Shrooms Helped Them Quit Booze and Fentanyl. Now They’re Fighting for Legal Access.

Canadians are suing the federal government for medical access to psychedelic mushrooms.
A man grinds psilocybin mushrooms dose at his home in Westminster, Colorado on Tuesday, August 22, 2023.
A man grinds psilocybin mushrooms dose at his home in Westminster, Colorado on Tuesday, August 22, 2023.  (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via G

When Jesse Merks took a large dose of magic mushrooms in December 2021, he didn’t think he had much to lose—or much longer to live. 

At the time Merks, 28, was living in Vancouver and had just finished a detox from opioids, a process he’s gone through  “probably 100 times in my life” after becoming addicted to pain pills as a teenager. Many of his friends were dying of overdoses due to the increasingly toxic drug supply. 


So when he learned that an addictions counselor he knew was working in psilocbyin-assisted therapy, he reached out to ask if he could get involved (psilocybin is the psychoactive ingredient in shrooms.) Shrooms are a controlled substance in Canada, so the counselor applied for Merks to receive an exemption to be able to legally take the drug—something that’s been granted for people with “life-threatening conditions.” But Merks didn’t receive a response for 10 months, and ultimately was rejected because the government said there wasn’t enough research to prove psychedelics are safe and effective for substance use disorders, he told VICE News. 

Instead he turned to an underground provider and, after several therapy sessions, received five grams in a supervised setting.

“That was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” he said. “I literally sat there for six hours with my eyes closed, meditating, with tears streaming down my eyes.” 

Afterwards, he stayed off drugs for nearly a year—the longest he’s been off opioids since he got addicted to hydromorphone at age 18, eventually switching to heroin and then fentanyl. 

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He moved to Toronto in the summer and got a job building as a welder, working over 60 hours a week. Then he moved to Edmonton and started using drugs again in late summer of 2022. Now he’s back in Vancouver, living in a recovery home after having just completed another detox stint. 


“I can’t stand being an addict, but I'm fucking constantly relapsing,” Merks said. 

Merks would like to do psilocybin-assisted therapy again, but he’s frustrated that there’s no legal way for him to access it. And even if he could, psilocybin therapy isn’t covered by insurance and private sessions can cost thousands of dollars. In contrast, opioid addiction treatments like methadone are covered, but Merks doesn’t want to use methadone anymore because he’s been addicted to it in the past. 

Now, Merks is one of a handful of Canadians suing the federal government as part of a constitutional challenge that argues people have a right to use psilocybin for medical reasons. The lawsuit comes as patients—including people addicted to drugs—advocates, doctors, and therapists told VICE News that the current pathways to legally access magic mushrooms are opaque, cumbersome, and riddled with delays. It is being funded by Therapsil, a non-profit that helps patients apply for exemptions to access psychedelics and is training therapists on how to administer the drug. 

“None of these Flawed Exemptions/Authorizations are practical or timely for patients suffering from serious health conditions,” the lawsuit says. “They do not adequately serve the needs of patients. They do not provide constitutionally viable access to psilocybin and therefore fail to rectify the infringement on patients’ rights.” 

Meanwhile, the Canadian government is expanding eligibility for medical assistance in dying (MAID) next March to allow people whose sole condition is a mental illness, including substance use disorders, to be assessed (they would not automatically qualify). In February, a Special Joint Committee on MAID recommended Health Canada, a federal government agency, review its Special Access Program, through which people are applying for access to psychedelics, to “determine whether there are ways to improve access to promising therapies, such as psilocybin, for both research purposes and for individual use as part of palliative care supports.”


Health Canada said its Special Access Program was updated in January 2022 to allow healthcare practitioners to request access to restricted drugs like psilocybin for patients “with serious or life-threatening conditions, when conventional therapies have failed, are unsuitable or are unavailable in Canada.” 

“The (Special Access Program) is not intended to encourage the early use of unauthorized drugs, such as psilocybin, nor is it meant to be used as a means of circumventing clinical development or the established drug review and approval process. It is through clinical trials that needed evidence will be generated, which could eventually lead to the authorization in Canada of psilocybin as a prescription drug that could be administered in combination with psychotherapy as part of palliative care support,” a Health Canada spokesperson told VICE News.

Psilocybin has been studied as a treatment for addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, end-of-life anxiety, and cluster headaches, with one analysis of these studies noting that the drug has shown “statistically significant benefits while also having fewer negative side effects than standard drugs.” 

The lawsuit against the Canadian government also states that magic mushrooms are safe, not addictive, and have virtually no risk of overdose. 


“In comparison to many of the pharmaceuticals readily available by prescription today, psilocybin is considered to be an exceedingly low-risk drug,” the lawsuit alleges. 

Merks feels the consequence of the government’s delay in responding to his exemption request is clear. 

“That's ridiculous for people to even try to ask for the government's permission when they're going to respond a year later after I've already overdosed on fentanyl and fucking died,” he said. 

