As a group of terminally ill patients in Canada awaits word from the minister of health on whether they can legally access psychedelic mushrooms for end-of-life care, their team of clinicians has tacked on an additional request: The therapists want to be able to dose themselves, too.
The group behind the request, Victoria, B.C.–based TheraPsil, a nonprofit that aims to expand access to psilocybin-based psychotherapy in Canada, says the additional step of providing safe access for therapists will ensure they gain firsthand experience into the psilocybin’s effects and its applications to psychotherapy.
“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.”
“Part of ensuring a very high-quality psychedelic treatment for patients is to ensure high-quality training for therapists,” Spencer Hawkswell, TheraPsil’s executive director, told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “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.”
TheraPsil, founded by clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Bruce Tobin, has been fighting for expanded access to psilocybin end-of-life care for years. In 2017, the group first filed a petition to exempt patients with certain terminal conditions from Canada’s ban on psilocybin. It was reportedly the first time a therapist had asked the Canadian government for such an exemption.
It wasn’t until this past January that TheraPsil finally heard back, Hawkswell said. “After three years of back-and-forth, they got back to us and said, ‘We’re going to be rejecting this application.’” The agency said there was no obvious medical necessity for the psychedelics.
TheraPsil was undaunted. “They say there’s no necessity,” Hawkswell said. “Maybe it’s because they haven’t met that person yet.”
In April, the group helped four more people with terminal illnesses file petitions with Health Canada and Health Minister Patty Hajdu seeking exemptions that will allow them to access psilocybin. In an interview with Marijuana Moment, Hawkswell said patients had gone months so far without a word from Hajdu, who with a stroke of a pen could allow the patients to access the drug.
“What we are working on right now is ramping up our messaging,” Hawkswell said. “We are going to try everything we can to get to the minister to make sure she sees these patients and responds to them.”
Dear @PattyHajdu, today marks the 75th day that palliative Canadians have been waiting on a reply from YOU re: their section 56 exemptions for compassionate access to #psilocybin. In the words of Dr. Bruce Tobin, TheraPsil's founder: "Please, do not make them wait any longer" pic.twitter.com/JRITGwtcMR
— TheraPsil (@TheraPsil) July 6, 2020
Efforts to allow TheraPsil’s clinicians to use psilocybin themselves are more recent. Dr. Sean O’Sullivan, an emergency room physician and psychotherapist who serves on TheraPsil’s board of directors, said the exemptions are necessary so that therapists can be better trained and more familiar with how psychedelics work in a therapeutic setting.
“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,” O’Sullivan told Marijuana Moment. “The point is to allow therapists to understand the field they’re plowing in.”
Therapists need to be alert and able to recognize how psychedelic experiences manifest themselves in therapy, O’Sullivan said. Patients might bring up material having to do with their own birth, a traumatic experience or interactions with otherworldly beings. “If you’re not attuned to this possibility, not aware of this possibility, then it’s just going to slide by you,” he said.
“It’s a bit like describing Beethoven’s Fifth,” O’Sullivan added. “You can describe it all you like, but at some point you have to play the music.”
As psychedelic therapy is more widely sought by patients, O’Sullivan said, demand for qualified therapists is likely to go up. “We are expecting that as we get more permission for patients to access psilocybin at the end of life,” he said, “that there will be an increase in demand for therapists that have had that psychedelic experience.”
Public opinion in Canada generally supports allowing access to psilocybin therapy for the terminally ill, TheraPsil says. A poll released by the group last month found that 59 percent of Canadians support legal access. Including respondents who said they were “ambivalent,” TheraPsil said, acceptance increased to 78 percent.
“What’s unreasonable is the political decision” to deny patients access to psilocybin, Hawkswell argued. “It’s not a scientific one, it’s not a democratic one. It’s political.”
Patients facing their imminent death often experience feelings and fears that psychedelics can help to ease, he said. Among them are demoralization, anxiety and depression. Existing treatment includes pharmaceuticals, talk therapy and occasionally inpatient treatment.
Psychedelics play a role in treatment by inducing what Hawkswell and others refer to as a “mystical experience”—a collection of psychoactive and sometimes spiritual events that accompany a psychedelic journey. The experience can reorient a person’s way of thinking, dissolving barriers between an individual and the world around them. For end-of-life patients, he explained, it can help them embrace that death “is natural—just as natural as being born.”
