MN task force on psychedelics: State reviews use of mushrooms, LSD, MDMA for mental health

Minnesota may be setting the stage to become the third state to legalize psychedelics in some form.

The 2023 legislature established a task force to advise members on the legal, medical, and policy issues surrounding the use of these drugs by doctors.

Gov. Tim Walz has appointed 10 members to the board including a doctor who’s using ketamine to treat a small number of patients and a veteran who swears psychedelics have helped him deal with treatment-resistant mental health problems.

After five combat tours of duty, reintegrating into society wasn’t easy for Stefan Egan. He found himself expressing every emotion as anger.

"You turn to overworking or self-medicating isolation," Egan said. "You know, standard stuff, I feel like, in our community."

Egan’s trajectory took a positive turn after he had an experience with psilocybin from psychedelic mushrooms.

He’s now one of two veterans on a state Psychedelic Medicine Task Force.

Joining them is Dr. Ranji Varghese, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist who runs a ketamine clinic in Eden Prairie.

Patients come to the Institute for Integrative Therapies dealing with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD.

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Soothing music and a therapist’s gentle voice guide them through a psychedelic journey under a doctor’s care.

"It's going to be a catalyst to allow these fixed and rigid ways of thinking to dissolve temporarily so that unconscious material can sort of bubble up to the surface," said Dr. Varghese.

He says classic antidepressants are lifesavers, but they don’t release the unconscious. Therapy can, but slowly.

Psychedelics have a rapid anti-depressant effect and give patients the freedom to address root issues. He’s cautious about overselling the benefits and warns that people with cardiovascular issues, schizophrenia or psychosis shouldn’t use them. But with the right mindset, setting and support he’s seen psychedelics breathe new life into patients. 

"It has a powerful way of inducing something called neuroplasticity which is the brain’s ability for change," said Dr. Varghese. "And if we can strike while the iron is hot we can perhaps motivate those patients while this plasticity is occurring to engage in behaviors that are pro-social, that are anti-depressant, to basically hardwire the brain into these new ways and patterns and behaviors."

For Egan, that meant becoming patient and open to emotions beyond anger.

"I'm not going to say that my life immediately got better after I took those, you know, that psilocybin," he said. "But I will say I had the opportunity to make my life better because of that experience."

But he says he knows seven former veterans who died by suicide in recent months.

"And had they had the ability or the opportunity to experience access to that medicine?" he wondered. "Things could have been different. It's totally possible."

So even before the state task force meets for the first time, he refers fellow veterans to Vet Solutions, a nonprofit promoting psychedelic-assisted therapies as an approach to addressing their treatment-resistant mental health problems.

Dr. Varghese says raising awareness and educating the public is part of the job of the task force.

"We are living in a mental health pandemic, and we need different tools to address this," he said.

He wants people to know the risk of addiction is low for classic psychedelics like mushrooms, LSD and MDMA. And the evidence so far points to them being very safe, especially in a medical setting.