February 27, 2024

Mental health mission: Why a California lawmaker visited a Mexican psychedelics clinic

Rep. Lou Correa traveled to Tijuana to see why ex-soldiers are taking hallucinogenic drugs to overcome PTSD and whether the medicine should be offered in the U.S.

American veterans are traveling to a Mexican city where there have been so many homicides that the State Department advises they reconsider. Their reason: to take experimental psychedelic drugs the vets hope will treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses they incurred after combat.

Southern California Rep. Lou Correa wants to make sure the treatments are safe and whether it makes sense to offer them in the U.S.

Correa, a Democrat, recently traveled to the Tijuana clinic to learn more and spoke to POLITICO about his findings.

Correa's not a veteran himself, but as co-chair of the Congressional Psychedelics Advancing Therapies (PATH) Caucus, he wanted to question the doctors in person and see whether their work justifies further research on the drugs in the U.S.

Correa's bullish on psychedelic medicine as a potential treatment for mental health disorders like PTSD, depression and addiction. But he's also wary of the public's appetite for a "magic pill" for those hard-to-treat conditions and cognizant that if Congress doesn't prioritize researching psychedelics, their potential may never be realized.

"This promises to revolutionize how we treat mental health," Correa said, propping a sneakered foot on his coffee table. "But the opportunity for abuse and misuse is clearly there as well."

Correa's clinic visit comes near the start of what could be a transformative year for psychedelic medicine. Along with Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), Correa pushed to get an amendment into the fiscal 2024 defense authorization bill with $15 million in funding for psychedelic research for veterans. In January, the Veterans Affairs Department announced it would fund psychedelic studies for veterans for the first time. And the Food and Drug Administration is considering the first application for MDMA, also known as ecstasy, combined with talk therapy as a PTSD treatment, with a decision expected as early as August.

At the clinic, Correa sat down with Dr. Martin Polanco, who started his career treating patients with addiction before he turned to using psychedelics to treat veterans.

His six-week program involves four weeks of preparation in the U.S., in which patients taper off mental health medications, stop using drugs and alcohol, and receive health screenings, followed by a long weekend in Mexico. There, patients take ibogaine, an African root extract, and 5-MeO-DMT, derived from desert toads, which are both unregulated in Mexico but classified as controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration here. The program is capped off with two weeks of coaching calls to help integrate veterans back into their day-to-day lives.

Polanco said the treatment leaves veterans well-positioned to manage their conditions, which can be debilitating.

Correa told POLITICO that he wanted to investigate the center's set-up, clientele, treatment costs, patient recruitment and staff qualifications. His top concern: "I want to see what the safety parameters are around this treatment," he said.

Still, Correa was satisfied with Polanco's safety precautions for medical emergencies, including a cardiologist and a nurse trained in emergency medicine on staff.

"We need precautionary guidelines in terms of safety in the event something does not go as planned," Correa said.

He said the U.S. needs to speed up psychedelic research, similar to how Operation Warp Speed fast-tracked the development of Covid-19 vaccines. "My concern is that this thing is so promising that people who are desperate are not going to wait for the research," Correa said.

"This thing is coming. You can tell people, slow down, caution," he added. "It ain't gonna work."

By:  Erin Schumaker