Turn your recorder on,” Rick Perry said, “and I’ll tell you how the right-wing, knuckle-dragging, conservative Republican governor of Texas even allowed his name to be used in the same sentence with ‘psychedelics.’ ” This was a story, he warned, that could take fifteen or twenty minutes to tell. Instead, the governor who ran Texas for nearly half of my life extolled the benefits of such drugs as MDMA (a.k.a. Ecstasy), psilocybin mushrooms, and ibogaine for the better part of an hour and a half.
Perry has been a force in Texas politics for nearly 38 years, since his election to a House seat in 1984. He held statewide office for 24 years and served as governor for 15. In long-standing Texas tradition, he made good money while in public service. He is not known as a bleeding-heart crusader.
Which makes it all the stranger that Perry has become an activist, and for an issue many Democrats in office still won’t touch with a barge pole: the legalization of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic use. Though folks may not be primed to accept medical advice from Perry, who got a D in a class called Meats at Texas A&M, he’s in good company with psychologists and scientists around the country. “I’m an animal science major, I’m not a brain scientist, but I’ve studied this,” Perry said. “These compounds somehow reset the brain.”
If administered in controlled settings and with the help of doctors, he holds, psychedelics could improve millions of Americans’ well-being. If Texas makes these drugs legal, he thinks, other states will fall in line.
I’d known about Perry’s advocacy for psychedelic therapy for some time. In April 2021, he returned to the Legislature to endorse a bill offered by Representative Alex Dominguez, a Democrat from Brownsville, that called for a state-funded clinical study on the use of psilocybin mushrooms and ketamine to treat PTSD in veterans. Perry told lawmakers they had a chance to be heroes. “The idea that you come to public service and that you have saved a life,” he said, choking up just a bit, “what a powerful moment in time.”
Perry’s other appearance during the 2021 session, in which he held a press conference at the Capitol on behalf of an anti-COVID air filtration company, was more typical. In his remarks, he didn’t mention having any financial interest in filter sales. When a reporter pressed him, Perry said he served on the board of the manufacturer. A company official later clarified that Perry was a salesperson working on commission.
When Texas Monthly asked whether he or anyone in his family stands to profit in any way from the decriminalization of psychedelic drugs, Perry declined to comment. But it seems clear that Perry’s interest in the matter extends beyond being a pitchman, if he is one. Last July, at a Texas meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Perry’s sincerity seemed manifest. While most state elected officials and Trump stalwarts held forth on the main stage, eager to burnish their brands, Perry spoke only at a side event, the Cattleman’s Ball, a fund-raising dinner. After some celebratory patter for those who’d shelled out for the movement, Perry took the stage. In a vast ballroom lit with car-size glass chandeliers, the well-dressed audience was treated to a disquisition on the ways that drugs normally associated with ravers and festivalgoers help rewire the brain to reduce damage caused by trauma. It felt like a bad trip.
The story began, Perry told me, during the last week of July 2006. He was cruising to reelection in a four-way field that included independent candidate Kinky Friedman, the pot-smoking troubadour, and Perry felt secure enough to take a break. He and his wife, Anita, headed for Coronado Island, near San Diego, where the famous Hotel del Coronado sits just down the beach from one of the nation’s most important Navy bases. “I’m not particularly fond of vacations,” Perry said. “I don’t take time off particularly well. I’m looking for something to do.”
So when a naval aviator from Texas passed a card to Perry’s security detail asking if the governor wanted a tour of the nearby Naval Special Warfare Center, where many Navy SEALs undergo their training, it felt like a get-out-of-jail-free card. “That was perfect for me, Chris. I go, ‘Thank you, Lord. I don’t have to sit on a beach for hours and be bored out of my head,’ ” Perry told me. “So I called this kid, and we made arrangements.”
The tour went well, and Perry and Anita invited their two guides to dinner that evening. Walking away, an officer told Perry that one of his guides—an exceptionally terse and well-built man—had just come from the White House, where he’d been awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor a sailor can receive. At his hotel, Perry said, he plugged the man’s name into Google: Marcus Luttrell. He didn’t get much.
But some poking around revealed that Luttrell had been the sole survivor of Operation Red Wings, an event that still holds a kind of mythical status in the military. Four Navy SEALs went into the Korengal Valley, in Afghanistan, on June 27, 2005, hunting a militia commander. Three of the SEALs died, and when a rescue team was sent, sixteen more soldiers were killed. A badly wounded Luttrell, kept alive by some Afghan villagers, was finally rescued on July 3. He had a broken back and had been shot multiple times, but he made a slow recovery.