Practitioners note that psychedelic therapy doesn’t work the same way as many other pharmaceutical drugs, such as antidepressants or even medical marijuana. Patients usually take those substances under their own supervision and allow them to work in the background. With therapeutic use of psilocybin and other psychedelics, patients typically take the drug and undergo guided psychotherapy. Psychedelics’ unusual, sometimes disorienting effects are believed to allow patients to better approach and engage obstacles, then emerge with a fresh perspective.
Another psychedelic therapy group, Field Trip, which uses ketamine in therapy, describes the treatment on their website as a way “to press reset on your mental health.”
The emerging promise of psychedelics in recent years have caught the attention of academics, public policy reformers and even the U.S. government. Last month, the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced a $27 million project funded by the department of defense to research and develop psychedelics-inspired drugs.
That project’s researchers seem to believe they can separate psychedelics from what they describe as “disorienting” side effects, despite what Hawkswell and others say about the importance of a “mystical experience.”
“Although drugs like ketamine and potentially psilocybin have rapid antidepressant actions, their hallucinogenic, addictive, and disorienting side effects make their clinical use limited,” said Bryan L. Roth, a professor of pharmacology at UNC School of Medicine and the research team’s leader. The government partnership, UNC said, “aims to create new medications to effectively and rapidly treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse without major side effects.”
In September of last year, Johns Hopkins University announced the launch of the nation’s first-ever psychedelic research center, a $17-million project to study the use of psychedelics to treat conditions such as opioid use disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meanwhile, activists in the United States have advocated for state- and local-level reforms to research, decriminalize and in some cases even legalize psychedelics themselves.
At the municipal level, Denver became the first U.S. city to enact such a reform, with voters in May 2019 approving a measure to effectively decriminalize possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Soon after, officials in Oakland, California, decriminalized possession of all plant- and fungi-based psychedelics. In January of this year, Oakland activists unveiled plans to allow go further and legalize the commercial sale of natural entheogenic substances. That same month in nearby Santa Cruz, the City Council effectively decriminalized psychedelics by voting to make the enforcement of laws against them among the city’s lowest enforcement priorities.
Reformers are now pushing for similar changes in other jurisdictions. In Washington, D.C. this month, Decriminalize Nature D.C. submitted signatures to qualify a measure for November’s ballot that would decriminalize all natural psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine.
Other reform efforts are ongoing in Oregon, where voters later this year will decide whether to legalize psilocybin therapy—the very therapy TheraPsil’s patients are pushing Canadian Health Minister Hajdu to allow. Oregon voters will also see a separate measure to decriminalize the possession of all drugs and expand access to treatment for problem use on their November ballot.
Lawmakers in Hawaii earlier this year approved a plan to study psilocybin mushrooms’ medical applications with the goal of eventually legalizing access.
In Canada, for now, psilocybin remains illegal. Hawkswell of TheraPsil, however, believes a constellation of other national policies—including medical marijuana, safe injection sites, and physician-assisted dying—support extending psilocybin access to patients in palliative care. And Canada already permits certain religious groups to use ayahuasca as religious sacrament, Hawkswell noted.
“At this point psilocybin is a reasonable medical choice for these individuals,” he told Marijuana Moment. “This is about the minister being compassionate and using her ministerial abilities to help give patients access to something that’s going to help them.”
Patients waiting to hear back from Hajdu’s office, he said, don’t have time to wait for lengthy, bureaucratic processes. “We’re not just going to keep waiting,” he told Marijuana Moment. “We do have a legal team prepared, but that’s all I’ll say.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman
Canada Will Let Terminally Ill Patients Use Psychedelic Mushrooms For End-Of-Life Care
Four cancer patients in end-of-life care will be become the first people in decades to legally possess and consume psilocybin mushrooms in Canada after a landmark decision Tuesday by the country’s minister of health.
The patients petitioned Health Minister Patty Hajdu back in April for exemptions from the country’s laws against psilocybin in order to use psychedelic mushrooms as part of psychotherapy treatment. On Tuesday afternoon, Hajdu officially granted the patients’ request, the nonprofit TheraPsil, which assisted with the application, announced.
The approvals mark the first publicly-known individuals to receive a legal exemption from the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act to access psychedelic therapy, Therapsil said, and the first medical patients to legally use psilocybin since the compound became illegal in Canada in 1974.
“This is the positive result that is possible when good people show genuine compassion. I’m so grateful that I can move forward with the next step of healing,” one of the patients, Thomas Hartle, said in a statement Tuesday.
