Health Canada has quietly expanded its list of who can legally possess and consume psilocybin-containing mushrooms by granting 16 health-care professionals the same exemptions it gave more than a dozen patients with terminal and mental illnesses.
The applications from a diverse group of doctors, nurses, counsellors and therapists had been in limbo at the department for more than five months, when the Tyee reported on them two weeks ago.
A week later, Health Minister Patty Hajdu appeared on a virtual townhall with Vancouver MP Hedy Fry and in offhand remarks revealed her department’s decision to approve the applications.
“This is also something I would say is controversial for some and not for others,” Hajdu said. “But the doctors that prescribe this therapy wanted to understand what it would feel like and how to best use it to help their patients.”
The new approvals are being celebrated by Therapsil, the Victoria, B.C. advocacy group that championed the applications for legal use of the potent psychedelic. The non-profit group submitted requests on behalf of 18 health professionals in B.C. and Ontario for exemptions from Canada’s drug laws. Health Canada says two are “still under review.”
Therapsil began offering psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to a handful of palliative care patients in August as way to treat and alleviate their fear, anxiety and depression. Patients consume upwards of five grams of dried magic mushrooms to enter a psychedelic state for a few hours. The full process involves both pre- and post-psychedelic counselling and talk therapy. Patients who’ve been through it told The Tyee that it left them more at ease, less stressed and less anxious.
CEO Spencer Hawkswell said Health Canada considered the latest applications alongside Therapsil’s plans to launch a formal training program for psychedelic therapists in the new year.
“The government is now behind us, and it’s now the only legal experiential psychedelic training in North America,” Hawkswell said. “That’s a major accomplishment.”
Hawkswell said it surpasses the groundbreaking measure endorsed by voters in Oregon last month who voted to create the first U.S. psilocybin-assisted therapy program.
“It's a fantastic measure,” Hawkswell said. “It’s going to take time though. We’ve got a training program that’s going to be operational in a couple months. We’re not talking about two years like they are down the U.S.”
Psilocybin has been illegal in Canada since 1974, and the exemptions don’t change its status. It remains firmly fixed on a schedule with other psychedelics listed in Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
The exemptions for therapists come with conditions similar to those Health Canada attached to the permissions for patients: they’re only for a year, they only allow a small personal amount, and copious records must be kept about use. In the case of the health-care professionals, the drug can only be used as part of a training program.
Dr. Sean O’Sullivan, Therapsil’s medical director, is one of the physicians cleared by Ottawa to use psilocybin himself. “I think it’s seismic,” he said of the step the government took.
“Psychedelics have of course been reflexively dismissed by a large number of physicians over many decades,” O’Sullivan said from his home in Ontario. That dismissal comes despite a growing body of research and study from the likes of Johns Hopkins University. “The fact that the health minister is actively throwing her support behind this science is going to get people’s attention.”
While Hajdu suggests Therapsil does have her support, she also wants to see more research.
“We’re on standby to support any organization or academic or health-care professional that’s interested in applying for clinical trial authorization,” she said. “I think that would really help move forward this conversation and take it kind of out of the shadows and more into the mainstream conversation.”
O’Sullivan said Therapsil’s scientific research committee is doing just that with a proposal he says will soon go to the ethics review board at the University of Toronto.
Therapsil’s founder Bruce Tobin said the decision makes Canada a leader in psychedelic science. In a statement, he said “psychedelic therapy will be a game-changer in mental health for many thousands of Canadians.”