First-ever provision for psychedelic studies included in defense bill

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A first-ever provision included in this year’s defense policy bill enables studies to analyze the effects of psychedelics on troops suffering from various medical issues.

As part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024, any member of the military diagnosed with either post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury can take part in a clinical study that uses authorized funds from the Pentagon.

Studies can be conducted regardless of a substance’s classification under the Controlled Substances Act or Uniformed Code of Military Justice, according to the bill. The bill passed through the Senate on Wednesday and the House on Thursday. President Joe Biden issued a statement on his intent to sign the bill into law following its passage in the House.

“The inclusion of provisions supporting studies on psychedelic therapy in the 2024 NDAA marks a historic moment for the veteran community,” said Amber Capone, CEO of Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, a group helping veterans access psychedelic therapies. “This legislative breakthrough reflects a bipartisan dedication to prioritizing the mental health of those who have served.”

The legislation comes as a mental health crisis continues to ravage veteran and military communities. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom suffer from near-epidemic levels of PTSD, with nearly 30% of those veterans reporting PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives.

The new provision directs Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin to establish a process for the Pentagon to fund studies by federal or state agencies that study the medicinal properties of psychedelics. Academic institutions are also eligible to receive Pentagon funding.

The legislation includes a range of psychedelic substances with potential medical properties:

  • MDMA, more commonly known as ecstasy or molly
  • Psilocybin, more commonly known as magic mushrooms
  • Ibogaine, extracted from the root of the Iboga plant in central Africa
  • 5-MeO-DMT, commonly found in many plant species and secreted from the glands of the Colorado River Toad
  • Other qualified “plant-based alternative therapies”

Researchers have already received promising initial results on a number of the substances included in the bill. In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated MDMA as a “breakthrough therapy” for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Psilocybin to treat anxiety and depression received that designation in 2019.

Advocates are hopeful ibogaine will be the next to receive that status.

The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, has researched the effects of MDMA for more than 30 years. Its most recent study — a second phase III, multi-site clinical trial — confirmed the results of the first phase III trial.

In that study, more than 86% of participants who received the MDMA-assisted therapy experienced “clinically meaningful” improvement 18 weeks after starting the trial, according to MAPS. Additionally, more than 71% of participants who underwent MDMA-assisted therapy no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD at the end study, compared to little more than 46% of participants who had the placebo plus therapy.

For the next five years, Austin must submit a report to the House and Senate Armed Services committees about the institutions provided funding for the studies, the number of troops participating and results of the clinical trials, according to the bill.

But advocates for psychedelic therapies say there is more work to be done, and another bill making its way through Congress contains language to use such therapies to help veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD or TBI.

Reps. Lou Correa, D-Calif., and Jack Bergman, R-Mich., recently submitted an amendment to the Veterans Affairs appropriations bill that would direct the department to set up pilot programs for breakthrough therapies, including MDMA, across the country. The pair co-chair the Psychedelics Advancing Therapies Caucus.

“[The provision] to the NDAA is an important and significant first step in DOD research into novel treatments for PTSD,” said Julianna Mercer, the veterans advocacy director for the group Healing Breakthrough. “There is significant momentum for new and innovative ways to treat PTSD, and Congress is already well into its next goal.”

Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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