Nova Scotia

Psychedelic treatment advocates concerned about lack of information available in N.S.

The co-founder and treasurer of a non-profit organization called the Halifax Psychedelic Society is worried that harm-reduction information around psychedelic drugs might not be a priority in Nova Scotia.

'People want this. People are excited about the healing potential'

Magic mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in the Netherlands in 2007. (Peter Dejon/Associated Press)

The co-founder and treasurer of a non-profit organization called the Halifax Psychedelic Society is worried that harm-reduction information around psychedelic drugs might not be a priority in Nova Scotia.

"We think that a lot of people are going to be kind of self-experimenting with psychedelics more as they are becoming more trendy, and with that I think there's a lot of people that don't have the knowledge of what's a safe dose," said Justin Andrews.

Andrews helped to establish the society in 2018 with the goal of providing a support system and harm-reduction information to those interested in using psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD for medicinal treatment.

Harm reduction, or harm minimization, refers to strategies to help reduce the harms associated with certain behaviours, both legal and illegal.

In this case, harm reduction would include information about how to take the drugs properly. That could be how much or how little to use, or how to prepare the drugs.

'I have to do this'

As well, it could include tips on how to deal with what is commonly referred to as a "bad trip" — an unpleasant experience triggered by psychoactive drugs.

Although Andrews didn't start to take his interest in psychedelic psychotherapy seriously until 2016, when he attended a series of conferences, he said harm reduction has always been a priority to him.

"I've been interested in drug harm reduction my whole life," he said. "I've had friends and family get wrapped up with substance-abuse disorders and, after all the travelling, I just felt a calling. I have to do this."

Andrews and the society are in favour of the legal use of psychedelics in psychotherapy.

He said he has friends who have had what he describes as mentally transformative experiences. But others have had traumatizing experiences, something he thinks needs more discussion.

"Things can go bad and I don't want people to think this is some silver bullet for depression," said Andrews.

'People want this'

He said he's definitely seen a spike in interest when it comes to people seeking information about using psychedelics. He said that is why it's more important than ever to have resources available to Nova Scotians when it comes to harm reduction.

"There is a growing trend of underground therapy," said Andrews. "We're staying as above board as possible with everything, but it is hard.

"People want this. People are excited about the healing potential which is why I stress that people understand the politics and policy behind these things."

LSD in higher doses can induce a profound psychedelic experience. (Pixabay)

The Nova Scotia Health Authority doesn't offer any harm-reduction literature in regard to psychedelics unless it's part of an addiction-treatment plan.

Jeff Toth, a psychiatric nurse, the society's president and a harm-reduction advocate, said recent studies have identified the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics such as psilocybinLSD  and MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction. But he said more research is needed.

"Some people are calling this the psychedelic renaissance in terms of the amount of research coming out," said Toth. "The evidence thus far is considered preliminary and additional evidence will need to be collected."

Use in treatment touted

Toth supports the use of psychedelics for treatment.

He said his interest was prompted by seeing just how many people with PTSD aren't able to find relief through usual means.  A study done by the British Journal of Psychiatry ranks Canada as having the highest prevalence of PTSD of the 24 countries included in the study.

Toth adds that mental health problems like PTSD are among some of the only cases in the health field where it's acceptable for people to receive inconsistent and even ineffective treatment.

"If heart transplants only worked about half the time that would be a big problem," said Toth. "There's a lot of people out there who are suffering and that conventional treatments aren't working and this could be a potential avenue for people to have access to healing."

Although there is still more work to be done in terms of testing, said Toth, things are still looking promising right now.

Andrews said the group in no way supports or aids people in gaining access to psychedelics since they are illegal in Nova Scotia. However, he said the group will continue to provide information about how to safely take psychedelics for those unable or unwilling to stop using. 

NSHA response

"We do not have any imminent plans to release harm reduction literature pertinent to the therapeutic use of psychedelics as we have not come across a high demand for this to date," Dr. Samuel Hickcox, with NSHA's mental health and addictions department, said in an email.

"Our priorities remain focused on reducing the harms associated with substance use disorders by offering a spectrum of treatment interventions for individuals seeking help. This spectrum includes the provision of harm reduction advice."

Andrews recalls a good friend of his who now lives a somewhat reclusive lifestyle due to his bad experiences with psychedelics and lack of peer support, something he thinks could have been avoided had proper harm-reduction information been available to him.

"As much as I'm in it for the promising research I'm also in it for all the people that have to keep those [bad] experiences quiet. So they can feel heard and they know that people are there for them."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Feleshia Chandler is a journalist based in Halifax. She loves helping people tell their stories and has interests in issues surrounding LGBTQ+ people as well as Black, Indigenous and people of colour. You can reach her at feleshia.chandler@cbc.ca

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