For some reason, Vancouver is at the epicentre of a growing movement and industry around psychedelics. On the one hand, there’s the emergence of dispensaries around the city—storefronts selling dried mushrooms and microdoses, and in some cases, LSD, DMT, and other entheogenic substances. On the other, there’s the emergence of the psychedelic-assisted therapy movement, currently championed by Numinus, among others.
But these two sides are the product of over 50 years of research and advocacy, with Vancouver and other communities throughout BC attracting leading thinkers in the space such as Dennis McKenna, Paul Stamets, and Gabor Maté—not to mention the legions of academics, health care workers, activists, and entrepreneurs of lesser profile but no less importance in shaping the movement here and across the continent.
But what do these substances, and the experiences they produce, actually mean for us as a society? Can they help us through our species’ current existential condition? Can they actually aid us in our mental health crisis? Here, local experts discuss the promise of psychedelics and why (or if) they matter.
IT’S IN THE AIR
Dennis McKenna, botanist, author, and brother of “Timothy Leary of the ’90s” Terence McKenna: If I walked up to any random person on the street and asked if they know what ayahuasca is, chances are they’d look at me funny. They might have some vague idea; maybe they’ve seen Michael Pollen’s series [How to Change Your Mind] on Netflix. They might’ve read articles about its therapeutic use to treat depression and trauma. It’s very much in the air.
Steve Rio, founder of Enfold, a BC-based psychedelic retreat offering integration support and community: The cultural movement around psychedelics is happening way faster than the regulatory model and the commercial model can actually work at. Psychedelics have already crossed what I call the “mom barrier,” meaning that my mom is talking to all her friends about psychedelics, and they’re seeing it on CBC.
Dr. Pamela Kryskow, medical lead for Roots to Thrive, a healthcare non-profit offering group psychedelic-assisted therapy: Over the last hundreds of years, if you have a symptom, here’s a pill to fix it. But what if, instead of trying to fix the symptom, we just get to the seed of the problem?
Rio: The average person who’s coming to see us is not a tripper. It’s a 55-year-old woman from Atlanta or St. Louis, all over the Eastern Seaboard of the US, who has maybe never done drugs at all before and who is seeking us out because they need support and nothing else has worked.
Kryskow: These medicines can help. We see in our program people healing their fundamental trauma and watching all their symptoms disappear. They are getting their life back. It’s important when somebody gets their joy back. When somebody’s healthy, their world is a better place. Their family has a better experience.
Salimeh Tabrizi, founding member of the Psychedelic Association of Canada: This world is running on anxiety—that’s what is creating this reality we’re all experiencing. People are anxious and we’re overworked. We’re burnt out. A lot of us are living in situations that do not allow our nervous system to actually calm, so, of course, we’re going to create with that energy.
Kryskow: You are not your trauma. Paul [Stamets, a mycologist] speaks all the time about how psilocybin makes nicer people. If you can heal your trauma then you can, as a result, be a better parent. Your children are not going to inherit your trauma or the epigenetics of your family trauma.
Spencer Hawkswell, CEO of TheraPsil, which is fighting for medical access to psilocybin in Canada: The mental health crisis is not about chemical imbalances. It’s not like we have, what, 20 million Canadians who have wild chemical imbalances that need correcting. I’m sure drug companies would like it that way, if they could just produce more and give people more drugs. For some people, that may be the issue, but for most people, there’s an issue just around mental health, around meaning, and purpose in life.
Tabrizi: The more individuals connect to that place within themselves, the more this [collective anxiety] will shift. I feel it’s happening. I feel that the plant [medicines] are kind of working with us to help us grow, in order for us to create some sort of protection on this planet—from ourselves, ironically.
Rio: This matters because humans are not going to survive if we stay at the current level of consciousness. We’re not going to make it much longer. I really think we’re at the precipice. It is time to wake up. I think of psychedelics as the planet’s immune system, and the immune system is driving these antibodies to fix the cancer—which are humans. We need a radical upgrade to our consciousness, and psychedelics are one of the only tools that can get us there.
Tabrizi: One ayahuasca ceremony that I always refer back to was a very difficult ceremony. It was in Spain after the World Ayahuasca Conference in 2016. It was excruciating, around eight or nine hours of the medicine showing me the potential timeline of us going down as a human race. There was mass destruction on the planet. Huge tsunamis, earthquakes, fires. We’ve seen some of this already start to take place. I was just crying the whole time.
