It’s been about three months since four dying Canadians filed applications with the federal government asking for the right to try magic mushrooms to treat the psychological distress that comes with facing the end of their lives.
The psychedelic fungi have shown promise in relieving some of the anxiety and depression faced by those suffering with terminal cancer, but the active ingredient psilocybin is still undergoing clinical trials.
Victoria psychotherapist Bruce Tobin, founder of the advocacy group TheraPsil, says completing those trials is absolutely necessary before magic mushrooms can be made widely available.
But he believes terminally ill patients deserve compassionate access to something that might help with their anguish when other treatments have failed.
“Canadian society now acknowledges that citizens have the right to die,” Tobin told CBC News, referring to the legalization of medical assistance in dying.
“How is it that we’re going to allow them to die when they affirm that their lives are intolerable, but we won’t acknowledge their right to try something that could allow them to continue their life in a meaningful way?”
Research is currently underway to determine if psilocybin is safe and effective to treat things like depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and substance use disorder. Two studies published in 2016 suggest that treatment with psilocybin can produce significant and lasting improvements in depression and anxiety for cancer patients.
‘I’m so scared and angry’
TheraPsil has helped the four cancer patients file Section Section 56 applications under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to obtain psilocybin. The law gives the health minister the power to grant access to illegal drugs when “necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”
In a video filmed by TheraPsil, Laurie Brooks, an Abbotsford nurse and mother of four, describes the feelings she’s experienced since learning her cancer is terminal.
“I’m so scared and angry, and I feel guilty and ashamed that I’m putting my family through this,” she tells the camera.
Brooks, who was not available for an interview with CBC, says she learned about the potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin from a documentary, and she was struck by a fellow cancer patient who “looked so peaceful” after receiving the drug.
The patients have yet to receive a response. A Health Canada spokesperson said in an email that she was unable to comment on individual applications, but the length of each review depends on the complexity of the case and the completeness of the application.
“The Government of Canada has great empathy for individuals living with a terminal illness and their needs for care and treatment. Health Canada is committed to carefully and thoroughly reviewing each … request relating to psilocybin on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesperson said.
Health Canada also has a special access program that allows practitioners to request access to drugs that aren’t currently available in this country “for treating patients with serious or life-threatening conditions when conventional treatments have failed, are unsuitable or are unavailable.”
“It would seem that that program was tailor made for both psilocybin and for the patients that we seek to treat,” Tobin said.
But restricted drugs like psilocybin aren’t available through the program, a stipulation that Tobin describes as “arbitrary and unscientific.”
Previous application rejected
Three years ago, Tobin applied for a more sweeping exemption from Canadian law that would allow him to use psilocybin to treat any terminal cancer patient suffering from end-of-life distress so severe it interferes with other medical treatments and that hasn’t responded to other available therapies.
Health Canada rejected his application in a letter on March 3, saying that there is “insufficient evidence” to support an exemption, and that “psilocybin can be accessed through other means” — specifically, through clinical trials.
Tobin disagrees with that assessment and plans to officially dispute it.
He points to a 2015 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada that struck down restrictions on the use of non-dried forms of medical cannabis.
That judgment states that “by forcing a person to choose between a legal but inadequate treatment and an illegal but more effective one, the law … infringes security of the person.”
Tobin remains hopeful that the federal government will grant the patients’ requests for psilocybin, but if it doesn’t happen, TheraPsil plans to file a constitutional challenge.
“I’m going to be saddened to see my government’s health minister be in a position of denying dying people something that there’s evidence to show could be helpful for them,” he said.
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