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Utah is part of a red state push to legalize magic mushrooms for therapy

Shawn Blymiller, poses for a photograph in front of the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Salt Lake City. Blymiller, a 39-year-old father of two from suburban Salt Lake City, said he started magic mushroom therapy for treatment-resistant depression after becoming disillusioned with traditional anti-depressants. Lawmakers throughout the United States are weighing proposals to legalize psychedelic mushrooms for people.
Rick Bowmer
Shawn Blymiller, poses for a photograph in front of the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

Shawn Blymiller spent 10 years feeling mostly numbed while prescribed traditional anti-depressants, trudging through his day-to-day life as a suburban Salt Lake City father of two kids balancing the obligations of family and work selling technology software.

When his son was diagnosed as having special needs a few years later, the stress became increasingly difficult to endure. So like many with treatment-resistant depression, Blymiller, 39, sought out alternatives and found one he said worked: Psychedelic mushrooms.

Under a therapist's supervision, Blymiller took psilocybin — the most popular of the hallucinogens known broadly as “magic mushrooms” — and for several hours, was able to confront past traumas, work through mental illness and ultimately become a better father, husband and friend, he said.

“It’s almost revealing. These curtains in your psyche are being opened and you feel like, ’Oh my gosh, this is how I operate; this is how I present myself,' ” he said after a sunrise mountain hike in the Salt Lake City suburb where he lives.

A group of patients like Blymiller would be able to use magic mushrooms legally for their ailments under a new Utah proposal that would create a pilot program for the medical and therapeutic use of magic mushrooms. Currently, magic mushrooms are illegal under federal law and therapists who guide patients like Blymiller through trips typically require they find them on their own out of fear of jeopardizing their licenses. Blymiller declined to say how he procured them. But said like a lot of plant-based medicine, it wasn’t difficult to find.

Amid growing acceptance of psychedelics, advocates in blue states like Colorado and Oregon began their pushes with ballot measures proposing to decriminalize psychedelics like magic mushrooms. Advocates in red states like Utah and Missouri are starting in a different way, proposing studying them or first making them legal for medical use — a strategy that mirrors how many states including Utah have handled marijuana legalization.

Last year, lawmakers in Utah's Republican-supermajority statehouse commissioned a study on the benefits and liabilities associated with psychedelic mushrooms. And this year, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Salt Lake City Democrat, wants to create a pathway to legalization and allow patients to consume magic mushrooms for therapeutic benefits. Her primary motivation is confronting a ballooning mental health epidemic, she said.

“This is an opportunity to add to the toolbox for our massive mental health crisis,” Escamilla said. “The policy question as a lawmaker is: Do we have 10 more years to wait for people to get access to mental health care when they need it?”

Utah, a conservative state where culture and politics are dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has become a global hotspot for psychedelics, attracting spirituality-seeking individuals leaving traditional religion as well as outdoor hobbyists looking to use hallucinogens recreationally in places like the red rock deserts of Moab.

As psychedelics become less counterculture and more mainstream, they are also drawing interest from suburban dads like Blymiller struggling with mental health and disillusioned after years of taking anti-depressants.

A series of studies from Johns Hopkins University’s psychedelics research unit found that magic mushroom-assisted therapy can reduce depression symptoms for up to a year and be effective for individuals for whom other treatments haven’t worked.

In Utah, which has among the highest suicide rates in the United States, all 29 counties have a shortage of mental health professionals. Blymiller hopes lawmakers consider legalizing magic mushrooms for therapeutic use this year so more people like him — whether struggling with post-traumatic stress, anxiety or depression — can pursue treatment without fear of breaking drug laws.

The push would follow successful efforts in Oregon, but make Utah among the first states to create a legal framework for medical magic mushrooms. After successfully decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms, Oregon voters approved measures to decriminalize all drugs and legalize psilocybin for use in controlled circumstances. Oregon will soon issue licenses for professionals to facilitate therapeutic use.

“I don’t think Republican legislators would ever favor a decriminalization model that says ‘Live and let live, have fun and you won’t go to jail,' ” Connor Boyack, a lobbyist with the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, said, comparing Utah to Oregon and Colorado. “The arguments that work in a Republican Legislature are oversight, control and regulation — to ensure safety and that youth and the wrong people don’t get it."

Sen. Evan Vickers, a Republican pharmacist, said based on the studies he was intrigued by the prospect of legalizing psychedelic mushrooms for medical use and believes many feel confident in the way Utah regulates medical marijuana.

“The challenge always, with a substance like this, is you have the positive nature of it, but you also have the abusive potential,” he said.

Legislation to allow research on the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin is under consideration in states across the political spectrum this year, including in Arizona, Hawaii and Oklahoma. Legislation to legalize therapeutic use or create pilot programs is under consideration in states including California, Connecticut, New York, Utah, and Washington. In Virginia, two magic mushroom-related bills failed to advance this year in the politically divided General Assembly.

In most states, legalization efforts face skepticism from opponents who argue potentially opening a door to widespread and debilitating drug use outweighs the benefits therapy could have for the few who can afford to pursue it. Doctors' lobbies, including the Utah Medical Association, tend to oppose legalization efforts.

“While there may be some limited benefit to using appropriately controlled and appropriately implemented psychedelic medications in mental health that have gone through the FDA approval process, we do not believe Utah should create a program to grow, process, produce and distribute psychedelics. These are psychoactive substances that cause hallucinations,” Michelle McOmber, the association's CEO, said in a statement.

Desiree Hennessy, the executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition, understands the idea of magic mushrooms may not be something many — including lawmakers — want to pursue personally. But she's hopeful, regardless of their partisan leanings, that the way most people have close ties to someone struggling with mental health will lead them to seriously consider legalizing therapeutic use.

"You talk to the legislators, families or anybody on the street and they will tell you that they know somebody that has committed suicide or is struggling with anxiety, depression or PTSD so severely that they are incapable of living their life. Everybody can find somebody that they know or as close to them that has had these experiences," she said.

This story was written by Sam Metz of the Associated Press.

Updated: February 15, 2023 at 5:18 PM MST
Updated with a refined headline and a statement from the CEO of the Utah Medical Association.
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