Supporters of psychedelic therapy have been waiting in suspense for months for a federal decision that could mark a turning point in Canadian medical history.
Earlier this year, 17 Canadian health-care professionals—including doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, clinical counsellors, and social workers—applied en masse to Health Minister Patty Hajdu for legal access to psilocybin. That’s one of the outlawed psychoactive compounds in so-called magic mushrooms.
They were assisted by Spencer Hawkswell, CEO of TheraPsil, a Victoria-based group that trains doctors and therapists to administer psychedelic therapy.
If Hajdu grants an exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, these health-care professionals would be permitted to consume psilocybin to better understand what an altered state of consciousness feels like.
“We’re creating pathways for patients who need access to psilocybin to get it,” Hawkswell explained by phone. “Because without TheraPsil, the only options that people have are to find a research study, maybe fly to Jamaica, or do it underground.”
In August, TheraPsil helped four terminally ill patients become the first to obtain a Section 56 exemption from Hajdu for psilocybin.
TheraPsil’s training program for health-care practitioners places a premium on experiential learning because that gives them greater insights when guiding palliative-care patients through a psychedelic. As of this writing, these applicants have been waiting more than 100 days for a response from Ottawa.
“Psilocybin is a tool that allows many great therapists and psychologists to do their work better,” Hawkswell said. “Psychedelics might help people at the end of their life.”
There’s a growing body of peer-reviewed research supporting this proposition. While psilocybin therapy is being used to help relieve patients’ distress at the end of life, MDMA is showing promise in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Researchers are also hopeful that psychedelics can help address addiction, eating disorders, and treatment-resistant depression.
According to Hawkswell, being able to draw upon unconscious states with a substance like psilocybin—in a controlled manner with a therapist—can help people find more meaning in their lives.
Furthermore, Hawkswell insisted that psilocybin shouldn’t be viewed as a traditional medicine.
“It’s not something that you just take and it does the work,” he said. “You have do to the work as part of a program. You have to do the therapy as well.”
Psychedelics helped treat addiction before
None of this is new. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, scores of patients addicted to alcohol or dealing with psychological issues received psychotherapy at a private clinic in New Westminster.
According to University of Saskatchewan historian Erika Dyck, the Hollywood Hospital opened in 1921 as a sanitarium for people with tuberculosis.
After J. Ross MacLean became its medical director, he introduced LSD and mescaline treatments. This came in the wake of psychedelic therapy being offered in Saskatchewan by psychiatrists Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond (in 1957, Osmond coined the term psychedelic to describe the medications).
MacLean worked closely with an American who lived in Vancouver, Al Hubbard, who became known as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD for the way he distributed the compound to people across North America.
“They established therapy rooms or clinical rooms, but they also charged people for their treatments,” Dyck told the Straight by phone.
While researching her 2008 book Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus, she examined the patient records. And they show that some patients came not due to any addiction but because they wanted a safe experience. Others sought help in addressing problematic behaviour.
“I have seen [in the records] up to 10 doses used on a single patient,” Dyck said. “But the vast majority of them in the case records that we have had access to—the vast majority of them—get a single dose, albeit a massive dose. And they’re intended to sort of go through a psychotherapeutic session under the influence of, usually, LSD.”
In some respects, Hubbard was a flim-flam artist. Dyck said he faked having a PhD, for example. But he was also well-connected with high-ranking U.S. government officials. And he has also been credited for bringing art or flowers into the therapeutic environment to stimulate responses from people during their psychedelic experiences.
“Actually, his wife [Ruth] was probably as much or even more involved in some of these things than he was,” Dyck said.
This history is one of several reasons why Dyck likens Vancouver to “ground zero in terms of debates around drug regulation and harm reduction in Canada”.
In fact, Vancouver played a role in the rise of drug prohibition more than a decade before the Hollywood Hospital even opened its doors.
After racist mobs descended on Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown in 1907, a young bureaucrat named Mackenzie King was appointed to hold an inquiry. He concluded that there was rampant opium use in Chinatown, which led to the introduction of federal legislation banning its use except for medical purposes.
Prohibition of drugs spread to other countries as he became an acknowledged international authority on the subject.
King went on to become Canada’s longest-serving prime minister.
LSD treatments ended with legal changes
Widespread use of hallucinogens led to another backlash in the late 1960s.
Two of Vancouver’s most vocal opponents were Dr. Pat McGeer, who went on to become a provincial cabinet minister, and Dr. James Tyhurst, who headed UBC’s psychiatry department. His career ended in a salacious sex-and-abuse scandal. Former female patients sued Tyhurst for enslaving them.
Opposition was also on the rise in the U.S. and other countries. And in the wake of the hippie era, the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances identified psilocybin and psilocin as drugs with a high potential for abuse.
That led the Canadian government to outlaw these compounds, preventing psychedelic therapy at the Hollywood Hospital. Hoffer moved to Victoria, where he became an advocate for taking vitamin B to alleviate psychiatric problems.
Dyck said that Hoffer, Osmond, and others were trying to comprehend the nature of psychosis. And they felt that it was important for researchers and health-care workers to have that psychedelic experience so they might have a better understanding of what the patients were enduring.
“That’s an essential grain of this psychedelic research that’s sometimes been forgotten in the retelling,” Dyck said.
Vancouver companies part of revival
Now it’s 2020, and once again British Columbia is at the centre of a national debate on psychedelic therapy.
One of the leaders in this movement has been Mark Haden. He cofounded the Canadian wing of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in 2011 to educate doctors and fund research to evaluate the efficacy of this therapy.
Haden isn’t the only significant player. In May, Vancouver addiction expert Dr. Evan Wood became the chief medical officer of Numinus Wellness Inc., which has federal approval to test, possess, buy, and sell MDMA, psilocybin, psilocin, DMT, and mescaline. The Vancouver company hopes to open treatment centres where psychedelic therapy can be offered.
“It’s not a cure for everybody,” Wood told the Straight earlier this year, “but in comparison to the best available treatments we have for alcohol or nicotine addiction—and there’s some work being done in cocaine addiction as well—the rates of remission are pretty dramatic over the best available standard of care that we have to offer for those conditions. So it really looks like something is there.”
Another Vancouver company, Havn Life Sciences Inc., is hoping to develop a supply chain for legal psychedelic medicines.
“When you start a business, you’ve got to focus down on certain things,” Havn Life's chief psychedelic officer, Ivan Casselman, told the Straight by phone. “And for now, we’re focused on psilocybin because the way that things seem to be progressing.”
However, Casselman didn’t rule out his company later looking at gaining regulatory approval to standardize production of other psychedelic compounds in the future.
“We know this medicine works,” Casselman said. “But we don’t actually have a mechanism to get that medicine directly to patients yet. Our hypothesis is over the next three to five years, the Canadian government is slowly going to start creating those mechanisms.”
And if it leads therapists to administer psilocybin to themselves to learn how to better offer this treatment to patients in a therapeutic setting, it will be another sign that we're on our way back to the future in British Columbia.