Canada will allow a handful of health care professionals to possess and consume psilocybin mushrooms in order to better treat the growing number of patients now permitted to use the psychedelic drug, the country’s top health official revealed in a recent interview.
The statements by Minister of Health Patty Hajdu appear to be the first public announcement of the health ministry’s response to pending applications by therapists to use psilocybin. Hajdu’s office over the summer granted requests by some patients in end-of-life care to use the drug for psychotherapy, but officials left unanswered whether they would approve similar requests by the therapists themselves.
Speaking at a virtual town hall meeting hosted by Hedy Fry, a member of the House of Commons, last week, Hajdu said that national health regulators had granted therapists’ request just a day earlier.
“I also am happy to say that yesterday Health Canada granted exemptions to a number of health care professionals who wanted to possess and consume mushrooms containing psilocybin,” the health minister said. She described the move as “controversial for some and not for others, but the doctors that prescribe this therapy wanted to understand what it would feel like and how to best use it to help their patients that are struggling.”
At my Virtual Townhall Health Min @PattyHajdu answers question from Spencer on the use of psilocybin mushrooms in palliative care.
Watch here ⬇️https://t.co/O9iFJgziH6
— Dr. Hedy Fry (@HedyFry) December 6, 2020
Hajdu’s office has the ability to grant exemptions that effectively give individuals immunity from the country’s laws against controlled substances. That power has made the health minister a focal point in a concerted push by advocates of psychedelic therapy to grant wider approval to legally use entheogenic substances for therapeutic and religious purposes.
In a landmark decision in August, Health Canada approved four cancer patients’ request to legally use the drug for end-of-life care. In the months since, regulators have granted more than a dozen other exemptions, including to at least one patient not in palliative care. In October, Health Canada approved the application of a non-terminal patient to use psilocybin to treat unresolved trauma.
In last week’s interview, Hajdu called that development “an exciting moment…for many people who are looking at this as a potential therapy.”
Behind many of the successful exemptions is Victoria, B.C.-based nonprofit TheraPsil, which advocates for legal access to psilocybin therapy. The group has supported more than a dozen psilocybin applications by patients in end-of-life care, it says, and helped secure approval for the non-palliative patient with trauma.
Earlier this year, TheraPsil also applied for exemptions for some of its therapists. The group told Marijuana Moment that those applications were the ones recently approved by Health Canada.
“We’re grateful to Health Minister Patty Hajdu,” Spencer Hawkswell, the group’s CEO, said. “Training will be absolutely necessary to meet patient demand and to begin exploring the many challenges of patient access, primarily a lack of doctors and therapists trained in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.”
TheraPsil noted in a press release sent after the initial publication of this article that 17 health care providers have been granted exemptions so far, and that the group is seeking to raise $250,000 to fund a training program for them.
Asked during an earlier July interview with Marijuana Moment about the group’s request to allow therapists use to psilocybin, Hawkswell said it was a common-sense step to make sure therapists are familiar with the drug’s effects and how it can best be put to use in treatment.
“Part of ensuring a very high-quality psychedelic treatment for patients is to ensure high-quality training for therapists,” he said. “It’s greatly beneficial if therapists have had psychedelic therapy themselves.”
Few people, he offered by analogy, “would advise going to a sex therapist who’s never had sex before.”
Dr. Sean O’Sullivan, an emergency room physician and psychotherapist who serves on TheraPsil’s board of directors, told Marijuana Moment that “the point is to allow therapists to understand the field they’re plowing in.”
“The fundamental reason to expose therapists to their own experiences with psychedelics is that, unless you have visited these realms, you are unlikely to understand their importance,” he said.
M.P. Fry, a doctor who spent more than two decades working in hospitals, acknowledged during the town hall with Hajdu that there still exist “all kinds of moral judgments” about the therapeutic use of psychedelics, but said that “in fact, most of these products have some medical benefit.”
“I think it’s interesting that some professionals are going to be able to try it,” Fry said, “because especially when you’re looking at psychotherapy…being able to understand how the patient is impacted by the drugs—what is going on in the psyche, what they’re feeling, what it does to the perception—is going to be very important if you’re going to treat patients with psilocybin and with psychotherapy at the same time.”
Hajdu indicated that while she’s willing to grant exemptions in certain cases, she would also like to see more formal research into psilocybin.
“I think we need more evidence in this area,” Hajdu said, “and I would encourage Spencer and TheraPsil to partner with our office, because what we’re trying to do is collect that research. It’s so important not just to understand the potential value of the treatment with psilocybin, but also to help pave the pathway for others that maybe don’t understand this.”
“The more research that we can get, and the more understanding that we get through clinical trials and research, the better it is,” she continued, “so we’re on standby to support any organization or academic or healthcare professional that’s interested in applying for clinical trial authorization. I think that would really help move forward this conversation and take it kind of out of the shadows and into more of a mainstream conversation.”
As the conversation has changed in recent years, officials and advocates have disagreed over how quickly and widely to allow access to psychedelics. Last month, in response to a petition signed by thousands of residents demanding the government decriminalize the personal possession of psychedelics, three separate government officials replied that no immediate changes to the nation’s drug laws were necessary.
A statement from Hajdu’s office, signed by M.P. Darren Fisher, said psychedelic drugs would need to pass the country’s drug review process and receive authorization from Health Canada before sweeping changes could be made.
Given that existing laws and regulations “already provide a mechanism to access such organisms for medical or scientific purposes, or for reasons that are otherwise in the public interest (such as religious uses),” the statement said, “no amendments to the current legislation or regulations are required.”
Image courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.