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Psilocybin therapy options could expand in Hawaiʻi

Psilocybin mushrooms grow wild in Hawaiʻʻi, famously, out of cow pies in Waimea on Hawaiʻi island.
Kristie Gianopulos
cc commons 2.0
Psilocybin mushrooms grow wild in Hawaiʻʻi, famously, out of cow pies in Waimea on Hawaiʻi island.

Stephen Anderson is a Vietnam veteran. Seventy years old, he volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1970. When he came back, Anderson says, he felt he needed to protect himself from the world. That involved considerable self-medication.

Until last September, when Anderson tried his first hallucinogenic mushrooms.

"It was in Maui," Anderson said. "I went to their home and they put a lot of candles and things and music and they gave me some psilocybin. They stayed right next to my side the entire time."

"A lot of my emotions were washed with this," Anderson continued. "And my brain and heart were connected again. I kept saying the word, 'Oh I remember, I remember, I remember so much!'"

Anderson says he was connected to healing emotions he felt before Vietnam.

Thomas Cook

The purpose of the drug is to cause an altered mental state, according to Dr. Thomas Cook. Cook is a psychiatrist, practicing in Honolulu for the last six years. He treats patients for anxiety, trauma, suicidal thoughts, chronic depression, PTSD, and other issues.

In his practice, Dr. Cook finds that psychedelics benefit his patients, at a time when so many are under added stress and anxiety.

"You don't want the patient on the same drug every day," said Cook. "When you're on an anti-depressant every day, you are numbed and you become less discriminatory and less perceptive about mood changes."

Cook says normally happy people notice when they're depressed, and do something about it.

"But depressed people lose that ability and people on the same anti-depressant every day donʻt have much mood variation either," Cook said.

"We have a lot of people today stuck in their minds in repetitive hamster-wheel-type negative thinking. With a psychedelic that's taken sporadically or occasionally, you have a better ability to discriminate, make changes, and adapt."

Dr. Thomas Cook - Sept. 24, 2021
The Aloha Friday Conversation

Even before the pandemic, the United Nations said depression and anxiety cost the global economy more than a trillion dollars a year.

Last year, the World Health Organization issued a new warning that many people who coped well previously, may now be more at risk due to pandemic stressors.

Increasingly, psychedelics are entering the mental health conversation.

Since 2020, the New England Journal of Medicine has reported on the benefits of treating depression with psilocybin. Here's a Scientific American article on that. Benefits that extend to treating even long-term PTSD and sexual trauma.

Courtesy Ashley Lukens

Ashley Lukens is co-founder of the Clarity Project. Their goal is to expand legal psychedelic therapies in Hawaiʻi.

For Lukens, it all started in 2017 when she discovered she had brain cancer.

"In this book, Radical Remission, they said one of the key factors to healing from cancer is purging negative emotions and negative stories," she said. "For me, releasing myself from my loneliness and pain that I experienced as a child, I feel has significantly contributed to my amazing physical health outcomes as a cancer patient."

Lukens had brain surgery, which left a residual tumor. She went through a diet and lifestyle reboot as well as a psychedelic experience, after which the spot was gone. Lukens then went through chemotherapy and radiation.

She has had four psychedelic sessions since. Her scans continue to be clear.

"So to be an adult and actually regain some level of efficacy in determining your thought patterns and your personality is pretty powerful," Lukens said. "I would argue, there are a lot of people that do not attain the clarity that psychedelics provide you through mediation and through psychoanalysis because there is a firmly entrenched mental block. Psychedelics have shown, time and time again, to help you overcome that barrier."

Ashley Lukens - Sept. 24, 2021
The Aloha Friday Conversation

In November 2021, The New York Times reported on U.S. veterans lobbying for psychedelic therapy options.

"That's something that really excites me about the work we're doing with veterans," Lukens said. "Our veteran community is in crisis. More veterans die of suicide than soldiers die in combat. The VA has just signed on to participate in clinical trials because they recognize the solutions on the table arenʻt working."

It's not that psychedelics are the easy way out.

"He cried for almost six hours," said Chris Anderson, Vietnam veteran Steve Anderson's wife. "So it was intense, but when he came back, I did see him very different."

Chris Anderson says her husband just seems more engaged in everyday life after his psilocybin experience, which he calls a celebration.

"Once I got over the great rush of the celebration," Steve Anderson said. "I can just tinker with it, like having a cup of tea. Instead of taking anti-depressants, I take micro-dose."

Steve says tiny doses of psilocybin, a mix of a few mushrooms, keep him on track now.

Stephen Anderson - Sept. 24, 2021
The Aloha Friday Conversation

In the 2022 legislative session, State Senator Stanley Chang plans to re-introduce a bill to decriminalize psilocybin and study therapies. In the past, Senators Laura Acasio, Les Ihara, Maile Shimabukuro and Chris Lee have been among those supporting the effort.

Some local psychiatrists, including Dr. Cook, work with ketamine, a powerful anesthetic with some hallucinogenic effects.

In Hawaiʻi, ayahuasca ceremonies have long been a part of the "retreat" scene, especially on Maui and Hawaiʻi Island.

Hallucinogenic experiences are triggered by brewing a vine with leaves from a bush, both of which grow in the islands. The New Yorker has called ayahuasca the "Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale."

HPR's Noe Tanigawa also appeared on The Conversation on Jan. 7, 2022, to discuss this story. Listen below.

HPR's Noe Tanigawa - Jan. 7, 2022
The Conversation

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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