McKenna: Psychedelics are a useful catalyst, particularly the natural psychedelics, for reframing people’s views of their relationship with nature, and our current historical existential situation. I view psychedelics as co-evolutionary partners—evolutionary symbiotic partners for the human species. They help us understand that we don’t really own nature—which is very much the premise of capitalism—and which I have learned directly from psychedelics on a number of occasions, particularly ayahuasca.
Tabrizi: The message was: in this lifetime, enlightenment is survival, and survival is enlightenment. This is just my subjective experience. But if that’s where we’re going, then potentially this unified field that the plant medicines are bringing forward to us, and allowing us to come into a place of grace, peace, and healing, might potentially open up an opportunity for us to do things differently on the planet and to come into balance, come into equilibrium, come into equanimity.
McKenna: I think psychedelics can be a wake-up call for our species. The question is: are enough people listening to make a difference?
Dr. Gabor Maté, author and physician who has studied psychedelics as a treatment for addiction: I don’t think psychedelics can save the world, that is bullshit. In some cases of mental distress and physical ailments, they can help, and I’ve seen that being tested. I’ve worked with them for 13, 14 years now, but they are not going to save the world. The world is in much bigger trouble, and the reasons for that are so broad and so socially entrenched that no one particular modality of healing will do it. The problems have been generated at a much faster rate than people can heal. It’s the nature of the world. [Psychedelics] are a useful modality, but let’s not exaggerate.
[People are] confusing individual transformer experiences with social transformation. They’re not the same. For the real transformation for most people who take psychedelics, it takes a lot of intense self-work and self-awareness. Psychedelics can open doors, but for most people that’s not enough. I think they can be spectacular sometimes; in the right context, they can be very beneficial. They continue to do things that other modalities cannot even think about doing. That’s all true.
THE PROMISE OF THERAPY
Payton Nyquvest, CEO and founder of Numinus, which offers psychedelic-assisted therapy: From a cultural perspective, we always want to find the quickest fix. Psychedelic therapy is not panacea. It’s not a magic pill. It’s not going to fix all your problems overnight. There’s work associated with it. There’s a lot of preparation work that’s needed. There’s a lot of integration work that’s needed.
Dr. Devon Christie, senior lead of psychedelic programs at Numinus: When we’re talking about psychedelic-assisted therapy, it’s different from what we might term recreational use, or self-exploration use of psychedelics. This is people coming with mental health conditions, post traumatic stress disorder, or severe treatment-resistant depression. They’ve run out of options in the healthcare system as it currently exists. There are clinical trials that show a lot of promise and even breakthrough-level evidence for these therapies for people who are really suffering.
If PTSD was to heal just by taking MDMA, you’d have all the recreational users of MDMA spontaneously remitting from their PTSD. That doesn’t happen, and the reason that doesn’t happen is it’s the psychedelic-assisted therapy that works. What medicine and biomedicine has done is made us think that it’s all about the drug. And really, why this is a paradigm shift is that the drug is a catalyst for a therapeutic process.
Hawkswell: There will soon be six million Canadians, if not more, eligible for medical assistance in dying [due to treatment-resistant depression], who may be making a very tough decision between choosing death or continuing with treatments that aren’t working. But what they can’t do is access an incredibly safe and natural fungal substance like psilocybin that is shown to be 80 per cent effective in clinical trials [and] that we probably have a constitutional right to.
Christie: As a medical doctor, I’m well aware that it takes roughly 20 years for a new intervention to be adopted into the public healthcare system. And 20 years is far too long, in my opinion, for these therapies. I think it’s still fringe for many people.
[But] there’s ample research showing that a lifetime history of psychedelic use confers benefit—like there being fewer hospitalizations. People who have a lifetime history of consuming psilocybin are at a lower risk of suicide, for example.
Hawkswell: Psilocybin is not a drug like traditional psychiatric medicines that fix an issue like a chemical imbalance. It’s not insulin, correcting for low or high blood sugar. All it’s doing is inciting a mystical experience, and then it’s the individual who’s putting together their life purpose from the experience.
Maté: Despite the demonstrated positive effects on emotions and desires, we’re so far away from any kind of legal sanctions right now; [we’re not] on the verge of some kind of revolution. Of course, we live in a capitalist system, which means that every modality is going to be co-opted and used to profit. And that’s already happening.
