On August 4, Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu granted, by way of a Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, permission for four terminally-ill Canadians to consume psychedelic drugs. The decision comes after months of careful maneuvering by TheraPsil, a Canadian non-profit seeking to treat end-of-life distress with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Dr. Bruce Tobin, a B.C.-based psychotherapist and TheraPsil’s founder and chair, called the decision a game-changer. “It will contribute a whole new class of pharmacological tools and resources to the profession,” he said. “Those of us who have been veterans in the field of clinical psychology understand all too well that there's just a very wide range of patient cases that the state-of-the-art isn't up to treating very well.”
While the current exemption applies only to the approved patients seeking treatment for end-of-life anxiety and depression, TheraPsil’s ultimate goal is legalized clinical access to medical-grade psilocybin within Canada’s existing public healthcare framework.
“This is a very important step,” said Tobin. “But there will be other steps following this one.” Like cannabis—which also began its route to national legalization with a Section 56 exemption—the medical benefits of psychedelics form the thin end of the wedge, jimmying open a breach through which investment capital now gushes. As interest in psychedelics (and psilocybin especially) becomes increasingly fertile, magic mushrooms are enjoying a new life as a medical miracle drug. It’s anything from “the new cannabis,” to “the new Zoloft” to “the new kale,” depending who you ask, and what they are selling.
In August 2019, stock market speculators began calling psychedelics, “the next billion-dollar business.” In March 2020, Toronto-based neuropharmaceutical outfit MindMed made history as the world’s first, publicly traded psychedelics company. It comes on the heels of research studies and clinical trials suggesting that traditional psychedelics (mushrooms, LSD and, in some valuations, MDMA) have potential to radically develop our understanding of, and maybe even cure, sundry mental health issues ranging from anxiety to addiction to PTSD. In order to understand the breadth of the as-yet-unnamed psychedelic investment sprint—The Rainbow Rush? The Shroom Boom?—VICE News spoke with a number of emerging stakeholders, on what’s next for the magic mushroom business.
Ian McDonald, founder of Toronto-based biotech company Bright Minds Biosciences, is banking on the hope that psychedelics could bust cluster headaches—bouts of excruciating, often debilitating pain. (They’re sometimes called “suicide headaches,” and it’s not just a gnarly euphemism: those who suffer them take their own lives at a rate twenty-times the U.S. national average.)
Bright Minds’ scientists are fiddling with the psilocybin molecule, to streamline more efficient treatments. Where a longer “trip” sessions used in clinical settings run as long as eight or nine hours, McDonald believes new compounds could shrink that time down to a lean 60 minutes. “You could do it in a lunch hour,” he says. Such new derivatives are also patentable (sort of like certain strains of cannabis), meaning their exploitable as intellectual property.
Another new player concerned with protecting their IP is NeonMind, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Better Plant Sciences, whose profile includes a wealth of THC and CBD-infused health-and-wellness products, from hemp-infused face mists to good old fashioned smokable pot. Penny White, Better Plant’s President and CEO launched NeonMind in September of 2019, speculating that the new psychedelic renaissance may open up a new front in the timeless battle of the belt-line, eyeing a psychedelic weight management supplement. Mere hours after the TheraPsil decision was announced, NeonMind submitted their own application to Health Canada, seeking their own Section 56 legal exemption that would allow them to pursue preclinical trials.
Given the long history of weight-management solutions —an industry expected to be valued at about US$350 billion by 2025—of dubious efficacy, pitching magic mushrooms as a weight loss tool may raise an eyebrow. Dr. William Panenka, a neurologist and psychiatrist who sits on the chair of NeonMind’s Medical Advisory Board, admits that the research is in it exploratory phases, and that it’s still “super-premature to know what you’re going to get.” Yet there’s reason to be optimistic, given psilocybin’s effectiveness in treating addictive behaviour. A 2014 study conducted at Johns Hopkins University, an institution at the forefront of the current psychedelic renaissance, showed a positive correlation between high-dose psilocybin treatment and smoking cessation. “Weight loss is something I’ve talked about,” notes Hopkins’ professor Matthew Johnson, an author on the original smoking cessation study. “Any form of behaviour change, even broadly defined addictive behaviour beyond substances, I think there’s a credible argument to be made.”
So far, the most credible applications of psychedelic medicine appear in the therapeutic treatments foregrounded by groups like TheraPsil. In Oregon, voters will see statewide access to legalized psilocybin therapy as an item on the November ballot. The Yes On IP34 initiative is petitioning the Oregon Health Authority to create a licensing system that regulates the use of psilocybin by trained practitioners. The movement is spearheaded by Tom and Sheri Eckert, husband-and-wife therapists and founders of the Oregon Psilocybin Society. “Psilocybin therapy is not a panacea,” says Sheri, “but it’s pretty unique in its potential to address a spectrum of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and some addictions.”
While the focus of the IP34 initiative is broader than TheraPsil’s end-of-life applications, the Eckerts and their team have still put checks in place to prevent the full-blown, for-profit saleability of psychedelic medicine. “We put limits on commercialization and corporatization,” Eckert says. “We really want to see service providers in Oregon grounded in the community.”
Foregrounding communities—whether Oregon’s local community or the larger, wildly diverse global “psychedelic community”—seems to be a key value as this space expands. As in the cannabis market, carpetbaggers are eyed with extra degree of wariness, in part because many who toiled underground to develop that market (i.e. street dealers) were stigmatized or imprisoned in their pursuit of the same profits. Take the recent case of Canada’s former health minister, Tony Clement. A longtime opponent of safe injection sites, who vehemently questioned the ethics of making accessible “drugs that cannot otherwise be legally prescribed,” Clement recently joined the advisory board of Red Light Holland, an Ontario-based corporation growing and selling “magic truffles” (read: shrooms) in legal markets. (Clement joins other recent Red Light hires, including comedian Russell Peters (Chief Creative Officer) and radio jock Todd Shapiro (CEO). The announcement raised plenty of eyebrows.)
“I myself have never aspired to see a penny from this whole thing,” TheraPsil’s Tobin said. “I just have a very uncomfortable feeling that there are many entrepreneurs that see psilocybin as ‘the next big thing.’” He has been courted, he says, by the for-profit cannabis companies. And thus far, he has resisted their advances.
“We began as a humanitarian organization, and we're going to continue in that way,” Tobin explains. “There are so many people and organizations all around us that are like sharks circling for gain here, financial gain. We're just ignoring that and continuing steadfastly with our mission to deliver this to a very wide range of Canadians who need it.”
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Correction: A previous version said legalized psilocybin therapy may be on the Oregon state ballot this fall. It has been confirmed to be on the ballot.