A trip to recovery: N.L. patients using psychedelics therapeutically, hoping for legal vindication
A Newfoundland woman who says psilocybin — a hallucinogenic compound found in some mushrooms — helped get her life back is sharing her story in the hopes it will change the perception of psychedelic drugs.
The 55-year-old wife and mother — CBC has agreed to withhold her name to protect her privacy — was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder in her late 40s, brought on by childhood trauma. Traditional therapies and medications helped, she said, but over time she became resistant to treatment.
"It was making my anxiety worse. It was making my sleep worse. I was panicking all the time," she said. "It would come in waves all day long, to the point where I would have to go to bed by about one or two o'clock in the afternoon because I was just exhausted from sort of fighting the demons."
That all changed last winter, she said, after a weeklong retreat at a psilocybin psychotherapy clinic in Jamaica in February 2020. The drug is legal in that country, but not in Canada.
Health-care professionals were there at all times, she said, monitoring patients during their use of psilocybin, and each psychedelic trip was followed by intense group therapy. While she did have a euphoric trip with calm waves and magical colours, she said, it wasn't all fun.
"It was intense work to get through the barriers that had been holding me back through my PTSD. That was really, really tough work and it wasn't a joyful trip in any way shape or form."
She now microdoses with capsules, taken when she needs them, once or twice a week. She says she gets the calming effects without the high, even though she knows she's breaking the law.
She's one of dozens of members of the Psychedelic Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. Founder Brandon Batstone created the society in April as a safe space for people to be open about their experiences.
"It's really hard for people to talk about these things. They are illegal," he said. "Here in Newfoundland, there is no safe place for people to come together, talk about it, and to really share in a community of like-minded people who are advocates for the responsible use of these medicines."
He says became a believer in the use of psychedelics after they helped him kick a drug addiction, when nothing else did. Batstone says he isn't trying to convince anyone to use these drugs; for him, he said, it's about education, awareness and changing people's perspectives.
"There's no way to remove the stigma until people like me and others come out and tell their stories. We should have access to it. I think that people should be aware of the consequences as well, because it's not all rainbows and butterflies."
Psychedelics in science
There is a growing body of scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of psychedelics.
The world's largest centre for these studies is John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, where they use drugs including ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin in experimental treatments for depression, PTSD, and Alzheimer's. A psychedelics studies program at the University of Toronto is awaiting Health Canada approval to use psilocybin in its research on microdosing.
But a world-renowned addictions expert says we're a long way from it being a part of mainstream health care.
"At this point it's a small, minuscule part of our approach to mental health problems because it's illegal," Dr. Gabor Maté told CBC. "And governments have made it really difficult to even do studies. And the difficulty is the prejudice and the unscientific approach that regulation authorities have taken."
Maté — an expert in trauma, addiction, stress and childhood development — says he has seen positive results over his 12 years of working with psychedelics.
"If you ask me, 'How safe is brain surgery?' well, if you did it on the highway in the middle of a busy intersection out on the street, it wouldn't be safe at all. But in the proper hospital setting with trained professionals, there are some risks, but it's highly safe. Same for psychedelics … and I would say at least as safe and a lot safer than the psychiatric drugs that we regularly give to people these days."
Dr. Pierre Blier, a professor in the University of Ottawa's psychiatry department, is more cautious. He is studying the use of ketamine for treatment-resistant patients with depression, work he says is done under highly controlled conditions.
But he notes it's still experimental and people should be careful when seeking their own treatments.
"When you buy something from a non-regulated source, you don't know what you are buying."
While Batstone believes in the use of psychedelics and is willing to be a face for the movement, the woman in her 50s is reluctant even to tell her family doctor. But she hopes one day the scientific proof will be on her side, so others can get happiness back in their lives, something she never thought was possible for her.
"I had to be at that point where I could talk about my trauma. And then the psilocybin took me the rest of the way," she said.
"I really do see it more as when you're at that point where your treatment-resistant, there's just nothing that's working. I think that's what I want to make sure people understand, is that this was a process, this wasn't something I just jumped into."