Open hands hold a small pile of squiggly mushrooms against a yellow background.

Photo Credit: Saidia Zaloski

They Make You Giggle, But They Can Also Heal

The problem is, magic mushrooms are still illegal in Canada

Psilocybin has helped terminally ill people feel calm and connected at the end of their lives

Magic mushrooms are mostly seen as a party drug. Or something folks take before heading into the woods. You eat some bad-tasting chewy things. You see the music. You chat with trees. It’s pretty fun!

But magic mushrooms can do more than get you high.

And they’re actually dozens of different mushroom species. This group of fungi is special in that they contain psilocybin, a powerful compound that affects your brain when you ingest it.

That same compound that makes you see the music also builds connections in your brain. And those connections help folks overcome all sorts of mental health issues and trauma.

Doctors and researchers are now using psilocybin to treat PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Guided trips under the care of a therapist can also help folks with terminal cancer. The cancer doesn’t go away, but the fear and anxiety do.

Despite a long history of use around the world, psilocybin is illegal in Canada.

That’s why a growing number of health care practitioners in BC are calling for legalized access to psilocybin and other psychedelics for medical purposes. Now government regulators are playing catch-up.   

In early January 2022, the feds amended the Food and Drug Regulations to allow medical use of psilocybin and other restricted drugs through the Special Access Program (SAP).

Many health experts celebrate this as a small but crucial step toward helping patients heal. 

Dr. Valorie Masuda is a physician with the Victoria-based non-profit TheraPsil. On March 21, 2022, she became the first doctor to get SAP authorization to treat six patients with psilocybin and psychotherapy.

Dr. Masuda went on to treat the patients in early April of 2022 with synthetic psilocybin that was donated by Psygen Labs Inc., a company based in Calgary.

“We worked collaboratively with the SAP team at Health Canada as well as the team at Psygen to make this happen,” said Dr. Masuda in a press release.

If physicians like Masuda get their way, psilocybin will become a normal alternative to the current drugs that folks use to manage mental health issues.

Psilocybin is currently being sold over the counter at dispensaries in Vancouver and Victoria, even though that’s still technically illegal. The message from law enforcement is that they have bigger fish to fry. They figure mushrooms will be legalized soon, so why waste time going after dispensaries?

The war on drugs made it tough to study psilocybin and other psychedelics. Most scientists agree that we still have a lot to learn about how the compound interacts with brain receptors.

Kate Browning is a registered nurse and psychotherapist in Vancouver. She agrees there’s a need for more research and that therapists need special training before guiding folks who are taking psilocybin. But she’s heard decades of stories from other therapists who say the drug helps folks in end-of-life care and with other mental health conditions.

While government grapples with regulations, academic interest in psychedelics is exploding. Vancouver Island University is running a first-of-its-kind program to train healthcare professionals on psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Private companies are also jumping into this space. Kapoose Creek Wellness Inc. is a private research facility that recently opened on Vancouver Island’s remote West Coast. It’s dedicated to discovering new medicinal properties and compounds in wild mushrooms.

Branden Walle is Kapoose Creek’s senior manager of research and development.

“There were a lot of studies done on psilocybin and LSD in the 1960s and 70s before they were made illegal. Though those studies might not stand up to today’s scientific standards, they support what a lot of people are saying today,” he said at a recent psychedelics conference in Victoria.    

Kapoose Creek is part of a network of researchers who are doing important work that could help heal a lot of people. But we can’t help but wonder if they take mushrooms and head out into the forest.

You know, for research.