In Kentucky, one of the states hit hardest by the ongoing overdose crisis, the Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission heard hours of testimony on Friday from military veterans, parents, psychologists and other advocates—including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)—who are in favor of further studying ibogaine as a treatment for addiction.
It was the second of two public hearings on a plan that would funnel at least $42 million in state funds into ibogaine research over the next six years to explore whether and how ibogaine-assisted therapy can best help treat opioid use disorder. The commission is set to vote on the proposal in mid-November.
Money for the program would come from the Kentucky’s portion of a $26 billion multi-state settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors that was finalized in February 2022. Half of the state’s $478 million share was sent to local governments, while the other half is managed by the state Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission, part of the Office of the Attorney General.
Kentucky had the fourth-highest drug overdose death rate in the country in 2021, according to the most recent available data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The more than two dozen people testifying at Friday’s hearing included veterans, therapists, ibogaine patients and their family members, a former NBA player and at least two former politicians—Perry and Ben Chandler, a Democratic former state attorney general and five-term congressman who now leads the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
Like many of the speakers, Chandler has been personally affected by the opioid crisis, he told the commission. His first cousin died of suicide at age 30 after repeated failed attempts to stop using, and his brother, who turned to the illicit market after being unable to get prescription opioid pills, died earlier this year from a fentanyl overdose.
“We have not been able to solve the problem, in my judgment,” he said of the opioid epidemic, recalling an early warning he received from a police officer in the 1990s about the devastating effects of OxyContin. “It continues to be intractable, and we need as many tools as we can get. And I believe that a drug like ibogaine, from what I’ve read, it has the potential to make the difference that we need to have made—or at least a big difference.”
Another speaker, Jerry Catlett, spoke about his son’s experience with ibogaine after struggling with opioid use disorder for years. Initially, Catlett said, he thought it was “another gimmick” when his son pitched the idea of going to Puerto Rico for ibogaine treatment, but he felt there was nothing to lose.
“My wife and I had already come to the conclusion that our son was a dead man walking,” he told the panel. But instead, as the result of ibogaine-assisted therapy, “the boy was successful.”
“He tells me that within a few minutes of taking the treatment, he was no longer addicted to opioids,” Catlett told the commission. “Six months later, he did take another treatment. Today he’s still opioid addiction free.”
Today Catlett’s son works outside the country, helping to connect others with drug use disorders to ibogaine therapy. “He told me this week, he loses about six people a year that he’s trying to help. That’s six people this one individual knows that hasn’t have a chance to use ibogaine,” Catlett said, adding: “The only reason I think that boy’s above ground today is because of ibogaine treatment.”
Perry, the former Texas governor and former secretary of energy under President Trump, spoke about how he saw firsthand the beneficial effects of ibogaine, referring to his relationship with U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell (R-TX) and his brother Marcus, both combat veterans. Congressman Luttrell has previously described psychedelic therapy with ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT as “one of the greatest things to ever happen to me.”
Perry, for his part, told the Kentucky commission that “what I’ve seen over the past four years in particular is that this treatment, it works when all else seems to fail.”
“Why wouldn’t we explore clearly these breakthrough treatments given their potential to produce curative results not attainable with existing pharmacology?” he asked.
As Perry has done at past events, he made the argument that at the federal level, Republicans are more supportive than Democrats of psychedelic reform. But he added that it’s time to set aside political partisanship and do the right thing.
“You have the opportunity for Kentucky to lead the nation on exploring this potentially revolutionary new treatment,” he told the commission. “I’m before you today not as a political figure, but as a fellow human being asking you to consider the stunningly positive potential of ibogaine research.”
During the public comment portion of the hearing, Ohio resident Rex Elsass spoke about the death of his son, Reid, to an overdose in 2019—a loss that prompted the family to start the nonprofit REID Foundation, which Elsass leads. If plant-based therapy had been available, he said, he believes “Reid would be alive.”
Elsass, who lives in Ohio, described himself to the Kentucky commissioners as “your neighbor next door” who has come to every public hearing on the issue to make his voice heard. For him, he said, the Kentucky proposal to study ibogaine is a source of hope.
“I’ve come to see my neighbor and say thank you,” he said, his voice cracking with grief. “I’m looking at the men and women who are leading more than anyone else in this country right now.”
In closing the hearing, W. Bryan Hubbard, chair and executive director of the committee, expressed gratitude to those who took the time and energy to testify. He gave special thanks to veterans, who he said “have served this country, who were willing to lay it all on the line for us, and who have done so again today with visceral candor.”
In June, GOP congressional lawmakers and military veterans discussed a newly introduced bill to create a $75 million federal grant program to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for certain health conditions among active duty military service members.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) is leading that bipartisan legislation, titled the “Douglas ‘Mike’ Day Psychedelic Therapy to Save Lives Act of 2023,” honoring a former Navy SEAL and Silver Star recipient who died in March.
The legislation would direct the defense secretary to establish the grant program, funding Phase 2 clinical trails into psilocybin, ibogaine, MDMA and 5–MeO–DMT, with a focus on exploring treatment applications for conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The grants could also be used to “train practitioners to provide treatment to members of the Armed Forces serving on active duty for covered conditions using covered psychedelic substances.”
Cosponsors include Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA), Nancy Mace (R-SC), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI). The bill was introduced at roughly the same time as the re-launch of a congressional caucus focused on promoting research into the therapeutic potential of entheogenic substances.
About two months earlier, Crenshaw led a letter to House Appropriations subcommittee leaders, urging them to instruct federal health agencies to include active duty military service members in psychedelic studies.
Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently started soliciting proposals for a series of research initiatives meant to explore how psychedelics could be used to treat drug addiction, with plans to provide $1.5 million in funding to support relevant studies.
At a Senate committee hearing in May, NIDA Director Nora Volkow told members that there’s emerging evidence that psychedelics carry “significant potential” as therapeutic treatments for certain mental health conditions, and it’s a topic of “great interest” for researchers.
Last year, Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) pushed top federal officials to provide an update on research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, arguing that ongoing federal prohibition has stymied studies.
NIDA responded to the inquiry by saying that federal prohibition makes it more difficult to study the benefits of psychedelics, requiring researchers to jump through additional regulatory hoops. Volkow previously said that she personally hesitates to study Schedule I drugs because of those complications.
The director told Marijuana Moment in 2021 that researchers need to prioritize psychedelics research, as more people are likely to use them as they’re exposed to studies showing the therapeutic potential of the substances.
In March, bipartisan and bicameral congressional lawmakers filed an updated version of a bill to streamline the federal rescheduling of “breakthrough therapies” like psilocybin and MDMA in order to promote research and drug development.
Booker, along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mace also led a separate bill last year that was designed to clarify that federal “Right to Try” (RTT) laws give seriously ill patients access to Schedule I drugs, including marijuana and psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA. It was not enacted by the end of the session, however.
Photo courtesy of Kim Gjerstad/Wikimedia.