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Advocates, MPs call on feds to expand access to psychedelic treatment

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OTTAWA -

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says she wants Canada to consider expanding access to psychedelic drugs as medical treatments.

On Tuesday, May and other MPs joined a delegation of patients and health-care practitioners who are trying to lobby the federal government to make psilocybin -- the psychedelic compound produced by magic mushrooms -- more readily available.

The group is calling on lawmakers to advance clinical trials to better understand how the substance could be used for medical treatment of some mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Psilocybin is listed under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and its medical use is restricted to people taking part in clinical trials or those who get an exemption.

"We need to do more research," May said at a news conference.

"But to get that research done, we need to make access available to patients whose doctors are there to help them with registered therapists who know how to administer psilocybin."

May said the federal government should expand access to psilocybin before Canada's assisted-dying laws are expanded to include eligibility for people whose sole underlying condition is a mental disorder. A Liberal bill to delay the expansion until March 2024 is expected to receive unanimous support in the House of Commons.

Over the next year, May said, Canada should "accelerate our research efforts" to see whether psilocybin can be used as a treatment for people who are suffering because of mental illness.

The Tuesday news conference was organized by TheraPsil, a non-profit organization that offers training to health-care practitioners and is working with patients to obtain psilocybin and combat the government's drug policy

Spencer Hawkswell, the group's CEO, said Ottawa should provide "compassionate access" to medicine that he says could be "life-affirming" for some patients.

"We encourage members of Parliament, the government and ministers to look at medical psilocybin access in the context of the Canadian health-care system," he said.

At the same time, TheraPsil is leading a legal challenge to fight the status of psilocybin in Federal Court.

Janis Hughes, a plaintiff in TheraPsil's court filings who has Stage 4 breast cancer, says she accessed psilocybin illegally for two "unsanctioned psilocybin trips" after she was unable to get a federal exemption.

The substance is sold recreationally at brick-and-mortar stores in major Canadian cities and online, though its sale remains illegal.

Hughes said the substance "completely altered" her frame of mind and "banished my fear of dying."

"I am living more fully than I ever have in my life," she said. "I am just dismayed that my government would rather I live with the end-of-life anxiety, or just opt out entirely."

Dr. Valorie Masuda, an assisted-dying assessor who has worked with terminally ill patients to seek exemptions for psilocybin, said the lack of funding for clinical trials makes it difficult for patients to access treatment outside the illegal market.

The government's lack of support also makes physicians hesitate to administer the drug, she said.

"This is a clinical decision by clinicians with experience and training. That's what we're asking for," she said.

A spokesperson for Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said in a written statement that the best way for patients to access psilocybin is through a clinical trial designed to ensure patient safety.

"Health Canada is aware of increasing interest in the potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin. However, at this time, there are no approved therapeutic products containing magic mushrooms or psilocybin in Canada or elsewhere," the statement said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2023.

Correction

This is a corrected story. A previous version stated that Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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