NEWS: 4 Palliative Canadians experiencing end-of-life distress have been APPROVED to access psychedelic therapy through section 56 exemptions. This historic decision marks the first known individuals to legally use #psilocybin since it’s illegality in 1974.https://t.co/AUlzjvKGcm
— TheraPsil (@TheraPsil) August 4, 2020
The applicants, as well as various advocates for psychedelic therapy, had personally appealed to Hajdu via a concerted social media campaign during the months their applications were pending.
“Health Canada is committed to carefully and thoroughly reviewing each request for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of potential benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians,” a government spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email. “These exemptions do not change the fact that the sale and possession of magic mushrooms remain illegal in Canada.”
In statements issued Tuesday, other patients thanked Hajdu and said they were optimistic that more patients will one day have safe, legal access to psilocybin for therapeutic use.
Minister @pattyhajdu please hear this message from Thomas Hartle: “I am one of the applicants that currently have a section 56 exemption that is in your hands…I just wanted to remind you that it has now been 100 days since some of the applications started coming to you.” pic.twitter.com/5h0d8hfuUl
— TheraPsil (@TheraPsil) July 31, 2020
“I want to thank the Health Minister and Health Canada for approving my request for psilocybin use. The acknowledgement of the pain and anxiety that I have been suffering with means a lot to me, and I am feeling quite emotional today as a result,” said Laurie Brooks, an applicant from British Columbia. “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, without having to petition the government for months to gain permission.”
TheraPsil said on Tuesday that it expects more people to petition the government for exemptions following the first four patients’ approval. A separate request by the nonprofit to allow therapists to use psychedelics themselves in preparation for treating patients with psilocybin was not addressed in Tuesday’s announcement, the group said.
The government, in its statement to Marijuana Moment, said that the use of “magic mushrooms also comes with risks, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, flashbacks and bad trips that may lead to risk-taking behaviour, traumatic injuries and even death.”
All of the four patients who received the new exemptions have been diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Therapists who use psychedelics in their practices say that psilocybin-aided therapy sessions can help patients deal with issues such as depression and anxiety, allowing them to better accept death as a natural part of existence.
“At this point psilocybin is a reasonable medical choice for these individuals,” TheraPsil’s executive director, Spencer Hawkswell, told Marijuana Moment in an interview last month. “This is about the minister being compassionate and using her ministerial abilities to help give patients access to something that’s going to help them.”
The therapeutic potential of psychedelics has attracted attention in recent years from a growing number of academics, policy makers and even the U.S. government. In September of last year, Johns Hopkins University announced the launch of the nation’s first-ever psychedelic research center, a $17-million project to study whether psychedelics can treat conditions such as opioid use disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In June, the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced a $27 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to research and develop an entirely new class of psychedelics-inspired drugs. The program, UNC said, “aims to create new medications to effectively and rapidly treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse without major side effects.”
Meanwhile, activists in the United States have advocated for state- and local-level reforms to research, decriminalize and in some cases even legalize psychedelics.
In May 2019, Denver became the first U.S. city to enact such a reform, with voters approving a measure that effectively decriminalized psilocybin possession. Soon after, officials in Oakland, California, decriminalized possession of all plant- and fungi-based psychedelics. In January of this year, the City Council in Santa Cruz, California, voted to make the enforcement of laws against psychedelics among the city’s lowest enforcement priorities.
Reformers are pushing for similar changes in other jurisdictions. A proposal in Washington, D.C. would allow voters to decide this fall whether to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine. A decision on whether that initiative will make the ballot is expected later this week. In Oregon, voters in November will consider a measure that would decriminalize all drugs and expand access to treatment. A separate Oregon proposal would legalize psilocybin therapy—the same therapy sought by the Canadian cancer patients.
Lawmakers in Hawaii earlier this year approved a plan to study psilocybin mushrooms’ medical applications with the goal of eventually legalizing access.
This story was updated with comment from Health Canada.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Arizona Governor Slams Marijuana Legalization Ballot Measure In Voter Pamphlet Argument
Ahead of what’s shaping up to be a contentious campaign season around marijuana in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and other opponents are claiming that legalization would unleash a host of public health hazards on the state.
In an official voter guide argument published on Monday against a proposed initiative that’s likely to be on the November ballot, the governor called legalizing cannabis “a bad idea based on false promises.”
“We know from states that have fully legalized marijuana that it has real consequences: more deaths on highways caused by high drivers, dramatic increases in teen drug use, and more newborns exposed to marijuana,” Ducey claimed in his comments.
