North Carolina lawmakers are advancing a bill to authorize research into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. If it’s approved, the state would put millions of dollars into psychedelic research to demonstrate to lawmakers and regulators whether the drugs are safe and effective—and could ultimately change criminal laws.
The bill resembles others around the country. But the story of its inception—through student activism and a chance connection between veterans—is unique.
House Bill 727 was introduced in April by Representatives C. Wayne Sasser (R), Allen Chesser (R) and John Autry (D). On May 16, it was unanimously approved by the Health Committee. It now heads to the Appropriations Committee, and must also pass the Rules Committee to reach a full House vote. But advocates are highly optimistic.
The bill would fund the study of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and psilocybin for depression or anxiety. Both substances are in advanced clinical trials for mental health conditions elsewhere, with MDMA expected to be approved by the FDA in the near future.
Inspired by psychedelics reforms in other states, local advocates nonetheless believed that full decriminalization or legalization would be unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled legislature. So they chose a narrower proposal, for which they saw a real chance of success.
The legislation was sparked by two members of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), with the support of the North Carolina Psychedelic Policy Coalition.
“Besides lobbying in Raleigh, we were also coalition-building pretty heavily.”
“I myself had severe depression and anxiety for most of my life,” Gina Giorgio, SSDP’s psychedelic pipeline program director, who cofounded the coalition behind the bill, told Filter. “My journey with psychedelics helped me experience more self-growth and transformation, and experience my [symptoms] from an observer perspective, rather than reliving it over and over. I had a pivotal point with psilocybin, in that it helped me assess where I was at in my life and actually make a change and take care of my mental health.”
Giorgio connected with SSDP Outreach Director Jeremy Sharp, based in Georgia, and they started meeting and educating North Carolina lawmakers. “Besides lobbying in Raleigh, we were also coalition-building pretty heavily,” she said. “We reached out to all the people we could find—whether advocates, researchers, therapists—to … create a group that was supportive of this.”
A voter then told Rep. Autry how psychedelics helped them heal from PTSD—and Autry’s staff connected him with SSDP, who convinced him to co-sponsor the bill.
Sharp explained how additional support and a chance connection with a member of the House also helped the bill advance.
After a phone call with Lubecky, Rep. Chesser agreed to co-sponsor the bill.
“We were able to work with [the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies],” he told Filter, “and Jonathan Lubecky from MAPS referred us to a veteran [lawmaker on the committee], who was able to pick it up. Once we got the veteran on board, we were able to ask for more money, and now we have 15 bill sponsors. We expect it to sail through the House.”
Lubecky is a combat veteran who was deployed to Iraq. He participated in the MAPS MDMA study in 2014, and said it changed his life after he had struggled with PTSD and survived five suicide attempts. Lubecky had reportedly served alongside Rep. Chesser, who he said “owed him a favor.” After a phone call with Lubecky, Chesser agreed to co-sponsor the bill.
The legislation would award two recipients $2.5 million each by July 2024, to fund three years’ worth of research. The MDMA study would focus on veterans, first responders, frontline health care workers, and survivors of domestic or sexual violence. This would first require that the substance be classified as a “breakthrough therapy” by the FDA—a special designation given by the agency to a treatment it believes is promising for a serious illness, speeding up the review and approval process.
The bill would also establish a “Breakthrough Therapies Research Advisory Board,” with members appointed by the governor, House and Senate, and representatives from various state public health agencies. Requirements for membership include being a licensed doctor or mental health care provider, expertise in psychedelic medicine, background in law enforcement, or personal experience with trauma.
That board would be responsible for reviewing grant applications and recommending which projects should receive funding. It would then monitor the progress of research and report back to the state. Finally, it would recommend whether the state should continue the grant program, and if any changes should be made.
For example, the state might then choose to fund research into other psychedelic substances not named in the bill—because of its focus on “breakthrough therapies.” So if the FDA designated LSD, for example, a breakthrough therapy, the North Carolina grant program might be adjusted to include LSD research.
Advocates hope that such opportunities will pave the way for much broader reforms in North Carolina down the line.
Update 07/17/2023: Story corrected to credit support of North Carolina Psychedelic Policy Coalition.