Growing up in a Christian family, Laurie Brooks was taught that if you behave yourself, you get to go to heaven.
But as she got older, and fell away from the church, that idea didn’t bring her much comfort.
Last August, Brooks, 53, was told she may only have six months to a year to live after her colon cancer returned. She wanted something to put her mind at ease. So she turned to psilocybin mushrooms.
“It’s scary when you have to face death,” she said, sitting next to her husband Glen in matching reclining chairs in their Abbotsford, B.C. apartment earlier this month. “I didn't want to live in anxiety about what’s coming next. I guess I just wanted a glimpse of something.”
Brooks got her glimpse—and then some—on a six-hour magic mushrooms trip facilitated by a good friend of hers, who is a therapist. Now she is one of four Canadians to be granted a precedent-setting exemption from the federal government, allowing her to possess and consume psilocybin.
“I wish that this was available for everybody because it was just such huge help for me. It changed everything for me,” Brooks said.
In Canada it is illegal to produce, possess, and sell psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms, which is listed on Schedule III of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The only exception is for approved research purposes.
Dr. Pamela Kryskow, a family physician who works in chronic pain and conducts research in psychedelic medicine, said mushrooms should never have been banned by the government.
Kryskow said the research around psychedelics was strong in the 1960s and 1970s, until the war on drugs and its propaganda campaign commenced.
But she said that ideology doesn’t hold up against evidence showing psilocybin has a very high safety profile (it’s not addictive)—and is safer than many legal substances, including alcohol, tobacco, and sugar.
“It’s nonsensical,” Kryskow said.
Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said the backlash against shrooms was rooted in a resistance to drugs that had Indigenous roots, or were seen as different from mainstream intoxicants like alcohol and tobacco.
“The criminalization was really caught up in that kind of movement in that resistance to this kind of change in the culture and of course had nothing to do with public health,” he said.
Unlike weed, psilocybin has never received that much buzz, Boyd said, likely because it’s not a drug that people do frequently. Much of the attention on it recently has focused on its therapeutic benefits.
Kryskow said psilocybin has been shown to help with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
A study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in January found that psilocybin use in patients with life-threatening cancer resulted in a reduction in anxiety, depression, and hopelessness for prolonged periods of time.
“What we hear time and time again is [people] feel so much more at peace with their life.
They connect more deeply with their family and friends. They’re able to focus on what really counts in their precious last days,” Kryskow said.
Brooks grew up on Vancouver Island, where magic mushrooms grow wild. But she never experimented with them growing up; she didn’t even dabble much in cannabis prior to getting sick.
But after her cancer came back, her therapist friend suggested trying psilocybin as a means of processing her feelings.
Prior to her trip, they did several prep sessions together, and he asked her to focus on the questions she wanted answered.
Brooks concentrated on letting go of being a “people pleaser”; what the afterlife might look like; and understanding on a deeper level the role that her family members and friends played in her life.
“If this is my last year or two on earth, I want my family to know who I am,” she said.
Brooks’ trip took place in October 2019 at her therapist friend’s house. After ingesting about three grams of shrooms, she lay down on a bed, wearing an eye mask and was given a six-hour playlist curated by a researcher from Johns Hopkins University.
Both her therapist friend and his wife, a nurse, stayed in the room in case she needed them.
Brooks described the trip as “waves”—at first she was overwhelmed with grief and sadness.
“I remember hearing this person just wailing and crying and I thought, who in the hell is that? And then I realized it was me,” she said.
She began to have visions relating to the concerns she’d meditated on. She saw herself being released from a jail cell, which she took to symbolize freedom from having to be “perfect” in other people’s eyes. She also came across a place that was “blue and warm and beautiful,” where she felt at peace—her glimpse of what comes after death.
And she envisioned herself travelling with her family, each of them doing small things that signified their place in her life. At one point, they were in a hut as her husband Glen was a lion pacing around outside, “making sure that everything was safe.” Their youngest son, who Brooks describes as a “teddy bear,” was “always laying beside me holding my right hand and crying with me.”
“Each time I visited each setting it got easier and easier,” Brooks said. “By the end of my trip I felt like I was just laying on a boat being gently rocked.” Immediately after, she felt lighter and noticed a pain in her left shoulder was gone.
Her husband Glen later did a trip of his own, where he said Brooks physically walked away from him. Up to that point, he said he had been agonizing over what his life will be like when she dies.
“I was able to really let go of her,” he said. “From that trip I saw that I will be fine and I will be able to survive this.”
Though Brooks described her trip as amazing, she said it was so intense, she’s in no hurry to do it again.
She said she’s lucky to have a friend who is a therapist to guide her through the process—but that other Canadians should be able to have similar guided trips. Currently, therapists could lose their licenses for offering such services.
When she found out about TheraPsil, a non-profit organization helping terminally ill Canadians get Section 56 exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, she offered to be an applicant.
TheraPsil founder Dr. Bruce Tobin, a B.C.-based psychotherapist, previously told VICE News that the exemptions granted to Brooks and others will “contribute a whole new class of pharmacological tools and resources to the profession.”
Kryskow said if a person is going to be reflecting on deep trauma during their trip, she would recommend seeing a therapist, who could help ask questions and integrate lessons learned.
“Why should you have to wait until end of life to feel better?” she said.
In May, Brooks had another surgery to remove her cancer. As of right now, she is cancer-free, though there is a high likelihood that it will come back, she said.
But that idea is no longer debilitating to her. She has taken up painting and is practising mindfulness. Some days, she doesn’t even think about cancer.
“We’re all dying. I’m dying. But it’s not today, so what am I going to do today?”