Four Canadians with incurable cancer have been given permission to use the psychedelic compound psilocybin to help them deal with the psychological and emotional distress attached to their illness. Commonly found in magic mushrooms, psilocybin is currently being studied as a treatment for depression and other mental health issues, yet it remains illegal in most countries and cannot be prescribed medically.
The compound has been prohibited in Canada since 1974, yet the four patients have been granted an exemption from the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act, making them the first people to legally use psilocybin in the country for almost half a century.
In recent years, a number of small-scale studies have indicated that psilocybin may be effective at helping people to overcome the anxiety, depression, and existential dread that often accompany terminal illnesses. For example, a paper that was published in 2016 found that these psychological symptoms were significantly reduced in up to 80 percent of patients suffering from life-threatening cancer.
According to the study, a single psilocybin session – conducted under clinical supervision – produced lasting decreases in depression and anxiety, with this effect still being noticeable six months later.
A follow-up study conducted earlier this year revealed that most of the surviving participants continued to benefit from reduced psychological distress more than four years after their psilocybin experience.
However, until proper clinical trials are conducted it remains unlikely that the compound will be approved for medical use. Such studies are likely to take time, which is why an organization called TheraPsil decided to petition the Canadian government on behalf of the four patients, requesting that they be given special dispensation to use the drug.
Among those to have been granted access to psilocybin is Laurie Brooks, who is currently battling colon cancer. Speaking to CBC News, she said that taking the substance had allowed her “to see my cancer in a box beside me on the floor instead of this black cloud hanging over me all the time.”
In light of the growing body of research into the potential mental health benefits of psilocybin, a number of grass-roots activist movements have begun lobbying governments to make the substance legal, resulting in it being decriminalized in US cities such as Oakland, Denver, and Portland.