Three Bills Seek to Shift Psychedelics Policy in New York State
The question is: Can they pass?
Progressive New York State has watched from the sidelines as states across the country, from Oregon to Massachusetts, have begun to decriminalize psychedelics and introduce frameworks for psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Now three separate bills addressing psychedelics have been introduced into the state Assembly's Health Committee, with a fourth soon to follow. Advocates are concerned, however, that none of these bills are likely to pass, at least not in their current form.
A closer look at the bills
Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (D) from New York City's Upper West Side has introduced two of these bills. The first calls for the creation of a state-funded Institute for Therapeutic Psychedelic Research to be formed within the Department of Health. The Institute would include a program to "study and provide recommendations regarding the use of psychedelic substances."
The research bill, A7928, identifies psilocybin, ibogaine, LSD and MDMA as the psychedelic drugs that can "provide a treatment for people struggling with substance use disorder," including opiates, as well as "treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism." The Institute would present its final recommendations, including legislative proposals, by the end of 2023.
A second bill introduced by Rosenthal, A6065, seeks to decriminalize psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive chemicals in magic mushrooms, by removing them from the state's list of Schedule 1 substances.
South Buffalo Assemblymember Pat Burke (D) has sponsored a third bill, A8569, which seeks to create a statewide system for psilocybin-assisted therapy for patients who meet specific criteria. The legislation provides a framework for locally cultivated psilocybin to be administered to patients by sanctioned facilitators through a network of "psilocybin service centers." In effect, the proposal bypasses the research period and public discussion called for by Rosenthal's research bill.
"New York is a very blue state, but it's kind of old school in a lot of ways," Burke says, explaining his support for the medically supervised therapy approach to the psilocybin-assisted therapy bill. "We have a responsibility to our veterans and first responders with PTSD and we have a suicide epidemic in this country. When voters realize what these drugs can do, you're destigmatizing it a little bit."
Helping to craft the psilocybin-assisted therapy bill is New York-based attorney Brett Waters, founder of the psychedelic advocacy initiative Reason for Hope. Waters says he is also participating in legislative efforts in Pennsylvania and Connecticut to create "state run systems with ethics oversight and state licensing for cultivation within the state."
The psilocybin-assisted therapy bill is also supported by Jesse Gould, founder of Heroic Hearts, a non-profit that advocates making psychedelic-based therapies available to U.S. military veterans suffering from PTSD. While acknowledging the medical value of other psychedelic substances, including ayahuasca and LSD, Gould agrees with the bill's focus on psilocybin as the first step toward building a psychedelic-assisted therapy infrastructure.
"[The therapy community] doesn't even have enough therapists trained or practitioners ready to work with these substances at this point," explains Gould "Psilocybin is not recognized as a synthetic drug, and people can understand it's a mushroom. It also doesn't have the baggage of LSD, and it already has the breakthrough therapy designation by the FDA. So it's just an easier substance to lead the charge for the rest."
Burke's office is also drafting a bill that takes a different approach to decriminalizing psilocybin and psilocin than Rosenthal's decrim legislation, though it has not yet been formally introduced. Regulated psilocybin-assisted therapy would "open the door to phase two," Burke says, referring to this broader decriminalization effort.
When asked if he planned to co-sponsor Rosenthal's decriminalization bill, Burke says he will not, adding that Rosenthal's proposal "needs to be more extensive with better safeguards in place." Assemblymember Rosenthal did not respond when reached for comment.
The psilocybin-assisted therapy bill has been shared with Assemblymember Richard Gottfreid (D), the longest-serving legislator in the Assembly and Chair of the Standing Committee on Health. Gottfried "has been really helpful in guiding" the proposal, according to Burke.
At Gottfried's suggestion, a decriminalization component that had been included in an early draft of the bill was removed, in order for it to be offered as a separate proposal. "He thought it would be a more effective way of doing this," says Burke. When asked if he plans to join Burke as a co-sponsor, Gottfried did not respond to a request for comment.
Will this legislation become law?
Despite the appearance of these bills in committee, advocates are skeptical that any of them have the support necessary to become law.
"Neither one of them [the research bill or the psilocybin-assisted therapy bill] are going anywhere, anytime fast," says harm reduction advocate Corinne Carey. She pointed to the "lack of an organized grassroots movement" and no parallel activity in the State Senate. Referring to the movement as a whole, Carey said that it "is going to take a lot of refinement and structure to get right, and the ingredients aren't there right now."
To catalyze grassroots engagement, Carey enlisted a panel of legal experts to participate in a first-of-its-kind public discussion to address the future of psilocybin legislation in New York State. The discussion, entitled, "Ending the Prohibition of the Mind: A Mushroom Symposium," will be held virtually on April 19, with Burke and Rosenthal both participating.
Carey explains that the event "is not meant to seed a movement, or to form a new organization. It's simply meant to connect players already operating in this arena, and maybe bring in some more folks who've been reading about the progress being made in other states."
Carey is clear-eyed about the prospect of psychedelic legislation passing in New York State anytime soon. The 2022 legislative calendar ends in June, and 2023 will see statewide elections. "Generally, controversial bills don't pass during an election year. With so many primaries, and so many people leaving the legislature, it's almost like starting from scratch," she says.