Utah failed to legalize psilocybin — but local research, and an underground scene, is booming

Whether for research, religion or recreation, Utahns have been experimenting with psychedelics for years.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) An attendee of Revival, an annual four-day immersive "creative living" festival at North Fork Park in Eden, June 23, 2023. Utahns continue to find a way to use psychedelics — whether public officials like it or not.

Utah lawmakers rejected a bill this year that would have allowed a few thousand people with chronic, untreatable depression to try psilocybin — the Schedule 1 drug many know as magic mushrooms.

Research has shown the fungi is safe and effective, according to the Legislature’s own committee selected to vet the viability of this and other psychedelic drugs to help combat Utah’s growing mental health crisis. But lawmakers decided they wanted approval from the Food and Drug Administration before moving forward.

“I don’t believe we should be experimenting on 5,000 people here in our state,” Gov. Spencer Cox told reporters during a February news conference.

Yet Utahns have been experimented on with psychedelics in one way or another for years. Some of the nation’s first studies on using LSD for generalized anxiety are taking place here. Researchers at the University of Utah have also built a body of research around psychedelics, and ketamine clinics abound.

A vibrant underground scene has cropped up, too, where people are looking to psychedelics to help heal from religious and other trauma — or become their new sacrament, with the advent of the Utah-based Divine Assembly, which bills itself as a “magic mushroom church.”

It might surprise some that a stereotypically teetotaling state, and one of the most reliably conservative in the nation, would be dabbling in psychedelics.

“But I think there is a pragmatism to Utah as well that helps people recognize that these therapies might be helpful,” said Dr. John Hendrick, a University of Utah clinician and researcher.

That juxtaposition is what first brought Utah to the attention of Britt Rollins, CEO and co-founder of the National Psychedelics Association. He saw Utah had created a task force to study these drugs, and it piqued his curiosity. While it’s too late for Utah to lead out on this issue (Oregon and Colorado have already legalized psilocybin, and California is considering a bill that would open up access to other psychedelics in the nation’s most populous state), Rollins said the Beehive state could still lead the effort for red states.

If Utah does make accessing these drugs easier, experts say thousands stand to benefit.

The state has a higher suicide rate than the national average, as well as a higher-than-average share of adults with anxiety or depression whose counseling or therapy needs aren’t being met, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Psychedelics can help treat mental health issues by changing the way people think. Literally. According to the National Institutes of Health, these drugs work by “encouraging the growth of new connections between neurons in the brain.”

Even if Utah’s mental health needs aren’t the most pressing, “it is pretty bad,” and people in this state are suffering, said Connor Boyack, with the libertarian policy think tank Libertas Institute. He said opening up access to these drugs could help not only Utahns, but those in other states who may think if Utah did this, why can’t we?

Regardless, Utahns continue to find a way to use these drugs — whether public officials like it or not.

‘This Is the Place’ for psychedelics?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Research is conducted at Numinus in Draper on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Though Utah lawmakers rejected a bill this year that would have allowed a limited pilot program for psilocybin use, Utah is home to some of the nation’s first studies on using LSD for generalized anxiety.

Sen. Luz Escamilla’s psilocybin bill this year proposed a pilot program modeled after the state’s medical cannabis program, approved by lawmakers in 2018. Unlike cannabis, however, the psilocybin program would have only been open to people 21 or older, and dosing would have been administered in a clinical setting.

The program was capped at 5,000 patients who had either depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or those receiving hospice care. It was introduced late in the session and ultimately failed.

Even without legalization, Utahns have been primed for psychedelic use, said Reid Robison, a psychiatrist and the chief clinical officer at Numinus, a psychedelic research and therapy company with clinics in Utah.

Folks here who are skeptical of using an illegal drug are often more open to it when they’re receiving it through legitimate means, such as through research trials, and Robison said people are eager to volunteer “out of a place of altruism.”

Researchers have even sought out Utahns specifically for their drug naivety. In the late 2000s, “fallen Mormons” were selected for MDMA research because scientists needed a population of people who’d used the drug before, but whose results wouldn’t be potentially marred by other drug or alcohol use, according to a 2008 blog post from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS.

