QUEEN CITY NEWS – As North Carolina continues to debate legalizing medical marijuana, there’s a different drug that a Mecklenburg County State Representative wants on Raleigh’s radar.
Psychedelics like MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin are drawing more attention for their therapeutic uses for people who’ve literally tried every treatment out there for a number of medical and mental health conditions.
One of those people is Ken Maxwell who lives just outside of Asheville, NC.
Queen City News made the trip to Maxwell’s home and took notice of oxygen tanks stationed around the house, where he can get to them at any moment.
Maxwell suffers from Cluster Headaches; the result of a head injury he sustained while sailing several years ago.
“It’s like a stabbing hot with a hot knife in the back of the eye. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been shot in the face,” described Maxwell.
Pure oxygen in the tanks around his house serves as Maxwell’s first line of defense for the headaches, but he also has another tool to keep them at bay, or at least make life bearable.
“Psilocybin, which is the active psychoactive component in magic mushrooms,” he explained.
Yes, those magic mushrooms.
According to researchers, when used correctly in microdoses, psilocybin can have immense healing powers without the trip we’ve come to associate with movies and pop culture.
Maxwell said, “I just take a small amount. It doesn’t produce hallucinogenic effects. It’s just a small therapeutic amount that helps me manage the disease.”
Maxwell didn’t just decide to see if the drugs worked on his own. Years ago, he was part of a double-blind study at Yale University to test how psychedelics impacted cluster headaches.
During his second round in the trial, his results were astonishing.
“The severity of my attacks, instead of a lot of 7, 8, and 9 are on the 10-point KIP scale I was having mostly 3’s and 4’s,” Maxwell said, “It was the first hope I’d had in a long time.”
Stories like Maxwell’s are the reason why Mecklenburg County State Representative, John Autry, is drafting a bill right now to fund psychedelic research at universities like Duke and UNC Medical School to the tune of 4.2 million dollars.
Rep. Autry said, “It would be to look at using psilocybin, MDMA, plants, and psychedelics in therapy for treating folks with PTSD, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and terminal patients with end-of-life anxiety.”
If approved, North Carolina would be among only a handful of states to pass legislation on psychedelics, ranging from legal therapeutic use in Oregon to greenlighting research for PTSD sufferers in Texas, Washington, and Connecticut.
Utah, Colorado, California, Maryland, and New Jersey are all that’s that are working on their own framework for safely using the drug.
“I think the state of Texas has shown that they’re willing to actually do things for our veteran community besides use them as props,” said Rep. Autry.
Even without that legislation, North Carolina is already forging ahead.
The Pearl Psychedelic Institute in Waynesville, NC is now one of only four clinics in the United States with special permission from the FDA to perform psychedelic-assisted therapies using MDMA: the primary drug in ecstasy and “Molly.”
“It was used legally for therapy, uh, from about the 1970s until 1985 when the DEA stepped in and emergency-scheduled it“explains Dr. Raymond Turpin, the founder of the institute.
Dr. Turpin is already doing psychedelic-assisted therapy with ketamine at the non-profit. It’s a legal anesthetic widely used in veterinary medicine.
“If you give people a sub-anesthetic dose, it can create a powerful, psychedelic experience that’s fairly short-acting,” Dr. Turpin said.
In these sessions, Dr. Turpin and a medical professional go over a patient’s vitals and talk about their goals, and once they take the drug, their experience can last a little more than an hour with the help of music and an eye mask.
The real work happens next as Dr. Turpin explains.
“When they come out, we start to do what’s called integration work, which is where we try to piece together what did you experience during your time in the ketamine world and what did you possibly take from it and how does it apply to your intentions or your clinical issues, or your growth issues that you’re wanting to work on,” he said.
So, what’s happening inside our brains while taking psychedelics that help us better unpack trauma?
Dr. Turpin said, “When people are undergoing a traumatic incident, all their higher-order processing goes offline. They go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. And so what happens is all this fragmented, highly-charged information gets stored in the brain in an improper place.”
He went on to explain what the drugs do to those fragmented and misplaces memories.
“The first thing it does is it goes in and it deactivates the amygdala 95%, so that when your fight, flight, or freeze reactions are turned off it allows these fragmented trauma memories to start to come up into consciousness so that you can deal with it,” he said.
MDMA-assisted therapy goes through the same protocols, but the experience can last up to 8 hours. These sessions are always closely supervised at all times.
Dr. Turpin said he thinks these drugs can be another tool to help people who haven’t been able to find relief for their health issues.
“There’s a lot of people suffering out there that conventional treatments haven’t worked for and so they’re really desperate to find something else that might help them,“ Dr. Turpin said.
It’s a feeling Ken Maxwell knows all too well.
“Before I started dosing, I had a streak of 415 consecutive days of attacks, which was debilitating. It was one of the lowest parts of my life,” he said.
Now that he’s nailed down a regimen that works for him, he’s hopeful the state will open up pathways for others to heal too.
“I broke a streak of 415 consecutive days, so you cannot tell me, you cannot tell me this compound helpful, and if we’re smart, it can benefit so many people with so many different conditions,” Maxwell said.