For the first time in 50 years, the U.S. federal government granted researchers funding to study the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, according to reporting from Rolling Stone and DoubleBlind.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) granted Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with University of Alabama at Birmingham and New York University, $4 million to research psilocybin—a primary psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms—and whether it can help people to quit smoking.
Matthew Johnson, Ph.D., is the principal investigator and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University. He calls the move a huge step to solidify the science behind psychedelic research.
“NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research not just in the United States, but in the world and, in fact, the majority of the research upon which any pharmaceutical company is operating has been funded largely through NIH,” Johnson said.
It was around when President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 when the then-flourishing research into psychedelics as therapeutic tools almost entirely stopped.
NIH was once a major funder of the early research looking at the promise of psychedelics for mental health, at one point funding more than 130 studies solely looking at LSD. The signing of the Controlled Substances Act, and the political and media frenzy surrounding psychedelics at the time, eventually led to the NIH stopping their funding of this research.
There were studies on psilocybin, picking up after the ‘90s and 2000s, though they have been privately funded, through philanthropy and investments.
Part of the problem with this model on an ongoing basis is that clinical trials are pricey. The median cost to develop a new drug in the U.S. is $985 million, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA.
“A lot of folks say, ‘How do you get past DEA [the Drug Enforcement Administration] and FDA? They’ve been onboard for decades now. If you have your protocols right, the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, they’re going to approve your protocol,” says Johnson. “The public still hasn’t gotten that in terms of the government, the funding side of the government has been last to the party.”
This specific study is identifying treatment to help people quit smoking, so it was eligible for funding by the NIDA—National Institute on Drug Abuse, which exists under the NIH—for novel treatments in substance use. Researchers looking to study psilocybin for depression, PTSD and other psychiatric treatments would not have been eligible.
Dr. Francis Collins, and former NIH director, said in a Senate budget hearing in May that NIH and the agencies under it will need to take a hard look at the promise of psychedelic compounds in regard to mental health.
“I think as we’ve learned more about how the brain works, we began to realize that these are potential tools for research purposes and might be clinically beneficial,” Collin said.
Congress is also experiencing some momentum. Melissa Lavasani, founder and executive director of psychedelic nonprofit advocacy organization Plant Medicine Coalition, made it a goal to get $100 million approved in federal funding specifically to study psychedelics.
She and her team didn’t succeed this year, as they were competing with too many other big items in Congress, like Biden’s $550 billion infrastructure bill, though they did make significant progress: The team met with more than 100 Congressional officers and laid the groundwork for the first-ever psychedelic caucus, which would reside in the House and help get this funding approved moving forward.
“If we want to see psychedelics as a part of our healthcare system, we need to have much broader research and we need to do it in the pursuit of a good and positive societal impact,” Lavasani said.. “When policymakers are looking at research, they want to look at federally-funded research.”
Johnson said that he is ultimately hopeful about what the grant for his study symbolizes for the movement and for aspiring researchers.
“It means a lot to academics,” he says. “Just to have the potential of NIH funding there tells young researchers that they can have a career in this.”