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Psychedelic therapy integral to ancient societies may be coming to Pennsylvania

A Berks-based advocate sees potential for more Black and Latino participation in studies and therapy.

  • Anthony Orozco
Victor Cabral hopes to see more Black and Brown men participate in psychedelic research and therapy.

 Anthony Orozco / WITF

Victor Cabral hopes to see more Black and Brown men participate in psychedelic research and therapy.

This article was updated to clarify the status of MDMA in therapeutic use.

(Reading) — In Elido Francisco Jr.’s home in Reading, his living room was dimly lit, and soft music played. He had cleared time in his evening to delve deeply into an experience he said changed his life.

Through tears, brief moments of frustration and in-the-moment realizations, Francisco detailed the psychedelic experience he said changed his perspective on his childhood trauma and his life.

“I felt so much relief of everything that I’ve been holding…it was just like, wow,” Francisco said. “Then in the moment when I was crying, I was outside of my body looking at myself being empathetic. It’s okay, let it go.”

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Elido Francisco Jr. recounts his transformative psychedelic experience in his Reading home.

He recounted moments of mystical wonder, immense anger and otherworldly peace.

Francisco credits the visuals and sensations he experienced to a compound found in the psychedelic drugs such as the South American brew Ayahuasca and psilocybin, or “magic” mushrooms.

witf · Therapits see potential for psychedelic therapy in minority communities

But Francisco emphasizes his experience was transformational not just because of the substances he ingested, but because he was guided through his trauma by trained professionals through two nights of shamanic group therapy.

The use of psychedelics as aids in mental health is gaining momentum in the clinical arena, and some elected officials and advocates in Pennsylvania are pushing for more insight on how powerful drugs can help people heal.

Republican state Rep. Tracy Pennycuick of Montgomery County is an army veteran who has PTSD from three combat tours in the middle east.

Last year,  after learning of the positive effects it has had for other veterans, Pennycuick introduced House Bill 1959, which would allow the Department of Health to oversee at least two facilities to grow psilocybin mushrooms in the state for use in the clinical studies.

“Why wouldn’t we be on the cutting edge of technology here in Pennsylvania?” Pennycuick said. “That, to me, is an opportunity that I think can be groundbreaking.”

PA Cast

State Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, of Montgomery County, introduced House Bill 1959 last year and expects a vote on the psychedelic mushroom bill in coming weeks.

It would prioritize studies that focus on veterans, retired first responders and their families.

The bill has bipartisan support with more than 20 co-sponsors, but has sat in the House Health committee. Pennycuick expects the bill to come up for a House vote within the next two months.

“We owe it to [veterans] to look for new and innovative treatments for PTSD; we have to do it,” Pennycuick said, noting that mushrooms are already a huge industry in the commonwealth.

The use of these sorts of drugs appear to be on the frontiers of mental health treatment in Pennsylvania. But psychedelic assisted healing isn’t anything new, especially for the native people that many Latinos hail from, according to therapist Victor Cabral.

Peter Dejong / AP Photo

FILE – In this Aug. 3, 2007, file photo, psilocybin mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands. Oregon was the first state to both decriminalize psilocybin and also legalize it for therapeutic use.

“I’m talking about our indigenous ancestors from the continent of Africa, or from the Caribbean, or from South America, and their use of these medicines over thousands of years, to heal their communities to be in balance with nature, etcetera,” Cabral said. “That’s usually a good way to start to explain what is the purpose of these medicines, what is their origin, and I think that opens up the conversation a little bit more.”

Cabral recently stepped down as deputy director of Gov. Tom Wolf’s office of advocacy and reform, where he spent around two years working to make Pennsylvania a state that allows healing centers, among other initiatives.

Cabral is also a social worker and certified in therapies using MDMA and ketamine. Ketamine is already permitted in the state and MDMA is permitted for clinical trials.

The therapies do not rely on heavy or even regular use of the drugs. Instead, patients take the drugs around three times over as many months paired with conversation and other sessions with therapists.

Cabral notes there are several barriers in getting Black and Brown men to participate in therapy at all, let alone ones with powerful mind-expanding drugs.

“Part of our colonization as Latinos, and even Black and Brown communities, is that we were taught that our ancestral traditions and our cultural traditions and beliefs and spirituality were tied to demonic black magic, evil things,” Cabral said. “So, anything that doesn’t fit the mold of the religions that we were handed by our colonizers usually gets the response of, this is something bad.”

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Victor Cabral recently left Gov. Tom Wolf’s office of Advocacy and Reform to join New York-based psychedelic therapy training group, Fluence.

Recent analyses of psychedelic studies found that upward of 80 percent of participants have been White. Cabral said therapists of color also make up a small percentage of mental health professionals in the psychedelic field.

Cabral recently became director of policy and regulatory affairs for Fluence, a New York-based company that provides psychedelic assisted therapy and training.

In his new position, he will be working with state governments across the country to give therapists the training they need for their specific fields and specific drugs they use.

“I hope to see more people engaged in this conversation and really looking at the science and the benefits of these medicines,” Cabral said.

Cabral also took his message about psychedelics’ potential to heal minority communities to nationally known hip-hop radio host Sway Calloway.

He is also working on a documentary about the power and utility of psychedelic therapy.

Cabral has said culturally informed therapy helped him and others overcome specific, nuanced trauma that comes with being a male of color, raised in an urban setting or being burdened with the pressure of becoming a first generation success story in a family of immigrants.

Francisco himself is a social worker who works in a behavioral health hospital with people who are often in the most difficult points of their lives.

He said his psychedelic experience has made him more compassionate and helped him empathize with himself and others.

“I have moments like that with these individuals that are so pristine, enlightenment, it’s beautiful,” Francisco said. “That also brings healing to myself, if I could connect with individuals that are under a manic state of psychosis.”

Francisco said the abuse and neglect he experienced as a child could have manifested in harmful ways. But he said is grateful to have been guided through transformative psychedelic treatment.

“A lot of us males need to heal — not through savagery — but through tears and hugs and love,” he said.

And, he said, sometimes you need to pass through dark and intimidating doorways to find resolution and peace.

Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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