It’s not yet certain whether the legalization proposal, from Smart and Safe Arizona, will make it to the ballot. County officials have until August 7 to validate hundreds of thousands of signatures submitted by activists last month. But on Monday afternoon, the Arizona secretary of state’s office published arguments submitted both for and against the measure, including a handful from elected officials.
The arguments, which will be printed and mailed to registered voters, give a taste of what’s to come during the mounting fight over legalization in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
As with politics in general in 2020, expect considerable disagreement over basic facts. For instance, Ducey’s argument that cannabis legalization has led to “dramatic increases in teen drug use” seems at odds with available evidence. Even according to legalization opponents, such as the federal government’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, teen use rates have actually gone down since the end of prohibition for adults.
In a presentation last month to North Dakota lawmakers, who themselves are considering whether to legalize marijuana, the Colorado-based deputy coordinator of the federal National Marijuana Initiative acknowledged that data from government drug use surveys show that Colorado saw a general decline in the number of teens using marijuana after the state enacted legalization.
Another of Ducey’s claims, that Colorado has a particularly high rate of teen cannabis use compared to other states, is true. But his submission fails to mention that was also true during the years before legalization.
Ducey wasn’t the only official to argue that legalization would increase teen consumption in the new official ballot arguments pamphlet. State Sen. Sine Kerr (R) wrote that she was “deeply saddened by the prospect of how this initiative would harm children.”
“Kids would become easy prey for an industry hungry to create a new generation of users,” Kerr argued, noting that legal products would include vape pens and edible products such as gummies, cookies and candy, which she implied would appeal to children. (Gummy bears would be banned due to a provision forbidding animal-shaped products.)
“The industry will succeed in hooking too many of our kids and stealing their potential early,” she wrote.
Other common arguments against the proposal centered on the increased risk of impaired driving, fears of unbridled advertising by the commercial cannabis industry and economic impacts resulting from unmotivated employees or worker impairment.
“In Arizona, positive marijuana workplace tests have nearly tripled over the past eight years since legalization of medical marijuana,” wrote Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, an outspoken cannabis opponent. “Workplaces with higher rates of drug use have employees that are less productive, suffer higher absenteeism, and have more accidents.”
Polk, whose office prosecutes cannabis cases, also downplayed the impact that legalization would have on the criminal justice system.
“As for their argument that legalizing recreational pot will empty our prisons? Not a single state has seen a reduction in prison population because of legalization,” she argued. “This is because, contrary to the myth, our prisons are not filled with people serving time for marijuana possession.”
Legalization supporters, however, point to Polk’s own office as a reason to reform marijuana laws. In recent years, Polk famously filed felony charges against a black medical cannabis patient for possessing a small amount of marijuana concentrate purchased legally from a dispensary. Critics accused Polk’s office of exhibiting racial bias in the case.
Advocates for the proposed legalization measure, meanwhile, said in ballot arguments that the initiative takes a relatively measured, sensible approach by taxing and regulating marijuana rather than handling it as a criminal matter.
“The war on drugs failed,” wrote Chad Campbell, chair of Smart and Safe Arizona, the organization behind the proposed ballot measure. “Marijuana is safest when it’s sold in a taxed, tested and regulated environment—not on a street corner.”
The campaign says legalization will also bring in at least $300 million in tax revenue that can be used to support things like education, public health, infrastructure and safety. Penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana would go up under the proposal, and millions of dollars in funding would be funneled toward drug treatment and mental health programs.
As for youth use, organizers argue, “we know a well-regulated, licensed, legal environment is the best way to keep marijuana out of the hands of children—period. We set the legal age at 21, limited potency, required childproofed packaging, required products to be unattractive to kids and forbade advertising to youth.”
The state’s voters narrowly defeated a legalization measure in 2016, but a poll released last month indicates the current initiative is on the path to being approved. The survey found that more than 6 in 10 Arizona voters saying they support legalizing marijuana.
Another supporter, former Gov. Fife Symington (R), who served from 1991 to 1997, wrote in his argument that voters “must constantly re-evaluate our policies in the face of new evidence.”
“Today the evidence is overwhelmingly clear: criminalizing law-abiding citizens who choose to responsibly consume marijuana is an outdated policy that wastes precious government resources and unnecessarily restricts individual liberty,” he said. “A far more logical approach would be to respect the rights of adults to choose to consume marijuana while taxing and regulating its production and sale.”
