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Bruce Tobin is a registered clinical counsellor in Victoria. He is the founder and president of TheraPsil, a humanitarian non-profit organization advocating for patient rights to access psilocybin for medical purposes.

In 2017, I applied for Canada’s first class-action exemption to criminal drug laws on behalf of all terminally ill cancer patients so they could receive medical psilocybin to treat their end-of-life emotional distress. Psilocybin – the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” – promises an array of medical benefits for thousands of Canadians suffering from anxiety, addictions, depression, PTSD and perhaps even chronic pain.

Although Health Canada denied my application after three years of negotiation, it did begin to approve individual patient applications in August, 2020 – at least 38 by now – under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This section provides exemptions on compassionate grounds. Indeed, clinical research now shows that psilocybin is a reasonable medical choice for many patients requiring compassionate treatment: the provision of an encouraging although still-in-development medicine to those for whom other treatments are unsuccessful.

In fall of 2020, I provided psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to Canada’s first six patients allowed to receive it legally for end-of-life anxiety and depression. All six treatments were dramatically successful. My patients shared their desperation, demoralization and hopelessness with me. But I also witnessed their deliverance from emotional misery, their gains in quality of life, and their finding of peace, optimism and spiritual comfort in their final days.

But there remains a challenge: The current route to this compassionate treatment itself badly lacks compassion. Patients must go cap-in-hand through a cumbersome and unfriendly process of clearance from federal civil servants. Dying people now must wait, suffering for weeks or months, never knowing if or when they will ever receive a treatment that has been endorsed by their medical doctor.

It’s time to end a growing regulatory fiasco and get help to patients.

Fortunately, the medical cannabis story points a way forward. Early on, all cannabis patients had to use the Section 56 route. But as applicant numbers rose, the government wisely brought in the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations. Under this new regime, the decision to use medical cannabis became solely between patient and doctor; the government butted out. Patient care is no longer hostage to bureaucratic inaction.

It’s time to do the same with psilocybin: to bring in regulations for access for medical purposes. Let’s make the rules for compassionate access themselves more compassionate.

According to a TheraPsil poll from June, 2021, 66 per cent of Canadians support changes to medical psilocybin regulations. They understand that the science supports the compassionate use of psilocybin. Since Canadians now have a legally acknowledged right to die, they must surely also have the right to try psilocybin to improve the quality of their remaining life.

And Canada’s courts appear to have affirmed that patients do have this right.

Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms affirms that everyone has the right to “life, liberty and security of the person.” The Supreme Court of Canada (R. v Smith) ruled in 2015 that the prohibition of cannabis for a medical purpose deprives users of their liberty by imposing a threat of imprisonment upon conviction. It also ruled that by forcing people to choose between a legal but inadequate treatment and an illegal but more effective one, the law also infringes on the security of the person.

What applies for medical cannabis surely should hold true for medical psilocybin.

Some will recall that it was prime minister Pierre Trudeau who, in 1982, brought the Charter, Canada’s primary human rights document, into effect. Alas, nearly 40 years later, Mr. Trudeau’s son, Justin, presides over a government that maintains a legal regime regarding psilocybin that plainly violates his father’s Charter.

So, patients suffer every day as our Health Canada bureaucracy drags its feet on psilocybin applications. It’s time for the son to complete his father’s human rights agenda and fully open the door to medical psilocybin.

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