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Victoria non-profit rallies in Ottawa for better access to psilocybin

TheraPsil’s CEO says exemptions for the psychoactive substance are too hard to get and rules are inconsistent

By Jolene Rudisuela
December 1, 2022
Health
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria non-profit rallies in Ottawa for better access to psilocybin

TheraPsil’s CEO says exemptions for the psychoactive substance are too hard to get and rules are inconsistent

Dozens of patients, medical professionals, and supporters gathered at Parliament Hill in Ottawa this week to call for better access to psychoactive substance psilocybin. Photo: submitted
Dozens of patients, medical professionals, and supporters gathered at Parliament Hill in Ottawa this week to call for better access to psychoactive substance psilocybin. Photo: submitted
Health
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria non-profit rallies in Ottawa for better access to psilocybin

TheraPsil’s CEO says exemptions for the psychoactive substance are too hard to get and rules are inconsistent

By Jolene Rudisuela
December 1, 2022
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Victoria non-profit rallies in Ottawa for better access to psilocybin
Dozens of patients, medical professionals, and supporters gathered at Parliament Hill in Ottawa this week to call for better access to psychoactive substance psilocybin. Photo: submitted

With signs bearing slogans like “How about medical assistance in living,” and “Let doctors practice medicine,” dozens of patients, medical professionals, and supporters from across Canada gathered at Ottawa’s Parliament Hill this week to call for increased access to the psychoactive substance psilocybin.

Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been banned in Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act since 1974, though some exemptions are allowed for individuals and through clinical trials and Health Canada’s Special Access Program. 

However, Spencer Hawkswell, the president and CEO of Victoria-based TheraPsil which led the rally, said the barriers for patients to get an exemption are too great and inconsistent. 

Psychedelics like mushrooms are increasingly used as a tool in psychotherapy, and are especially beneficial for people whose mental health suffers as they face a serious or terminal illness. A 2016 study conducted by New York University found that psilocybin decreased existential distress, anxiety, and depression in cancer patients and increased their well-being and quality of life. 

TheraPsil was formed in 2019 to help Canadians in medical need access psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy and medical psilocybin. The vast majority of the patients it works with have either a terminal illness, a severe addiction, or a treatment-resistant depression, but a common theme is they are all close to the end of their life or have the right to die with Medical Assistance in Dying. In 2020, TheraPsil successfully helped four people obtain the first medical exemptions for psilocybin in Canada

“What we’re trying to do as an organization is help patients who have these rights to cannabis, rights to medical assistance in dying, also have the right to medical psilocybin,” Hawkswell said. 

“Many of them are upset, including their doctors, that the government would sooner help patients—who they claim have tried all treatments—access medical death, when in reality, that same government is withholding very effective treatments like psilocybin.”

As of January 2022, TheraPsil has helped 55 people get exemptions to use psilocybin, but the waitlist of patients looking for access has grown to over 2,000. Nineteen medical professionals have also received exemptions to treat patients with psilocybin with help from TheraPsil, while another 2,500 are on the waitlist for the organization’s psilocybin training.

“The goalposts for who qualifies seem to be moving,” Hawkswell said. “And the qualifications seem to be for only patients who are treatment resistant, so who have treatment resistant depression, or are palliative and who have tried every other treatment… and that’s where it’s becoming not a clinical decision but a bureaucrat making these decisions.”

Thomas Hartle was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and was granted a year-long exemption in 2020 by then-health minister Patty Hajdu. He reapplied the next year when the exemption expired, but was denied. 

“Instead of a compassionate response, Health Canada is referring dying and vulnerable patients to a special access program that results in lots of red tape but no access for most,” Hartle said in a press release. “Many like me have gone over a year without a response to their urgent requests.”

Janis Hughes has been battling Stage 4 breast cancer and applied for an exemption for psilocybin in early 2022. She was denied.

"My experience trying to get access has been extremely frustrating," she said in an email to Capital Daily. "I am outraged that my government would sooner grant me medical assistance in dying than medical assistance in living."

Patients being forced to wait months for or being flat-out denied legal access to the substance could lead them to seek it illegally, Hawkswell said. It is not uncommon for patients to wait between 12 days to four months for access, despite Health Canada’s 48-hour response goal. 

Hawkswell added that some medical professionals have also gotten their exemptions revoked after dozens of successful treatments. 

Ideally, Hawkswell said, psilocybin regulations would be similar to medical cannabis regulations. Currently, TheraPsil has launched a legal challenge arguing that the denial of access to psilocybin is a violation of Canadian’s Section 7 charter rights. Hawkswell said if new regulations were put in place by the federal government, they would drop the case. 

After three days on Parliament Hill, Hawkswell said the group received positive responses from members of each party, but they were unable to get a meeting with the health minister—a meeting they’ve been trying to get for more than 400 days. He said they would be back in February to try again. 

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