“Every week I hear of a new person dying from this shit… And then they're not going to grant me access to a non-toxic, non-addictive substance that's clearly been shown to help people.” 

Alcohol addiction 

Ottawa resident Simon, 26, has also found relief from his alcoholism by doing psilocybin-therapy sessions. 

After finishing his first stint in rehab, he moved to Whistler and began drinking again—40 ounces of whiskey a day, only leaving his room in the mornings to go buy booze.  He went to rehab three more times and while he said he picked up useful tools each time, he ultimately would start drinking again.  

“I was drinking so much, I knew it could kill me. And it was like, if I don't wake up tomorrow, I won't be shocked,” said Simon, who did not want his last name used due to privacy concerns. 

Then he heard about Therapsil, through a friend, and with their help, applied to legally use shrooms through the Special Access Program. Months went by and he didn’t get a response, so he turned to a family friend who is also a federal politician to help. 


“He was able to come through for me and got me access,” he said, adding that he felt “incredibly lucky” to have someone pulling strings for him. 

Simon ended up doing three psilocybin sessions, each one costing $1,600 plus therapy. After the second one, he stayed sober for two months. His third session, in July, felt like “the most surreal experience I've ever had in my life.” 

“The music was going through each part of my brain, massaging out the pain and the hurt and the forgiveness that I hadn’t given myself,” he said. “I just felt this huge, huge relief and release.” 

A few days later, he had a drink, but didn’t get drunk. 

“After that, I was like, I'm done. Since then I haven't touched it, haven’t needed to, haven’t wanted to,” he said.

He’s since gotten a job in cybersecurity and said he’s doing “really well.” 

“It's changed my life completely.” 

However, he said he doesn’t think it’s fair that the government is denying many Canadians that same opportunity. 

“It makes me feel sad that they can't see the benefits of it when there are countless, countless studies that prove its benefits.” 

Health Canada ‘as strict as possible’ 

A Health Canada spokesperson told VICE News Special Access Program applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but the average response time is two days. 

The spokesperson also said the government has provided $3 million to fund three new clinical trials evaluating psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in Canada.


“Health Canada encourages pursuing a clinical trial. This includes the possibility of conducting a clinical trial for a single patient who is not eligible for access through (Special Access Program).” 

According to the lawsuit, however, there are several barriers to the Special Access Program, including that requirement that patients must be facing “serious or life-threatening conditions”—potentially excluding people with chronic conditions—and have exhausted other, potentially more harmful treatment avenues. 

It also requires the application be made by a healthcare practitioner who can prescribe drugs, e.g. a medical doctor. The lawsuit argues there’s a heavy burden placed on doctors, not only with the amount of paperwork they have to fill out, but because they then assume liability and responsibility for the use of the psilocybin. 

“This burden on physicians makes it more difficult for patients to find a physician willing to apply on their behalf,” the lawsuit argues. 

Dr. Houman Farzin, a palliative care physician at Montreal Jewish General Hospital, has treated five patients with psilocybin, accessed through the Special Access Program, and trained other doctors on how to do it. 

He said it’s a “heavy task” administratively and that applications essentially have to make sure they address every possible treatment out there. 

He believes Health Canada is making the process “as strict as possible.”


Farzin, who first became familiar with psychedelic therapy in his undergrad at University of California, Berkeley, said he feels comfortable taking on an advocate role for his patients. But he thinks the lack of education and stigma around psychedelics is in part what’s stopping other doctors from getting involved. 

“People don't know and what they do know is usually negatively biased because of the history,” he said, noting the first Quebec patient to get approval for psilocybin died before being treated because her oncologist was “adamantly against this treatment exactly for the reason of not having enough knowledge.” 

In Farzin’s case, he can provide the therapy that accompanies the treatments himself, but other physicians may not be trained in that, so they need to get a different practitioner to do it. 

“You have to trust someone else to do the therapy and if they screw up you’re sort of on the line,” he said. 

While he wants more people to be able to access this treatment, he said the government needs to have more fulsome regulations, training, and funding for treatment spaces. 

“We can’t just all of a sudden open the door without having the right systems in place for it,” he said. 

That said, his patients who’ve been treated with psilocybin have benefited, he said, and have experienced decreases in death anxiety and existential dread and more appreciation for life.

Merks is currently staying in a sober living home, which means he can’t do shrooms, even in an underground setting, in case he gets drug tested. 

But he said the fact that he “white knuckled” his way through sobriety for a year after just one flood dose makes him believe that with a proper support group and therapy, he could go even farther next time. 

He said he is fearful of what will happen if he starts using fentanyl—much of it contaminated with ultra potent benzodiazepines—again. More than 13,000 British Columbians have died of a drug overdose since 2016, when the province declared the crisis a public health emergency. 

“It’s such a nightmare trying to get off that shit. My whole generation is being wiped out.”