Are Psychedelic Drugs Canada the Next Wellness Trend? – The Kit

Would you do a ketamine-assisted therapy session? Ever considered microdosing “magic mushrooms”? As research mounts on the health benefits of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, ayahuasca, ketamine and mescaline—and government restrictions on them begin to ease—we’re taking a look at whether psychedelics are the next cannabis in our Psychedelics Now series.

It’s amazing the difference a few years makes. Remember when cannabis was mostly seen as a seedy street drug that belonged in stoners’ basements? Now, sleek storefronts sell slickly marketed CBD oils and edibles like fizzy drinks and gourmet chocolates purporting to do everything from improve your sex life to enhance your at-home movie night. So don’t be surprised if what comes to mind when you think of psychedelic drugs shifts just as much in the next few years. In cannabis’s wake, a movement to decriminalize and perhaps ultimately legalize psychedelic substances such as psilocybin (which is responsible for the psychedelic effect of “magic mushrooms”), ayahuasca and mescaline is gaining steam in Canada—with the focus, for now, on what they can do for our mental health.

The process is well on its way. In August, federal health minister Patty Hajdu granted four end-of-life patients exemptions from current drug laws to use psilocybin to help deal with the anxieties of their terminal illness. (Fifty-three-year-old Laurie Brooks, who has colon cancer, was one of them—read her story next in our Psychedelics Now series). Three more exemptions quickly followed, perhaps a harbinger of restrictions being eased.

We might see an even bigger shift on psychedelics’ status this fall: The government is currently considering a petition that calls for the decriminalization of psychedelic drugs, which was signed by 15,000 people and sponsored by a Green Party MP; a Liberal MP is also introducing a private members’ bill that aims to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. These efforts have been strongly supported by the Canadian Psychedelic Association, which aims to “usher psychedelics into the mainstream in a conscious and considered way.” “I feel more strongly than ever that decriminalization will happen,” says Trevor Millar, its executive director. “We’re 10 years ahead of where I thought we’d be at this stage of the game five years ago.”

An episode of Goop Lab on Netflix showed staffers travelling to Jamaica, where psilocybin is legal, and sampling it on-camera

Perhaps the main reason psychedelics are gaining public acceptance is because of the mounting clinical research showing their effectiveness at treating a range of mental health conditions, from PTSD and addiction to treatment-resistant depression and anxiety. There are studies out of Harvard and NYU, the University of British Columbia and University of Toronto. Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, often credited with kicking off the research renaissance in this area after its 2006 publication on psilocybin’s safety and long-lasting positive effects, is now studying its effectiveness as a therapy for even more conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease, anorexia nervosa and chronic Lyme disease.

While widespread acceptance of psychedelics’ therapeutic potential is fairly recent in North America, substances such as ayahuasca have long been used traditionally in many cultures, often as part of ceremonies guided by shamans. There’s a Western fascination with this practice and a tourism aspect, too: Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness-trend-hunting site, Goop, published a travel guide to psychedelic retreats in Peru, Mexico and the Netherlands, and recently an episode of Goop Lab on Netflix showed Goop staffers travelling to Jamaica, where psilocybin is legal, and sampling it on-camera. A Goop endorsement may not necessarily propel the case for psychedelics as either a sacred traditional ritual or an evidence-based mental health aid, but it certainly helps demystify them—and that’s something advocates are hoping for.

“Most people assume that psychedelics are not available because they’re dangerous or addicting and that’s fundamentally not the truth,” says Dr. Pamela Kryskow, a medical doctor in Vancouver who works in chronic pain, functional medicine and ketamine assisted psychotherapy. “All of these substances were available at one point as a medicine and they were moved out of public usage because of racism and political control reasons, not because of danger.” She’s referring to the fact that racialized communities are much more heavily penalized and controlled by drug laws, and the political “war on drugs” that saw to it that promising research on psychedelic medicine that began in the 1950s was halted by the mid 1970s. It has taken decades for psychedelics to rebuild their reputation.

“Being the generation that I am, mid Gen X, I had deeply absorbed all of the messaging of the war on drugs, which were messages of fear and control that I took to be true”

Kate Browning, a Vancouver psychotherapist and registered nurse who specialized in mental health and substance abuse, knows what it is to be suspicious of psychedelic drugs. “I was not interested in psychedelics at all before—being the generation that I am, mid Gen X, I had deeply absorbed all of the messaging of the war on drugs, which were messages of fear and control that I took to be true. So I did assume that these substances were dangerous, and when I learned otherwise it was a complete revelation.” Now, she’s among the many mental health professionals who want to see psychedelic substances widely available for therapeutic use. “We know that making things illegal, withholding information about them, increases the danger of them tremendously,” she says. “I want to see my psychotherapy patients who really need these medicines have them available to them without risk, without stigma, without secrecy and to just to have a higher quality of life.”

That quality of life could include not being dependent on medication long-term. “The psychiatric medicines that we use right now are considered lifelong, not curative,” says Kryskow. “We just don’t see that with a psychedelic medicine. It might be one, two or three sessions and that’s it.” In a therapeutic context, a patient would take a dose of a psychedelic substance such as psilocybin or ketamine with a trusted mental health professional who would help guide and support them through an hours-long “trip” to help them gain new insights or clarity into the emotions or traumas that underlie their issues. They’d then talk about their experience with the therapist to help “integrate” those insights into their life.

Psychedelics tend to be a more intense and unpredictable experience than cannabis, so they’re generally less frequently used and have less commercial potential. But cannabis legalization was similarly helped along by the discussion of its wellness benefits, because it’s easier to argue that people should have access to a drug to help ease their pain or anxiety. Taking a drug for recreational purposes is typically seen as criminalization-worthy, with one notable exception: alcohol. “Compared to alcohol, magic mushrooms are far less dangerous by multiple measures on the personal and societal level,” says Millar.

While there is still a lot we don’t know about psychedelics, the only way to remedy that is with more research, more funding and more openness. “I’d like to see a very robust research program across the country so that we can figure out what medicine should be used for what reason for what person,” says Kryskow. But she and other psychedelics advocates believe these substances are so safe that they should be available for non-medical purposes, too, like personal growth or simply pleasure. “I want us to have an adult conversation on how we can use these plants responsibly in our society to be happier, healthier and more creative.”

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