Stefan Egan was months away from retiring after nearly a decade in the U.S. Army when he decided to end his life.
He'd been blacking out for long periods of the day, the residual price of being too close to a couple dozen explosives that detonated during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse, he was struggling to suppress dark thoughts about the people he worked with who wound up dead. The mountains of pills he'd been prescribed left him numb.
After a suicide attempt, Egan finally found therapeutic release from an unexpected source: a healthy dose of psilocybin, or psychedelic mushrooms.
"My outlook on everything changed. Everything," Egan said. "I wasn't waking up every day thinking about not wanting to wake up."
Voices like his will be central to an emerging debate at the Capitol on whether to legalize psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA for therapeutic purposes. A task force created by a bipartisan group of lawmakers last session will spend the next five months digging into research about whether these drugs, long prohibited by the federal government, might have the ability to reset some of the most intractable mental health conditions — addiction, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders.
Their recommendations to the Legislature could put Minnesota on the front lines of policymaking around psychedelic medicine.
"Minnesota has always been in the middle of the pack on these types of topics," said Kurtis Hanna, a longtime conservative drug reform lobbyist and a public policy and government relations specialist with Blunt Strategies. "If we see in this next legislative session some sort of drastic reform when it comes to access to psychedelics, it's going to make the entire nation start to have a discussion of, 'Whoa, this is not just something the regular players are tackling.'"
Not just 'hippie nonsense'
In 2006, Egan was looking for the fastest way to get to Iraq. He enlisted in the Army as a transportation specialist. But every time he returned home from a deployment, he struggled to reacclimate. There was no time for reintegration, and he was unable to compartmentalize what he experienced overseas.
"The trauma just kept building," he said. "By the time I got to my last deployment I didn't understand how to live life as a normal person in America."
In 2014, Egan was put into a several-week treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder after his suicide attempt, but it didn't help. It wasn't until a trip to Colorado to visit a friend that Egan started using cannabis to treat his physical pain. Then he turned to psychedelic mushrooms to quiet his internal turmoil. He described his first experience as intense — and life-altering.
"It allowed me to see that ... everything is connected," he said. "It's all so much bigger than you and your experience. Having that perspective change allowed me to change my perspective on everything."
A recent article in the Journal of Neurological Sciences by three doctors at the Mayo Clinic notes that human studies with psychedelics have shown promise, "demonstrating rapid and sustained clinical benefits of these compounds for a variety of psychiatric disorders" that other medications had not.
"My first thought was it's just hippie nonsense," said Dr. Manoj Doss, CEO and founder of the Institute of Integrative Therapies, which has been offering psychedelic therapy sessions in Eden Prairie for several years. "But the set and setting changes the use of this medicine to therapeutic."
Psychedelics are still a Schedule I drug, so Doss can only do ketamine-assisted therapy for now, but he's seen the benefits. Patients do therapy sessions before they take the drug in a controlled environment under monitoring of a medical expert. His offices have midcentury modern décor that incorporates nature to put patients at ease. They listen to a curated playlist through headphones that block out ambient noise.
"What's been shown is it decreases the activity in the fear processing part of the brain and allows people to process things," he said. "Psychedelics can shake up the snow globe and give you a fresh coat of powder to ski on."
Groups like the National Institutes of Health note that research is promising but still early, and the effects of the drugs can be difficult to predict. Without the appropriate "set and setting" for the experience, the psychedelics could have an adverse affect, Doss said.
"You can hardwire in the negative thoughts, you can go the other way."
Above the political fray
Psychedelics were added to the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, but as the movement to legalize cannabis hits nearly half of all states — including Minnesota on Aug. 1 — more lawmakers are rethinking its prohibition.
Last November, Colorado voters followed Oregon in decriminalizing the drugs and allowing their use. In Congress, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing to research psychedelic drugs to treat disorders. Last week, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey ordered the city's police department to look the other way on psychedelics.
"There's this really exciting momentum that Minnesota can lead the way on," said Rep. Andy Smith, DFL-Rochester, a sponsor of the bill who will serve on the task force. "We can be in the driver's seat on how to do this in the Midwest."
The conversation has managed to stay above the political fray in Minnesota, where the bill to create the task force had bipartisan sponsors. Republicans as well as Democratic representatives will sit on the task force, along with therapists and other health policy experts.
"We are seeing a lot of first responders suffering from PTSD," said Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, a physician who carried the bill and will also sit on the task force. "If this is a way to help people cope and recover from PTSD, that would be revolutionary."
The group's recommendations are due to lawmakers in February, less than two weeks before the 2024 legislative session begins.
Egan and others who have suffered from treatment-resistant mental health disorders will offer their experiences as members of the task force.
After using psychedelics, he said he's now functional and holding down a job as director of scientific applications at ExtraktLab, which manufactures extractors that can be used to help process all medical botanical herbs — including cannabis and mushrooms — into concentrate form.
He's lost many friends to suicide and knows others who are still struggling. "It helped me so much," he said. "If I can do this, I have to."
Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website, namimn.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.