One of Vancouver’s classier magic mushroom dispensaries looks like a wellness boutique: clean white script on green signage above a window showcasing potted plants and teak furniture. Across downtown, a broken overhead sign and frosted windows make up the conspicuously inconspicuous façade of a dark cubbyhole beside a parkade that sells the illicit fungus and the various products derived from its hallucinogenic compound, psilocybin.
The most brazen of these shops, located about a five-minute walk from the central intersection of the Downtown Eastside, advertises in large block letters that it sells magic mushrooms; coca leaf; kratom (a stimulant extracted from the leaves of a Southeast Asian evergreen tree); peyote (a cactus that contains the hallucinogen mescaline); LSD (commonly known as acid); and DMT (a mind-altering ingredient found in plants or produced synthetically in the form of a powder).
The owners of the roughly nine stores that have opened over the past two years and remain selling in Vancouver are using many of the same tactics employed by shops that sold cannabis well before the plant was legalized in 2018.
The latest federal drugs and alcohol survey found less than 2 per cent of Canadians 15 and older used psilocybin products compared to the fifth that consumed cannabis in 2019. But these shops’ operators are capitalizing on the growing popularity of the drug while banking on the indifference of the public and on police forces being more focused on the deadly crisis of poisoned opioids and other “hard” drugs.
Advocates for the regulation of mushrooms are using storefronts to try to open a legal loophole from the pot-shop playbook: They argue they are providing patients with crucial access to a drug that is nearly impossible to get legally despite Health Canada approving its use for some medical cases.
Stores in Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa have also sprung up.
Jordan Armstrong says The Golden Teacher dispensary opened about a 10-minute walk from Parliament Hill in December, 2021, because Vancouver’s shops were being left alone by police.
“It was more or less a direct reaction,” Mr. Armstrong said of the store he runs.
On weekdays, he says, about 20 customers a day stroll through and that swells to 50 on weekends. So far, he believes there is an unspoken detente between these dispensaries and the Ottawa police.
“We’re in a similar position as Vancouver, where as long as the shops are being responsible with how they recommend and sell these products to their customers, we’ll be left alone,” said Mr. Armstrong, a former bartender who said he was drawn to the business after magic mushrooms helped him stop abusing alcohol, cocaine and ADHD pills.
Toronto police could not say whether they had raided any of the handful of shops in the city, but a spokesperson said last year the force arrested 47 people and seven this year with charges related to psilocybin and other illegal psychedelics such as acid or DMT.
Ottawa police said there have been no investigations into the three or so stores in that city, but the department will continue to review and assess any complaints about drug sales it receives to determine whether enforcement is necessary.
Constable Tania Visintin, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said magic mushroom sales are not a priority for her force, unless the people selling them are gangsters or are using violence while plying their trade.
“Given the scale of the overdose crisis, which, tragically, saw a record number of deaths occur in Vancouver last year, we focus our efforts on people and organized crime groups that are doing the most harm by importing, manufacturing and trafficking (at a high-level) toxic substances,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
That has left the City of Vancouver to grapple with the problem under its bylaws. City lawyers were in court earlier this month with the Coca Leaf Café – which also does business as the Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary – and its employee for abusing its business licence as a limited food service establishment to sell psilocybin.
Jack Lloyd, co-counsel for the defendants, said he plans to argue that as long as the café isn’t selling alcohol then it should be allowed to sell substances other than its coffees and sandwiches. Any regulation of psilocybin sales, Mr. Lloyd argues, is not the jurisdiction of the city prosecutors but their federal counterparts, who enforce Canada’s drug laws.
Zach Walsh, a professor of psychology at the University of B.C. and a researcher with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said randomized control trials have shown psilocybin to be effective for treatment-resistant depression and addiction if paired with a lot of psychotherapy. There is some evidence, though decidedly less strong, that people are seeing some benefits to using the psychedelic in their personal lives, even if it is “very hard to get an accurate dose” of the dried mushrooms compared to the synthetic form given in trials, Prof. Walsh said.
So far, the federal government has heavily restricted access, with a spokesperson for Health Canada saying 172 patients and health care workers have been granted access over the past three years. These patients have often taken the drug as a way to deal with anxiety and depression brought on by a terminal illness.
Health Canada has stated that magic mushrooms do not usually lead to addiction, but a user may experience anxiety, fear, nausea and muscle twitches when they take the drug. Since last year, the department has also greenlit 21 clinical trials investigating psilocybin, it said in a statement.
Mr. Lloyd is also on a team representing several terminally ill people engaged in a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge of Health Canada’s current program for psilocybin access, over its lengthy delays, with hearings continuing last week. Mr. Lloyd said mushroom dispensaries arguably provide the drug to patients who can’t navigate Health Canada’s various requirements for a legal exemption, such as having a doctor willing to accept a delivery of synthetic psilocybin from a licensed dealer.
“They are forcing dying people to choose between complying with the law and dying without relief,” said Mr. Lloyd, who edited the book The Psilocybin Mushroom Bible: The Definitive Guide to Growing and Using Magic Mushrooms.
While authorities debate if and how to stop the sale of the illicit substance in storefronts, the market may ultimately provide the best curb in the growth of such establishments. Mr. Lloyd said half a dozen mushroom dispensaries have already opened and closed in downtown Vancouver during the pandemic owing to low or no profits. Whereas the average cannabis store will have a number of the same customers come in every day or two to buy more product, the average psilocybin user only buys a little every several months, said Mr. Lloyd.
In a recent phone interview, Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Solicitor-General and Minister of Public Safety, said that these mushroom dispensaries should be denied business licences of any kind and be shut down immediately.
“That’s just the way it is right now. That’s the law,” he said.
In 2019, Vancouver city council rejected a councillor’s motion calling on bureaucrats to work with police and public-health officials to crack down on any businesses selling psilocybin and psilocin, the hallucinogenic compound that our bodies metabolize from magic mushrooms that is also isolated and some times sold in various products.
The City of Vancouver recently said it could not provide a tally of how many of these mushroom dispensaries are operating nor how many are facing enforcement from its bylaw officers. Sarah Hicks, its chief licence inspector, said in a statement they account for a “relatively low number of bylaw violations.”
Ms. Hicks said selling psilocybin is illegal under all federal, provincial and municipal laws and – if someone complains about a store – the operator would be subject to orders, fines or prosecution for operating without a valid business licence.
Mayor Ken Sim declined an interview request about the issue, but his director of communications sent a statement saying these dispensaries are not permitted to operate and council has no plans to pass any bylaws regulating them.
“The sale of illicit substances fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government,” the statement said.
Dana Larsen, the owner of the Coca Leaf Café, is nonplussed by his current legal battle with the city.
Mr. Larsen, who is a long-time organizer of Vancouver’s 4/20 cannabis events, continues to fight $150,000 in fines levied against him by the provincial Community Safety Unit after it raided his still-illicit cannabis dispensary in 2019.
Mr. Larsen said he and many other mushroom dispensary owners are prepared to weather any enforcement in court and – if they are ever raided – by restocking and reopening as soon as possible.
“I expect in the next year we’re going to see probably two dozen of these shops opened in Vancouver, hopefully there is a dozen in Toronto and another dozen scattered across the rest of the country,” said Mr. Larsen, who opened his second mushroom dispensary last week on Vancouver’s busy Broadway thoroughfare.
“Our council is very pro-police and pro-law and order, but not one of them have I heard saying ‘We got to shut down these mushroom shops.’”