Some Canadians are microdosing magic mushrooms for their mental health, but research on benefits is slim
Evidence hasn't shown that psilocybin or other psychedelics work in small doses, says research psychologist
When Shannon Chiarenza needs to "dial down the stress" and sort through challenges in her life, she sometimes reaches for a microdose of psilocybin.
"I found it to have been very beneficial for my mental health," said Shannon Chiarenza, a mother and content creator in Vancouver.
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. When Chiarenza takes it, which she started doing three years ago, she uses a very small amount — less than 300 milligrams.
Taking such small amounts of a drug at a time is known as microdosing.
"Either you won't feel anything or you will feel just like a calmness in the background," she said.
And because the effects can be very subtle, Chiarenza says she can do it while going about her normal day. Still, she prefers to microdose when she doesn't have other responsibilities, so she only does so a handful of times per year.
"Some parents like to do… the microdosing when they're with their children because it helps them to relax. For me, I find it's better to be a more introspective experience, so I prefer to do it on my own," she said, noting that — while it's still illegal — psilocybin seems to be more accessible these days.
Despite a lack of evidence to support it, more people like Chiarenza are microdosing as a way to improve their well-being without having "an experience where your entire day is shot because now you're hallucinating," said Amanda Siebert, a journalist and author of Psyched: Seven Cutting-Edge Psychedelics Changing the World.
"I think that's why we see, you know, like 'soccer moms' … and, you know, perhaps an individual that you wouldn't expect to engage in this kind of activity, seeking it out in a more meaningful way."
It's widely available where she lives in Vancouver, but people across Canada are ordering it on the internet, Siebert said.
"When it comes to psilocybin in particular, we've seen this wave of dispensaries open. They started in about 2021. Before that we had internet shops."
And even though it's illegal, police have not been focused on shutting down distributors.
"There's so much going on as far as drug activity in Vancouver. I think they have other things to worry about. And so we see a lot of people who are just deciding to push the boundaries a little bit," she said.
It's a similar story with magic mushroom shops that have popped up in Toronto, although in that case police raided a dispensary and two men were charged.
Paul Lewin, a lawyer in Toronto who specializes in issues surrounding cannabis and psychedelics, has also seen a boom in the psilocybin industry, and he's gotten more cases involving microdosing in recent years.
"It's just exploded in Canada," he said.
Still illegal, even for small amounts
Lewin said people need to remember that it is still illegal to buy, sell, or possess psilocybin, even in the small amounts they might take for microdosing.
While it is not enough to get you high or experience hallucinations like someone might from a larger dose, law enforcement doesn't see it that way.
"I get a bit of a vibe, this kind of misunderstanding generally from the courts and the prosecutors and the police" who don't know that "these microdoses don't make you high, you're not out of it. You're not becoming some kind of crazy microdose addict," he said.
Lewin said the laws in Canada are currently too restrictive and that, essentially, we are where we were with cannabis in 1999.
But people who are pushing the boundaries could speed things up.
"A lot of activists just said this is a stupid law and I'm not standing by, I am disregarding this law and come arrest me if you want because I'm not even pretending to be complying with it," said Lewin.
But for those in the medical community, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about, what if, anything microdosing actually does for people.
WATCH | Advocates say more people need access to psilocybin to treat mental illness
Dr. Dominique Morisano, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa, sees potential in taking psychedelics.
But she noted that so far, evidence hasn't shown that psilocybin or other psychedelics such as LSD really work in any lasting way in such small doses.
"The issue is that this appears to be mostly a placebo effect … which means that when people are also taking a non-psychedelic microdose of something, let's say like a sugar pill, they also get those feelings and those benefits," she said.
Still, Morisano, who also studies and provides psychedelic-assisted therapy with both ketamine and psilocybin in a research context in Canada, sees potential because larger doses have made a difference for some of her clients.
For example, psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown promise in treating moderate to severe depression, substance use disorder, and existential distress in people who are nearing the end of life, she said.
"We just don't know enough yet…. I think we need to be studying these things in big populations"
People who are struggling 'want solutions'
Morisano said she understands why microdosing might be compelling to a lot of people right now.
"People are trying to help themselves. And it makes sense…. The world has been tough lately," she said, pointing out that with inflation and housing prices "people are getting desperate."
"Stress is adding to a strain that was already existing post pandemic. For people being isolated for the last few years, separated from family, friends, relearning how to integrate into society … a lot of people are struggling right now. And we want solutions."
Shannon Chiarenza said this is another reason why she and so many people in her circle are microdosing.
"It might have a lot to do with the pandemic and being at home and just looking for different ways to manage emotions," she said.
"A lot of people want to heal … and I think psilocybin plays a role in that."