Laurie Brooks never thought she’d one day use magic mushrooms and advocate for the ability of others to do the same.
The 55-year-old B.C. resident also never imagined having colon cancer and feared the impact her imminent death would have on her husband and four children.
Her journey as a believer in the power of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, began when a friend mentioned she could try a small dose as part of a therapy session to deal with end-of-life anxiety.
The Canadian documentary, Dosed: The Trip of a Lifetime, explores Brooks’ experience with psilocybin, which she says allowed her to gain insight into herself and accept her cancer as it spread, and she decided to forego a third major surgery.
“Dosed,” directed by Nicohas Meyers and Tyler Chandler, is scheduled to open in select theatres across Canada starting Friday in Toronto.
Access through Health Canada
It comes amid a court challenge filed against the federal government last July by seven patients and a health-care worker.
The plaintiffs claim limited and delayed access to the psychedelic through a Health Canada application process violates their right to life, liberty and security of the person under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The government says in a statement of defence that it has international treaty obligations to regulate controlled substances and that psilocybin-based therapy has not been approved in Canada.
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In August 2020, Health Canada began granting one-year exemptions to qualifying patients who wanted to use psilocybin to manage end-of-life anxiety. Since January 2022, health-care professionals can apply to the Special Access Program to treat patients with the psychedelic after conventional therapies have failed or are unsuitable or unavailable.
Brooks, who was diagnosed in 2018, was one of the first people in Canada to be given a personal exemption while she was having chemotherapy.
Six hours to make a difference
The Abbotsford, B.C., resident took three grams of psilocybin for her first guided “trip” and five grams for her second time a year later. For each session, she lay on a couch blindfolded and listened to music with her therapist seated beside her.
The visions she saw the first time included a kaleidoscope of colours and a forest. She went from feeling alone and afraid to calm while being led through the darkness by her deceased grandmother.
Brooks says that first session helped her resolve the overwhelming grief of leaving her family behind. The second trip eased her lifelong drive to be a “people pleaser” who put herself last.
Reached by phone while travelling in Sacramento, California, she says access to psilocybin through a regulated system could help people endure the anguish of a terminal illness. The current model of applying for access and waiting for a decision adds more stress for those who may die waiting, she adds.
“Why would you not want to help somebody? It took one experience, six hours, and that’s all I needed to make a difference,” she says of her first psilocybin trip.
She says she was so depressed she considered applying for medical assistance in dying before she discovered psilocybin, which she says “gave me life.”
“Now I think, no, I want to squeeze every ounce of life out of this journey that I can. I don’t want to know the hour and time of my own death,” says Brooks, who says she’s now “living the dream” travelling in a recreational vehicle with her husband after they sold their B.C. home in March.
“Honour yourself and live your life to the fullest and just enjoy. And laugh as much as you possibly can.”
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Anxiety about death is typically treated with antidepressants, but Brooks did not consider that route due to potential side effects. She says psilocybin offered more immediate relief.
“It took away my fear of dying and took away a lot of the grief and anxiety I was feeling,” says Brooks.
“It’s been a journey, but mushrooms were the catalyst to that.”
Reducing death anxiety
Dr. Gabor Mate, a retired family physician from Vancouver, as well as an author and proponent of psychedelic therapy who appears in the documentary, noted some small but significant randomized controlled trials in the United States have suggested psilocybin reduced anxiety for terminally ill cancer patients.
One trial in 2016 by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found increases in quality of life and decreases in death anxiety continued six months after psilocybin-assisted therapy for 41 of 51 participants.
“I personally know of many people who have had very beneficial experiences in the hands of trained therapists, with a number of psychedelics, including psilocybin,” Mate said in an interview.
The study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, found about eight of the participants felt nauseated, and 17 experienced some discomfort, such as paranoia, as part of a session that lasted four to six hours.
A hand holds a shrivelled mushroom.
Researchers are conducting clinical trials on psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms (Curtis Allen/CBC)
Antidepressants have plenty of side effects compared with psilocybin, though in rare cases, patients who take the psychedelic under supervision may recall extremely traumatic events, which could be processed afterwards with the therapist, Mate says.
“The governments are way too slow, as far I’m concerned, to recognize the potential [of psilocybin]. It’s good to be careful. I’m just saying we already have lots of evidence.”
Health Canada said it has greenlit two proposed trials testing psilocybin-assisted therapy for end-of-life distress, one by a non-profit British Columbia program called Roots to Thrive and another involving the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
The B.C. trial’s principal investigator, Dr. Valorie Masuda, says her study on Vancouver Island would involve 64 terminally ill patients of all ages and be overseen by doctors, nurses and a registered clinical counsellor.
Health Canada has funded clinical trials on psilocybin to treat substance use and mental health disorders in combination with psychotherapy. Masuda wants funding for end-of-life anxiety in Canada, too.
“If Health Canada expects more information from clinical trials, they should put their money where their mouth is,” says Masuda, also a palliative care physician.
“While Health Canada is taking the clinical trial and safe-access route, really what’s happening is people are accessing psychedelics in the underground,” says Masuda, adding therapists who are not regulated or accountable to any professional body are “putting Canadians at risk.”
Psilocybin treatment should involve licensed suppliers and trained health-care providers to safeguard patients who would be emotionally, psychologically and spiritually vulnerable while under the influence of a hallucinogenic, she says.
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The case filed last July in Federal Court is supported by TheraPsil, a B.C.-based non-profit that has helped three of the patients secure legal access to psilocybin through the former individual exemption process.
Health Canada said in a statement that since January 2022, it has received requests from health-care professionals for 121 patients. It said access has been authorized for 93 of them while requests had been withdrawn for eight people. The remaining requests are under review.