Across Canada, nearly 8 in 10 people (79.3 percent) believe psilocybin-assisted therapy is “a reasonable medical choice” to treat existential dread at the end of one’s life, according to a new survey, while almost 2 in 3 (63.3 percent) feel the substance should be legal for medical purposes generally.
Notably, 84.8 percent said the country’s public health system should cover costs of the psychedelic therapy.
Published last month in the journal Palliative Care, the study says that while interest in psilocybin as an end-of-life option has grown worldwide in recent years, little has been known about attitudes in society toward the treatment—until now.
“The social acceptability of psilocybin-assisted therapy for existential distress at the end of life is rather high in Canada,” concluded the 12-author team, which included researchers from Université Laval, L’Université du Québec à Rimouski, McGill University and New York University, among others. “These findings may contribute to efforts to mobilise resources and improve access to this emerging therapy in palliative and end of life care settings.”
To evaluate public sentiment, researchers conducted an online survey of 2,800 Canadians across four provinces: Québec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Participants completed the survey in November and December 2022.
Authors found that certain variables were more strongly associated with respondents supporting psilocybin-assisted therapy as an end-of-life treatment, such as having used psilocybin in the past, exposure to palliative care and a progressive political orientation.
Responses were also highly context-dependent, findings showed, with far more people saying they had a favorable or very favorable view of end-of-life psilocybin use “within an assisted psychotherapy with a certified healthcare professional” compared to using the substance in an unsupervised context, such as at home or in nature.
“55.5% of respondents had a favourable view of psilocybin to treat existential distress at the end of life if used within the regulated context of psychotherapy,” the study says, “in sharp contrast with less regulated (21.3%) and non-regulated (15.9%) contexts.”
“Canadians have favourable attitudes about this emerging intervention.”
The study also found that 44.2 percent of people felt healthcare professionals should be able to administer psilocybin without going through Health Canada, the federal health agency.
Of respondents, about a fifth (19 percent) said they’d previously used psilocybin, ranging from 15 percent in Québec to 26 percent in British Columbia.
The findings are “largely consistent” with surveys conducted by interest groups or organizations in Canada, England and Australia, although those “have not been published in scientific journals,” authors wrote. “Additionally, our study is novel as it focusses on treating existential distress at the end of life, an intricate condition for which treatment options are still limited and often ineffective.”
In 2020, four cancer patients became the first people in decades to legally possess psilocybin in Canada after being granted permission by the country’s health minister to use the substance for end-of-life care. Later that year, some healthcare professionals also gained the ability to legally possess and use psilocybin themselves.
In between the two developments, however, top officials in the national government said no changes were needed to the legal system to allow access to therapeutic psychedelics, saying in response to a decriminalization petition that while the drugs remain illegal for most Canadians, there are ways for some people to gain exemptions to legally consume them.
Behind many of the successful exemptions has been Victoria, B.C.-based nonprofit TheraPsil, which advocates for legal access to psilocybin therapy. The group has supported psilocybin applications by patients in end-of-life care as well as to treat other limited conditions.
Two of the Palliative Care study’s authors are trainers for TheraPsil, according to the study’s conflicts-of-interest section, and one of those was also the Montreál site physician for a recent Phase III clinical trial of MDMA as a treatment for PTSD as well as an early investor in the biotech company Beckley Psytech.
In the United States, the Phase III trial results have put MDMA on track for possible approval by the Food and Drug Administration as soon as this year.
A doctor in Washington State who specializes in palliative care has also been working since at least 2020 to secure access to psilocybin for cancer patients he treats, an effort currently tied up in court amid pushback from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Meanwhile, DEA has called for more psilocybin, along with marijuana and DMT, to be produced in 2024 in order to “meet medical and scientific needs.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.