The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Canada needs more independent media. And independent media needs you.

Did you know that most news organizations in Canada are owned by just a handful of companies? And that these companies have been shutting down newsrooms and laying off reporters continually over the past few decades?

Fact-based, credible journalism is essential to our democracy. Unlike many other newsrooms across the country, The Tyee’s independent newsroom is stable and growing.

How are we able to do this? The Tyee Builder program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip into our editorial budget so that we can keep doing what we do best: fact-based, in-depth reporting on issues that matter to our readers. No paywall. No junk. Just good journalism.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to be Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.
News
  |  
Health
  |  
Federal Politics

The Fight for Medical Use of Magic Mushrooms Is Moving to the Courts

Psilocybin therapy is changing the lives of some patients. Advocates are gearing up for a legal battle to increase access.

Curt Petrovich 5 Jul 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Curt Petrovich is a journalist with more than 30 years of investigative reporting experience and numerous awards. In 2015, he was diagnosed with severe PTSD stemming from decades covering natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes.

The fight for the right to use and possess magic mushrooms for medical purposes could be headed to Federal Court in a case that echoes the early efforts to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis.

The legal challenge is being marshalled by TheraPsil, the B.C.-based non-profit that last August helped a cancer patient secure the first exemption under Canada’s drug laws to use magic mushrooms for psychotherapy.

Since then, Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has used the power she has under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to grant three dozen more patients and some 19 health-care professionals limited exemptions from the law. Magic mushrooms remain illegal in Canada since they were banned in 1974.

However, the process for applying and proving a medical need to use psilocybin is opaque. So too are the criteria and expertise Health Canada is using to decide who gets an exemption and who doesn’t. Dozens of applications appear to be in limbo, with some “under consideration since early February 2021,” according to a letter delivered in June to Hajdu from Paul Lewin, whose Toronto firm has been hired by TheraPsil.

“TheraPsil S. 56 applications have been delayed causing harm to patients,” Lewin wrote. “Further, the S. 56 application process is flawed which will cause harm to patients.” Section 56 allows the health minister to grant exemptions from the act’s provisions “for a medical or scientific purpose or… in the public interest.”

In the letter, Lewin warns Hajdu that he’s been directed to bring an application challenging the constitutionality of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act’s provisions on magic mushrooms.

“We threatened them with court last year,” says Spencer Hawkswell, TheraPsil’s CEO, “and they gave access. And we haven’t threatened them with court for a while and they’ve slowed down, and so to an extent I’m hopeful that this is a wake-up call for the government.”

Hawkswell says TheraPsil is providing whatever resources it can to help patients make their case in court, knowing the optics for the federal government will be bad if it’s fighting terminal patients who are seeking help.

“They’ve got an option,” Hawkswell says. “Create regulations or take dying patients to court. You know, which one of those futures should we be living in?”

One of those patients could be Nathan K. He was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005, at the age of 25. Though he’s beaten the one-per-cent odds of surviving 10 years with the disease and the cancer is in remission, he’s also lived through several car crashes and has been diagnosed with PTSD.

“It’s kind of a hard thing to wrap your head around,” Nathan says. “Wow, you beat it! Good job! But from the inside I still see it as a time bomb rather than a success. I’m scared and fearful of re-occurrence.”

Nathan has exhausted traditional therapy and drugs to treat his psychological condition. “I want to feel human again. I want to be able to look at my front door and not be terrified,” he says of his PTSD symptoms.

“I can’t take my daughter for a 10-minute walk because I’m scared,” Nathan says. “I don’t want to impact my daughter negatively, and so there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘You know what? You need to exit her life before you wreck her.’”

Nathan heard about psilocybin psychotherapy and decided it was worth trying. The treatment involves careful preparation, therapy during the psilocybin experience and an integration process afterward.

In conjunction with his doctor and TheraPsil, Nathan applied to Health Canada in March for an exemption to use magic mushrooms.

Anticipating an approval, he weaned off antidepressants that might interfere with the potency and effects of the psilocybin. Months later, with no sign of an exemption and antidepressants out of his system, Nathan says he’s “spiralling out of control mentally.”

He’s written to Hajdu a number of times asking for help.

“Minister, I also qualify for MAID [medical assistance in dying],” he wrote in one letter. “Perhaps we should weigh the two applications simultaneously? I am not quite sure how it is that I might be able to access medical assistance in dying but not psilocybin, but I am ready to go above and beyond simple requests and include court action.”

So far Nathan has only received what appear to be boilerplate responses — not from the minister but the department — that his application is still “under review.”

“That’s what upsets me,” he says, pointing out that some people have been given exemptions and others haven’t, with no clear reasons for the decisions. “I am being treated differently which goes against our Charter of Rights and Freedoms Section 15. And that’s what’s really upsetting me right now, because there’s not only myself, but there are other people.”

The lawyer’s letter that landed on Hajdu’s desk leaves little doubt that unless the government comes up with reasonable and transparent regulations for making psilocybin legal and available for medical purposes, a court challenge based on Section 7 of the charter, which protects the fight to liberty and security of the person, is inevitable.

“The anachronistic prohibition not only bars access to psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for society’s most unwell, but it criminalizes the treatment such that it cannot be conducted in a safe and regulated manner,” writes Lewin. “The CDSA’s prohibition on psilocybin mushrooms is arbitrary.”

Twenty years ago, court decisions began invalidating the longstanding prohibition against cannabis, ultimately bringing regulations to allow its use for medical reasons.

“The decision whether to use psilocybin mushrooms for medicinal purposes should be the patient’s decision made in consultation with the patient’s doctor. The decision is a medical decision, not an administrative one,” Lewin wrote to the health minister.

TheraPsil’s Hawkswell says there’s another reason to light a legal fire under the health minister. As slow as she appears to be in exercising her discretion under the CDSA to grant exemptions, she has used it.

“If there’s an election and Patty Hajdu takes off, exemptions are only good for a year. What if the new Conservative health minister says ‘no,’ or the NDP, or even the new Liberal health minister says ‘Yeah… I don’t know about this’?”

In a response to questions and a request to speak directly with the minister, a Health Canada spokesperson repeated what’s become a standard response.

“Health Canada is committed to thoroughly reviewing each request for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of potential benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians.”

“Unfortunately,” the spokesperson added, “the minister is unavailable for a comment.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Federal Politics

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.

Do:

  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Do You Think the Injunction at Fairy Creek Will Be Reinstated?

Take this week's poll