At dinner, Perry recounted, another man at the table probed the SEAL a little too much, and Luttrell withdrew. “Luttrell was still very raw, physically and mentally,” Perry said. He was clearly in a lot of pain. At the end of the dinner, Perry pulled Luttrell aside. “I know you want to honor your friends who were killed, and you need to make sure you’ve done it properly,” he said. “So find a writer and a lawyer and put pen to paper.” (Lone Survivor, Luttrell’s account of the battle, was released the following year, and a film adaptation starring Mark Wahlberg came out in 2013.)
As they parted, Perry tossed out an invitation that he had offered hundreds of times before. “If you’re ever through Austin, look us up,” he said. It seemed like the appropriate thing to say. “Very few people actually call me,” he told me.
But nearly a year later, Luttrell showed up on the front steps of the Governor’s Mansion, telling a security guard that he had been asked to come. “Huh,” Perry thought. But he and Anita had dinner with Luttrell, again. By this time, he had finished writing his book, but it had not been released. Soon after he had met Perry in 2006, he had deployed with another SEAL team to Iraq, where he had blown out his knees and fractured his spine. He seemed wrung out and broken-down. “This was May of 2007,” Perry said. “He comes in and has dinner with us, and he doesn’t leave until August of 2009.”
Luttrell became a part of the Perry family. Soon after his arrival, while the Governor’s Mansion was being repaired and renovated, the Perrys relocated to an expansive home in a gated community in southwest Austin. The third floor was a sort of studio apartment, and Luttrell moved in. He came and went, Perry said, but was able to rely on it as a “safe place” to begin his recovery. Anita, trained as a nurse, took the lead.
“He was a very, very sick boy,” as Perry put it. Luttrell was addicted to painkillers, Perry said, which he had been handed in plenitude by the Veterans Health Administration. He suffered from debilitating depression and anxiety, Perry recalled, and could sleep only in a brightly lit room.
Perry was struck, he said, not just by the pain Luttrell was in but also by how many other Luttrells there must be, struggling with trauma from their time in combat. “I wrote about a letter a week from 2003 to 2010,” Perry said, to Texans whose loved ones had died in Afghanistan and Iraq. For each dead service member, there were countless more who lived with debilitating injuries that the country didn’t know how to treat. Then, and even today, the U.S. had barely begun to cope with “the mental health problems that we created by being at war for damn near two decades.”
Luttrell’s physical health gradually improved. But, Perry said, he still suffered from PTSD and the aftereffects of his traumatic brain injuries. “We tried a lot of different things,” Perry said. “They may have helped around the periphery,” but none seemed to be what Luttrell needed.
Perry ran for president, twice. At the launch of his second campaign, Luttrell and his twin brother, Morgan, also a former Navy SEAL, flanked Perry onstage at an airplane hangar in Addison, a half hour north of Dallas. The former governor became a leading anti-Trump figure and then, demonstrating his trademark flexibility, a pro-Trump figure. His conversion was persuasive enough to make him Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Energy.
In 2017 Perry began to hear from the Luttrells and others about Navy SEALs going to Mexico to take psychedelic drugs, which are largely unregulated there. The SEALs were “going down and literally coming back and proclaiming that it had changed their lives in a powerfully positive way,” Perry said, “and in some cases saying, ‘It saved my life.’ ” This surprised him, but it came from a source he trusted. “I grew up in the sixties, and I went to a very conservative school.” At Texas A&M, “drugs were something that they did on the West Coast or in Austin,” he said, “something associated with Timothy Leary and the hippie movement.”
Here Perry took a hard turn, offering a story I can vaguely recall a weed dealer telling me some years before. “In the nineties, somebody was interviewing [President Nixon’s White House counsel John] Ehrlichman, and they asked him, ‘Why did Nixon put these drugs under Schedule 1?’ ” In the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the Food and Drug Administration ranked drugs in order of their medical usefulness and potential for abuse, with higher-ranking drugs garnering longer prison sentences. Schedule 1 was intended to be where the most dangerous drugs, with no medical use and high potential for addiction—like heroin—were listed. “None of these drugs are that,” Perry said. “Not LSD, not psilocybin, not ibogaine. Not ayahuasca, not MDMA. None of these fit that category.”
