Canada grants first legal exemptions for psilocybin use in 50 years
After waiting more than 100 days for a response, four terminally ill cancer patients have now been approved to use psilocybin to treat end-of-life distress. These patients will be the first to legally use the psychedelic in Canada for almost half a century following the country’s health minister granting them a unique special exemption.
This landmark approval was years in the making, spearheaded by non-profit advocacy group TheraPsil. Bruce Tobin, clinical psychologist and founder of TheraPsil, first began pushing for psilocybin-use exemptions in Canada back in 2016 after learning of the extraordinary results psychedelic psychotherapy was having in helping palliative care patients deal with end-of-life anxiety.
Initially Tobin applied for a unique status exemption to allow him to possess and administer psilocybin to palliative care patients. The exemption hinged on a highly specific clause in Canada’s Controlled Drug and Substances Act. Section 56 (1) states, the country’s health minister can allow the use of a controlled substance if that use is “necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”
After three years of dialogue with government authorities Tobin’s initial application was rejected. At the beginning of 2020 the government’s rejection to the Tobin's application stated, “there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate the medical need for psilocybin."
Establishing TheraPsil in 2019, Tobin moved to supporting individual patients applying for their own Section 56 (1) exemptions. After waiting more than three months for a response, Canada’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu finally granted exemptions to four patients, marking the first legal exemption for psilocybin use, outside of a clinical trial, since the substance was deemed illegal in 1974.
“We would like to extend our incredible gratitude to the Honorable Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu, and to our government,” says Tobin in a response to the milestone exemption. “Although it has taken a long time we are impressed with their willingness to listen to patients who have not been heard and to shift focus and policy to accommodate their interests and protect their needs.”
Laurie Brooks, one of the four patients applying for a special exemption, played a very public role in campaigning for psilocybin access over the past few months. Brooks, a mother of four, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2018. She endured multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments but her condition is still classified as terminal.
Her first encounter with the potential of psilocybin as therapy came from a documentary she watched that followed a number of therapists who administer psychedelic psychotherapy. Brooks says a segment in the documentary, showing a cancer patient receiving the therapy for end-of-life distress, affected her profoundly.
“[The cancer patient] looked so peaceful … that’s what I want because I don’t feel that right now,” Brooks says. “I’m so scared and angry, I feel guilty and ashamed that I’m putting my family through this.”
Brooks, and the three other patients, will now be allowed to legally undergo psilocybin psychotherapy. However, the special exemption still comes with plenty of caveats and limitations. While TheraPsil does facilitate connections between patients and therapists who are able to conduct the psychotherapy sessions, access to psilocybin is still strictly prohibited.
One of TheraPsil’s key criteria for patients it will support is the individual patient must have their own access to psilocybin. TheraPsil does not offer any access to the drug, only support in submitting exemption applications, and connecting patients with therapists who can legally conduct psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Now the precedent has been established TheraPsil anticipates more exemption applications will be submitted for this particular treatment outcome. TheraPsil is also working to obtain special exemptions that would allow therapists access to psilocybin for professional training purposes.
“The acknowledgement of the pain and anxiety that I have been suffering with means a lot to me, and I am feeling quite emotional today as a result,” says Brooks. “I hope this is just the beginning and that soon all Canadians will be able to access psilocybin, for therapeutic use, to help with the pain they are experiencing, without having to petition the government for months to gain permission.”