Alberta man with terminal cancer approved for psychedelic-assisted therapy

In this Friday, May 24, 2019 photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
In this Friday, May 24, 2019 photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

An Alberta man with terminal cancer will legally be able to access psychedelic-assisted therapy, thanks to an exemption from Health Canada.

Anthony White is the first person in Alberta to be granted permission to undergo psilocybin-assisted treatment. The move comes as a result of a legal exemption from the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act, granted by the Office of Controlled Substances at Health Canada. Under the act, psilocybin is considered a Schedule III drug, which covers amphetamines and hallucinogens. Psilocybin is the active ingredient in what is commonly referred to as “magic mushrooms”.

White, who is a father in his forties, will receive the therapy through the SYNTAC institute, a Calgary-based non-profit that provides emerging therapy to Canadians.

"Facing this devastating prognosis has been incredibly difficult, but I am grateful I can soon gain some comfort and relief through this promising therapy,” he said in a statement.

Research into psychedelic-assisted therapeutic treatments appear to have encouraging results on patients suffering from mental and emotional health challenges, such as end-of-life distress, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

David Harder, executive director of SYNTAC Institute in Calgary, said in a statement that this type of therapy will be “a huge part of the solution” for Canadians who are struggling, particularly with the extreme challenges faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

First step towards selective decriminalization

Toronto-based lawyer Jordan Donich explains that Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act provides a legal exemption if “the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”

He says White’s case is a good step towards overall selective decriminalization of drug use in Canada as it proves the underlying flexibility of the law for the right purpose.

“Mr. White didn’t no anything wrong or deserve his present circumstances, so it’s refreshing to see the law recognize that relatively quickly,” he tell Yahoo Canada. “If a person can receive therapeutic benefits from an otherwise elicit substance in a regulated setting, why not? These are the very same people who would likely continue to unjustifiably suffer or just find the substance illegally.”

White isn’t the first to be granted such an exception in Canada. In August, four patients with terminal illnesses were granted similar exemptions. It was the first time psilocybin was made legally accessible since it became illegal in 1974. They were treated at Therapsil, a Victoria-based clinic that administers therapeutic psilocybin to patients experiencing end-of-life distress.

In July 2019, Vancouver-based activist Dana Larsen launched the Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary. The online dispensary offers microdoses of psilocybin for therapeutic use, in 25 ml, 50 ml and 100 ml doses — about five to 10 per cent of what a user would take if they wanted to experience hallucinations.

In Toronto, a clinic called Field Trip offers ketamine-enhanced psychotherapies to help combat mental health issues. It also has locations in New York, L.A., Chicago and Amsterdam.

Donich explains that this legal use of ketamine could be granted under Section 56(1), in certain circumstances.

“It appears an expectation can be granted where the patient is otherwise treatment resistant to other alternatives,” he says. “The legislation functions as a gatekeeper to new drug use in treatment settings, so it doesn’t mean all drugs are legal for anyone.”

There also appears to be good safeguards in place for patients, including medical referrals and evidence of treatment resistance to conventional therapies.

“As long as new drug use falls within Section 56(1), we can expect a growing number of new substances coming to market,” says Donich.