Vancouver city councillors have shot down an initiative to crack down on the illegal sale of drugs, including so-called “magic mushrooms.”
Psychedelic mushrooms, which contain the psychoactive chemicals psilocybin or psilocin — and which, in high doses, can create an effect similar to LSD — have recently been touted as a potential therapeutic drug.
Non-Partisan Association (NPA) Coun. Melissa DeGenova proposed the motion that referenced the sale of psilocybin mushrooms along with concerns about money laundering, and the involvement of international gangs in drug trafficking.
The motion also cited the city’s experience with cannabis dispensaries, warning a failure to crack down could result in a repeat of Vancouver’s problems rooting out unlicensed businesses once cannabis was legalized.
The motion would have had city staff liaise with Vancouver police and Vancouver Coastal Health to look at impacts on public safety, “unsubstantiated health benefits of potentially harmful substances,” and costs to the city to deal with businesses selling illegal substances.
The motion, which saw about a dozen speakers passionately defend mushrooms, was defeated six to two.
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On Thursday, DeGenova said her intent wasn’t to target the potential therapeutic effects of currently illegal drugs, but rather to allow the city to get ahead of illegal sellers.
“Treatment is important here. But that’s not what we’re talking about, we’re talking about recreational drug use,” she said.
DeGenova said she believes the connection between the sale of illegal substances and organized crime and money laundering is a real threat, adding her motion wasn’t just about mushrooms.
“I was already concerned when I heard about the mushroom dispensary, and that’s what triggered this motion to come forward,” she said.
“But also on the other hand, now we hear that a heroin dispensary is planned for Vancouver. I mean, even more shocking.“
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The mushroom dispensary DeGenova referenced is a new, online operation being run by well-known Vancouver cannabis activist Dana Larsen.
Larsen is selling microdoses (doses a fraction of the size of one that would cause someone to “trip”) that he says treat anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They can be very, very positive, unlike antidepressants which typically sort of dampen down all of your emotional responses both good and bad,” Larsen said Thursday.
“Psilocybin helps people to accept and integrate these kinds of experiences into themselves and helps to dampen down the negative emotions, but they help you to also feel positive emotions.”
Speaking to council Wednesday, Larsen said mushrooms are coming to Vancouver, like it or not, adding he’d like to see the city take the initiative and create a framework to allow their safe supply.
Larsen claimed his operation holds clients to a code of conduct, and requires some kind of proof of diagnosis from a doctor.
“Vancouver city council and other cities, they absolutely have the power to issue business licences and regulations around this kind of thing, even though it’s not fully in compliance with federal law,” Larsen told Global News.
“It’s better if the rules come in earlier, so we know what the rules are. We can work to develop those rules and then follow them.”
NPA Coun. Colleen Hardwick, the only other councillor to vote with DeGenova, expressed concern that left to sprout on their own, mushroom sellers could see a repeat of the city’s cannabis “boondoggle.”
“In similar fashion, psiloscybin is still considered illegal — notwithstanding many of the things that have been said about clinical trials and positives,” she told council.
“It’s still illegal at the federal level and it is the federal government that will make that decision…. What can we do to ensure we don’t get into this problem again?”
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However it was councillors like the Green Party’s Pete Fry that carried the day.
“I would classify this otherwise as anti-drug hysteria,” said Fry, dismissing concerns about injectable psiloscybin or potential links to international organized crime as unfounded.
“We’re in a serious overdose crisis where we’ve heard people describe this as a medicine … research is ongoing to look at this as a drug therapy treatment for drug addiction,” he said.
“Language around deterring and preventing the distribution and sale of psilocybin from the get-go imparts a kind of stigma to what is potentially a lifesaving intervention.”
DeGenova said she hadn’t decided yet on whether to try again with a similar motion.
The council debate comes at a time when magic mushrooms are being increasingly looked at as a therapeutic treatment.
Researchers at New York University have recently found evidence psilocybin reduces anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Their effects are also being studied at Johns Hopkins University.
And researchers from the University of Toronto and York University say a recent study of microdosing psychedelics found users had healthier scores on key mental health and well-being measures such as wisdom, open-mindedness and creativity.
However, “shrooms” remain illegal in Canada under Schedule III of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and Health Canada cautions that the various studies into their effects rely on clinically administered, purified active ingredients.
Health Canada notes there are currently no approved therapeutic products containing psilocybin in Canada.