Brad Daw: Legalize psilocybin to address Utah’s mental health crisis

Some drugs banned by the federal government actually have beneficial uses.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Shane Brooks, a Marine Corps veteran, kneels for nine hours outside the Utah Capitol to call attention to racial injustice, police brutality and mental health, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

As a lifelong conservative and Republican, I believe government power should be limited. My research into the science of psilocybin has convinced me that the federal government committed a grave error by not only banning it, but also making it nearly impossible to conduct research into its safety and efficacy.

Utah’s SB200 is an important step in correcting this and making a valuable medicine available to patients in a safe manner.

I grew up in a small farm town in Idaho and was taught from a young age that illegal drugs are bad — that you would have to be crazy to try them. There is a lot of truth in this. Many drugs do cause significant harm to people who use them and to society at large.

However, my understanding has become more nuanced over time. Not everything the federal government has prohibited as a Schedule I drug is devoid of legitimate use.

I first started to question federal drug scheduling while serving as a Utah state representative. I learned about a strain of cannabis high in CBD and low in THC, the chemical that produces a high. People with debilitating epilepsy were using this strain to control their seizures and live more normal lives. Many heartfelt conversations with mothers who had seen their children’s quality of life improve dramatically convinced me that the “drugs are bad” narrative I had been taught was too simplistic.

Additional research convinced me that while cannabis, like all powerful tools, had potential for misuse, it also had potential for good and needed to be available for medical use.

I eventually worked with stakeholders to help create the medical cannabis law we enjoy in Utah today. It allows patients to access cannabis for medical purposes, while continuing to prohibit recreational use. Over 50,000 Utah patients have been helped, and many have been able to stop using medications which caused serious side effects.

I had personally been taking an Ambien prescription to sleep at night. A previously prohibited cannabis-based product has now allowed me to forgo Ambien, which is potentially addictive, and still get a good night’s rest.

Cannabis is not the only substance which has been wrongly scheduled, depriving patients of an avenue to wellness. Psilocybin, a compound which occurs naturally in some mushroom species, has shown great potential for addressing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

Studies by Johns Hopkins University and other reputable institutions have shown that one or two doses of psilocybin can alleviate depression indefinitely. Study volunteers ranked their experience among the most personally meaningful and significant of their lives. This could be life changing for tens of thousands of Utahns currently suffering from depression.

Antidepressants and antianxiety medications address only symptoms. They may numb pain, but they aren’t addressing root causes. Psilocybin is different. People who use it are able to view traumatic and painful experiences from a new perspective. This allows them to work through the causes of their depression, anxiety or PTSD rather than just putting a band-aid on top.

Utah can’t afford to wait for the federal government to act. Utah has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the nation and above-average suicide rates. It is evident that current options have not been enough. It is irresponsible to continue to prohibit a medicine which could not only improve lives, but potentially save them.

SB200 includes many common-sense safeguards to ensure that medical psilocybin is used safely and only by patients. Psilocybin will be tracked with an inventory control system to ensure that it isn’t diverted. Cultivators must be licensed and are subject to inspection. Independent labs will test for purity and potency. Doctors must screen patients to ensure that a psilocybin recommendation is appropriate and safe for an individual patient. Most importantly, patients will only take psilocybin in an office while being supervised by a licensed therapist.

Like virtually all powerful medicines, psilocybin can be misused. However, many medicines have associated risks. We cope with this not by banning them, but by putting in place guardrails to mitigate risk. SB200 strikes the correct balance between access for patients and safety for patients and the public.

It is my hope that both lawmakers and the public will take the time to consider SB200 with open minds and be willing to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. Utah patients deserve no less.

Brad Daw

Brad Daw is a former member of the Utah House of Representatives.