Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
January 22, 2024
After 23 years on the job as a professional wildland firefighter, Benjamin Strahan said a brutal wild fire season in the fall of 2020 brought him to the brink of suicide.
Like many in his profession, he told a panel of state lawmakers on Friday, he has seen “almost every catastrophic wildfire in the West and witnessed the complete annihilation of our forests, land resources and communities,” over the last two decades.
While the fires could be deadly to those in his profession, he said rates of depression, post traumatic stress disorder and suicide were no less so.
“The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance found that firefighters were more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty,” he said.
Strahan knew he needed help but “the current health system was failing me.”
“The fears of being on lifelong medication and years of therapy led me to seek out psilocybin treatment in Mexico,” he said. “It alleviated my thoughts of suicide and started my healing process.”
He was one of the numerous veterans and first responders who spoke during public comment at the Joint Interim Standing Committee on the Judiciary on Friday urging lawmakers to consider policy reforms for the use of psychedelics as medical treatment.
Nevada lawmakers passed legislation during their 2023 session to create a working group to study the therapeutic use of psychoactive substances such as psilocybin.
The group has until the end of the year to submit its findings, conclusions and recommendations on the use of psychoactive substances. Those recommendations could take the form of bills at the legislature’s next scheduled session in 2025.
The legislative judiciary committee, which conducted its first interim meeting Friday, also sought input from doctors, law enforcement, and veterans on the therapeutic uses of psychedelics.
Burton Tabaac, a neurologist at Carson Tahoe Hospital, said research has shown the use of psychedelics in mental health interventions and addiction treatment helps “get to the core root of the problem” by addressing the underlying issues that lead to mental illness.
“If you think of your mind as a snow covered hill in which your thoughts are sleds, over time the grooves are dug deeper and deeper making it difficult to escape the paths that are created,” he said. “Then these paths become engrained.”
Psychedelics have been shown to repair neural pathways, he said.
“Psychedelics allow for a fresh mound of snow, sort of speak, to be laid so that new paths, thoughts and connections can be made,” he said. “This is a potential way to consider how psychedelics are effective at treating the ruminating thoughts and loops that are fostered through states of anxiety, depression and addiction.”
Research around psychedelics isn’t new, said Diane Goldstein, a retired police lieutenant who is the executive director for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
About 60 years ago, she said, “psychedelics were being researched widely prior to President (Richard) Nixon’s war on drugs that wrongly placed this class of substances under Schedule 1 without any evidence to support that designation.”
Schedule 1 drugs are classified as substances that have a high potential for abuse and have no accepted medical use.
Tabaas said the decision for the classification was a “political one rather than a medical one.”
But that decision, several of the speakers said, attached a stigma to the drugs and misconceptions that they led to criminal activity.
Oregon and Colorado, along with a handful of cities across the country, have legalized psychedelics in recent years.
“Of the cities and jurisdictions that have been decriminalizing these naturally occurring fungi, none have seen any significant public health or public safety issues,” Goldstein said.
In addition to considering policy changes around the use of psychedelics for medical use, Goldstein said the state “should consider either the decriminalization of or reduction of penalties for personal amounts to help remove the stigma that prevents patients from reviewing dosage and preparation protocols with their therapist and doctors.”
Representatives of the Clark County District Attorney’s Office and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said they would be against outright legalization
John Jones, Clark County’s chief deputy district attorney, acknowledged the medical benefits that were being described and the research around psychedelics, but said the state shouldn’t “rush to legalize it completely.”
“We have no objection to legislation which authorizes research programs and clinical studies in this state with regard to psilocybin,” Jones said. “What we do not want to see at this point is to parlay those positive studies into complete legalization of psilocybin. We think that is a step too far at this point.”
The interim committee hearing was merely informational, and lawmakers didn’t take any formal actions.
Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.