In a landmark decision, the federal government is allowing four terminally ill Canadians to seek relief from their grief, trauma and anxiety by taking the psychedelic “psilocybin” — a.k.a. the ingredient that puts the magic in magic mushrooms.
“The whole thing is a little surreal to me,” said Tom Hartle, 52, from Saskatoon, whose application to take the otherwise illegal substance was approved by Health Canada on Tuesday.
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The father-of-two struggles with debilitating anxiety, stemming from a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis. He hopes psilocybin therapy will help him overcome his anxiety and heal.
“I am really doing my best to try to die with cancer, not from cancer,” Hartle said.
TheraPsil, a non-profit health coalition that advocates for psychedelic therapies to help palliative care patients in distress, assisted Hartle and three other Canadians (also fighting incurable cancer) to get a legal exemption from the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act.
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They are the first publicly known patients to receive an exemption for medical psychedelic treatment, and to be permitted to use psilocybin legally since it became illegal in 1974, TheraPist said in a statement.
“The acknowledgement of the pain and anxiety that I have been suffering with means a lot to me,” said Laurie Brooks, a British Columbia resident living with Stage 3 colon and rectal cancer, in the statement.
“I hope this is just the beginning and that soon all Canadians will be able to access psilocybin for therapeutic use to help with the pain they are experiencing.”
Health Canada confirmed it approved the exemptions on “a case-by-case basis,” and took into account the risks and harms.
“These exemptions do not change the fact that the sale and possession of magic mushrooms remain illegal in Canada,” said Health Canada in a statement, noting that the risks include increased heart rate and blood pressure, and “flashbacks and bad trips that may lead to risk-taking behaviour, traumatic injuries and even death.”
Hartle was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. He said he is out of surgical options, and isn’t a candidate for radiation, so he endures rounds of chemotherapy. He worries about what will happen to his wife and kids when he dies. Some days he’s so anxious he can’t leave his bedroom.
“I really would like to spend the time I’ve got left making memories with my family, as opposed to spending time with the anxiety,” Hartle said.
Hartle has tried more conventional pharmaceuticals to cope with his anxiety, but said they didn’t work for him. In search of relief, he found a growing body of scientific research that suggests psilocybin therapy could help treat anxiety, depression and some addictions.
More research is needed, but American scientists recently found that psilocybin therapy “produced immediate substantial and sustained improvements for anxiety and depression” for cancer patients and increased their quality of life. Another study found that cancer patients continued to feel more optimistic six months later.
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Johns Hopkins University scientists are investigating the use of psilocybin to manage a range of health conditions, including smoking addiction, eating disorders and Alzheimer’s disease, and studying how psychedelics affect general wellness.
Health Canada said it has authorized a psilocybin clinical trial for people with depression, but so far has not approved any products.
Hartle will grow the mushrooms from spores, which takes about two weeks, and then consume them with a trained therapist by his side, who will guide him through the experience. He said he is not afraid of having a negative experience, as a “bad trip is quite often an opportunity to confront whatever is causing your anxiety or fears.”