“Apparently, the mores of this largely Mormon area allowed the ravers to conclude that ‘X’ (ecstasy, or MDMA) isn’t as bad as drinking,” according to a MAPS post the year before.

Utah is also home to relatively large families who have already done extensive genealogical research, which is helpful in clinical research. There’s a reason University of Utah researchers have discovered dozens of genes that indicate inherited disease risk.

Robison, who graduated with a bachelor’s from Brigham Young University before attending the University of Utah, became interested in psychedelics while doing research at the U. He’d become bored and disillusioned with his work on traditional pharmaceuticals. Then, he got a chance to research ketamine.

When people tried ketamine, used traditionally as an anesthetic, many felt better after one session, he said. With an anti-depressant, it can take months to see any improvement, if at all.

Now, Robison is conducting a host of psychedelic-assisted therapy research at his Utah clinics, in dark rooms outfitted with comfy furniture to accommodate the hourslong sessions, as well as administering ketamine off-label to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

This is research that once felt impossible to get approved, he said, until around 2006, when a researcher at John Hopkins University got the first modern psilocybin study approved. Now, amid a psychedelic renaissance, the FDA has fast-tracked research into psilocybin and MDMA, designating “breakthrough” status to both, and the American Psychiatric Association “officially supports” research into psychedelic-assisted therapy.

It’s an acknowledgement that serious mental health issues are impacting millions of Americans, and that answers could be found in medicines the country has historically demonized.

Pathways to legalization and potential pitfalls

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Claire Petersen gives a tour of one of the rooms used for psychedelic research at Numinus.

Dr. Benjamin Lewis and Dr. John Hendrick have been looking into how psilocybin impacts health care worker burnout following the COVID-19 pandemic. Both also worked on research assessing psilocybin-assisted group therapy for cancer patients with depression.

Lewis said he and Hendrick’s approach to psychedelics is “more conservative” than others working in this “small playing field.”

Going too fast could endanger the already “uniquely vulnerable” patients who seek these therapies, Hendrick said, and perhaps jeopardize research. ”We have seen firsthand both the power of these medicines,” he said, “but also the ways in which things can turn pear-shaped fairly quickly.”

Lewis said he understands the fanfare for these drugs — they could help address this country’s mental health crisis. Yet he said that psychedelics are just “one tool among many tools that can help.”

“I don’t see it as going to be the panacea that is going to cure society’s ills, and I don’t see it as being a cure for mental illness,” Lewis said.

Lewis was on the task force that recommended lawmakers not move forward with a bill that would have opened up psilocybin access. Waiting for FDA approval, he said, would ensure a “pure compound” and establish proper testing, dosing, storage and training for providing these drugs.

Dr. Stephanie Coleman, however, was in favor of the bill, because she said the repercussions of trying to keep these drugs out of people’s hands could be worse than making them accessible and promoting education around them through a state-run program, like with medical cannabis.

“As we’re trying to block access legally,” she said, “the underground space is exploding in a dangerous way.”

Coleman runs ketamine clinics in both Utah and California, and said interest in these therapies is far outpacing what people know about them. Sometimes, she fields calls from people asking her to take them on psilocybin “journeys.” That alone shows a serious lack of understanding.

“I’m like, ‘Hey, it’s not legal,” Coleman said, “And they’re like, “What?’”

She’s spoken with people who take these drugs with no idea how much they took, where it came from, or how it might interact with other medications they may be taking. Legalization and regulation could fix that, she said.

‘Let grown adults make grown-adult decisions’

Some, however, are wary of anyone who wants them to pay thousands or dollars for these drugs, or clinicians who may mandate where and how they can use it.

“I’m really concerned that in legalizing psychedelics — which God bless, I’m so glad we’re getting closer — we are only approving one world, which is the sterile world in a doctor’s office or whatever,” said Brooke Lark, sitting on one of several couches arranged in a semi-circle atop fluffy carpet at her Salt Lake City studio space.

The night before, the former Latter-day Saint had people over for a psychedelic ceremony. Nights spent with your friends on these drugs can be just as impactful as rituals, or the experience one may find in a clinic, she claimed.

“I don’t understand why we can’t let grown adults make grown-adult decisions for their bodies,” Lark said, “and just make sure that the rules, the best practices, are clear.”

