Upon returning home after three combat deployments in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, Jesse Gould felt his mental health decline. He was drinking too much and, when he wasn’t drinking, he was bored and depressed. Anxiety attacks caused him to frequently call out of work at his finance job, but he’d just spend the day staring at the ceiling.
Unsatisfied by the treatment options offered to him, Gould did some research and eventually settled on psychedelic therapy. He sought out and visited an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru in 2016. The experience was transformative: Gould felt that the psychedelic treatment rewired his brain and contributed to improvements in his depression and social anxiety.
The next year, he founded Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit that funds trips for veterans to ayahuasca treatment centers around the world. By championing psychedelic treatment for vets, Gould and Heroic Hearts Project have found themselves on the front lines of psychedelic decriminalization legislation nationwide. After supporting Oregon’s psilocybin ballot initiative last year, Heroic Hearts Project is now co-sponsoring California’s Senate Bill 519, which would decriminalize the possession or sharing of psychedelics including psilocybin, psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine, mescaline, LSD, ketamine and MDMA for adults 21 and older. Introduced by California State Sen. Scott Wiener, the bill’s co-sponsors, which also include veteran-focused psychedelic therapy advocacy nonprofit Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS), continue to draw on veteran experiences to destigmatize psychedelic use.
“The veteran community,” Gould says, “they’re suffering and want more tools—and it just so happens that psychedelics are that powerful tool.”
The California Decriminalization Bill Resonates with Veterans
First introduced in February, California’s psychedelic decriminalization bill has passed the Senate Health Committee, the Senate Public Safety Committee, and just last week, the State Senate. It now heads to the State Assembly for a vote. The bill also stipulates that the California Department of Public Health create a “working group” to study and recommend regulations regarding safe and equitable access in group, spiritual, therapeutic and end-of-life settings.
As cannabis laws were changing throughout the country in recent years, Wiener noticed an opportunity to bring forth a conversation about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. Paired with a personal anecdote (he saw a colleague’s son kick a heroin addiction following an ibogaine treatment) and the promising research touting the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, Wiener thought it was time for California to reconsider its approach to these drugs.
Veterans’ psychedelic advocacy groups were quick to support the senator’s bill. They’ve long been promoting the mental health effects of psychedelics, and for good reason. According to a 2014 study, nearly 16 percent of U.S. soldiers who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan later developed post-traumatic stress disorder. About 18 veterans took their lives per day in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Addressing the need for research into treatment options for soldiers, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, has studied the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics in treating PTSD—specifically, MDMA’s effect in veterans—for over a decade. Since the early 2000s, MAPS, along with other organizations, have researched the impact of MDMA, ibogaine, 5-MeO-DMT, ketamine, psilocybin, LSD, and DMT on veterans and found psychedelics, in a controlled setting, to provide relief in PTSD symptoms. This evidence led to the FDA’s designation of psilocybin and MDMA as “breakthrough therapies,” a classification meant to speed up the review process for drugs treating serious conditions.
Vets Have a Unique Ability to Move the Needle on Psychedelics
Despite scientific advancements, a lingering stigma surrounds psychedelic use, conjuring misguided images of trips gone wrong and Summer of Love hippies. Veterans may be the key to finally shaking these outdated assumptions.
The veteran population holds unique power in swaying public opinion and making decriminalization a bipartisan issue, says Brad Burge, a spokesperson for VETS. “Veterans have a very strong voice in the public sphere, especially among policymakers and regulators,” Burge says. “A lot of veterans have fantastic access to policymakers and can start conversations about, ‘This helped me, this helped my buddies, can you help it be more safe for us to access it?’”
Their personal stories and appeals are just as impactful as science. While veterans aren’t the only population that experiences PTSD, they are among the most vocal, Burge says. When one soldier shares a positive experience with psychedelics, others are quick to support due to their loyalty to their fellow soldiers. This creates a narrative ripple effect. “It’s that military community that’s helped advance the conversation,” Burge says.
Even in conservative communities, when Gould has shared his positive experience with psychedelics, people would hear him out because, he believes, of his military background. “That’s the biggest uphill battle with psychedelics,” he says. “People, especially from a certain generation, have an immediate vision of what it means. So when it comes from the voice of somebody they might respect or someone who doesn’t fall into that stereotype, it makes the message more powerful.”
The veterans who are receiving psychedelic treatment outside of research studies are largely doing so beyond U.S. borders, in countries where the substances are unregulated.
“These are combat veterans who fought for our country and sustained huge damage to their bodies and mental health in service to this country,” Wiener says, “and we’re forcing them to go to Mexico or Peru to get treatment.”
By supporting statewide decriminalization in California, veterans would be able to access legal psychedelic therapy at a local facility without fear of criminal penalty.
Although psychedelic decriminalization bears similarities to the push for cannabis decriminalization, veterans organizations are advocating for psychedelics strictly as medicine, not for recreational use. If California’s SB 519 were to pass, soldiers who seek out services from Heroic Hearts Project—many of whom Gould says are based in California—would have access to life-altering medicine. VETS, too, supports decriminalization for therapeutic use, Burge says. Should the bill pass, veterans would have one less barrier in addressing the mental health crisis within their community.
“This is not just about decriminalizing party drugs, as much as I have no problem with people using party drugs,“ Wiener says. “This is part of ending the War on Drugs but also allowing people to access medicine.”
Allie Volpe is a journalist based in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Twitter @allieevolpe.