June 30, 2023
Joe McKay was a New York City firefighter so overcome by survivors' guilt and unprocessed trauma after 9/11 that he got agonizing headaches no amount of prescription painkillers, booze, or other remedies could ease.
After getting diagnosed with cluster headaches, he heard about research out of Harvard that showed psychedelic drugs could help and got a small dose of psilocybin mushrooms from a friend of a friend.
"I had an interesting day," he said. "But the next day, my headaches were gone. Boy, were they gone! I was in remission!"
McKay recounted his magic mushroom trips with a most unusual audience Monday — state legislators who sit on the Senate's health committee.
He was one of several people who testified at an informational hearing at the Statehouse in Trenton, about a year after Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) introduced a bill that would authorize the clinical production and adult use of psilocybin to treat mental illness and addiction, "promote community, address trauma, and enhance physical and mental wellness." The bill also would decriminalize psilocybin and expunge criminal records for past offenses involving psilocybin.
In brief remarks at the start of the hearing, Scutari thanked committee members for their "open-mindedness to this important topic that has gained national attention throughout our country with respect to the studies that have been going on with the medical efficacy and benefits of psilocybin."
The committee heard from five invited experts: three researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Rutgers universities, and McKay and another patient whose psilocybin use cured their ailments. The researchers touted its efficacy in treating everything from Alzheimer's to post-traumatic stress disorder to nicotine addiction.
Jon Kostas is president of a patient advocacy group called Apollo Pact that advocates for psilocybin and psychedelic research for mental health. He told legislators he participated in a 2015 clinical trial on psilocybin at New York University "as a last resort" for alcoholism that he hadn't been able to beat through other treatments.
"It worked almost like an antibiotic," Kostas said. "I was sick with substance use disorder, I went to the hospital and was administered psilocybin-assisted therapy by a medical team, and I was cured."McKay said he began taking the naturally occurring hallucinogenic fungi after his cluster headaches got so frequent and crippling that he lost his job and considered suicide. He now takes a dose twice a year to keep his headaches at bay for good.
"Psilocybin gave me my life back," McKay said. "I had a giant sledgehammer to beat the beast that took my life away."
Legislators had all sorts of questions for McKay, Kostas, and the others who testified, from how long psilocybin lasts in one's system (typically less than 24 hours) to whether people experience flashbacks or "bad trips" (sometimes in "uncontrolled recreational settings") to whether LSD or other psychedelics are being researched (yes, but none have gotten as far in studies and acceptance as psilocybin).
Anyone wandering unaware into the hearing might have been mystified by the testimony, given legislators' recent moves to crack down on other drugs and finetune the state's marijuana legalization law after concerns of underage users flaunting their illegal cannabis use.
But even those typically known for their anti-drug stances — from Republicans to the federal government — have embraced the possibilities of psilocybin.
One co-sponsor on Scutari's bill is Republican — Sen. Holly Schepisi of Bergen County — while other lawmakers in Republican-led states like Utah have commissioned studies. The federal Food and Drug Administration recently issued new guidance to researchers doing clinical trials on psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs, which an FDA official said "show initial promise as potential treatments for mood, anxiety and substance use disorders."
Oregon became the first state in 2020 to decriminalize psilocybin and legalize its clinical use. California lawmakers recently advanced legislation to do the same.
Caroline Dorsen, an associate dean at Rutgers School of Nursing, told committee members Monday she hopes New Jersey will act too.
"Psilocybin is not for everyone. It is a powerful drug that must be taken in a way that minimizes risk and maximizes benefit," Dorsen said. "But it is a much-needed tool in what is currently a very small toolbox of options for people who are struggling. As a nurse, my biggest fear is that we have a treatment to alleviate suffering sitting right in front of us, but that we are not going to use it because of unfounded fears, myths, stereotypes, and stigma. I hope that this is not the case in New Jersey."
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