An Alaska lawmaker has introduced a bill to create a task force to study the potential medical uses of psychedelic drugs including psilocybin and MDMA. The legislation, Senate Bill 166, was introduced earlier this month by Democratic state Senator Forrest Dunbar.

If passed by the legislature and signed into law by Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy, Dunbar’s bill would establish a task force that would be given one year to study how psychedelics might be used to address Alaska’s mental health challenges. The task force would investigate paths to legalize psychedelics, requirements for licensing and insurance, and barriers to access to the drugs.

“We want Alaska to have a regulatory framework to potentially allow medical providers to use the substances, which had been shown in sort of the early data of the tests to potentially have really positive impacts on people dealing with trauma and with addiction,” Dunbar said in a statement, according to a report from Alaska Public Media. 

The psychedelics task force created by the legislation would consist of people representing the healthcare needs of Alaska Natives, military veterans and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Dunbar said it is important to include Alaska Natives in the task force, noting that other states have not included representation of Indigenous communities and traditional healers in their discussions about psychedelics policy reform.

Dunbar introduced Senate Bill 166 in anticipation of a potential change in the legal status of psychedelic drugs at the federal level. Clinical research and other studies into psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA have shown that the drugs have potential therapeutic benefits, particularly for serious mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, substance misuse disorders and anxiety

“It doesn’t work for everyone, but there are certainly people who could access these substances and potentially have life changing medical results,” Dunbar said.

Psychedelic Research Shows Promise

Research published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2020 found that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy was an effective and quick-acting treatment for a group of 24 participants with major depressive disorder. A separate study published in 2016 determined that psilocybin treatment produced substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.

In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Breakthrough Therapy designation for psychotherapy utilizing MDMA, the psychedelic drug commonly known as Ecstasy, indicating that the therapy is a significant improvement over existing treatments. Last month, MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MAPS PBC), a subsidiary of the groundbreaking psychedelics nonprofit advocacy group the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), announced it had submitted an application seeking FDA approval for MDMA-assisted therapy. Only weeks later, the organization announced it had changed its name to Lykos Therapeutics and had raised $100 million in financing to develop psychedelic therapies.

As the research continues, Dunbar said it is important to address psychedelics policy including current prohibition and potential legalization so the drugs will be available to people who can benefit from them.

“The hope is because these are medical treatments that we would find a way to bill insurance like anything else,” Dunbar said. “How do we make sure we can bill Medicaid and bill private insurance? And I know the indigenous community in particular needs to think about, and will help guide the task force, so that we can make sure we’re getting funds into the traditional healers’ hands as well.”

Melissa Bradley, an epidemiologist based in Anchorage who studies psychedelic medicines, said that she became interested in the field after seeing the strong research data. She notes that psychedelic therapy is not an easy undertaking. Many patients find the experience challenging or upsetting during treatment, but long-lasting improvements in mental health have been reported for many patients. 

Most research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics is conducted in a controlled environment. Although the method is effective, finding ways to use the drugs in other, less controlled settings could be the key to greatly expanding access to psychedelic therapy. 

“To really figure out the mystery of psychedelics is figuring out the mysteries of consciousness,” Bradley said. “And, we’re kind of poking at that, on the research side of things, but it’s also moving forward, in terms of policy. And so, it will be kind of a Wild West in terms of policy and regulations.”

Dunbar’s bill has been referred to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee for consideration. Democratic State Representative Jennifer Armstrong has filed companion legislation to Senate Bill 166 in the Alaska House of Representatives, where the measure has been assigned to the Health and Social Services Committee. No hearings have yet been planned for the bills, but Dunbar said he hopes to have one scheduled for early February.

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