‘People are desperate to heal’: The push for psychedelic-assisted therapy in Canada

By Kamyar Razavi & Robin Gill Global News Posted June 12, 2021 3:00 am Updated September 9, 2021 10:14 am

Laurie Brooks describes her experience taking psychedelic mushrooms as a journey — one that helped her find answers to some of her most important life questions.

The 54-year-old mother of four from Abbotsford, B.C., was diagnosed in 2018 with colon cancer. By the time doctors discovered it, the cancer had already advanced rapidly.

The fear of dying at such a young age, and not seeing her kids get married and have their own children, caused her tremendous anguish. “It felt like my whole life had been turned upside down and backwards,” she told Global News’ The New Reality.

Luckily, Brooks knew a therapist who was willing to facilitate a psychedelic experience using hallucinogenic drugs. “He said, ‘I think this would be really beneficial for you. … You clearly need help.’”

It was a transformative experience.

“I’ve never done anything like that in my life, so I really had no idea what to expect,” she said. “I just had so many different experiences, where all my questions that I had written out, everything was answered for me.”

Brooks’ experience with psychedelics comes as research studies are showing significant benefits with psychedelic-assisted therapies for people with severe forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression or chronic pain, and for whom other, more traditional therapies have not worked.

Her first mushroom trip was technically illegal. But then, Brooks worked with a non-profit called Therapsil to secure Health Canada’s approval for legal access to psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

She said her psychedelic experiences enabled her to learn more about herself and to cope with her cancer diagnosis. “I’m able now to deal with the emotions as they come, and to sit with them and hold them.”

Granting access

Psilocybin is a controlled substance in Canada. This means that magic mushrooms are illegal for recreational use.

In a statement, Health Canada told Global News it has granted exemptions to 36 individuals “to allow them to possess and consume mushrooms containing psilocybin to treat their end-of-life psychological distress associated with their cancer diagnosis.”

Brooks is one of those individuals.

In addition, the federal health agency has given approval to 27 organizations to “conduct activities” with psilocybin. One of those organizations is Numinus, a B.C.-based clinic that says it is the first publicly traded company in Canada granted a licence to extract psilocybin from mushrooms for research purposes.

In a nondescript building in Nanaimo, B.C., on Vancouver Island, workers in lab coats cultivate the spores that will eventually germinate to produce psychedelic mushrooms.

It is a multi-step process that involves rigorous lab work and efforts to avoid contaminating the substances. The psilocybin from the mushrooms is eventually extracted for use in a therapeutic setting, or in clinical trials.

From counter-culture to mainstream

Outside of therapeutic and clinical contexts, magic mushrooms are going mainstream.

Microdosing means consuming very low doses of psychedelic mushrooms.

However, research is limited on the therapeutic benefits of this activity. Health Canada emphasizes that “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.”

In a clinical setting, conversely, doses are often larger, and are usually spaced out over months, if not years, with ongoing psychological support. A typical trip lasts anywhere from five to eight hours. It is in this area, specifically, that research trials are showing tremendous promise for help in treating severe mental disorders.

‘Total freeze’ on research

Medical experts and advocates for psychedelics say it is not for a lack of trying that research into them is only now ramping up.

Dr. Evan Wood, an internationally recognized expert in addictions research and substance abuse, and the chief medical officer at Numinus, points out how the so-called war on drugs in the 1980s and ’90s led to a “total freeze” on research.

“We need to look at a totally different approach to substance use generally,” he said. “We probably knew in the 1960s or 1970s that this was an area of medicine that could potentially lead to transformative change and benefit to people struggling with currently intractable mental disorders.”

Some of the earliest research involving LSD and other psychedelic substances was happening on the Canadian Prairies, at what was known as the Weyburn Mental Hospital, in southern Saskatchewan. The hospital building was demolished in 2009. But 60 years ago, it was the site of controversial research involving LSD to treat alcoholism. Even the CIA was experimenting with psychedelics at the time.

Today, world-renowned universities, like Johns Hopkins, New York University and the University of British Columbia, are leading research on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. Typically, patients enrolled in research trials have severe post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, chronic pain or substance abuse disorders. To date, those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder have been excluded from trials.