An earlier version of Lark, the one who didn’t drink coffee or alcohol and wouldn’t French kiss her fiance the night before their wedding, would have had “actual reactions” to the thought of using psychedelics.

But these drugs have since helped Lark reconstruct her life after leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and find more meaning and spirituality than she had before.

She said psychedelics seem to be particularly beneficial for former members of the LDS Church, a faith where people often go into each other’s homes, and check up on each other. Together, members also regularly talk about emotions and ethics, and when people leave, they lose that community.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tyler Hacking, a consultant and educator for Green Dreams Come True and research scientist at Utah Valley University holds a amanita muscaria mushroom while teaching a workshop on how entheogenic medicine is used to treat mental health and addiction at Revival 2023 : Kintsugi, a 4-day immersive wellness festival at North Fork Park in Eden, June 23, 2023. Revival offers over 70 workshops for self-discovery, personal growth and transformation.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A game of duck-duck-goose is played at Revival 2023.

Psychedelics offer a similar “heart-opening closeness,” Lark said, that can “scratch that itch.” The psychedelic community, however, is far less rigidly structured.

“Psychedelic spirituality has been more, ‘I want to tell you what you are, and give you permission to grow fully into whatever you want to create from that,’” she said.

Lark is now a member of The Divine Assembly, a psilocybin church founded in June 2020 by former Republican representative Steve Urquhart and his wife Sara.

The church, which uses psilocybin as its sacrament, grew out of Utah’s “f----- up soil,” Urquhart said, where a “critical mass” of people are getting older and may be realizing that in following the LDS Church, “they were living according to someone else’s fiction.”

“And you come out of that kind of jaded, and you don’t really trust authorities. We’re isolated out here, in a lot of ways,” he said. Until such people find each other, in places like The Divine Assembly.

A different kind of festival

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam Schofield leads a workshop on how to intentionally meditate with cannabis at Revival 2023.

That search for connection has culminated in a multi-day festival that takes place each summer in the shadow of Ben Lomand Peak in rural Weber County, at North Fork Park.

Organizer Andy Silva bills it as a “creative living” festival, where people camp and rotate through a series of planned sessions, teaching everything from how to vet a psychedelic ceremony guide to improving soil health and yoga and breathwork.

Silva, who previously chaired the Utah-based Burning Man spin-off event Element 11, wanted the Revival festival to be less about the art, spectacle, frivolity and fun, and instead focus on community and temperance, moderation, education and safety.

The festival has quiet hours and a silent disco, because, Silva said, “You can’t make good choices if you don’t go to bed.” It’s a far cry from the all-night party culture people often associate with psychedelics.

The experience is powerful, said Lizz Schofield, a Revival attendee and former Latter-day Saint. On day two of this year’s festival, which took place in late June, Schofield invited The Salt Lake Tribune into her onion-shaped yurt, where earlier in the day she’d hosted dozens of others for a cannabis-inspired breathwork meditation.

Schofield grew up in a strict LDS household. Her ancestor Erastus Snow was an early faith leader and among the first Latter-day Saints to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley. It was a lot of pressure — a force she believes ultimately played a role in the deaths by suicide of two of her brothers. She found psychedelics to save lives, including hers.

“We’re doing things like this with other people and trying to foster that kind of growth because there’s a lot of trauma from the church, and it’s not just the church, it’s the lifestyle. It’s so ever-present…,” Schofield said, sitting atop shaggy, soft rugs in her yurt as gusts of winds ripped through the campground outside. “It’s too much.”

Michael Bingham, a Divine Assembly minister who has led ceremonies with Schofield, said a lot of people he sees “have been doing everything right, and haven’t been getting any better.” They’re overly reliant on prescription medications, or bound by the tenets of a religion but still feeling empty, dissatisfied and frustrated. That leads them to look for something else.

Maybe they find it at Revival, among the randomly scattered tents or beneath neon-colored, mushroom-inspired pavilions. Or through a shaman they found online. Or in the dimly lit alcoves of a ketamine clinic.

People are shifting, Bingham said.

“Like, actually, no, all of your neighbors have done psychedelics,” he said, “and we’re all fine.”

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