Why Psychedelic Medicine is On the Rise in Austin
Until 2021, Dawn Jones* had never used illegal drugs—in fact, the 30-year-old Austinite had never even tried marijuana. But after the sudden, tragic death of her husband that summer, she wanted to explore all avenues of healing for her grief. “I’ve done trauma therapy, I’ve done EMDR, I’ve done pretty much every therapy except medication,” she says. While researching ways to help her husband overcome substance abuse problems before his death, Jones had learned about MDMA trips — a form of assisted therapy that uses the mind-altering drug (also known as “molly”) in treatment of traumas, mental. disorders, even addiction. Four months after becoming a widow, she decided to try it herself.
On the day of her trip, a trained practitioner came to her home to administer MDMA and guide her through the process. After taking two pills 45 minutes apart and covering her face with a shade, she lay down on her bed to explore her subconscious. What it brought back were memories of everything from difficult college experiences to the night her husband died. But the memories didn’t inspire fear, she recalls: As she looked back at her younger self, she just felt compassion and self-love.
Although the process only took four and a half hours, the results from her session were profound. “MDMA changed the game so much that I actually stopped doing the other one [forms of therapy] because they seemed so trivial compared to the deep healing of my travel work,” says Jones. Her experience is just one of many in the growing world of psychedelic medicine, which has flourished since 2018 when the DEA eased restrictions for researchers applying to study Schedule I substances. As public perception and political acceptance trend in a more favorable direction, medical studies are confirming what has been known anecdotally for decades: that hallucinogens like MDMA and psilocybin can help mental disorders mental disorders like PTSD, depression, and anxiety Now, Austin and other cities are leading the way in both clinical research and access to these healing modalities.
The therapeutic power behind the chemicals lies in their ability to create neuroplasticity, says Austin-based psychotherapist Kevin Cannella, who first became interested in psychedelics when he volunteered at a Peruvian ayahuasca retreat called the Temple of the Way of Light after graduating from the college. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, paving the way for adaptation through experience. When administered to patients by professionals, he says, the drug allows trauma that has been stuck in the body to be released. “Just think of a closet with a bunch of locks on it,” says Cannella, who co-founded Thank You Life, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate financial barriers to psychedelic medicine, in 2022. “MDMA or ketamine unlocks some of those locks. to make that door easier to open.”
Currently, most psychedelics are considered Schedule I substances at the federal level and cannot be legally administered in Texas in non-research settings. (One notable exception is ketamine: see “Feel Good Inc.”) But despite the state’s conservative leanings, even some staunch Republican lawmakers are grappling with the drug’s potential for medical benefits. In 2021, former Gov. Rick Perry joined with state Rep. Alex Dominguez (D-Brownsville) to champion House Bill 1802, a bipartisan bill that would allow psychedelic drug therapy for veterans struggling with PTSD, which Gov. Greg Abbott later allowed it to become law without his signature. The legislation directed the Health and Human Services Commission to conduct the clinical study of psilocybin (found in “magic mushrooms”) in partnership with a health sciences university and a Veterans Affairs hospital, and required the HHSC to conduct a literature review of MDMA and ketamine to treat PTSD in veterans.
Psychedelic medicine has long been an area of interest for Dr. Greg Fonzo, an assistant professor in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Studies at the University of Texas Dell Medical School. In 2020, Dr. Fonzo applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to study the combination of psychedelics and neuromodulation, a class of techniques where doctors inject energy directly into the brain to produce therapeutic benefits. As his team began to raise funds for the project, Dr. Fonzo was encouraged by the university to raise enough money to build an entire center dedicated to the branch of study. In December 2021, they did just that as Dell Med opened its Center for Psychedelic Research & Therapy, the first of its kind in Texas.
Currently, the center is working with a non-profit group called the Heroic Hearts Project, which arranges for veterans and their families to receive psychedelic therapy at specialized centers in countries where it is legal, such as Mexico or South America. “Our first study is examining the prolonged grief of Gold Star spouses—spouses of veterans who were killed in the line of duty,” he says. The trial is exploring both psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT as treatment options, and the center is collaborating with another study to examine the use of ibogaine in special operations forces veterans for combat-related mental health issues. This year, the center plans to conduct its own psilocybin trials.
While Dr. While Fonzo cautions that these drugs should not be considered medicine, the evidence remains encouraging: In November, the largest peer-reviewed study of psychedelics in the modern era was published in New England Journal of Medicine, which showed that a drug based on the compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms significantly reduced depression scores in patients after a 12-week trial. As Jones reflects on the two MDMA trips she’s taken since her husband’s death, she believes psychedelics’ efficacy ultimately lies in their ability to help people get to the root of their pain. “It’s not distracting, it’s not numbing,” she says. “It’s actually reaching into the depths of your soul and healing the things that need to be healed.”
Feel Good Inc.
Patients are finding relief through legal ketamine clinics like Austin-based Brenda.
Four years ago, David Naylor admitted his life checked all the boxes – but something still didn’t feel right. “I was sober, I had kids, I was in a relationship, I was successful, but I just wasn’t aligned,” he says. “[Then] I sat down with psychedelic therapy and it was like 20 years of therapy in one session.” Armed with his life-changing experience, the entrepreneur — who previously owned drug and mental health treatment centers — founded a ketamine clinic called Brenda in 2022. During sessions, which last about an hour, patients they are blindfolded and asked to lie down as the psychedelic is administered via an intramuscular injection. (In addition to medically guided sessions, the clinic weaves in elements like breathing, sound baths and meditation for optimal results.) Categorized as a dissociative, the Schedule III substance has been studied by institutions like Johns Hopkins for its ability to treat a variety of illnesses, including PTSD, depression and chronic pain. “Ketamine allows more space around trauma and pain – a little bit [seeing] the forest for the trees—and that’s how you can process those feelings,” Naylor says.
*To protect the subject’s privacy, her name has been changed.