo, the state commissioners of consumer protection, mental health and addiction services, and public health cited a report by a working group created through prior legislative action. Although the working group found the therapies to be promising, it expected that federal regulations may not be loosened until 2025 or later. 

“The sister state agencies that collaborated on the report are concerned that HB 5396 is much more expansive than the report findings. The bill contains premature provisions related to a complex psilocybin program that state agencies are not resourced to implement,” the commissioners wrote.

Asked about those concerns on Friday, Steinberg said Connecticut was “treading new ground here,” and said lawmakers would meet this week with mental health and addiction services representatives to ensure the bill addresses the agency’s capabilities.  

“This is, in some ways, a bold bill. We’re really trying to move it forward in a consequential way,” Steinberg said.

Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, said she welcomed the conversations with the agency but intended to find a way to move forward with the legislation, which will still need to be raised for a vote in both chambers of the legislature. 

“If this is something that they feel they can’t get behind, then we need to figure out another mechanism,” Cook said. “But doing nothing, I think, would be criminal in this regard.”

Steinberg also expressed frustration at the pace of federal action on legalizing psychedelic-assisted therapies. 

“Sometimes we have to struggle with the feds. Sometimes we just wish they’d get out of our way but that doesn’t happen very often,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with an image of the specific type of mushroom that contains psilocybin.