Vancouver on the leading edge of a ‘shroom boom

Vancouver’s hippie roots have led to a flourishing psychedelic culture. Now, the scene wants to help more people experience the wellness benefits of expanding their minds.

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      If you want to expand your mind, Vancouver is the place to be. 

      From the colourful dispensaries dotting downtown storefronts to the local online markets selling microdoses, psilocybin snacks, and spore kits, psychedelics are as much a part of the city’s fabric as CoolSculpting and CrossFit: not for everyone, but hard to miss.

      İlayda Gökçen, president of UBC’s Psychedelics Society, says Vancouver is kind of “ahead of the game in terms of psychedelics.” 

      The last year alone has seen a boom in people wanting to learn more. At Imagine Day in 2021, when students come to find out about on-campus clubs, “maximum 100 people” signed up to the society’s mailing list. 

      “This year, we had over 500,” Gökçen says. “I don't think that it's because we did all these amazing events that people heard of us. I think it's more so because people started hearing about psychedelics in mainstream media.”

      2022 has been something of a banner year for Canadian psychedelics. Health Canada’s Special Access Program opened up to psychedelics in January, allowing patients with serious illness to apply for psilocybin. And in August, BC-based psychedelics non-profit TheraPsil threw its weight behind a court case challenging the Canadian government over access to psilocybin, saying the current methods are a violation of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee to “life, liberty and security of the person.” It’s similar to Terry Parker’s 2000 lawsuit that found an absolute prohibition on cannabis contravened Section 7 rights, which paved the way for medicinal marijuana legalization.

      Long-time drug reform advocate Dana Larsen tells the Straight that while Parker’s court case was heard in Ontario, BC was at the forefront of cannabis activism.

      “Vancouver had a convergence of activism in the 1990s,” he says. “People were moving from other parts of Canada to be here.” 

      Legal cannabis activism, alongside drug user liberation groups like VANDU, helped to shift the local climate from one where bong shops were raided to one where most of the population supported, or at least tolerated, drug use. 

      Police raids are expensive to execute, and rarely closed down stores unless charges were laid—so grey-market pot shops were able to flourish. That neutrality extended to psychedelic stores, like Larsen’s Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary (opened 2019) and Coca Leaf Cafe (opened 2020). The dispensary sells dried shrooms, mushroom microdose capsules, and liquid LSD to members, while Coca dispenses other plant-derived substances like kratom and peyote. 

      “For somebody like me, who’s very ideologically motivated, the threat of a police raid is not very big,” Larsen says. “I know that I’m probably not going to go to jail for a long time. It’s probably actually going to bring my store more business.”

      The West Coast’s hippie reputation also has something to do with the city’s current psychedelic scene. Marc Caron, who has been the events organizer for the decade-old Spirit Plant Medicine Conference since 2017, says current discussions of psychedelics really focus on the health benefits—which is popular among the city’s wellness-driven urbanites. 

      “We’ve got a lot of yoga, we’ve got a lot of great spiritual consciousness community in the Vancouver area, and I think the openness of those people help bring it to others,” Caron says. 

      The Spirit Plant Medicine Conference, like the UBC Psychedelics Society, isn’t a space to buy drugs or talk about crazy trips where it felt like the walls were melting. Instead, it’s dedicated to those groovy ideas like mindfulness, meditation, and personal growth. 

      Gökçen, who previously worked for psychedelic medicine group MAPS Canada, says the society provides a space for people to talk about how psychedelics may have helped their mental health, but focuses a lot on non-psychedelic ways to do that. 

      “Most of the psychedelic work organizations or clubs … really try to emphasize the importance of mental health,” they say. “Most of our events are stuff like that. So we do events where we bring breathwork facilitators, or we are planning, for example, collaboration events with UBC Mental Health Initiative.”

      Just as physical stores and events are dedicated to the psychedelic scene, so too are digital ones. Flyers and stickers advertising online ’shroom sales are everywhere. One of the most prolific posters, promising a “Cosmic Travel Agency,” leads curious consumers to Dose, where dried mushrooms, microdose extracts, and psilocybin chocolates are all up for sale.

      “Although we think all psychedelics are great, mushrooms are a natural product that people are familiar with. So there's less stigma,” Ry, a founder of Dose who asked to be referred to by only his first name, tells the Straight in a written statement. 

      While Ry got into psychedelics in high school, he says he began growing and making products in 2016. The web store opened up in 2019.

      “Most people at this point understand that it's not only safe but has incredible potential to improve lives. Naturally, Canadians [want] to source psilocybin mushrooms to experience those benefits for themselves. So the demand has been increasing and businesses are opening to supply to that emerging market,” Ry says. 

      Psychedelics have the potential to be big business. Besides small local businesses, larger corporations are looking into research, or mass production of psychedelics that doctors can prescribe to patients. By the end of 2021, at least 75 publicly traded companies in Canadian psychedelics space had raised around $289 million. Local natural psilocybin and synthetic psychedelics producer Optimi Health Corp. even has backing from Vancouver’s richest man, listing Chip Wilson on its board of directors.

      There are worries that as the psychedelic movement meanders towards legal recognition, it will end up repeating the mistakes of weed legalization: letting big businesses take over the market, and cutting out Black and Indigenous communities that have used psychedelics as natural medicines for centuries.

      Legalization “changed the scope of cannabis from a business and legal perspective,” Caron says. “There is a movement to really honour and respect the Indigenous heritage [of psychedelics] where we don’t want to overprice these things out of the market. They need to be accessible to the many. And we don’t want to see it necessarily become overly commercialized.” 

      But the excitement is still there: an almost giddy joy that something once demonized is being used both for fun and for personal well-being. Or, as Gökçen puts it: “It's becoming more mainstream to like, go do ‘shrooms at the beach with your friends.”

      Nov. 30, 12.24pm: This story was updated to correct the nature of Optimi Health's products.