British Columbia

4 Canadians with terminal cancer win the right to try magic mushrooms

On Tuesday, Laurie Brooks of Abbotsford, B.C., received the news she’s waited more than 100 days to hear — she now has the legal right to use magic mushrooms.

B.C.'s Laurie Brooks says just one psilocybin trip has led to lasting improvements in her mental health

Laurie Brooks of Abbotsford, B.C., says she tried psilocybin after her colon cancer returned in 2019. (TheraPsil)

On Tuesday, Laurie Brooks received the news she's waited more than 100 days to hear — she now has the legal right to use magic mushrooms.

"I was pretty emotional. I was surprised," the 53-year-old Abbotsford, B.C. mother of four told CBC. 

"Just to have that recognition … that what I was fighting for was worthwhile, it meant a lot to me."

Brooks has had two bouts with colon cancer and has struggled with psychological distress as she reckons with the possibility of imminent death.

She's one of four Canadians with terminal cancer who received approval this week from the federal government for an exemption from drug laws that have made psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — illegal since 1974. 

Psilocybin has shown promise in relieving end-of-life distress for palliative cancer patients, but it's still undergoing clinical trials that are necessary before it can be made widely available to the public.

The four patients applied for their exemptions with help from the advocacy group TheraPsil, which argues that terminally ill patients deserve compassionate access to something that might help with their anguish when other treatments have failed.

The group's founder, Victoria psychotherapist Bruce Tobin, applauded the federal government for allowing the patients access to psilocybin.

"Although it has taken a long time we are impressed with their willingness to listen to patients who have not been heard and to shift focus and policy to accommodate their interests and protect their needs," Tobin said in a press release.

'Our lives were turned upside down'

Brooks said she could never have imagined becoming an advocate for magic mushrooms — until very recently, she'd hadn't ever tried an illegal drug.

But things changed a year ago, when she learned her cancer had returned. Her doctor gave her six months to a year to live if she didn't undergo another punishing round of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.

"It was pretty distressing," Brooks said. "The idea of not being around and all the plans that my husband and I had for our life, now that the kids are grown — everything we wanted to do went out the window and our lives were turned upside down and backwards again." 

She was angry and anxious and couldn't sleep at night, and she dreaded the physical ordeal she knew lay ahead during another round of treatment.

Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, is undergoing clinical trials in Canada for use in treating psychological disorders. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

When Brooks's therapist mentioned the research on psilocybin, she says she was on board almost immediately. She decided to try it in a guided session conducted under her therapist's supervision.

"I did my psilocybin trip last October and immediately afterwards I was able to see my cancer in a box beside me on the floor instead of this black cloud hanging over me all the time," Brooks said.

She cautions that it took a lot of preparation to be ready for the experience, and it wasn't all pleasant. The six-hour trip began with huge waves of grief, and she was forced to confront a flood of bad emotions before finding some clarity.

Psilocybin can also cause "bad trips" that include frightening hallucinations and extreme paranoia.

Lasting effects after 1 trip

But to Brooks's surprise, she says her cancer has stayed in that metaphorical box through the last 10 months of treatment. In fact, that one psychedelic trip made such a difference that she's not sure whether it's even necessary to take psilocybin again.

But Brooks says this isn't just about her.

"Hopefully this allows other people to get that exemption faster, and hopefully it's the start of something really great where therapists can use it with their clients," she said.

Meanwhile, she underwent her final surgery last week, and says her doctors believe the cancer is gone — at least for now.

"I'm kind of in a wait and see mode, and just living life as best I can and enjoying the time I have," Brooks said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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