Can ‘magic mushrooms’ make the trip to legal in conservative Utah?

Rep. Brady Brammer warns his colleagues they don’t want to be left “flat-footed” in the debate over psychedelics.

FILE - In this May 24, 2019, file photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Utah lawmakers who’d long resisted medical cannabis were left somewhat “flat-footed” in 2018 when the state’s voters overruled them by passing a marijuana ballot initiative, Rep. Brady Brammer says.

And if legislators want to avoid a repeat of the past, Brammer contends they should act now in the debate over psychedelics.

The Pleasant Grove Republican — who’s trying to form an expert task force on “magic mushrooms” and other psychedelics — says there’s evidence that these hallucinogenic drugs are useful in treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. While he’s not yet convinced that legalization is the right move, he believes the state should at least begin studying available research on the substances.

His bill, HB167, would create a task force of mental health and medical experts to study the use of psychedelic drugs in treating mental illness. The group would make recommendations about which conditions a particular psychotherapy drug could treat; who should be permitted to administer it and in what dosages; safety requirements for a drug; and regulations the Legislature should adopt for the substance.

“If it will help people, we as a Legislature typically want to help people. ... If the evidence just isn’t there, if it’s too dangerous, if it’s not something that can be recommended and done so responsibly, that’s something we’re going to have to discern,” Brammer told fellow lawmakers Tuesday. “But if we run away from the issue, I can tell you that we’re going to regret it later on.”

The task force would have to submit its written suggestions to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee before the end of October.

The CEO of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the executive director of the state health and human services department would co-chair the panel and pick additional members. The group would have to include a psychiatrist, psychologist, pharmacist, Utah Medical Association representative, neuroscience researcher, hospital representative, patient, therapist, attorney, ethicist and addiction clinician.

During a Tuesday morning public hearing on the bill, a man who said he served in the U.S. Army’s Green Berets testified that psychedelics helped him recover from crippling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Matthew Butler, a Utah native, said he spent nearly three decades in the Army, going on six deployments and enduring 42 months of combat. After his retirement, Butler said he was in denial about his PTSD — but he began drinking too much and using opioids. He was fired from his job, went through his third divorce and became suicidal.

Following an arrest, Butler finally acknowledged he was suffering from PTSD and began searching for treatments, research that led him to explore psychedelics.

“Although I didn’t understand the science, I did trust my fellow veterans, and I followed their path,” he said. “I’m happy to tell you that I’m no longer depressed, suicidal. I have not had any law enforcement involved in my life for over four years. And more importantly, I’m at peace.”

Oregon in 2020 became the first state in the nation to decriminalize psilocybin, colloquially known as “magic mushrooms,” and there are efforts to do the same in Washington and California.

Johns Hopkins University has published more than 60 articles on psychedelics since 2000, when they received federal approval to study the drugs. Their researchers have found evidence that magic mushrooms could help with depression, smoking cessation and easing existential anxiety in cancer patients.

“We have so much evidence from multiple well-designed trials that psychedelics are effective for people. Especially people with major depressive disorder and anxiety, where a lot of the medications that they’re trying already don’t work,” Kylee Shumway, medical director for the Utah Patients Coalition, testified Tuesday.

A representative from the conservative Utah Eagle Forum spoke against the legislation, arguing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should oversee the exploration of psychedelics. However, the only legislator to oppose the bill Tuesday was Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, who said he witnessed the negative effects of psychedelic mushrooms on one of his family members.

Brammer responded that any drug can be abused, but that this risk shouldn’t stop policymakers from considering a substance’s potential value.

“I understand that this can be a little bit scary,” he said. “But at the same time, we’ve got a pretty scary mental health issue going on right now, and this is one of the few things that does show some indications of curative benefits.”

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave the bill a favorable recommendation and sent it to the full chamber for a vote. HB167 has already passed in the Utah House.