British Columbia

'Robust public funding' needed for psychedelic drug research say researchers

Magic mushrooms to treat depression, ecstasy to cure PTSD and LSD to combat alcoholism; just some of the drug-affliction pairings that have been tested in recent years.

The group is calling for significant, multi-year funding to make Canada a global leader

Researchers have shown magic mushrooms have the potential to treat depression and anxiety in cancer patients. (Peter Dejon/Associated Press)

Canadian researchers are petitioning for long-term federal funding of psychedelic drug therapy research at universities and hospitals.

A rapidly growing body of evidence supports the potential for such treatments to save lives, treat mental illness and lessen the burden of addiction and illness on the economy, according to the group behind the call.

"We're actually asking [the government] to step up and to start funding the real process of drug discovery and it's substantial," said Mark Haden, executive director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canada, one of the organizations supporting the initiative.

The petition calls on Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor to acknowledge the medical potential of such drugs to treat a broad range of afflictions and "commit significant, multi-year, funding for major psychedelic research projects at hospitals and universities across Canada."

Potential applications for psychedelic-assisted therapies include tobacco, opioid, alcohol addictions as well as end-of-life care and treatment of PTSD.

But psychedelic compounds cannot be patented, meaning there's little to no incentive for private drug companies to research psychedelic treatments, according to the petition.

With "robust public funding" into research and development, Canada could become a world leader in mental health and addictions treatment, argues the group.

Lasting results

LSD, MDMA, "magic mushrooms," and ketamine have been tested in clinical trials and pilot projects in recent years, but Haden remembers a time when access to illicit substances made drug research difficult.

"It wasn't criminalized but it was certainly suppressed and it wasn't allowed. It was made so difficult that researchers couldn't do it," he said.

"Now the legal door is wide open. A lot of researchers are very interested in psychedelics because they can actually do the research."

For example, two 2016 studies showed "magic mushrooms," which contain psilocybin, can help treat anxiety and depression in cancer patients with lasting effects.

In the case of PTSD, Haden said trials have shown rapid and lasting improvement in symptoms after only three or four sessions of drug-assisted therapy. 

"Results are enduring … people do not get worse later," he said.

The online petition before the House of Commons was sponsored by Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.

It was drafted after consultation "with students, educators, scientists, doctors, drug policy specialists, harm reduction teachers, addiction and  trauma counsellors, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychologists,  activists, and other interest groups," according those behind it. 

In an emailed statement, the office of the Minister of Health did not outline any future plans to fund research into psychedelic therapy.

"The assessment of a clinical trial application for a controlled substance is reviewed in the same rigorous fashion as applications for other drugs," the statement said.

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition