British Columbia

Health Canada dragging feet on approving magic mushrooms for therapeutic use, patients and advocates say

A group of patients question why their applications for an exemption to use psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in what are commonly called magic mushrooms, for therapeutic purposes have gone unanswered by Health Canada.

Permission to use psychedelic drug in therapy stalls after brief wave of approvals

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles in May 2019. Though illegal in Canada since the 1970s, recent exemptions have been granted for its use in psychotherapy. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

Nathan Kruljac was a young man of 25 when he experienced some shortness of breath while out for a drive in Surrey, B.C. He went to a walk-in clinic. Minutes later, he was taken to hospital. After a week of tests doctors had a diagnosis: follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma. While treatment eventually put the cancer into remission, Kruljac says he never truly recovered. 

Fifteen years later, he still suffers from trauma and PTSD.

"I still see [the cancer] as a time bomb rather than a success," he said. "I'm scared and fearful of reoccurrence." 

Kruljac says conventional antidepressants and counselling only did so much to help. Now a husband and father, he feels he's often failing his four-year-old daughter. 

"I want to feel human again. I want to be able to look at my front door and not be terrified," he said.

Last August, Kruljac got a sliver of hope when he read that Health Minister Patty Hajdu had granted a legal exemption to Saskatchewan cancer patient Thomas Hartle, allowing him to use psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy. 

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has granted several dozen exemptions to patients and even some therapists to use the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

It was the first of several dozen exemptions Hajdu would grant, to patients and even some therapists, for the psychedelic compound in what are commonly called magic mushrooms. Psilocybin was banned in Canada in 1974. It and the mushrooms which contain it remain illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). 

But psilocybin is also, now, at the forefront of a renaissance in psychedelic therapy, due in part to persuasive research at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of California.

Some peer-reviewed studies have found that psilocybin has antidepressant effects and can allow patients, with the help of trained therapists, to confront fears and feelings that are otherwise too traumatic.

Patients granted an exemption typically take a one-time five-gram dose, enough to induce a full-on psychedelic experience, in tandem with planned therapy the day before, during and after the dose is taken.

Kruljac applied for an exemption in March, with help from TheraPsil, a B.C.-based non-profit group that convinced Hajdu to grant that first psilocybin exemption.

"What's the worst that can happen?" he said. "It doesn't work, and I'm back to square one."

But more than four months later, Kruljac has heard nothing back from Hajdu or her department. Scores of other applications seem to have also gone into limbo.

Lab workers extract psilocybin at Numinus Lab in British Columbia. It's one of a handful of facilities with a Health Canada license to do so. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Most of the previous exemptions were granted in a matter of weeks, with at least one approved in a couple of days, according to TheraPsil. Most of the 64 exemptions granted to date were issued last year. They went to 45 patients and 19 health professionals, according to Health Canada.

"What upsets me is that there are 50 other people in this country that have been given the exemption to choose their own path to healing. I am being treated differently which goes against our Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he said. "And that's what's really upsetting me right now because there's not only myself, but there are other people."

One of them is Jim Doswell. The 67-year old from Victoria has survived colon cancer and T-cell lymphoma. But he lives with the after-effects of both that battle and some difficult years as a negotiator and a senior adviser to a federal deputy minister. 

"I suffer from anxiety and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder," Doswell said. "I have quite disabling anxiety."

Two months ago, Doswell applied directly to Hajdu for an exemption to use psilocybin. He's still waiting for a reply. 

"With all due deference to the minister, I don't need her for this," Doswell said. "I can go down the street in Vancouver to [black-market] dispensaries and buy this product."

Psilocybin, seen here in capsules, can have antidepressant effects and can allow patients, with the help of trained therapists, to confront traumatic fears and feelings. (Melissa Tobin/CBC)

But, Doswell says, without the minister's permission, no therapist is likely to help him.  

Even some who have an exemption feel as if they're doing something wrong. In St. John's, a teacher who was successful says the system for approving the exemptions is opaque and arbitrary, leaving him fearful to reveal his name.

"My biggest apprehension, I guess, is my career," he confided, because the exemptions seem to be in a grey area — legal only under certain conditions, and because the minister says so.

"I would expect some potential repercussions," he said. 

Neither Hajdu nor spokespeople for Health Canada have been able to explain why the application approvals have stalled. 

In a recent statement Health Canada said it is "committed to thoroughly reviewing each request for an exemption … on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations." 

Kruljac isn't satisfied. On Monday, lawyers paid by TheraPsil served the government a notice of application, filed a federal court, seeking to compel an answer from Hajdu.

TheraPsil's CEO Spencer Hawkswell says there's a bigger issue at stake than one person's ability to legally use psilocybin. 

"An overwhelming majority of Canadians support regulations for people who need access to the medical psilocybin," he said, referring to the results of a poll conducted for TheraPsil last month.

TheraPsil wants to see psilocybin and the mushrooms removed from the CDSA, and have it regulated much like medicinal cannabis was 20 years ago.

"We want to make sure that we're doing justice to those who need access. Because, you know, you can always fight the government in courts. But that's not what an effective government does. Effective government listens to people."

Hajdu's office didn't respond to an interview request about TheraPsil's legal manoeuvre. A spokesperson for Health Canada said it needed more time before commenting.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Curt Petrovich is a journalist and author with more than three decades of national, international and investigative reporting experience.

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