The calls for VA to examine the use of psychedelics have grown in recent years, ranging from advocacy groups to provider associations to Capitol Hill.

The calls for VA to examine the use of psychedelics have grown in recent years, ranging from advocacy groups to provider associations to Capitol Hill. ablokhin/Getty Images

VA to begin researching psychedelics as treatment option for veterans

Some evidence suggests the substances can assist with PTSD and depression.

Updated at 2:31 pm ET

The Veterans Affairs Department will soon begin funding research into the use of psychedelics such as MDMA and mushrooms to treat PTSD and depression, the first time the agency has done so since the 1960s. 

The announcement answers the call from some veterans and researchers who have long advocated for the potential medical benefits of MDMA and psilocybin, or psychoactive mushrooms. VA on Friday issued a request for applications to its network of researchers, collaborating with academic institutions to solicit proposals to study the impact of using the compounds to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in veterans. 

The department made its decision after dozens of VA and other clinicians and scientists met in September to “assess the state of existing scientific evidence” regarding psychedelic-assisted therapies and recommended VA begin funding its own studies. VA said it would conduct the studies under “stringent safety protocols.” The Food and Drug Administration granted “breakthrough” status to MDMA and psilocybin in 2018 and 2019, respectively, allowing for fast-tracked clinical trials. 

The calls for VA to examine the use of psychedelics have grown in recent years, ranging from advocacy groups to provider associations to Capitol Hill. The American Legion recently passed a resolution calling on the department to research the subject and train its employees on safe administration. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., as well as Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C., have introduced legislation requiring VA to do so. 

The House Veterans Affairs Committee recently held a hearing on emerging therapies that could help reduce veteran suicide, during which Carolyn Clancy, who leads VA’s health discovery office, said the department was committed to studying new interventions but there was “still much to learn, and much yet to be understood, about the potential benefits of psychedelic compounds.” VA officials on Friday said the new policy would enable the department to gather that information. 

“Our nation’s veterans deserve the very best care, and VA is constantly supporting innovations to deliver that,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said. “This is an important step to explore the efficacy of a potential new set of promising treatments that could improve the health and quality of life for veterans.”

Shereef Elnahal, VA’s undersecretary for health, recently devoted the first episode of the department’s “New Horizons in Health” podcast to the potential benefits of psychedelics for veterans. 

“Veterans and VA researchers have told us about the potential promise of psychedelics to treat mental health conditions for some time,” Elnahal said on Friday. “Now is our chance to study this potential method of treating Veterans with PTSD and major depression across the country.”

Congress in the 2024 defense authorization bill allowed the Pentagon to study the use of psychedelics within the military population. 

VA has permitted research into psychedelic-assisted therapy to take place at department facilities, but only when funded by outside organizations. Under the initiative, VA will fund the research directly. In 2018, VA for the first time allowed patients to discuss their marijuana use with their medical providers. The doctors cannot provide or recommend cannabis products, however. 

Disabled American Veterans has also recently called for more research into the medical use of psychedelics for their members. 

“DAV has long committed to supporting research into new, safe and encouraging treatments and therapies for veterans,” DAV National Legislative Director Joy Ilem said in November. “We should follow the science wherever it leads us and learn as much as possible to alleviate veterans’ wartime psychological wounds.”

Oregon and Colorado have legalized supervised use of psilocybin, while several large cities, including Washington, have decriminalized it. In a recent peer-reviewed, randomized study published in Nature Medicine, 86% of participants were found to have a “clinically meaningful benefit” from using MDMA to treat their PTSD. 

VA's announcement won bipartisan support from lawmakers. 

“This is great news for our veterans that lays the foundation for us to save the lives of those that have so generously served our country,” said Rep. Morgan Luttrell, R-Texas. "We must continue to push forward on these groundbreaking efforts to give those facing these issues another tool in the proverbial toolbox.”

Booker, who introduced the VA psychedelic legislation in the Senate, said the compounds have shown "exceptional promise in recent studies" on treating mental health conditions. 

"I am pleased to hear that the VA will begin research into these potentially lifesaving therapies so our veterans can receive the care they deserve from the country they fought for,” Booker said. 

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate VA Committee, is taking more of a wait-and-see approach. 

“Mental health is one of the most pressing issues facing our country, and countless lives depend on expanding our understanding of and treatment options for mental health conditions," Tester said. "I’ll be keeping a close eye on VA as they continue to examine alternative mental health treatments for veterans.”