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VA says it's open to exploring the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD

VA says it's open to exploring the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD
VA says it's open to exploring the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD 04:23

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- A local military veteran says psychedelics have allowed him to get his life back. He's among a growing number of vets using them to treat PTSD, but the idea is not without controversy.   

KDKA-TV lead investigator Andy Sheehan digs into the potential dangers of using these drugs and the likelihood the VA might allow their use. 

"I was homeless. My tent and the materials I was living in was about 250 yards that way. I was living in the woods," John Lewandowski said.

Lewandowski returned from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury and a drinking problem. He had left the war but an IED explosion and the horrors of combat remained in his head, leading him deeper into addiction and isolation. But he says the help he got from the Veterans Administration failed to break his downward spiral.  

"Their solution is benzos, opioids and having conversations with professional men and women that haven't been in the shoes of the veteran," he said.

"For someone who has been in so many repetitive traumatic events, there is no pill, there is no pharmaceutical that is able to change that brain chemistry," he added.

Like a growing number of veterans, Lewandowski says he found hope and recovery in a so-called magic mushroom containing the hallucinogen psilocybin. He says he had a kind of psychic breakthrough letting him face the trauma and go through it, finally finding peace on the other side.

"I was able to get through those night terrors and that isolation and I was able to really heal from that trauma and put it in the past," he said. 

Like other psychedelics, psilocybin is illegal under federal law and classified as a Schedule I drug, which the Drug Enforcement Administration says have a "high potential for abuse and no recognized medical value." As a result, there are roadblocks to research its effectiveness in treating PTSD and the VA is prohibited from prescribing or administering it. But local Congressman and Naval vet Chris Deluzio is supporting legislation to change that.  

"I say let the science and medicine lead us here and if there are safe therapies that are helping veterans and helping people, we should be making those available to folks," Deluzio said. 

Deluzio sits on the House Veterans Affairs and Armed Services committees and is supporting bipartisan legislation to foster research of psychedelics and pave the way for their administration. And he's calling VA officials to a hearing next week.

"If this research is showing that folks can be helped, that some of these treatments work, I don't want federal law standing in the way. Now we gotta do this safely, we gotta have those kind of safeguards you'd expect and demand," Deluzio said. 

In a statement to KDKA-TV Investigates, the VA says it is now open to the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD.

"VA is committed to safely exploring all avenues that promote the health of our nation's Veterans. In line with this goal, VA conducts research studies under stringent protocols at various facilities nationwide to identify if compounds such as MDMA and psilocybin can treat Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other serious mental health conditions."

But the VA cautions against vets like Lewandowski self-medicating, something echoed by Deluzio.

"I don't want anyone doing something on their own and hurting themselves as a result," Deluzio said.

But approval could be years away and Lewandowski says he will not stop his own self-treatment, which he says has changed his life.

Andy Sheehan: "You happy?"
Lewandowski: "Aw, man. Happy isn't the word. Optimistic, proud, functional, ecstatic."  

For now, veterans like him say they must secure the medicine they need outside the law. Maybe that will change in the near future.

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