Magic mushrooms, psilocybin and microdosing: Growing trend draws e-vendors, scientists
Despite being illegal, the 'shroom' market is growing in Canada
Taking a micro-quantity of psilocybin as a mood booster is becoming a daily routine for more and more Canadians — and drawing the attention of entrepreneurs and scientists.
Psilocybin is the psychoactive substance in magic mushrooms, and though it is illegal, the online market for this substance is growing.
Scientific interest in psilocybin is also increasing — researchers are looking at its use as a treatment for depression.
"There is a re-emergence of interest and permission to start studying psychedelics," said Norman Farb, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
"There is a huge amount of private sector interest in psychedelic therapies as the next big investment opportunity in the health sector," he said.
WATCH | More Canadians seem interested in taking magic mushrooms, even though they're illegal:
The mental health expert will launch a controlled study over the next few months on nearly 100 people, who will be followed for five weeks.
The study will examine the effects of microdoses of psilocybin in people with low-grade anxiety and depression as well as in people with persistent depressive disorder.
The project is the first of its kind in Canada. Farb and his team received the Health Canada approval late December.
Why this trend?
Microdosing capsules contain 50 to 300 milligrams of magic mushroom powder. They also contain the psychoactive ingredient: psilocybin. A full dose, 10 times that, is when the more commonly known psychedelic effects set in.
Between 2018 and 2020, articles from the New York Times and Forbes magazine introduced microdosing to the general public. Previously, the word was used only by Silicon Valley insiders and psychedelic aficionados.
On social networks, discussions on the subject have never been so lively. The number of forum subscribers on this topic in Reddit has increased sevenfold since 2018.
More and more Canadians are interested in this illegal practice. Google searches with the keywords "microdosing" and "shrooms" (mushrooms) doubled in one year.
"This is not an underground phenomenon anymore. There are businesses that make a living out of microdosing, and obviously that changes the game a little bit," said Balázs Szigeti, professor at Imperial College London, one of the most renowned research centres in the field.
Health Canada says the national Drug Analysis Service (DAS), which operates laboratories across Canada to analyze suspected illegal drugs seized by law enforcement agencies, has found more magic mushroom compounds than ever before.
Between 2017 and 2021, the number has doubled nationally. The top three provinces in terms of drug seizures containing psilocin and psilocybin are Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.
Sales are increasing
Online stores are booming as interest grows. CBC/Radio-Canada spoke to the vendors hidden behind four websites. All affirm that the competition is pushing prices down to attract the consumer.
All of them are based in British Columbia. They prefer to remain anonymous to avoid getting in trouble with the police.
Last April, after several years in the cannabis industry, Tally started selling magic mushrooms, encouraged by the positive effect they had had on her mental health.
"We've seen an increase in our sales. There are even health professionals who come to ask us for information. Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are our best sellers," said this saleswoman.
Trevor, on the other hand, has been in the industry for two years. Like Tally, he operates his e-shop from Vancouver. He has never tried microdosing and buys his products already packaged.
With his experience in online marketing, Trevor's main role is sending orders by mail and properly referencing his website to appear first on search engines.
"It's more a business decision to do mushrooms, to get on the trend before everyone else is on the trend. Now, It's increasing month over month," said Trevor, who is making up to $50,000 total revenue per month.
None of the vendors interviewed consider this drug trafficking, though Health Canada confirms they could risk up to three years in prison for violating the Food and Drug Act.
'It saved my life'
These days, Mike Brodeur walks the streets of Calgary with peace of mind. It's the city where he began his professional hockey career as a goaltender.
In 2010, a concussion spelled the end of his NHL career with the Ottawa Senators.
Despite painkillers and antidepressants, he found it difficult to recover.
"I was staying hours in my bed. I could not process what was going on. I was in a place of hopelessness," he recalled.
Then Brodeur discovered psilocybin microdosing on the internet. The practice is now part of his daily life.
"When I wake up in the morning, with my coffee, I take my pill, Monday to Friday. It gives me energy, focus, problem-solving, a better look at the future. It's been life changing," he said.
Still a lot to discover
Improving your mood, developing your creativity and reducing your stress — the promises of online stores have not yet been proven scientifically, says Claude Rouillard, a neuropsycho-pharmacologist at Laval University in Quebec.
"In the scientific literature, there is not a lot of evidence so far, but in the grey literature, on forums or social media groups, there are several people who report that this phenomenon of microdosing could have beneficial consequences on mental health in the short or medium term."
Matthew Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland, summarizes the situation: "Scientifically, the field has not been able to confirm any of the claimed benefits in the few carefully controlled research studies conducted so far on microdosing. It could be, however, that the right type of study has not been conducted yet."
What about the placebo effect?
According to Rouillard, clinical studies must be done on thousands of people of different ages, sexes and from various countries, in addition to research over several months to determine if the effects of psilocybin are stronger than the placebo effect.
"If you expect to feel better or because of a treatment or an intervention, then you're going to feel better," said Szigeti.
According to him, the growing public interest could create this placebo effect with some users and study participants.
A lot of hope
"Having a fundamentally different class of drugs that isn't very harmful, that can produce benefits, would be revolutionary around the world. We actually have only a few types of drugs to treat anxiety, and many of them are problematic," said Farb.
"The idea behind it can lead us to major advances," said Rouillard. "There hasn't been a lot of new stuff in the last 20 or 30 years in the treatment of mental health in neuropharmacology or psychopharmacology."