After being told she only had two years to live in 2021, Janis Hughes, a stage-four breast cancer patient, said she entered a state of emotional paralysis, unable to think of anything but death.
But that fear of dying vanished after Hughes, 66, tried psilocybin therapy, where a patient consumes psilocybin — the psychoactive ingredient in what are commonly known as “magic mushrooms” — under the supervision of a specially trained therapist.
“I am living more fully than I ever have in my life,” she said.
However, despite her best efforts, the only way Hughes could access psilocybin therapy was by breaking the law.
Although shops hawking magic mushrooms are popping up across Canada, the substance remains illegal. After starting to approve legal exemptions for dozens of terminally ill patients in 2020, critics say the federal government has since restricted access to the psychedelic treatment.
“I am just dismayed that my government would rather I live with the end-of-life anxiety, or just stop that entirely by taking MAID (medical assistance in dying),” said Hughes. “It feels cruel, thoughtless — just the opposite of empathetic.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the minister of Mental Health and Addictions said Tuesday that “Health Canada is aware of increasing interest in the potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin.
“However, at this time, there are no approved therapeutic products containing magic mushrooms or psilocybin in Canada or elsewhere.”
As Canadians debate whether those suffering from severe mental health challenges should be eligible for MAID, Hughes and other advocates view psilocybin therapy as a viable alternative for people facing end-of-life despair or other mental struggles.
Earlier this month, the federal government announced plans to delay an expansion of MAID that would include individuals suffering solely from mental health anguish by one year, to March 17, 2024.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Hughes and others, including MPs from the NDP and Green Party, called on the federal government to ease medical access to psilocybin therapy.
“We should never find ourselves in a situation where we’ve made it easier for a patient to access MAID than to access psilocybin,” said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
In the summer of 2020, Health Canada started approving psilocybin therapy for terminally ill patients through a Section 56(1) exemption of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Patients could also access psilocybin therapy through a clinical trial, although they’re relatively rare in Canada.
In January 2022, the government changed the process to apply for legal access to the psychedelic therapy by adding psilocybin to a list of drugs not yet approved in Canada that are regulated by the so-called Special Access Program (SAP). The SAP has traditionally been used in emergency cases to access rare medications like cancer drugs.
Now, patients must find a doctor willing to apply to SAP to prescribe psilocybin to them. When Hughes explained to Health Canada that she couldn’t find a doctor who would, she was told to reapply for a Section 56 (1) exemption. She did, but said she hasn’t heard back.
This past summer, Hughes, along with six other patients and a health-care practitioner, filed a legal challenge against the Canadian government and federal minister of health, alleging that the inaccessibility of psilocybin therapy violated Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to life, liberty and security of the person.
Dr. Valorie Masuda, a palliative-care physician from B.C. who appeared in Ottawa on Tuesday, called psilocybin therapy a “valuable, essential tool for palliative care.”
Over the past couple of years, she said she’s treated close to 25 patients using this method, with a 75 to 80 per cent success rate in reducing existential distress, depression and anxiety.
However, this past summer, she said the SAP informed her she could no longer access psilocybin for her patients because, she alleges, she was “treating too many people.”
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