The proposal imposes significant penalties for selling marijuana products to minors, Symington wrote, allows law enforcement to target drivers who demonstrate impairment and allows employers to maintain a drug-free workplace.
“Finally, and perhaps more importantly,” he wrote, “it frees up law enforcement to deal with more serious issues that actually jeopardize public safety.”
Perhaps the most balanced ballot argument submitted over the measure came from Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, who said the proposition “poses public health risks and benefits.” Humble‘s statement, which identifies what he said are both risks and benefits of legalization, is printed twice—once alongside ballot arguments against legalization, and again next to arguments in support of it.
One one hand, Humble argued, ending felony charges for cannabis possession would reduce mental, physical and economic impacts for individuals and families. “Incarceration and felony convictions for marijuana offenses have multigenerational social, economic, and health impacts that have been disproportionately thrust on communities of color,” Humble wrote, “because they are more likely to be arrested for and convicted of marijuana offenses.”
Humble noted the measure also includes provisions to regulate and test cannabis products, support evidence-based public health programs and prevent sales to minors—although he acknowledged those efforts won’t eliminate all risks, which he said include “impaired neurological development from use in adolescence, increased visits to emergency rooms from marijuana intoxication or accidental ingestion by children, adverse birth outcomes from maternal use, and injuries caused by impaired driving or workplace use.”
Humble argued that if voters choose to pass the measure, regulators should be prepared to take the new legal sector seriously.
“If the Act passes,” he wrote, “we urge the state to use its full regulatory authority to enforce purchasing age-limits, packaging and potency standards, regulate advertising and place of use restrictions, enact workplace use policy requirements, and solidify motor vehicle operation restrictions and penalties. Arizona officials should also partner with state universities to analyze and publish data on its public health impacts.”
Read the arguments for and against the Arizona legal marijuana measure below:
McConnell Slams Pelosi Over Claim Marijuana Is A ‘Proven’ Therapy Amid Coronavirus Debate
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took a shot at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Tuesday, criticizing recent comments she made defending marijuana provisions that were included in her chamber’s latest coronavirus relief legislation.
The majority leader, who has consistently railed against the inclusion of cannabis banking protections in the House COVID-19 bill, said on the Senate floor that Pelosi is “still agitating for strange, new special interest carve-outs for the marijuana industry and even claiming they are COVID-related.”
“She said that, with respect to this virus, marijuana is ‘a therapy that has proven successful.’ You can’t make this up,” he said.
“I hope she shares her breakthrough with Dr. Fauci,” McConnell wryly added, referring to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, who has been helping to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
McConnell is referring to remarks Pelosi made last week after she was asked about components of the House Democrats’ bill that Republicans have criticized as not germane, including specifically the marijuana language.
The speaker said she took issue with the suggestion that cannabis banking reform was not relevant amid the pandemic and said marijuana “is a therapy that has proven successful.” Prohibitionists have seized on that comment, interpreting it to mean that Pelosi believes cannabis can treat COVID-19.
Speaker Pelosi is still holding up this entire package over bizarre unrelated things like carveouts for the marijuana industry. She even claimed to the press that pot is a proven COVID-19 therapy!
I hope she’s shared this breakthrough with Dr. Fauci.
Can we get serious yet? https://t.co/CksSWrMKDN
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) August 4, 2020
That said, it wasn’t clear from the brief comment whether that was the case or if Pelosi was broadly referring to the therapeutic benefits of marijuana.
The Food and Drug Administration has made clear that there’s currently no solid evidence that cannabinoids can treat COVID-19 and it’s warned companies that make that claim.
Marijuana Moment previously exclusively reported that Pelosi—who said in 2018 that doctors should prescribe medical cannabis and yoga more often instead of prescription opioids—supported attaching the banking language to the House’s coronavirus package prior to the legislation’s introduction.
Senate leadership unveiled their latest round of coronavirus relief legislation last week, and it does not include the cannabis provisions. And given McConnell’s particular focus on those components, it seems likely that any attempt to get the language inserted in a bicameral conference will be met with resistance on the Senate side.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also recently slammed Pelosi’s latest cannabis comments on Twitter, saying “let’s focus on the pandemic. Not pot.”
Meanwhile, the standalone Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act has continued to sit in the Senate Banking Committee without action in the months since the House initially approved it.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.
McConnell’s latest comments also come a week after the House approved an amendment to protect state, territory and tribal marijuana laws from federal interference.
Photo courtesy of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.