Christie: This is actually a public health benefit, yet still, these substances remain illegal, stigmatized, and categorized that there’s no medical use. So obviously, there’s a problem there.
Hawkswell: It’s a great irony that the reason that patients aren’t able to access psilocybin is because the government’s worried about their safety. In fact, we’re so worried about your safety, we suggest that you actually kill yourself instead of accessing the psilocybin, because it could be so dangerous. It frightens me that there’s a bureaucracy that would operate like that.
LAWS OF THE STRANGE
Kryskow: There’s a spectrum of wellness. Let’s say you’re a musician and you just want to be a bit more artistic. Why shouldn’t you also have options to access these medicines?
But it’s easier for somebody in the underground right now to get access to psilocybin than it is for me to go through the legal channels with Health Canada to get psilocybin.
Rio: Mushrooms are effectively and functionally legal in Canada. There’s really nobody regulating the use of mushrooms here. There are legal barriers, but at the same time, you can buy mushrooms online, or at multiple shops in Vancouver.
Dana Larsen, drug policy activist and founder of the Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary, Vancouver’s first storefront offering psychedelics: People think the law is created and then we follow it, but it goes the other way around. We need people to break the law and create a new normal, and when that is fully established, then the law follows up with the change afterwards. The way that I can be most effective is to directly challenge the law and create the reality that I want to see—one where adults can purchase not only mushrooms, but other psychedelic substances from a storefront in a legal and accessible way.
Nyquvest: There’s all this positivity and research coming out, and a very positive public perception of psychedelics—but we do have to just lay out what the risks are and how these different substances can be used in a safe way that actually gets people to what we’ve all been talking about.
Christie: When I’ve gone deep into the core of my trauma experience as a very young child, it’s an absolute abyss of terror, of annihilation. It’s dark and nobody wants to turn towards that, especially when we’re not [adequately] supported.
Rio: The major thing that we’re doing is really focusing this around creating a community. The retreat experience itself is key to successful psychedelic use. You have a better chance of going deep in a container where you feel that level of spaciousness, and that you’ve built a rapport with your facilitators. And that isn’t scalable. I’m an entrepreneur. I like scaling things. But when I look at this space, I don’t know how we make 10 Enfolds. It’s too specific.
The reason we have people with us for three days is that if I just go to somebody’s house, and smoke 5-MeO-DMT [a powerful psychedelic that’s legal in Canada], and I have this death-rebirth experience, but then pop out, back on my phone, grabbing an Uber and checking my email, like, I’m just flushing that experience out. And what I’m doing is actually creating incredible dissonance in my head because my ego is just trying to get his shit back together, but it’s just been dismantled. You need the integration practices, as well as a community that can continue to integrate this experience.
Maté: I’ve seen all kinds of people who’ve done all kinds of psychedelics doing really strange and exploitative things.
Kryskow: [Psychedelics] are not one medicine. And there are unbroken lineages of these medicines in many places in the world. And what does that look like? If we have them in their traditional lineage, most people won’t take them. It would be the medicine person of the community who would be taking them to heal. The issue that’s coming up now is: we’re in a place now where we all want access. We all want to take the medicine.
We have this Western approach. We have this colonized approach. So how can we respectfully use this medicine so that it can be of service? We can be ceremonial. We can use ritual. We can build on the knowledge of our elders, and of the Indigenous Knowledge Keepers. We can take the best of Western knowledge, put it all together, and make something better.
Nyquvest: What we’ve pushed towards is that this actually becomes a standard of care. We don’t think that someone should have to try a whole bunch of other forms of therapy in order to get access to psychedelic therapy. If it’s proving to be very safe and very effective, then it should be prioritized as a first modality for people.
Larsen: There certainly have been times in my life as an activist when I’ve been afraid I’m going to get arrested or I’m worried that I or my friends are going to have bad things happen to them. Sometimes during those psychedelic experiences, I’ve had feelings and connections that remind me not to be afraid, that I’m doing the right thing. That it’s important that I continue this work. You get that kind of spiritual connection sometimes on these substances as a reminder that maybe there’s a higher purpose involved.
Hawkswell: It’s a big issue. There are lots of complexities, no matter what your position is. You’ve got to start somewhere, and right now we [as a society] can help Canadians who are making the tough decision between psilocybin and medical assistance in dying. And if that works, then what’s the next thing? Can we use it for addiction? Can we use it for cluster headaches? With psilocybin, you cannot help but have this overwhelming feeling of purpose in life.