Canada’s top health agency has agreed to allow an additional three people to use psilocybin mushrooms, a naturally-occurring psychedelic, as therapy. All three have mental health diagnoses, and will use the drug under supervision of medical or psychological professionals. Psilocybin remains illegal, however, and unavailable to millions of other Canadians who might also benefit.
Four cancer patients previously made history in August 2020, when Canada’s health minister agreed to give them special permission to use psilocybin legally, as therapy. A Canadian nonprofit, TheraPsil, first petitioned the government on their behalf in April 2020. The drug continued to be illegal, as it has been since 1974, but the announcement protected the patients from criminal consequences. Several other independent doctors and organization have also helped file applications for patients.
“What’s most new and significant is in Canada you no longer have to be dying to get access to psilocybin.”
Since last year, the health minister has approved a small number of additional patients, together with medical professionals to provide the psilocybin therapy. The three newest patients were approved on December 6, reportedly taking the current total to 81 patients and health professionals.
What’s different about this latest move, however, is the type of patient approved. Previously, the health minister only agreed to allow psilocybin therapy for terminal or palliative care patients—those who are near death or very elderly. The new patients don’t fall into these categories, but have mental health conditions. Aged between 40 and 60, their conditions include anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“What’s most new and significant is in Canada you no longer have to be dying to get access to psilocybin,” TheraPsil CEO Spencer Hawskell told Filter.
But while praising the move, he described the current stance on psilocybin as unsustainable.
“What we’re saying is this is unacceptable the way these rights are being doled out at the moment, that some patients get access, others have to go to court, and some are left waiting with no alternatives,” he said.
TheraPsil notes that an additional 15 patients, and 120 medical professionals, have applied for permission but are still waiting to hear back.
“Even more important is as of today, there are 81 Canadians that have gotten access to psilocybin through the [federal exemption process],” Hawskell said, but “not a single person has been able to access a safe supply. So the government has been forcing patients to get access to psilocybin underground.”
That’s why Canadian psychedelic advocates are urging the government to go much further and actually legalize the drug.
The health minister could choose tomorrow to approve all outstanding applications for psilocybin therapy, and it would still barely make a dent in the number of people who might benefit.
Each year, an estimated one in five Canadians—6.7 million people—is diagnosed with a mental illness. That doesn’t take into account potentially millions more who are undiagnosed. The most common mental conditions include depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia and PTSD. Clinical research suggests psilocybin may be helpful in treating various conditions, especially for patients not helped by more common treatments.
Psilocybin could therefore potentially help millions of Canadians, but only if federal drug policies are relaxed. The health minister could choose tomorrow to approve all outstanding applications for psilocybin therapy, and it would still barely make a dent in the number of people who might benefit.
Psilocybin is currently classified as a Schedule III controlled substance under federal law, which means possessingin, buying, or selling it is illegal and can be punished by a prison term up to three years or a fine of up to CA $2,000
What’s also significant about psilocybin is that unlike most pharmaceutical drugs, it can be easily grown at home with minimal equipment and a little bit of knowledge. If Canada were to legalize psilocybin—it already did so with cannabis—access would exponentially increase.
The Canadian Psychedelic Association is currently lobbying elected officials throughout the country to support a framework for legal, psilocybin-assisted therapy. A survey it commissioned found in August that four in five Canadians supported legalizing psilocybin therapy for end-of-life care.
Also in August, TheraPsil released its own proposal for legalizing medical psilocybin. It includes licensing growers, sellers and even personal home-grow.
“Every time we speak to the politicians, MPs, we get nothing but support,” Hawskell said. “Where things seem to be difficult is getting the support of the federal health ministers. Just getting a meeting with them is impossible. Thankfully we’re hearing from them on this issues, so to me it signals they’re open to allowing individual patients access but they’re not quite ready to make regulatory change.”
Photograph via Pixabay.