Sarah Leamon: Psilocybin legalization likely to follow similar route as cannabis

A Vancouver lawyer argues that the health minister’s recent decision to grant an exemption to four terminally ill patients to use psychedelic medicines is a sign of progress.

psilocybin-leamon

Vancouver lawyer Sarah Leamon (right) argues that Canada is advancing down the road toward legalizing psychedelic medicines. Photo at left by Cavan Images/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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We did it for cannabis. But is Canada ready to legalize psilocybin, a psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms? There is a strong push to start the legalization process for the naturally occurring psychedelic—and we may not be that far away, either.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Patty Hajdu considered a petition in relation to four cancer patients in end-of-life care. The patients filed the legal document back in April, seeking an exception from existing laws to use psilocybin as part of their palliative care treatment. 

In a landmark decision, Hajdu approved their application, granting an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This marks the first publicly known approval of its type in Canada in relation to psilocybin. And it opens the door to others. 

Psilocybin became illegal in this country in 1974. Prior to then, though, medical researchers had used the drug. This was in hope of finding better ways to treat conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. 

Truth be known, humans have a long history with magic mushrooms. Archaeological records trace their use as far as back as 9000 B.C.  Aztecs and tribes in Northern Africa appear to have consumed these naturally occurring psychotropics alongside other plants foraged in their environment, such as peyote. 

In the 1950s, magic mushrooms entered mainstream western consciousness. Highly publicized experiments at Harvard University brought psilocybin quick notoriety. The drug was eventually tied to the hippie movement of the 1960s. And from there on it became a symbol of the counterculture. 

This, undoubtedly, factored into its eventual prohibition.

Medical access to cannabis advanced legalization efforts

However, with the legalization of cannabis, psilocybin may have more than a fighting chance at making a comeback in the legal realm. 

Consider the fact that legal cannabis access was first granted to patients who required it for medicinal purposes. Nearly 20 years ago, Health Canada allowed medical patients to access cannabis, but only pursuant to a doctor’s prescription, of course. Patients gained permission to use cannabis for a number of prescribed conditions including epilepsy, arthritis, cancer, and multiple sclerosis. Initially, Health Canada limited prescriptions to dried flower. 

From there, though, the floodgates opened. Political action and legal challenges loosened cannabis restrictions more and more over time. 

After some attempts to decriminalize cannabis in the early 2000s, the movement largely stagnated once the Conservatives took office under Stephen Harper in 2006. When Justin Trudeau became prime minister, however, cannabis legalization really gained some political traction.    

While a favourable political environment may be an advantageous element in the hopeful legalization of psilocybin, it may not be absolutely necessary.  After all, policymakers, like the health minister and judges at various levels, may help with the heavy lifting. 

For example, our courts were instrumental in chipping away at cannabis laws over time. 

Landmark decisions like R. v. Smith helped expand existing definitions of legal cannabis and entrench constitutional access to the drug, despite its prohibition. There, the Supreme Court of Canada weighed in on the definition of medical cannabis. 

Major cultural shift when it comes to psilocybin legalization

In so doing, it did something that politicians and lawmakers could not. The judiciary expanded the definition of medical cannabis. It found that patients should not be limited to the dried flower in the course of their treatment.  Instead, the court ruled that they should rightfully have access to different forms of the drug, including but not limited to edibles, extracts, and oils. 

By challenging, and subsequently overturning, unconstitutional laws related to medical cannabis, litigants and judges paved the way to legal, recreational cannabis—and, more likely than not, the road to legal psilocybin will be the same.

psilocybin therapy exemption
Health Minister Patty Hajdu has opened the door for psilocybin-augmented psychotherapy for terminally ill Canadians. Photo by Patty Hajdu

Given the health minister’s latest decision, it seems reasonable to assert that there has already been a major, cultural shift when it comes to the medicinal use of naturally occurring psychedelics in this country. After all, Hajdu could have chosen to deny the petition and left the decision up to the courts—but she didn’t.

And this shift appears to be echoing throughout society.

Some police are changing their tune

In a recent media statement, Vancouver Police Department spokesman Steve Addison indicated that enforcement efforts would not focus on magic mushrooms. Instead, he said that police are committed and focused on combating organized crime and sophisticated criminals who profit from the production and distribution of harmful drugs, like fentanyl and other opioids. 

Given the toll that the opioid crisis has had on our country, it is difficult to argue that this is anything other than a reasonable and measured approach to drug enforcement. 

So as reformers push for legal access to psilocybin, we should remember that this machine will have many moving parts. The road to legalization might be long. However, the journey may be far less arduous today than it would have been in the past. 

Sarah Leamon is a criminal defence lawyer. She also chairs the PACE Society board in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and holds a master of arts in women’s studies from UBC. Follow her on Twitter @SarahLeamonLaw and find her website here.

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