Veterans have become unlikely lobbyists to legalize psychedelic drugs

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APPLE VALLEY, Calif .– Jose Martinez, a former Army gunner whose right arm and both legs were blown away by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, has a new calling: He has become one of the most popular lobbyists. most effective in a campaign to legalize the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs across the country.

During a Zoom call this spring with Connie Leyva, a California Democratic lawmaker who has long opposed loosening drug laws, Mr. Martinez explained to her how psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms” “, had helped to finally soothe the physical pain and suicidal thoughts that had tormented him.

Ms Leyva says she changed her mind before the call even ended, and she later voted yes on the bill, which is expected to become law early next year.

“We ask these men and women to go and fight for our freedoms,” she said in an interview. “So if it’s something that helps them live more normal lives, I feel like I shouldn’t stand in the way.”

In the two years since Oregon, Washington, DC and half a dozen municipalities decriminalized psilocybin, veterinarians have become the primary advocates for legalizing psychedelic medicine, which they credit with helping to relieve post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression that are often linked to their experiences in the military.

The campaign was propelled by the epidemic of suicides among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by the national judgment on the mass incarceration of those accused of drugs which softened the public attitude towards of prohibition.

More than 30,000 servicemen have committed suicide in the years since 9/11 – four times the number of those who have died on the battlefield – and the Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to cope with the crisis with the directory traditional pharmacological interventions.

The recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan may have marked the end of America’s “eternal war”, but the psychological fallout from two decades of military conflict continues to ripple through many of the 1.9 million servicemen served overseas.

“I will not be said no to anything that prevents human beings from committing suicide,” Martinez said.

Jesse Gould, a former Army Ranger who started Heroic Hearts Project, an organization that connects veterans with psychedelic therapies available in Latin America, also measures desperation in the daily stream of emails it receives from vets seeking help.

The waiting list for a treatment window, he said, expands to 850 people.

“The federal health care system has failed us, which is why veterans have to seek treatment outside the country,” he said. “They are already turning to psychedelic options en masse so we can either decide to call these veterans criminals, which we are doing now, or make sure they can get effective care here at home.”

Recent studies have substantiated anecdotal evidence of the benefits and helped quantify the therapeutic value of substances like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA, the drug better known as ecstasy. A study in Natural medicine found that MDMA combined with counseling provided marked relief in patients with severe PTSD. Another in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated the potential of psilocybin therapy for the treatment of severe depression.

Although current federal law largely prohibits the medical use of these compounds, researchers expect MDMA-assisted speech therapy to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration in a year or two. followed soon after by psilocybin, which has already received agency approval as a “Cutting edge therapy” for severe depression. In 2019, the FDA approved esketamine, a nasal spray derived from the anesthetic ketamine, for treatment-resistant depression. The off-label use of ketamine for depression has also become increasingly popular.

Kevin Matthews, a military veteran who led a 2019 measure to vote in denver that decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms – the first US city to do so – said personal testimonials about psychedelic therapy have been key in convincing skeptics who fear decriminalization is fueling increased recreational use.

“The key to doing this is getting the right people in front of the right constituencies,” he said.

Advocates of decriminalization have made remarkable progress over the past two years. Last month Seattle embraced decriminalization psilocybin and other psychoactive herbal drugs, and Michigan and several other cities across the country are poised to follow suit.

But as psychedelics gain acceptance among mental health professionals, even enthusiastic supporters of decriminalization recognize the potential dangers of doing so without proper regulation or professional advice. Overdoses are rare and compounds are not considered addictive, but experts stress importance of given chaperoned drug trips anecdotal reports on side effects in people with serious conditions such as schizophrenia.

At first glance, ex-servicemen may seem unlikely champions of the illicit and mind-altering drugs many Americans associate with the counter-cultural pacifists of the 1960s and 1970s. But veterans have become powerful emissaries for psychedelics across the political spectrum.

Juliana Mercer, a San Diego Marine Corps veteran who helps connect former servicemen to psychedelic therapy, says her lobbying efforts are especially helpful with Republican lawmakers who often harbor anti-drug attitudes but hold veterans in high regard. .

“It helps not to be a stereotypical hippie who uses LSD for fun,” she said. “But I think our voices have an impact because we risked our lives for our country, and after 20 years of war we need help to heal because nothing has worked so far.”

Recent converts include Rick Perry, the former Republican governor of Texas, who returned to the State Capitol earlier this year to join Democratic lawmakers promoting a bill to allow the clinical study of psilocybin. The bill passed the two legislative chambers in June, and became law.

Mr. Perry declined an interview request, but during a press conference in April, he said his conversion from an anti-drug mainstay to a champion of psychedelic therapies was inspired by his personal relationship with a combat veteran who had turned to opioids to treat his PTSD.

U.S. Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican and former Navy SEAL who had consistently opposed efforts to loosen drug laws in Congress, also changed his mind after hearing from other alumni fighters. In September, he introduced an amendment to a defense spending bill that would have allowed the Pentagon to fund research into psychedelics. The amendment, however, failed to get out of a House Rules Committee.

The focus of the legalization campaign on veterinarians as the main advocates is not without controversy. Carlos Plazola, co-founder of the advocacy group Decriminalize nature, said he was disappointed with the movement’s focus on the struggles of the military. He said a wider range of people of color should voice their experiences.

“We understand the importance of pushing patriotism and bringing the American flag up the front of the parade, if you will, but if we are to be successful we also need to talk about the trauma of blacks, brunettes, Asians and aboriginals. . communities, ”he said.

Yet military veterans have proven to be effective messengers. Former Army Ranger Mr Gould started Heroic Hearts in 2019, shortly after taking his first psychedelic trip to Peru with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic herbal brew that has shown tremendous promise in the world. treatment of a range of psychological illnesses.

Mr Gould said a traumatic brain injury caused by the numerous rocket launches he oversaw on three deployments to Afghanistan left him with uncontrolled spasms of anger and anxiety. Healthy romantic relationships, he said, were out of the question.

“It defragmented my brain in a way that allowed it to heal,” he said of the ayahuasca retreat, adding that his new state of mind allowed him to meet the woman who would become later his wife. “It definitely saved my life.”

Researchers are still trying to understand the mechanics of psychedelic-assisted therapies, but they are generally thought to promote physiological changes in the brain, sometimes after just one session. Psychologically, drugs can offer a new perspective on seemingly intractable trauma, giving patients new tools to deal with pain and find inner peace.

Mr. Martinez, the former army gunner injured in Afghanistan, has become a particularly effective evangelist for psychedelics. He had 19 surgeries and relentless pain that made him dependent on opioids. Beneath the physical agony lay an untreated wound: the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a parent.

“For a very long time I didn’t understand why I was so angry with the world,” said Martinez, 33, who grew up in South Los Angeles and lives with his wife on the edge of the desert. from Mojave. Psilocybin, he said, changed everything. Although he is still in constant pain, his “trips” while using drugs allow him to step outside of himself and focus on the good and what is possible in life. which lately includes sidelines as a Paralympic surfer, archer and weight-training enthusiast. He also runs a non-profit organization that seeks to connect veterans with nature through nature outings.

“Psychedelics have helped me realize that my issues are small compared to the biggest issues in the world like starvation and cancer,” he said. “And now I understand why I am here in this world, which is to make people smile and remind them that life can be good even when it’s not that easy.”

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