Georgia House committee considers benefits of 'magic mushrooms' for veterans with PTSD

Georgians suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) already qualify for the state's medical cannabis oil program, but state lawmakers are now considering the potential benefits of psilocybin, commonly known as "magic mushrooms," for military veterans.

The House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony from medical experts and patients for nearly two hours Tuesday.  

"I had an overnight change when I experienced the psychedelic assisted therapy," said Ethan Whitfield, a retired U.S. Army veteran who lives in East Cobb.

Whitfield said he completed 16 combat tours during his 23-year career with the Army and had experiences that took a toll on his mental health.  Whitfield took charge of the issue after learning of a friend's suicide in 2017.  While standard treatments were beneficial, he said they did not offer the same long-term results.

"My thought patterns and my self-destructive habits of thought processes and negative thought patterns that I constantly had within myself changed overnight," Whitfield explained.  "That neuroplasticity from the medicine allowed me to experience my entire life from a different perspective and acceptance of it all.  And really give me since then a love of life, a love of myself and just improvement in everything."  

Dr. Boadie Dunlop is the medical director for the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program and told lawmakers he would like their help to complete a study of psilocybin for veterans.  He said veterans were disqualified from many of the previous and current studies of the drug.  

"We're coming to you for two reasons—one, veterans are not being studied in these standard developmental protocols, but two, nobody's also studied PTSD in any meaningful way with psilocybin despite the testimonials of the veterans who have gone through that treatment," said Dr. Dunlop.

Dunlop estimated the study would cost about $1.85 million to complete.

"They served their country and if they incur injuries or damage in some fashion, I think the government has a responsibility to take care of them," said state Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon.

Rep. Hitchens said he hopes the state can partner with private corporate donors to fund the Emory research.

Lawmakers in Texas approved legislation in 2021 to pave the way for a study at Baylor University.

In the meantime, veterans like Whitfield have to rely on non-profit organizations for help.  A charity called Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS) helped him travel to Mexico last year for his psilocybin treatment.  The co-founders said the trip costs about $5,500 per veteran.

"This is not sustainable from our end.  The need is so great," said Amber Capone, who co-founded VETS with her military veteran husband.  "Getting access to these therapies in the United States is absolutely pivotal."  

Advocates of psilocybin stress that the treatment requires more than just the drug itself.  Patients must undergo hours of therapy to prepare for its effects and then an "integration session" afterwards to process the traumas that surfaced.

The legislative session does not begin until early January, so it will be a few months before lawmakers can make any further progress on the issue.  

"I think we're on the right track.  I hope that I can convince my comrades that this is the right thing to do and it's, I think it's beneficial for the whole nation," said Rep. Hitchens.