Canadian patients call for easier access to therapeutic psilocybin

Click to play video: 'Patients call for government to make therapeutic access to psilocybin easier'
Patients call for government to make therapeutic access to psilocybin easier
WATCH: Patients call for government to make therapeutic access to psilocybin easier – Jan 13, 2023

Living with terminal cancer, Thomas Hartle is thankful for every day he gets.

The Saskatoon native looks forward to his 55th birthday Sunday with happiness; but the last few years have not been easy for him.

The physical pain that comes with living with cancer is one thing, but knowing his fate means that Hartle also has to deal with severe emotional discomfort and anxiety.

“The idea that someday I may not be there for my family when they need me (is), for me, such a painful thought,” he told Global News.

The one thing that has helped him deal with the stress is being treated every few months with psilocybin – one of the active compounds in magic mushrooms.

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“It allows me to address some of the problems that are … what I would call an emotional hot potato.”

In 2020, Hartle became one of the first people in Canada to be granted a federal exemption to be treated with psilocybin.

It came directly from then-health minister Patty Hajdu. Though Hartle couldn’t access the drug himself, he was cleared to have a doctor use it on him in therapy.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia company to examine magic mushrooms as PTSD treatment'
Nova Scotia company to examine magic mushrooms as PTSD treatment

The exemption lasted 12 months and expired more than a year ago. He applied for an extension and says he has since been “met with a lot of radio silence.”

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Hartle says the federal government has instead moved from a strategy of allowing exemptions to focusing on clinical trials.

He says he has yet to hear from current Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos or from anyone at Health Canada.

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The agency did not reply to a Global News request for comment by deadline, but confirmed to The Canadian Press that requests from Hartle and hundreds of others are still up in the air. Health Canada’s website says that clinical trials are “showing promising results,” but that there are currently no approved therapeutics in Canada or elsewhere containing psilocybin.”

Meanwhile, just about anyone can get direct access to unregulated mushrooms and psilocybin products with little effort.

There are websites selling them; even brick-and-mortar stores have popped up, been raided by police, and opened right back up again.

It is all very reminiscent of the days before cannabis was legalised in Canada, and many feel it is only a matter of time before magic mushrooms follow suit.

Some researchers though, feel that process is moving along too fast. They argue that more studies need to be done on the psychological effects of therapeutic psilocybin.

“Cynically, I don’t think they’re going to wait the 10 to 20 years it takes us as scientists to get that story together,” said Norm Farb, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus.

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“I think in three to five years we’re going to start seeing things go what’s called off-label. Ketamine is already off-label. Your family doctor, they probably wouldn’t do it, but they technically could prescribe you ketamine if they wanted to. And so, we’re going to see that happen and most likely the harms will be settled through the courts rather than through some sort of research.”

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Evaluating the safety and efficacy of take home psilocybin'
Health Matters: Evaluating the safety and efficacy of take home psilocybin

Thomas Hartle doesn’t have 10 to 20 years and he knows psilocybin works for him. He just wants to be able to renew his doctor’s clearance to legally treat him.

He has been working with a group of medical professionals called TheraPsil, which launched a charter challenge last year calling on the federal government to grant psilocybin access to patients in need. Their legal submission to Health Canada suggests not doing so violates patients’ rights.

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So why not turn the tables and go the illegal route himself? Hartle knows it can be done easily enough, but he isn’t interested in unregulated treatment. While he casts no judgment on dispensaries and those who use them, he’d prefer to fight for his preferred approach.

“Why would we spend our time encouraging people to do the illegal things when people could be encouraging change in the law itself?”

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