Wisconsin Lawmakers Want to Fund Pilot Psilocybin Program for Veterans

November 16, 2023

Wisconsin lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow veterans to access psychedelic treatment. It would use taxpayer dollars to fund a pilot research program for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. In part, the idea is to put Wisconsin ahead of the game in the event that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves psilocybin as a medical treatment. In a state where elected Republicans have refused to consider even medical marijuana legalization, psychedelics for veterans might be a notable point of agreement across the aisle.

The bill was introduced on November 9 by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including state Senators Jesse James (R) and Dianne Hesselbein (D), and Representatives Nate Gustafson (R) and Clinton Anderson (D). It would “[create] a medicinal psilocybin treatment fund and a pilot program to study the effects of medicinal psilocybin treatment on patients with post-traumatic stress syndrome at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”

The university would be responsible for designing and conducting the study, and any veterans over 21 who are diagnosed with PTSD would be eligible to participate. No one else could participate, however—even non-veterans with PTSD. The researchers would be required to report their findings to the governor and legislature.

“By co-sponsoring this bill, you are contributing to generation of essential data that will inform our future policies regarding psilocybin.”

“Our veterans, who have selflessly served our country, often carry the heavy burden of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and other mental health conditions,” the four lawmakers wrote in a memo inviting more cosponsors to back their legislation. “It is our moral duty to provide them with the best possible care and support … By co-sponsoring this bill, you are not only championing the well-being of our nation’s veterans but also contributing to the generation of essential data that will inform our future policies regarding psilocybin.”

The bill says research must be done through “pathways approved” by the FDA. But psilocybin is not approved by the FDA as a medical treatment—at least, not yet. Federally, it’s a Schedule I controlled substance, in the same category as heroin, cannabis and LSD. These drugs are not legal for any purpose, including medical, and deemed to carry “high potential for abuse.”

However there is another “pathway” that researchers in Wisconsin could pursue: Expanded access, or “compassionate use,” is an exception through which the FDA allows patients with a life-threatening illness to receive a medical treatment that hasn’t yet been approved, if there’s some evidence it could be helpful.

Anyone following Wisconsin politics will know that the state is not exactly on the frontlines of progressive drug policy. Despite Governor Tony Evers (D) and other elected Democrats championing cannabis legalization, the Republicans in control of both House and Senate have refused to consider it. Wisconsin doesn’t even permit medical marijuana, despite now being bordered by three fully legal-cannabis states.

Undaunted, the lawmakers behind this bill believe that by benefiting a constituency no politician wants to be seen to disregard—veterans—it could unite both parties. The bill would not legalize psilocybin in any way: There would be no Oregon-style psilocybin service centers, no legal home-growing and no general access to mushrooms, not even on a doctor’s recommendation. Criminal penalties for possessing or distributing the drug would not change. Its narrow focus, proponents believe, means it might stand a chance.

“I’ve seen folks who I would not expect to be in favor of this, but when they see the veteran component they are very interested,” Rep. Anderson told Filter.

“I’m pleased [Republican Senator Jesse James] is sponsoring this bill,” Sen. Hesselbein told Filter. “I’ve talked to many Republicans over the years, and he is one that wants to help with this. He is an Army veteran, I am the wife of an Army and Air Force veteran, so I think we know this can help. We have friends we know who suffer from PTSD, and we’re hopeful this can help veterans in Wisconsin.”

There are over 331,000 military veterans in the state, according to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. And the bill’s focus on relieving their suffering is broadly compelling: What politician wants to risk opposition ads saying they vetoed veterans’ healing?

“I’ve seen folks so far who I would not expect to be in favor of this, but when they see the veteran component they are very interested,” Rep. Anderson told Filter. “I think this might be an issue that could get unusual groups of support behind it. Time will tell, this is something we haven’t seen introduced before … I would like to see some of the veteran groups get behind this bill and really use their weight to move it across the finish line.”

This strategy has already succeeded in Texas, Maryland and Washington, each of which has passed a state psilocybin pilot for veterans. And the psychedelics-for-veterans line has brought some very unlikely people into the movement in support of limited reform—like former Texas Governor Rick Perry (R), a Trump-era energy secretary whom no one should mistake for a liberal.

A question that will be answered in the coming years is whether veteran-focused programs like these represent an effective “gateway policy” to broad legalization.

There’s still a long road ahead. Before Thanksgiving, we should know how many Wisconsin state lawmakers have joined on to cosponsor this psilocybin bill. It should then be assigned to one or more committees, which would before January decide whether to hold hearings and listen to testimony—and whether or not to vote it out of committee. If the House or Senate versions move out of committee, we could then see a floor vote in the respective chamber in the legislative session beginning January 16.

“I think there is some hesitance [among Republicans] when it comes to psilocybin, people are nervous about it,” Senator Hesselbein said. “But that’s why I’m happy Senator James is on the bill to talk to his Republican colleagues about it, and I’m hoping we get a bill that could get a hearing. It’s during that process that we can hear what people are worried about or how to make the bill better and can move towards, hopefully, a vote.”



Photograph by Kristie Gianopulos via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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