Rebecca Crewe had mixed emotions the day she dropped her partner Tony White off at the ATMA Urban Journey Clinic in Calgary to undergo a psychedelic treatment that uses psilocybin, the “magical” ingredient found in some species of mushrooms.
She was nervous and more than a bit skeptical. Little was known about the experimental treatment that has only recently been made available to patients in Canada with terminal illnesses. But White, who was dying of Stage 4 cancer, was adamant. He was so doped up on pharmaceuticals (including fentanyl, oxycontin, hydromorphine, medicinal cannabis) that his quality of life was non-existent. Even with all the drugs he could still barely walk. “Tony felt he had nothing to lose,” Crewe says.
When she returned to pick him up after his five-hour treatment the changes she saw left her stunned. White was smiling, joking with his psychiatrist and staff. And, most shocking, he was bending down, walking around and moving with a fluidity she had not seen in months.
“He told me he couldn’t really describe what happened,” Crewe says. “All he knew was that he worked some things out and felt at peace. I wish some doctor could explain it.”
For the past few years, researchers at academic institutions such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., Imperial College London and New York University have been trying to do exactly that. They have been studying how psilocybin – a hallucinogen that works by activating serotonin receptors in the brain – affects mood, cognition and perception. So far, it shows promise in helping to alleviate a number of serious mental-health disorders, including acute depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.
“It’s still very early stages, but we believe psilocybin treatments can truly be an aid in helping society cope with the mental-health crisis,” says David Harder, chief executive officer of ATMA Journey Centers. “The medicine is not a panacea that will magically heal humanity, but in the right settings, these molecules can open our minds to changing our perspective on those things that hold us back.
“They can help us see our own self-limiting beliefs, trauma-related mental-health struggles, and relational tensions that bring us pain,” Harder says. “They truly are a paradigm shift in treatment, where rather than a pill you take for the rest of your life, it is a shift in perspective through one or two treatments that can change our view of reality, and bring about a life of purpose and joy.”
Within the past five years, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States has steadily granted breakthrough therapy status to drugs that were banned in the 1970s and 1980s, including MDMA (also known as ecstasy and molly), ketamine and psilocybin. In November, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, following in the footsteps of cities such as Denver, and California’s Oakland and Santa Cruz.
Currently, Health Canada has only approved psilocybin treatment for people in palliative care. However, a growing number of private companies (startups such as Numinus Wellness, Doseology Sciences and HAVN Life Sciences, all in British Columbia) and academic institutions (University of Toronto and University of British Columbia) are trying to convince government regulators that more money and time should be invested in researching how psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy might be used to unlock some of the mysteries of the human brain.
Dr. Evan Wood, chief medical officer at Numinus on Vancouver Island, says the societal costs of mental illness, addiction and trauma are much too high to ignore the potential breakthroughs that might be possible with psychedelic treatments. “With one in five Canadians currently grappling with debilitating mental-health conditions, we can’t afford not to look at psilocybin seriously,” Wood says, adding that mental illness is projected to cost the global economy US$16-trillion by 2030, according to a recent Lancet Commission report.
At Numinus, where they extract psychoactive compounds from plants and fungi, Wood says they are working toward a psilocybin-assisted therapy trial for patients with substance abuse disorders, as well as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
“There is a part of our brain called the default mode network that essentially enables us to function in our environment by decluttering the stimuli around us and quieting all the information coming into our senses. In depressed patients, and those with PTSD or substance abuse disorders, the default mode network is more active,” says Wood, a professor of medicine at UBC where he helps lead the university’s efforts in the area of addiction prevention and treatment.
“A session with psilocybin seems to disrupt this network, reset it and decrease its activity, thus alleviating the symptoms. The changes it appears to be bringing about with people are really profound. It gets at the root of what’s driving people to these mental disorders. Instead of giving them chemicals that numb those feelings, these treatments help you put that trauma behind you.”
Ronan Levy, co-founder of Field Trip Health, which operates eight psychedelic therapy centres in the world including two in Canada (Toronto and Fredericton; a third will open in Vancouver by the end of 2021) says demand in the last year has been robust. While in Canada they can only provide ketamine therapies at present, he expects both the Federal Drug Administration and Health Canada will approve psilocybin therapies in the next few years.
“I anticipate psychedelic-assisted therapies will rapidly become one of the most important treatment options for most commonly diagnosed mental-health conditions,” Levy says. “The evidence to their efficacy and safety is profound.”
This work is going on while all things fungi are experiencing a curious renaissance. The global mushroom market, excluding psilocybin mushrooms, is expected to be worth more than US$50-billion by 2025, according to the San Francisco-based market research firm Grand View Research. Mushrooms are showing up everywhere in the wellness sector, in coffees, teas, face serums, body lotions and supplements that claim to boost immunity, ease inflammation, improve cognition and relieve stress.
Dr. David Mokler, professor emeritus of pharmacology at the University of New England and an adviser to HAVN Life, says public demand for plant-based medicines is the catalyst driving some governments to slowly start lifting restrictions on psilocybin-based treatments.
“Depression is a life-threatening disorder. PTSD as well. Anxiety causes huge disruptions in people’s lives,” says Mokler, a specialist in neuropharmacology. “Drugs only benefit 40 to 60 per cent of patients with these disorders and there are still a significant portion of patients they have no impact on at all. If we can give them a drug safely like psilocybin, and it eases their suffering, which we’ve seen in many studies, then I am very excited about that. However, there is still so much we don’t know so it’s prudent to move forward with caution.”
Canada is taking baby steps toward allowing even limited use of psychedelic mushrooms – an approach that Dr. Pierre Blier, director of mood disorder research at the University of Ottawa, believes is wise. “The research done to date – by very reputable people in a very serious manner – is, however, still in very early stages.”
He warns that people need to be cautious. “Phase 3 trials are under way, but until we have blind proof of efficacy I would not recommend these treatments to my patients,” Blier says. “The danger is that people hear about these treatments and go buy mushrooms from illicit sources. Some mushrooms are toxic and I fear for their safety.”
For some people suffering from debilitating physical and mental illnesses, waiting is no longer an option. At the ATMA Urban Journey Centre, which opened last January, they have treated three clients so far, with three more in pretreatment psychotherapy.
White died 19 days after his appointment on Jan. 20, 2021, at the age of 46. However, the quality of life he enjoyed in his final days was a gift that Crewe believes all palliative patients should have access to.
“You have to understand how sick he was,” she says. “The day before Tony went into the centre he had a 50 milligram fentanyl patch on his arm and had to take eight bumps of the opioid to keep the pain at bay. After taking the mushroom, Tony’s patch was reduced to 12 mg and he never took another bump again.”
In the last few weeks of his life, Crewe says White found peace – he was happy. “The thing I find amazing is we had to get special permission to try this experimental treatment but we could get fentanyl, morphine and other highly addictive drugs without blinking an eye.
“To me this alternative treatment should be treated the same as medically assisted dying,” Crewe says. “It should be made available to anyone who wants it.”
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