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Terminal cancer patient renews call for psilocybin access amid Winnipeg magic mushroom shop bust

Janis Hughes, 66, was denied access to psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — in recent years because the federal government changed rules for therapeutic access in January 2022. Health Canada used to make exemptions for individuals to access the drug for medical purposes.  (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)
Janis Hughes, 66, was denied access to psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — in recent years because the federal government changed rules for therapeutic access in January 2022. Health Canada used to make exemptions for individuals to access the drug for medical purposes. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)

The active component in magic mushrooms helped give Janis Hughes, 66, a new outlook on life as she prepares for death — a benefit the Stage 4 breast cancer patient wants others who are suffering to experience in a safe way.

Psilocybin eased the weight of depression and anxiety the Winnipeg woman faced after receiving her diagnosis, and Hughes said she wants more people to have access to safe versions of it.

"I no longer fear dying which is an enormous gift because I am now able to fully enjoy life however much time I have left," said Hughes. "It did more then end the end-of-life anxiety: It has been liberating and helped more resolve childhood trauma. It's been phenomenal."

Hughes said she achieved that relief through just two guided therapeutic psilocybin sessions, which she accessed through illegal channels after Health Canada rejected her request for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.

Hughes is among a growing number of Canadians and health-care professionals calling on the federal government to decriminalize or legalize and regulate the substance as illegal retail shops continue to open.

On Friday, Winnipeg police raided a magic mushroom dispensary in the Osborne Village neighbourhood. It was one of several that have opened across Canada over the past year or more.

Bryce Hoye/CBC
Bryce Hoye/CBC

Hughes sees parallels to the route cannabis took when several businesses opened and sold products illegally for a time before legalization.

"I do see this as one of those elements that's going to help push this forward, but I do regret that there are people that may be hurt in the process, and that bad press may result that undermines the whole movement," she said.

"But I do endorse people making ... the natural substance available."

For over a year, magic mushroom dispensaries have been operating opening in Vancouver. B.C. obtained a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act last a year ago that decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

That largely came in response to calls from harm reduction advocates amid a worsening drug poisoning and fatal overdose crisis in recent years, as toxic concoctions including opioids were one of the leading cause of such deaths.

Psilocybin remains illegal under the CDSA except in cases where exempted by Health Canada.

'Matter of time': lawyer

Paul Lewin, a cannabis and psychedelics lawyer based in Toronto, said he represents some of the Canadian magic mushroom stores that have been busted by police.

Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC
Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC

He feels mushrooms, which contain psilocybin and psilocin, remain illegal as a remnant of "the failed drug war."

"I'm sure the recreational use by adults is coming, it's just a matter of time," Lewin said. "The law is on the books so it's hard to blame the police.... I blame politicians."

That illegal retail stores are opening up in Canada is reflective of barriers to medical access and a form of civil disobedience that suggests the public isn't happy with the state of the law, Lewin said.

Though federal approvals have been so far limited in Canada, there is some research suggests magic mushrooms can help with a variety of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.

CBC/Radio-Canada
CBC/Radio-Canada

Andrew Ross, who spoke to Radio-Canada outside Winnipeg's closed store Saturday, said making magic mushrooms available is a good idea in principle, though it's important it be regulated so people know the source and have the right information.

"I'm not against having it, but I think there's a few more steps to go before we get there," said Ross.

More than 100 health-care professionals filed a judicial review in Federal Court in 2022 challenging the federal health minister's decision that year to reject their application to use restricted psychedelics for experiential training, for the purpose of then providing psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to patients.

Hughes is also a plaintiff in a Charter case in Federal Court seeking to provide access to patients to psilocybin through a regulated system.

Hughes applied through Health Canada for access to a trained therapist in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy about 16 months ago. Doctors suggested at the time she had about two years left.

Richard Vogel/The Associated Press
Richard Vogel/The Associated Press

After not hearing back, she applied again to Health Canada about a year ago. Health Canada recently notified her of its intent to reject her initial application, said Hughes.

"They insist it's for my safety and the safety of the general public, which I find absurd," she said. "I am a terminal patient with a near-term expiry date."

She decided she couldn't afford to keep waiting on Health Canada.

Hughes then had two psilocybin-assisted therapy sessions with a Winnipeg therapist outside of the legal avenues, and said it cured her of her end-of-life anxiety and depression.

"There are people who have died while waiting for approval and I am very sorry for them," she said.

"The only danger from this medicine is using it irresponsibly and I have to say, Health Canada and its persistence in keeping this natural substance illegal, with all these dispensaries opening up across the country without adequate education, people are liable to get in accidents."