Utah quietly legalizes psilocybin, MDMA for mental health treatment at these hospitals

The psilocybin program was pitched as another option to help solve the state’s mental health crisis. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox will let the program take effect later this spring.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Research is conducted at Numinus Wellness Inc. in Draper on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Gov. Spencer Cox allowed a bill to go into effect that would authorize doctors at two of Utah's biggest hospital systems to treat patients with psilocybin and MDMA.

Doctors at Utah’s two biggest health care systems will have the option to treat patients with psilocybin and MDMA — illegal drugs being fast-tracked for development by the Food and Drug Administration because of promising research showing their success in treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance misuse and other mental health issues.

While Gov. Spencer Cox did not sign the legislation to create this pilot program, he didn’t veto it either, citing “overwhelming legislative support.” He is allowing it to go into effect May 1, Cox announced Thursday.

“I am generally supportive of scientific efforts to discover the benefits of new substances that can relieve suffering,” Cox said in a statement. “However, we have a task force that was set up specifically to advise the Legislature on the best ways to study Psilocybin and I’m disappointed that their input was ignored.”

The task force ended last year and had previously released a report saying that while evidence suggests these drugs are safe and effective, lawmakers should wait to act until they were approved by the FDA. That hasn’t happened yet.

Lawmakers took that advice in 2023, when they failed to pass a similar, but more far-reaching bill that would have legalized psilocybin production, as well as a therapeutic pilot program. At the time, Cox said he didn’t “believe we should be experimenting on 5,000 people here in our state.”

This year’s bill, however, sailed through Utah’s House and Senate with little outcry or pushback.

What does SB266 do?

Bill sponsor Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, pitched SB266 as a way to address Utah’s growing mental health crisis. Utah ranks seventh in the nation in the percentage of adults with depression and suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17 and 18 to 24, according to recent studies.

“So this bill would allow a doctor, who has an intimate understanding of a patient’s mental health diagnosis and treatment protocols, to make the best decision for their patients,” he said.

Once stigmatized, psychedelic drugs like psilocybin (sometimes referred to as magic mushrooms) and MDMA (sometimes called ecstasy or molly) are having a revival in the U.S. because of their therapeutic potential. As regulators mull legalizing these drugs, research — by both professionals and amateurs — has been booming in Utah.

The program under Cullimore’s bill will only be open to providers at the University of Utah Health and Intermountain. The pilot program will end in three years, allowing the legislature to choose whether or not to continue it, Cullimore said.

Under this program, doctors dosing patients with psilocybin or MDMA must do so in a medical facility, meaning patients won’t be allowed to take any of the drugs home, unlike with medical cannabis and some ketamine therapies, he said, adding that the drugs can’t be used to treat minors.

Health care providers that create such a program must report back to the legislature before July 2026 with information about drugs used and their side effects, patients’ health outcomes and other information “necessary for the Legislature to evaluate the medicinal value of any drugs.”

Implementing such a program will take “extensive” work, Huntsman Mental Health Institute medical director Dr. James C. Ashworth said in an emailed statement ahead of Cox’s decision. The institute is part of the University of Utah Health hospital system.

“As an institution, we like to be data-driven, and if this is legislated, we will review available data and develop an implementation plan at that time,” Ashworth said.

Intermountain did not respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment.