British Columbia

Magic mushroom dispensaries operating openly in Vancouver

In the City of Vancouver, buying magic mushrooms, in at least one case, can be as easy as ordering your morning cup of coffee. 

The city now boasts a handful of dispensaries; VPD says it is focused on gang-fuelled trafficking of opioids

Dana Larsen is pictured holding a bag of mushrooms at the Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, March 14, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In the City of Vancouver, buying magic mushrooms, in at least one case, can be as easy as ordering your morning cup of coffee. 

In a development reminiscent of its first unlicensed pot cafés, the city has seen a recent shroom boom with at least four new dispensaries openly setting up shop: two in downtown Vancouver, one on Commercial Drive and another on the Downtown Eastside.

Many of them tout the benefits of psilocybin, an hallucinogenic compound found in mushrooms that the medical community has been studying for its therapeutic use in treating mental health conditions and end-of-life distress.

From the outside, the mushroom dispensary on the edge of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside makes no attempt to hide the federally controlled substance it offers.

Its owner, Dana Larsen — no stranger to bending the law in the name of drug reform — is proud of his products.

"I was heavily involved in the cannabis movement in Vancouver and across Canada and I see psychedelics and mushrooms in particular as the next step in that process," he said.

"We kind of operate in this grey area and I hope to change that grey area to lighter and lighter shades of grey, and hopefully in the next few years, we see a change in the laws around psilocybin mushrooms."

Larsen's dispensary offers psilocybin mushroom products both in sub-hallucinogenic micro-doses, and for higher doses, the filling out of a medical form.

Dana Larsen says he is operating in a grey area like he once did with marijuana and is hoping that the law will change for mushrooms like it did for pot. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Psilocybin is prohibited in Canada by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). The drug has been illegal since 1975, yet these four dispensaries are operating openly in broad daylight.

How can the shops operate?

The Vancouver Police Department acknowledges psilocybin is illegal and those connected to it could face charges but admits it's focused on landing bigger fish.

"[We] continue to target violent and organized criminals who produce and traffic harmful opioids, which fuel gang violence and contribute to the ongoing health crisis of illicit drug deaths," said Const. Tania Visintin in a statement. 

Last year, the former health minister started using her authority under a section of the act to grant legal exemptions for psilocybin, mainly to people with terminal illness and treatment-resistant depression.

But the City of Vancouver says there are currently no regulations federally, provincially, or municipally that allow for the recreational sale of magic mushrooms.

"A [business] license cannot be issued — any location in Vancouver offering these products for sale is subject to enforcement by the City, which may include orders, fines and/or prosecution," said Sarah Hicks, the city's chief licence inspector in a statement.

While Larsen says city bylaw officers sometimes visit, his business licence as a café was recently renewed. Larsen's dispensary also houses a café that sells coca leaf beverages.

Medicinal mushroom dispensaries have set up shop around Vancouver including the Mushroom Dispensary on Hastings Street. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Public demand is large: advocate

Spencer Hawkswell is the CEO of not-for-profit TheraPsil, which helps Canadians in medical need obtain federal exemptions to access medical psilocybin.

But he says it's a complicated process, with each request needing to be approved by the federal health minister. So far, his coalition has helped more than 80 Canadians access the drug.

 He says it's understandable that Canadians are getting it elsewhere.

"The demand for psilocybin is real. The number of Canadians out there who are seeing this research, who are fed up with the treatment options that aren't working and realize they don't have alternatives, they're looking for support."

Canada just recently changed its rules on access to psilocybin for medical use, denying it in January to a terminal cancer patient.

Hawkswell warns there are inherent dangers when people are forced to find a product illegally.

"The truth is that prohibition doesn't work and when people are forced underground, we don't know how safe the substances they're accessing are," he said.

Clinical research has shown that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help treat mental health conditions, including addiction, depression and PTSD. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

How is it used medicinally?

Research into psilocybin has found it can be an effective treatment for mental health conditions and addiction. A study published in February found it produced rapid and substantial antidepressants effects in patients with major depressive disorder but also pointed out little is still known about long-term outcomes.

In Vancouver, a company at the forefront of this research is Numinus Wellness. It offers clinical trials of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.

Dr. Devon Christie, senior lead of psychedelic programs at Numinus, says in our regular state of consciousness, we have been conditioned to think in one specific way.

"When we are under the effects of a psychedelic like psilocybin, the weight of those conditioned patterns of thinking is lifted and new possibilities emerge. And neuroplasticity, this ability for new connections to form and forge, is enhanced," she said.

Patients will often gain new insights and can undergo transformative experiences, she says, while accessing repressed emotions, memories and trauma.

However, it isn't a process patients should undergo alone but in a controlled setting, paired with a licensed clinician, she said.

"The work … with the therapist is to actually make all of what happens in that experience tangible so the person has concrete ways in which they can take what they learned into their lives," said Christie.

When it comes to micro-dosing, the practice of consuming very low, sub-hallucinogenic doses of a psychedelic substance, she says the research is still too limited to determine whether the noted benefits were the results of psilocybin or a placebo effect.