The director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says he opposes efforts to legalize the use of psilocybin mushrooms to treat depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A man from central Maine holds homegrown psychedelic mushrooms that helped him manage severe depression after other medicines failed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dr. Nirav Shah submitted written testimony this week on the bill, sponsored by Sen. Donna Bailey, D-Saco, that would allow people to use psilocybin at designated treatment centers under certain conditions. The user must have a counseling session to set expectations before being dosed and would be supervised during the hours-long session by two monitors. The program also would be overseen by a 19-member advisory panel, with licensing and rule-making being done by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The bill is based on a similar one in Oregon, which became the first state to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy in 2020.

Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019, followed by the California cities of Oakland and Santa Cruz. Voters in Detroit voted to decriminalize mushrooms in November.

Shah expressed concerns about several aspects of Maine’s bill, including limits placed on DHHS to regulate use of psilocybin and what he considers to be too little input from behavioral and public health experts into the oversight structure. He also worries that psilocybin treatment centers would “function more like recreational use facilities rather than medical treatment facilities.”

Although early studies are showing promising results, Shah urged lawmakers to wait until clinical guidelines are established and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives psilocybin full approval as a treatment. The FDA designated psilocybin as a breakthrough treatment for drug-resistant depression in 2018 and for major depressive disorder in 2019.


“In summary, the Maine CDC and Department of Health and Human Services believe there should be much further scientific research and discussion about psilocybin before a structure is established for its administration and use in Maine,” he said in his testimony.

Shah did not testify in-person during a public hearing Tuesday, which included first-hand accounts of how psilocybin has helped people deal with depression, anxiety and PTSD.

It’s unclear how influential Shah’s position will be among members of the Health and Human Services Committee, which will hold a work session on Tuesday. But the high-profile CDC director has achieved near rock-star status for his clear – and at times humorous – communication and steady hand guiding Mainers through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Certainly he is somebody who has become a trusted voice for a lot of people, but not everyone,” committee co-chair Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, said in an interview Wednesday. “But I haven’t read all of the testimony today, so I can’t comment on how influential I think it will be.”

Psilocybin is considered an illicit drug, but many people struggling with depression are accessing it on the black market as a treatment option. Several people shared their experiences with the Press Herald on the condition of anonymity, since they worried about law enforcement or losing their professional license.

Claxton said it’s “up entirely in the air” what the committee or full Legislature will do with the bill. He said testimony provided Tuesday by people who have benefited from psilocybin was “very persuasive,” but the committee also must address concerns raised by Shah and others, including the Maine Medical Association and the Maine Municipal Association.


One of those individuals who testified Tuesday was Rudy Gonsior, who said his nearly 20 years of combat missions in Army special operations, left him with PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“It left me in a place that was very dark, almost with no hope,” he said.

After talk therapy and prescription drugs failed to help, Gonsior said he turned to psilocybin-assisted therapy in 2019, which he accessed in a foreign country.

“All I can say is that I’m alive today because of that experience,” he said. “It gave me back my family, my joy, my purpose. It gave me back my life.”


Dr. Dustin Sulak, who has a medical practice in Falmouth and has been a prominent advocate for medical marijuana, said he’s currently following 20 patients using psilocybin, including those who are near the end of their lives and struggling with terminal depression and death anxiety. He said the results have been “profound.”


“These patients and their caregivers become criminals when they grow, purchase or use a relatively safe and highly effective natural medicine,” Sulak said. “They often don’t disclose their use to their other doctors, increasing their risk for drug interactions. I see many patients who would be excellent candidates for a trial for psilocybin who have no access to the drug, many of whom are nearing the ends of their lives.”

Rep. Abigail Griffin, of Levant, the ranking Republican on the committee, did not respond to an interview request but was skeptical of the proposal in a written statement provided to the Press Herald.

“In the midst of a raging opioid epidemic, I am hesitant to add a new drug to the mix before we have enough information to make an informed decision,” she said.

Claxton said he’d like to learn more about other states are doing and whether home-grown mushrooms are better than manufactured psilocybin. He also noted that the FDA is likely to approve MDMA, or ecstasy, as a treatment for PTSD before making a decision on psilocybin mushrooms.

One option, Claxton conceded, would be to form a study group, since the research is evolving on both psilocybin and MDMA.

“That’s always a possibility,” he said. “And I know that’s frustrating for folks, but you hate to put something into statute that’s wrong or inflexible. To go back and change a statute is a whole lot harder than going back to change rules and regulations.”

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