In first-ever congressional hearing on psychedelic-assisted therapy, veterans call for change

Marine veteran Jonathan Lubecky attempted suicide five times after returning home from deployment in Iraq in 2006. Then, in 2014, desperate to overcome the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he enrolled in one of the early clinical trials of an unlikely drug: MDMA, or ecstasy.

“My story changes because I went through MDMA-assisted therapy. I was blessed by being able to participate in a clinical trial,” Lubecky told lawmakers on Tuesday in a hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, the first congressional hearing on the topic. 

An average of nearly 17 veterans died by suicide each day in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.), and Lubecky was almost one of them. 

“I am not special. My story is the same as every other veteran suffering with PTSD,” Lubecky said. 

Mounting evidence from clinical trials suggests MDMA-assisted therapy can be effective in treating PTSD. In the trial Lubecky took part in, participants were given MDMA in a controlled environment three times about one month apart, in conjunction with psychotherapy.  At the end of the trial, researchers found that 71% of participants experienced such a significant reduction of their symptoms that they no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Despite high rates of PTSD and suicide among veterans, and despite the success of MDMA trials for veterans and others with PTSD, the V.A. has not funded any clinical studies of MDMA. That needs to change, said advocates and members of Congress.

“I would like to see the V.A. lead this,” said Rep. Morgan Luttrell (R-Texas), who credited psychedelic-assisted therapy for helping cure his own PTSD following his time in the military. “Our veterans are ready.” 

The V.A. has been closely following research on therapeutic use of psychedelics and will continue to do so, said Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s assistant undersecretary for health, in a written statement provided to the subcommittee.

“There is still much to learn, and much yet to be understood, about the potential benefits of psychedelic compounds,” Clancy said in her statement. “Our Department is not only focused on finding the best innovative treatments and cures but doing so safely.”

Witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing – which included Lubecky and veteran mental health advocates – said investment by the V.A. is needed to advance research on the benefits of psychedelics. 

“Private funding for novel therapies for mental health conditions is waning,” said Rajeev Ramchand, co-director of the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute. The trial Lubecky participated in, along with all current psychedelic-assisted therapy trials, was privately funded.

To allow federal funding, witnesses said, MDMA must be rescheduled from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, as is proposed in a bipartisan bill, the Breakthrough Therapies Act, introduced earlier this year in both the House and Senate. Drugs designated as Schedule I by the Drug Enforcement Administration are considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

The Schedule I status of MDMA “slows down the necessary clinical research and has resulted in a lack of public funding needed for such widespread trials,” Brett Waters, executive director of Reason for Hope and Veteran Mental Health Leadership Coalition, testified at the hearing. 

MDMA will automatically be granted Schedule II status if it wins approval from the FDA, a development that analysts predict may occur as soon as next year. The psychedelic has been granted “breakthrough therapy” status by the agency, which requires it to make a decision within six months of receiving a new drug application. 

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the public benefit corporation which has been leading the clinical trials, announced in September its plans to submit an application to the FDA by the end of 2023.  

But Waters urged the DEA not to wait for the FDA. Changing the drug’s status “will make it easier to do research” and “to enable compassionate use of these treatments,” he told the subcommittee. 

Lawmakers on the subcommittee urged the VA to get ready for the treatment’s approval. 

“In war fighting, training and readiness is everything, and we train in advance knowing the fight’s coming,” said Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), who co-chairs the Psychedelics Advancing Therapies Caucus. “You know the fight’s coming, and, in this case, a good fight.”

The hearing was remarkable in one way: Consensus on the therapeutic application of psychedelics for mental health has shifted dramatically and has support across party lines, particularly for veterans.

“We are not advocating for the legalization or casual use of psychedelics,” said Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), the subcommittee’s chairwoman. “But rather the advancement of science – of their medicinal properties in a clinical setting – with assisted therapy.” 

Type of work:

Cate Bikales is a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism pursuing a BS in journalism and political science. She covers health and science policy for the Medill News Service in...

Shravya Pant is a sophomore at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism studying journalism and biology. She is also a congressional health reporter for the Medill News Service in Washington,...