In the interview, with journalist Dan Baum, Ehrlichman copped to listing psychedelic drugs and marijuana as Schedule 1 substances for political reasons. Nixon “hated hippies, and he hated Blacks,” Perry explained, and with marijuana and LSD included in the list of the most illegal drugs, law enforcement had maximum leverage to “disrupt their communities.” Learning this history was “really eye-opening for me,” Perry said, particularly as he came to meet more Americans who felt they owed their lives to psychedelic therapy. Folks who would otherwise be “putting a gun in their mouths because they can’t live anymore” felt that it had “given them their lives back and given them hope.”
There’s a lot of work left to do to turn the anecdotal success of individuals into a scientifically rigorous treatment regimen. But that work has begun in earnest, said Greg Fonzo, a clinical psychologist and the codirector of the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy, which launched in December 2021. In the past, Fonzo explained, research on psychedelic use for mental health purposes was done “a little bit fast and loose,” and researchers at UT are “hoping to bring a higher level of scientific rigor.”
As more studies filter in, there’s reason to believe that the compounds can be helpful—and that they may not be the miracle drugs some of their promoters suggest. Fonzo points to ongoing studies by the British pharmaceutical company Compass Pathways, which hopes to take psilocybin treatments to market. Nearly a quarter of patients with depression who received 25 milligrams of psilocybin reported three weeks later that their depression was in remission. That’s good—but, in Fonzo’s opinion, it was “actually not as impressive, I think, as a lot of people had hoped,” which seemed to confirm the idea that previous small studies “oftentimes lead to an inflated estimate of how efficacious” these drugs might be.
There’s also a need to ensure strong safeguards around the use of psychedelic drugs. Several companies in the United States now offer ketamine, a powerful dissociative drug with psychedelic properties, by mail, after a cursory telemedicine appointment to confirm a diagnosis of depression. (One of the most popular of these companies, which goes by the name Mindbloom, frequently advertises on Instagram.) That gives Fonzo pause. “I would not recommend it to any of my patients,” he said. It reminds him a bit of what happened in the fifties and sixties, when the burgeoning field of psychedelic medicine was drowned out by a popular backlash that came with growing recreational use.
The bill Perry backed in the most recent legislative session, which aimed to encourage psilocybin studies and set the groundwork for future studies on ketamine and MDMA, became law last June. With Perry’s backing and with powerful testimony from supportive veterans, the bill faced only hard-right opposition.
Perry hopes that by encouraging the legalization of psychedelic therapy in Texas, he’ll facilitate bringing it to all fifty states. He has a model in mind: his record on criminal justice reform, one of the bipartisan success stories of his tenure as governor.
In the mid-aughts, Perry befriended a number of criminal justice reform advocates—conservatives and liberals—who persuaded him to help reduce the state’s prison population by, among other things, introducing pretrial diversion programs and instituting drug courts for defendants in need more of rehab than a prison cell. A reform movement had been building in Texas for some time. But Perry’s approval caused other states to take note that tough-on-crime Texas was taking a smarter approach, and some joined in.
“Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to lead if it really makes a difference in people’s lives,” Perry said, even if the issue is a fringe one or politically risky. He hopes that efforts here for a carefully tailored push—beginning with psychedelic use for struggling veterans, in clinics where patients are “properly diagnosed, properly dosed, properly guided through these experiences, and properly followed up with”—has the same snowballing effect. “ ‘Okay: If those conservatives down there in Texas are willing to allow these psychedelics in these clinics to save these people’s lives, why don’t we do it in Oklahoma? Why don’t we do it in Mississippi? Why don’t we do it in Florida?’ ”
James Richard Perry of Paint Creek, 72 years old, Eagle Scout and former Texas A&M yell leader, the man Molly Ivins called Governor Goodhair, stalwart friend of law and order, has stared into the future with the gaze of a hardened psychonaut and foreseen a revolution in the way Americans cope with pain and trauma. It’s all a bit hard to believe, but Perry’s enthusiasm is infectious. “My goal is to stand up and say, ‘This may on its face sound peculiar to you, that the former governor of Texas is promoting psychedelics,’ ” he said. “ ‘But if I’m willing to do that, don’t you think you ought to take a look at it?’ ”
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Rick Perry, Drug Pusher.” Subscribe today.