Arizona takes big step in ‘magic mushroom’ research | City News

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Arizona is taking the first steps to what could be legalizing the use of certain mushrooms – specifically psilocybin – for use for some people.

Officials from the Arizona Department of Health Services have published a notice that they will be accepting applications to conduct clinical trials on the efficacy of psilocybin whole mushrooms to treat various conditions, disorders and diseases.

It follows approval earlier this year of legislation specifically mandating the study to see whether the drugs in the mushrooms can help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study, though, won’t be limited to that.

Health officials also want to find out whether the mushrooms and the various other substances in them also can be effective in helping those with everything from eating disorders and substance abuse to depression and symptoms associated with long COVID.

Lawmakers set aside $5 million for the research.

But even if the research results are promising, don’t look for what have been referred to as “magic mushrooms” to be available the way they are now in Oregon and Colorado. 

Voters in those states decriminalized their use for adults, though officially they are supposed to be used at “healing centers” where patients are under the guidance of certified facilitators.

And while Arizona lawmakers approved the research and the funding, they forbade their use unless the federal government also approves it as a prescription. That has not yet occurred, even though a private company is doing trials of MDMA, a synthetic form of the drug.

Still, having the state start its own clinical trials and research could give Arizona a jump on being ready to move on that and make the drug available to patients here if the FDA gives the go-ahead.

The big push appears to have come from Dr. Suzanne Sisley, who has for years been at the forefront of pushing for research into the medical use of marijuana, specifically for PTSD.

She was a doctor and researcher at the University of Arizona who got permission from the federal Public Health Service to do research on the campus about whether marijuana could be useful to treat the symptoms of the disease. 

Shortly thereafter, the school terminated her from three separate positions, a move she blamed on political pressure from some state lawmakers.

She now is president of the Scottsdale Research Institute where she not only has conducted investigations into marijuana but also has a license from the FDA to actually grow psilocybin mushrooms for research. 

And that also means she is likely to be the source of the mushrooms that any researchers that get state contracts will need.

Sisley also is hoping to be one of those who gets a grant.

That, however, is going to be the decision of a new Psilocybin Research Advisory Council also created this legislative session. 

Aside from Jennie Cunico, the state health director, the panel will include a physician who has a federal license to study psychedelics, a military veteran, a law enforcement officer, and a professor or researcher from one of the state’s three universities who specializes in clinical research or psychedelic studies.

The names of the panel members have not yet been made public. Its recommendations are due by Feb. 1.

Sisley told Capitol Media Services that what makes Arizona’s decision significant is it would become the first study in the nation about the effects of psilocybin whole mushrooms, versus work underway about MDMA, the name for the synthetic version of the drug.

“There’s no question but that natural mushrooms are going to perform different than synthetic psilocybin,” she said.

“It’s a hyper-concentrated molecule,” Sisley explained of synthetics. “So you get, potentially, maybe more efficacy but also more side effects when you concentrate something.”

Then there’s the personal preference.

“A lot of people just prefer taking the natural material,” she said.

“They believe that nature’s already provided what you need,” Sisley continued. “And they don’t like synthetic stuff.”

And there’s something else.

“You and I already know there’s people taking this mushroom, regardless of what the law is,” she said. That, she said, makes research all the more critical.

For the moment, though, what exists is largely anecdotal. That was on display earlier this year at legislative hearings.

Robert Steele, a former Pinal County sheriff’s deputy and Marine Corps combat veteran, told lawmakers that PTSD and the effects of traumatic brain injuries left him suicidal, unable to work and nearly destroyed his family life.

He said he turned to mushrooms “out of sheer desperation” to get relief, calling the effects “profound.”

“This medicine has restored my relationships, brought me closer with my wife and children and allowed me to have a life worth living again,” Steele said.

Sisley said that what’s needed — and the path Arizona is on — is to do the research first versus having a voter-approved initiative to legalize the drug like what happened in Colorado and Oregon and then figure out how to deal with it.

“This is a mushroom that’s incredibly potent and is not to be played with,” she said.

“There’s plenty of cautionary tales of people who use them improperly, without the correct setting, without the correct preparatory work and integration afterwards and have had really bad outcomes with it,” Sisley said. 

“People are left with residual terrors that they’re not able to properly integrate.”

Americans got a sense of that just last month when an off-duty pilot, flying in the “jump seat” in the cockpit of a Horizon Air flight, tried to shut off the engines. 

He would later tell investigators he had taken “magic mushrooms” 48 hours earlier and was still distressed by the death of his best friend.

One of the requirements of the Arizona law is that the research won’t be done on just anyone. It specifically requires the trials to use veterans, first responders, frontline health care workers and people from underserved communities.

All this, said Sisley, will take time.

She figures one year to get the necessary approvals from various federal agencies.

“So if they launch those studies a year later, it’s going to take them a year to complete the trials, to get the data published, another six months to get through peer review,” Sisley explained. 

But all that, she said, is necessary for Arizona to move ahead – or not. 

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