A wave of studies say psychedelics can treat depression, end-of-life anxiety, addiction and more. So we asked experts when we'll be able to grow medicinal shrooms at home.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
It's 2017, and [in Canada] legal weed is on the way—close enough that you might even have your first non-criminal session planned out. If you're corny enough to imagine making history by sparking a joint on the steps of Parliament minutes after the paperwork is signed, it's worth remembering you won't be the first legal weed smoker in Canada.
Medical weed, and the right to grow it, has now been on the table for two decades, starting with an epileptic guy named Terrence Parker. After being charged with possession a bunch of times, Parker fought the government and won the right to be exempt from further growing and holding charges in 1997. An appeal court decided that exemption should apply to anyone growing for a medical purpose in 2000. Though regulations tried to outlaw homegrown medicinal bud again in 2013, that was struck down in court last year.
What we haven't had in Canada (yet) is a legally-sanctioned medical shroom grower. With a wave of recent studies suggesting psychedelics are an effective treatment for depression, end-of-life anxiety, addiction and more, that prospect doesn't seem as far fetched at it once did. As you can probably imagine, some fans are already looking at Canada's path to medical weed, and applying the same arguments to magic mushrooms. Will that take another 20 years to grow your own? Or is the legal precedent already set?
Twenty-three-year-old Spencer Allison is on precisely this trip. He's read much of the new research on psychedelic treatment for depression, as well as a few court decisions, and thinks it's just a matter of time before he can grow his own medical mushies. Allison's been bugging a bunch of bureaucrats at Health Canada for a new "section 56" exemption, just like Parker's in '97. So far, it's not going so well.
Allison says he found the Parker case on Wikipedia, and went to the Ontario Court of Appeals site to get a summary of the arguments. "I went through that, hit Ctrl-F, and just started changing every mention of epilepsy to depression, and found anything that applied to marijuana also worked for LSD and other psychedelics."
Allison thinks the very same argument will eventually force the government to let him legally grow at home. "I think it's just a matter of when, more or less." Given all the excitement (and caution) over psilocybin's medicinal possibilities, I decided to call a few science and legal experts to find out if Allison's optimism holds up to scrutiny.
When I called up Mark Haden of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, aka MAPS, he said weed and mushrooms are entirely different drugs, and their legalisation will probably be super different, too. Haden recently put out a paper that laid out how he thinks psychedelics should be regulated in Canada, including a new agency of government-licensed trip sitters.
"The path to legalisation of cannabis is completely different. The path to legalisation of cannabis has been political," he told VICE. According to Haden, because psychedelics don't have the same widespread popularity that weed does, we'll never see mushrooms on a ballot question in the states, or the right to micro-dose rolled into a major policy plank in Canada's next election.
But that doesn't necessarily mean legal shrooms is a long way off, says Haden. Because medicinal tripping is so niche, he says it is more likely to be handled like any other new treatment seeking government approval. "Basically it's called drug discovery, and any pharmaceutical company who has ever produced a prescription drug is going through the stages we're going through," he told VICE.
MAPS is actually in a third stage of clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy treatment for victims of trauma, something Haden says is on track to become a prescription by 2021. A second study into the effects of psychedelic mushrooms on depression is at about the same stage, with clinical trials showing promise.
"My understanding is they're on the same timeline that we're on," Haden told VICE. "When we finish our phase three study, we submit our data to Health Canada… and they look at it and say 'we approve.'"
If all goes well, Haden expects there will be separate certification for growing at home. Patients who get approval from their doctor would perhaps do a weekend training course, to get a basic understanding of setting, safety and dosage. But before we get there—he's guessing a four to five year timeline—Haden anticipates there'll be some resistance. For one, psychedelic treatment for depression would hurt the bottom line of any company in the anti-depressants market. But what pharmaceutical companies will do to protect those profits is still "up to speculation," according to Haden.
Just like with weed, a court challenge could force a decision on the issue. John Conroy was part of the legal team that helped strike down Canadian regulations that banned personal weed growing for medical purposes, and he sees some parallels to the case for psilocybin.
The fact that psychedelic mushrooms grow in the wild makes for a similarly interesting case, according to Conroy. He recalls a decade-old controversy over what to do when mushrooms showed up in farmer's fields. "I remember going to a meeting many years ago, when it was popular, and hearing people say 'So what am I supposed to do if the stuff grows wild in my fields? Do I have to smack 'em over the head?'"
But Conway says despite the legal parallels, he hasn't heard much interest in getting a challenge like that going. "To the best of my knowledge it would be similar to marijuana. You would need a doctor that's supportive," Conroy said, adding that there would probably need to be criminal charges brought against the mushroom grower. "Going into court, you could bring an Allard-type case forward."
When asked about obstacles, Conway said getting doctors on board to prescribe could be the hardest part. Most of them aren't into "whole plant" medicine, he said, and medical colleges have pushed back against marijuana policy reform.
But with weed setting the stage this year, both Haden and Conroy seemed to think mushrooms could follow a speedier path to home cultivation. Drawing comparison to other civil rights shifts, Haden sees an extended period of debate and protest leading up to several rapid changes in drug policy.
"When the balloon pops, it pops pretty darn quickly," he said. 'Cannabis was the first leaking of air out of the balloon."
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