Wood recently took a leave of absence from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Abuse to work at Numinus.

“It’s an open secret in medicine that most of the treatments that we have (for mental health) aren’t particularly effective,” Wood said.

In the United States, a group called MAPS has raised close to $50 million, and is actively working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to study the benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapies. MAPS recently published a groundbreaking study that found significant therapeutic benefits in patients with severe PTSD being treated using MDMA (the club drug commonly known as ecstasy) and psychotherapy.

The study found that 67 per cent of participants in the study no longer met the criteria for their disorders following treatment. This is a highly conclusive outcome for a clinical trial.

The FDA, as a result of the promising work that is emerging in the field of psychedelics, has granted psilocybin and MDMA breakthrough therapy status. That designation expedites research into the medicines.

Mental health ‘gaps’

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, said Dr. Devon Christie, Numinus’ medical director, is opening a window for “people who are suffering, (and) who have oftentimes exhausted other options.”

Christie is an expert in trauma and chronic pain, two conditions that are deeply interrelated.

Psychedelics work on the brain, Dr. Christie said, by increasing “neuroplasticity” — “the ability of our brains to change.” When people ruminate on whatever causes distress or depression, they are locked in what is known as a “default mode network,” a locked-in, pre-existing set of beliefs that can result in distress or chronic pain.

The psychedelics, Christie said, “actually disrupt the default mode network, temporarily taking it offline, in essence, so that one can have an experience that’s different from being trapped in those same loops of thinking.”

“These substances,” Wood said, “enable people, through a structured psychotherapeutic intervention, to actually change their thinking into a way that can enable them to move past traumatic experiences, where they haven’t been able to leave their home because they’re having panic attacks all the time, or their mood is so low they can’t get out of bed, and their loved ones are trying to help them.”

Wood said psilocybin, the compound in magic mushrooms, is “in no way, shape or form, addictive.”

“It’s not something that’s rewarding in a way like tobacco or alcohol or certain illicit drugs that lead to habit formation,” he said.

The push to decriminalize

In addition to research universities and clinics, high-profile private citizens are also promoting the use of psychedelics. Daniel Carcillo, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks, is among the more prominent voices working to make these substances more widely available.

Carcillo was an enforcer for the Blackhawks. His job was to rough up players on the opposing side. In that role, he suffered repeated blows to the head over the years. Those hits, coupled with previous emotional trauma, he said, did lasting damage that he is now working to undo.

“People have a tough (time) separating the personality on the ice and the person off the ice,” he told Global News, adding that he doesn’t recognize himself anymore when he watches videos of himself “running around trying to hurt people.”

“I got to a point where I became hopeless and very suicidal,” he said.

In 2019, four years after retiring from the NHL, Carcillo was invited to a friend’s farm, where he tried magic mushrooms for the first time. Like Laurie Brooks, Carcillo describes the initial stages of his hallucinogenic trip as “dark.”

But then, he said, he was able to finally see his illness in an entirely different light. “I was sick,” he said. He calls psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, an “amazing tool in combination with the right psychotherapy.”

Carcillo, or “Car Bomb,” as he is known in the hockey community, is now running a wellness company called Wesana Health that does research into psychedelics. “The suffering was definitely necessary to get to a point of recovery,” he said.

‘Curative’ intent

Doctors are careful about using the word “cure.” But research into psychedelic medications is showing how that outcome is a distinct possibility.

Wood said these medicines are generating a total shift in thinking in the mental health community. “We’re going into the treatment of these mental disorders with curative intent,” he said.

“The literature to date suggests that people can have a transformative change and never look back,” he said.

However, Wood, and other proponents of psychedelic medicines, underscore how the promising findings in trials of psychedelic therapies do not negate the need for psychotherapy and other support. In other words, it is not “one and done.”

“This isn’t a panacea,” Carcillo said.

“Nothing gets fixed in five hours.”

‘People are desperate to heal’: The push for psychedelic-assisted therapy in Canada

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