Drug Legalization

All But 2 Utah Legislators Just Voted to Investigate the Psychotherapeutic Potential of Psychedelics

The bill is the latest sign of strange new respect for drugs that were once routinely depicted as menaces to body and soul.


Is there anything more boring than a bill that would establish a "task force" to study an issue and "make recommendations"? What if the issue is psychotherapeutic use of federally proscribed substances such as psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA? And what if the bill was approved almost unanimously by legislators in Utah?

Not so boring anymore, is it? H.B. 167, which passed the Utah House by a vote of 68 to 1 on February 10 and the Utah Senate by a vote of 23 to 1 last Friday, is the latest sign of strange new respect for drugs that not so long ago were routinely depicted as menaces to body and soul. Thanks to recent research, dogged advocacy, new regulatory receptiveness, and groundbreaking ballot initiatives, substances that were once seen as tickets to the madhouse are now increasingly viewed as tools for enhancing mental health. Even in Utah.

H.B. 167 is now on Republican Gov. Spencer Cox's desk, although the veto-proof majorities in favor of it suggest it will become law no matter what reception it receives there. "We fully expect the governor to sign the bill in the coming weeks," says Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack, whose organization endorsed the bill. "This effort is especially significant because no one expects Utah to be a leader on this type of issue. If the Beehive State can blaze a trail for what legalization of psychedelics looks like, it'll be a strong signal to other states that this new frontier of alternative medicine is a safe one to navigate for conservatives across the country."

H.B. 167 would create a task force to "provide evidence-based recommendations on any psychotherapy drug that the task force determines may enhance psychotherapy when treating a mental illness." It defines "psychotherapy drug" as "a controlled substance" that "is not currently available for legal use" but "may be able to treat, manage, or alleviate symptoms from mental illness." The task force, which would include people with expertise in medicine, psychotherapy, pharmacology, and addiction, is charged with producing a report by the end of October.

State Rep. Brady Brammer (R–Pleasant Grove), who introduced the bill in the House, concedes it is not the sort of legislation people might expect from a conservative Mormon. "I'm kind of your typical Mormon guy, and this hasn't been an area that I've delved into personally," he told the Fox station in Salt Lake City in January. "But I do have a lot of empathy for those that are struggling with mental illness."

Brammer told his colleagues the task force would "help us stay ahead of things so that we know what we're talking about as a legislature, because this is not going to be an issue that goes away." He emphasized that researching the subject is not necessarily the same as endorsing legal access to psychedelics.

"We're looking for evidence-based recommendations," Brammer said. "If the evidence just isn't there, if it's too dangerous, if it's not something that can be recommended and done so responsibly, that's something that we're going to have to discern. But if we run away from the issue, I can tell you that we're going to regret it later on."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering approval of psilocybin and MDMA as prescription drugs to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, respectively. It has designated both as "breakthrough therapies," meaning they "may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies on one or more clinically significant endpoints."

Not content to wait for the FDA, Oregon voters in 2020 approved a ballot initiative authorizing "psilocybin service centers" where adults 21 or older can legally take the drug under the supervision of a "facilitator" after completing a "preparation session." The initiative says state regulators "may not require a client to be diagnosed with or have any particular medical condition as a condition to being provided psilocybin services."

Cities across the country, meanwhile, have approved quasi-decriminalization of psilocybin and, in some cases, other "entheogens" as well. Those resolutions and ballot initiatives did not actually repeal criminal penalties, but they urged police and prosecutors to leave psychedelic users alone.

While the Utah bill does not go as far as any of those measures, it opens the door to approval of "medical" use, which in the case of marijuana eventually led to broader legalization in 18 states that together account for more than two-fifths of the U.S. population. The 37 states that allow patients to use cannabis for symptom relief include Utah, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 2018.

Although it took five years to legalize medical marijuana in Utah, Boyack notes, the program is currently serving more than 40,000 patients, nearly three times as many as predicted. "Conservative legislators in Utah have seen how helpful cannabis has been to thousands of patients," he says. "And in state with significant mental illness and a shortage of options and care, there's some appetite to explore other alternatives and see if we can help people with mental illness like we did those with physical illnesses."

Boyack notes that "the landscape [for psychedelics] is much different than it was with cannabis," since "hardly anyone knows what psilocybin is—and the only jurisdictions that have decriminalized it are deep blue." But if Utah goes beyond studying the issue, he adds, it "would be a leader on this among red states."