B.C. doctors now able to access MDMA, magic mushrooms for the seriously ill

Ottawa restored doctors' ability to request access to psilocybin and MDMA this month after 8 years of excluding the non-market prescriptions.

Sarah Grochowski 4 minute read January 18, 2022

Abbotsford resident Laurie Brooks is one of four Canadians granted legal access to psilocybin, a psychedelic drug derived from mushrooms, to treat end of life anxiety. jpg

Seriously ill patients who have exhausted conventional treatments for their mental health now have a new, legal option — psychedelics.

The federal government restored doctors’ ability to request access to psilocybin and MDMA this month after eight years of excluding the non-market prescriptions through Health Canada’s Special Access Program.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” says Dr. Evan Wood, a clinician-scientist from the B.C. Centre for Substance Use and chief medical officer at Numinus Wellness, a Vancouver centre evaluating psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies.

Ottawa’s decision to reverse changes it made to the Food and Drug and Narcotic Control regulations in 2013 went into effect on Jan. 5. Doctors’ requests for the drugs are now being considered on a case-by-case basis.

Wood says several of his colleagues in B.C.’s medical field are seeking access to such drugs on behalf of patients suffering from treatment-resistant illnesses by submitting an application to Health Canada.

Previously, patients were accessing psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy through clinical trials or Sec. 56 exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Obtaining an exemption, however, which is granted by Canada’s health minister, can take months.

Special access requests will have a quicker response rate — a matter of days — and there is no waitlist, although the drug must be distributed in a clinical setting.

TheraPsil, a non-profit organization in Victoria that advocates for Canadians in need of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, has so far helped 55 patients get Sec. 56 exemptions for psilocybin or MDMA prescriptions since August 2020.

Dave Phillips, a registered clinical counsellor with TheraPsil who conducts psychedelic-assisted therapy, is concerned that doctors becoming a gateway to the drugs could lead to less-successful patient outcomes.

“Doctors should be working alongside therapists as during the studies which saw breakthrough treatment success,” Phillips said.

The policy amendment recognizes a growing body of research that shows the efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to treat a broad range of mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2020 clinical trial involving 90 adults with chronic PTSD for an average of 14 years, including some at B.C.’s own Centre for Disease Control, found that MDMA-assisted treatment reduced the severity of 88 per cent of the participants’ symptoms.

Of the 46 patients who underwent the three MDMA-assisted therapy sessions with a counsellor, 67 per cent no longer met the criteria for PTSD, according to the study published in Nature Medicine.

Therapeutic treatment consists of a patient setting an intention for each session before ingesting five or so grams of dried mushroom, containing 25 milligrams of psilocybin, in a comfortable setting with their eyes covered by shades.

For patients with terminal diagnoses, Phillips said he asks them: “How do you want to spend the rest of your time alive?”

“What we’re seeing is patients’ default thinking brain steps aside to reveal their unconscious,” said Phillips. “People are able to resolve decades-old trauma and fear and are seeing long-lasting gains during psychedelic-assisted treatment.”

For Abbotsford patient Laurie Brooks, who is battling a terminal cancer diagnosis, the answer dawned upon her after her first session with Phillips after a legal dose of psilocybin she got through a Sec. 56 exemption.

“For me, the mushrooms took the anxiety out of cancer. It changed my perspective to see that the disease is not my entire life,” the 53-year-old said.

She hopes the policy amendment will allow more people to access legal doses of psychedelics through a doctor, instead of the lengthy process of applying for a federal exemption to existing drug laws.

“I had to write all these letters telling the government why I needed the drugs while doing chemo. It was exhausting,” Brooks said.

Health Canada has stated “the proposed regulatory amendments do not signal any intent toward the decriminalization or legalization of restricted drugs, and they are not intended to create large-scale access to restricted drugs.”

“The SAP is a science-based program that only grants access to an unapproved drug where scientific evidence is available to support the potentially effective and safe use of the drug for the treatment of the underlying medical condition,” it said in July.

The exemption may also be suspended at any time by the health minister if it is deemed necessary to protect public health or safety.

sgrochowski@postmedia.com

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