Psychedelic Drugs: Experts Welcome Canada’s Update

A doctor and psychologist say Health Canada’s decision to allow doctors to request restricted psychedelic drugs for patients as part of their psychotherapy is a positive step towards transforming mental health care.

But they say the recent modification of the Special Access Program is not enough.

“We still have a lot of work to do because these drugs could really, really revolutionize the whole field of mental health care,” said Dr. Michael Verbora, who works as a medical director at the Field Trip Health therapy center in Toronto.

“I don’t want to go too far into the science…but I really, really believe that if people have a process to start their own healing, it can lead to a much better world for most people.”

Psychedelic-assisted therapy involves ingesting mind-altering substances – including psilocybin, ketamine, LSD, or MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) – in a clinical setting as part of more traditional psychotherapy .

Health Canada said requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis for “serious or life-threatening illness” and when other conventional treatments have failed, are unsuitable for the patient or are not available in Canada.

Verbora said the change isn’t designed to have a waitlist because it’s for emergencies. Health Canada said applications would be processed within two days, but it’s unclear when a decision will be made.

What it did was streamline potential access to restricted drugs, Verbora said.

“Unfortunately, if you have a terminal illness, you don’t have much life left. You don’t have time to apply to the government and wait months for an exemption.”

Edmonton psychologist Brian Welling calls the approach “revolutionary.”

“This is the biggest leap forward in mental health care since the invention of psychotherapy,” he said.

“I’ve used psychedelics many times. I didn’t have any serious or life-threatening illnesses, but for my own personal issues and part of my own spiritual journey, those experiences were life changing.

Verbora, who filed her first application on behalf of a patient this week, said one of the biggest challenges is that more doctors need training in psychedelic therapy.

“The onus is really on the doctor to do all the paperwork, which is like writing 100 prescriptions while I’m doing one of these applications,” he said. “Then I will have to access the drug. I will have to store the drug. I will have to educate the patient on the drug.”

Ronan Levy, co-founder of Field Trip Health, said most but the most serious claims are likely to be denied.

He said he hopes Health Canada’s criteria for approving psychedelics will expand in the future.

The government said the regulatory amendment did not signal “an intent to decriminalize or legalize restricted drugs”.

However, that conversation needs to start, Verbora said.

“We have a long way to go to help the millions around the world who unfortunately suffer from mental health issues and (their) growing burden.”

The three men suggest this can happen by removing the stigma around psychedelics.

“When done under the right circumstances, with proper supervision, with trained clinicians who can support the experiment, the results can be fantastic,” Levy said.

“It leads to people who have greater emotional resilience, people who are more able to adapt to circumstances like a global pandemic.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 15, 2022.

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