TORONTO — For Thomas Hartle, every day is a challenge because of his anxiety.
The 52-year-old from Saskatoon has terminal cancer and the thought of the future triggers his anxiety on a daily basis.
“It gives you a rapid heart rate. It makes you feel terrible,” he shared with CTV News’ medical correspondent Avis Favaro.
Hartle has tried everything from anti-anxiety medication to meditation to treat the symptoms of his anxiety, but he’s hoping for a more long-lasting solution to ease his distress.
That is why he’s one of a handful of terminally ill Canadians who are appealing to the federal health minister for a special exemption on compassionate grounds that would allow them to use an illegal drug found in “magic mushrooms.”
The drug is called psilocybin and is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by several species of mushrooms.
Growing research on the psychedelic appears to show that it has the potential to provide long-term relief for anxiety and depression, particularly among terminally ill patients suffering from “end of life” distress.
Scientists around the world have found the drug shows promise in being able to rewire the brain and boost mood in patients, with one study showing that up to 80 per cent of palliative patients reported reductions in depression and anxiety, and improved attitudes towards death.
In one U.S. study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in January, patients with cancer-related psychiatric distress continued to experience reductions in anxiety, depression, hopelessness, demoralization, and death anxiety more than four years after a single dose of psilocybin in combination with psychotherapy.
Researchers at the U.S. Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are currently conducting Phase 3 clinical trials with the aim of having psilocybin approved for market as a prescription medication.
Roland Griffiths, the centre’s director, told CTV News earlier this year they initially faced a lot of skepticism about the safety of the drug. Since then, they have published multiple studies on the benefits of using one dose of psilocybin in a treatment that runs approximately six hours and has few side effects.
“Psilocybin produces conditions under which people report having a sense of increased efficacy, a change of world view, a sense of change of self, and that they’re able to re-engage in the world in very positive ways,” Griffiths said during an interview with CTV News in February.
That inner change is one of the reasons why Hartle is appealing to Health Minister Patty Hajdu to grant him legal access to psilocybin for compassionate reasons.
“Most people come out of this experience with a more spiritual connection to whatever it is they believe in. For me, that is an appealing thing,” he said. “What I am looking for is something that helps me deal with problems and anxieties that I just don’t have another mechanism of dealing with.”
In order to legally possess and use psilocybin, Hartle has to apply for a Section 56 exemption of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and be approved by Hajdu.
Hartle isn’t the only one opting for this route, either.
In January 2017, Bruce Tobin, a psychotherapist and professor at the University of Victoria, applied to the minister of health for a special exemption that would enable him to legally possess and use psilocybin to treat patients experiencing end-of-life distress.
After three years, he said his application was rejected in early March on “the basis that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate the medical need for psilocybin.”
Now, Tobin has pivoted his focus to helping individual patients apply directly to Hajdu for special exemptions with the assistance of his group TheraPsil.
TheraPsil is a non-profit coalition of health-care professionals, patients, and advocates who are working to gain legal access to psilocybin on compassionate grounds as well as provide public education, training for health professionals, and expanding research on the drug.
“Canadians now have the right to die and this was legally recognized in the medical assistance in dying legislation that came in a few years ago,” Tobin told CTV News during an interview from his home in Saanich, B.C.
“If Canadians have the right to die acknowledged, surely they must have the right to try. The right to try a novel medicine. The right to try to have a better life before they finally do pass away.”
While there is enthusiasm for the use of psilocybin as a treatment for anxiety and depression, there are some scientists who say there isn’t enough proof yet to demonstrate the drug’s efficacy and safety for widespread use.
Dr. Martin Chasen, a palliative care physician and the medical director for palliative care at William Osler Health System in Ontario, noted that in studies on psilocybin, psychotherapy sessions are mandatory as part of the treatment, patients are carefully selected, and the drug is administered in a controlled environment.
“A multisite study in a larger and more diverse patient population should be conducted to establish the generality and safety of psilocybin treatment of psychological distress associated with life-threatening cancer,” he said.
Although there may be doubts about psilocybin’s use in medicine, Toronto lawyer Paul Lewin said medical cannabis was also once off-limits before the pressure grew from those who felt they had no other option.
“There’s a lot of peer-reviewed, rock solid research supporting it,” he told CTV News. “Hopefully, it is not necessary to have endless litigation as it was with cannabis.”
That’s what Hartle hopes as well, as he pushes to have his case pave the way for others behind him.
“Not everybody has terminal cancer, but there are a lot of people who also suffer from anxiety and depression out there,” he said. “If my going through the discomfort of having to apply for this and ask for permission to use this will benefit somebody else whose anxiety is stopping them from doing this… then that’s a purpose.
Everyone wants to have something that they can leave behind.”