On August 4, 2020, Canada’s Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu, announced that four terminally ill cancer patients are now legally able to possess and consume psilocybin mushrooms for end-of-life care. These four patients mark the first publicly-known individuals to receive a legal exemption from the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act to access psychedelic therapy, and the first known patients to legally use psilocybin since it became illegal in Canada in 1974. The decision to allow psychedelic therapy came after over 100 days of waiting for a response from the government.
Psilocybin mushrooms, otherwise known as “magic mushrooms” is the term that is used to describe mushrooms that contain natural, active ingredients (hallucinogens), such as psilocybin and psilocin. In Canada, psilocybin and psilocin are controlled under Schedule III of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). This means that activities such as sale, possession, production, etc. of these substances are prohibited unless authorized under Part J of the Food and Drug Regulations. To legally possess and conduct activities with controlled substances in Canada, companies and research organizations must first obtain a controlled substances Dealer’s Licence (and/or a Section 56 exemption for physicians, veterinarians and other researchers affiliated to universities and private industry requiring a controlled substance for research purposes which include in vitro utilization, administration to animals and/or human clinical trials).
Psilocybin is currently being studied for its potential to treat various conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and problematic drug use. It has also shown promise in relieving end-of-life distress for palliative cancer patients, but it’s still undergoing clinical trials that are necessary before it can be made widely available to the public. Studies involving the use of psilocybin require administration of the purified active ingredients in clinically supervised settings. As of right now, there are no approved therapeutic products containing psilocybin in Canada. Therefore, as mentioned above, in order to possess and conduct activities with psilocybin, a Dealer’s Licence and/or Section 56 exemption is required.
A press release posted by TheraPsil, a non-profit organization working to help Canadians gain access to psilocybin therapy, stated that they expect more people to petition the government for Section 56 exemptions following the first four patients’ approval, so that other Health Care Practitioners may use psilocybin for professional training in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Health Canada has stated they are committed to carefully and thoroughly reviewing each request for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of potential benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians.
Hopefully the government’s approval for medical use of psilocybin is the first of many to come. While the road to legalization of medicinal mushrooms and psilocybin might be long, this step is certainly one in the right direction and may have even paved the path for the future.
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