Congress Hops on Psychedelics Juggernaut with a New Caucus

MAPS Policy Director Ismail Ali talks what it means for the psychedelics industry.

In a news release on Nov. 17, 2022, two Congressmen – Lou Correa (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI) – announced they had formed a new congressional caucus focused on psychedelics research and therapies.

The Psychedelics Advancing Clinical Treatments (PACT) caucus joins the 460 caucuses that already exist in the 117th Congress.

Like the bipartisan 13-member Congressional Cannabis Caucus launched in 2017 by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Don Young (R-AK), and Jared Polis (D-CO), the PACT caucus is arguably both unique and historical because it concerns advocacy actions, hearings, and testimony – and perhaps even legislation – about an illegal substance that the federal government compares to heroin.

But it also demonstrates that Congress is paying closer attention to the industry and wants to learn more about what the industry needs.

Unlike committees, caucuses don’t markup bills or hire their own staff. However, they do provide a way for like-minded representatives and senators with mutual interests and goals to work together to develop specific ideas that can become legislation.

The goals of the PACT caucus are to increase awareness of psychedelic-assisted therapies among members of Congress and their staffs, support increases in federal funding for psychedelic science, and examine regulatory impediments to psychedelic research.

Psychedealia talked with Ismail Ali, the director of policy and advocacy for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), about the formation of the caucus, and what that means to the psychedelics industry going forward:

Psychedealia: Why has now become the time for the formation of a caucus on psychedelics?

Ismail Ali: Up to this point, aside from some state representatives, there was very little interest in Congress on this topic. Obviously, as cultural zeitgeist expands, a lot of people in the ecosystem as a whole had been interested to see the extent to which the federal government would choose to be involved in any advancements in this work. The idea that a caucus like this could increase support within Congress specifically, such as around allocation of funding for research, something that a lot of people in the field have been pushing for decades at this point, seems really promising.

Psychedealia: We have been seeing more gradual interest in funding coming from the federal government, such as National Institutes of Health (NIH), where there are currently 57 NIH-funded projects about psychedelics (six on psilocybin alone begun in the last three years). The PACT Caucus will reportedly advocate for adequate mental health spending by the NIH for clinical trials to accelerate research. How will that drive the psychedelics industry?

Ali: The possibility of federal public funding coming in for some of that research could really change the dynamic of what kind of information actually gets studied. And if I were to be so bold, I would say not just about the science, but also potentially the social impact. One of the big questions that comes up with conversations about increased access (to psychedelics) is not just “What is the medical benefit?” but what would the social impacts of changing policy be. And that’s something that I don’t think we have very much information about.

Psychedealia: When will the caucus begin its work, and what will it focus on?

Ali: I haven’t seen a calendar yet, but it seems to me that the psychedelics caucus is going to start relatively cautiously. It’s going to really focus on education and the areas of research that we already have some evidence around.

The role of this caucus is primarily to educate the people in congress, even to the level of what advocates or others know or are starting to understand.

As much as I do appreciate a lot of the hype and the attention that psychedelics are getting, there’s frankly also this lack of diligence and this willingness to play to the hype machine that I see in some media. So I think that it’s actually good to look at exactly what the potential benefits are, and what the potential risks are.

Psychedealia: Many in the industry point to the work that MAPS is doing with MDMA as leading the regulatory evolution of the industry, especially this year with the potential of FDA approval. What will be MAPS’ role with this new caucus? Will you or others from MAPS be testifying in Congress, for example?

Ali: The way that I like to answer this question is that we like to show up where we’re invited.

I don’t have a clear answer yet about our role, because it’s early enough and we just heard about the caucus at the end of last year. We’re willing to show up and support it, whether it’s through testimony, through providing educational information and so on.

So I would love to be supportive, however they find it supportive.

Psychedealia: What can the PACT caucus do for developing individual psychedelics businesses?

Ali: I’m probably a little bit less qualified to speak on the business case just because I’m really focused on the policy-regulatory development side. I’ll put it this way: I would say it’s a positive thing, but I would argue that it’s possible that it cuts both ways.

This is why: From a public-perception perspective, it seems very obvious that having congressional interest in this topic is a good thing, because they’re going to look into it. There’s good research. They’re going be able to listen to testimony, and all the stuff that we want them to see, to allow for better education. That’s great.

From the cynic’s perspective – and this isn’t necessarily how I feel, but I just want to know it as a consideration for you and for folks – anytime you have a lot of attention on a specific topic, especially when it’s high profile, especially when there are people who are hoping or are curious about what the outcomes are, there’s always this level of pausing. This kind of wait-and-see aspect that has to happen. You see this with state governments where a task force will be created by a legislature that is supposed to look into a thing, and while that task force is looking into the thing, other aspects of progress on that thing can’t really happen because the energy of that progress is really held in that committee.

Everyone wants to find the kind of regulators or the overseers or whoever that don’t have any conflicts. They don’t have any interest, but they also have to have expertise. We’re kind of trying to find experts that don’t necessarily exist that much at this point in time because almost everybody that’s involved in the field has some personal interest. That’s not a critique, it’s just an observation.

And I think that, for this particular group, it actually is in everyone’s interest for there to be more of this kind of independent review on policy changes, economic changes, and so on. I do think that this will give people more confidence that the federal government may be less likely to interfere in a way that’s negatively impactful on people or businesses in different states and so on.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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