EL PASO, Texas (KFOX14) — A drug banned in 1970 is now being reconsidered as an alternative treatment to help many, including military veterans.
Bi-partisan Texas House Bill 1802 was passed last summer and allows the Department of State Health Services in collaboration with the Texas Medical Board to look into the use of substances like 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as MDMA, ketamine and psilocybin to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, migraines, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those drugs could possibly benefit many service members who’ve endured trauma while on deployment are now desperate to find mental stability.
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One of those veterans is David Pantoja.
"I've had my bouts of depression, I've had my moments where PTSD was prevalent," Pantoja said.
Pantoja served in the United States Marine Corps for about nine years.
“Lost some friends, lost time with family,” he said. Pantoja has been in combat several times and so has Luis Uribarri.
Both have sought help and tried conventional therapy and medication.
"It works just for a moment and then it just kind of doesn't work anymore," Uribarri said.
They’ve also found difficulty getting help through the VA system.
“It's hard to get stuff in a timely fashion for sure through the VA. They'll tell you straight up, they are backed up,” Pantoja said.
One of the drugs to be studied in Texas, magic mushrooms which contain the hallucinogen psilocybin, could help service members, according to El Pasoan Don Mamali.
"So magic mushrooms are thought to really help facilitate creativity, but they've also shown to help with OCD,” said Mamali.
Mamali could be considered El Paso’s mushroom man. He’s studied mushrooms for the last 20 years. His obsession with them began when he was serving in the military and discovered different types of mushrooms offer different health benefits.
"We have mushrooms that are very antiviral, anti-bacterial, antimicrobial, anti- diabetic," Mamali said.
He’s finishing up a biology degree at UTEP and created the Mamali Mycology Institute, it’s a non-profit that studies the medicinal benefits of different mushrooms. Mamali grows the mushrooms in his own home and hopes his expertise can help him connect veterans in the Borderland to facilities in Texas conducting the studies now happening thanks to the bill.
“The VA in Houston is partnering up with the college of Baylor University, Baylor Health and they're starting these studies,” Mamali said.
The mushroom movement is already a topic talked about in the veteran community, because some who have tried them, feel they work.
Juliana Mercer served 16 years in the Marine Corps. She deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan before working with wounded vets post-deployment.
She first tried psychedelics at a retreat in South America.
"That opened the door for me to understand what these medicines were capable of. I went down with 6 other veterans and saw a transformation," Mercer said. "Overnight about 18 years of our country being at war, that trauma and that collected grief that I had just completely left."
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Mercer is now lobbying to decriminalize these substances in California and works with the Heroic Hearts Project. It’s a non-profit helping veterans connect with plant-based treatments through retreats to different countries where the drugs are allowed.
“There is a lot of misinformation about what these substances are and what they do,” Mercer said.
El Paso psychiatrist Marcelo Rodriguez-Chevres with Emergence Health Network said the idea these substances could cure mental conditions is not farfetched. He said even though the bill is new, there have been past studies to see how they can help.
“If it can alter the mind to the point where people were using it recreationally, they changed their behavior, their perception, why not look at what's behind it so we can use it therapeutically,” Dr. Rodriguez-Chevres said.
In relation to PTSD, Dr. Rodriguez-Chevres said the most common trigger for the condition in men is war.
Like any other drug, there are some drawbacks to using psychedelics.
"The response rate for these psychotropics that we use today is about 60 percent and that is great if you are in that group like I tell my patients,” Rodriguez- Chevres said.
But he said the other 40 percent of those who use the drugs won’t benefit, may develop a tolerance or the drugs may alter the brain in a negative way.
"If somebody has a vulnerability and they don't know about it and use these substances, they can precipitate a psychotic break which has happened before," Rodriguez-Chevres said.
The veterans KFOX14 spoke with feel this may be a case in which the reward is bigger than the risk.
"I would be interested in giving it a try," Uribarri said.
Because servicemen and women are paying the price of war.
“The number of veteran suicides 12 years ago is the same today and that's 22 a day,” Mercer said.
Mental health needs to be addressed more aggressively.
“In my mind, the more options we have to treat these conditions the better,” Rodriguez- Chevres said.
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"If we save one veteran, we are saving more than one person because the family and their friends are also affected by their health,” added Mamali.
In a military town like El Paso, the impact of finding some type of cure for these mental conditions could be huge.
In 2020, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to legalize magic mushrooms. Once the substances are proven safe in Texas, the next step is to prove efficacy.
El Paso State Representative Joe Moody is a co-author of HB 1802. He talked to KFOX14 about why these studies are so important and why it was easy to pass the first hurdle in a conservative state like Texas.
Watch his full interview:
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