McKenney’s story is one of many included in a judicial review application filed Monday in Federal Court on behalf of more than 100 healthcare professionals across the country, including doctors, psychologists, clinical counselors , social workers and nurses. They are challenging the federal health minister’s decision last month to deny their request for restricted use of psychedelic drugs to train in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.
This therapy involves ingesting mind-altering substances like psilocybin, an active ingredient in magic mushrooms, in a clinical setting as part of more traditional psychotherapy. Other drugs could include ketamine, LSD, or MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy.
Health Canada did not immediately comment on the application for judicial review.
The federal government had signaled earlier this year that it would deny the requests, said Nicholas Pope, an attorney representing TheraPsil, an advocacy group that runs the training program in which health practitioners are enrolled.
Pope said at the time that the only reason given was that these professionals could access an existing clinical trial instead. Then, in June, when the request was officially denied, Ottawa suggested they could hold their own trial.
“So in our submissions we said it wouldn’t work for a number of reasons,” Pope said.
One of the main ones is that existing trials are expensive and don’t work for many of the professionals he represents due to timing and location.
“You can’t just run the clinical trial in a few days,” Pope said.
“Many patients on waiting lists have suicidal ideation because of their depression and many of them suffer from end-of-life distress, have terminal cancer and could die soon.”
McKenney said she tried to join an existing trial as a patient, but it also cost her too much.
“Being on disability, I can’t afford $6,000 for three cycles of therapy,” she said.
Pope said some professionals are also unwilling to participate in existing trials because they are for psilocybin research.
“It can interfere with training, because the main purpose of a clinical trial is not training, it is information gathering. And there is no uncertainty in the expert community about the safety of psilocybin in healthy adults.
In 2020, Health Canada began granting exemptions under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to provide psychedelic treatment to patients with end-of-life psychological distress, treatment-resistant depression, and major depressive disorder.
Documents submitted to the court show that hundreds of Canadians inquire about it each year, but Pope said there were not enough professionals in Canada to provide the treatment. Some have requested the substances to treat their anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other illnesses.
“In Manitoba, there are no fully trained and qualified healthcare practitioners, but there are 10 patients on the TheraPsil waiting list,” reads a summary of the request.
“Two health professionals in Manitoba have applied for exemptions. If both of these exemptions were approved, patients who don’t otherwise have qualified medical professionals within thousands of miles would be able to access psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.
McKenney said if she wanted to, she could get the drugs from other channels. But she is reluctant because she suffers from a mental illness.
“If I overdid it or had a bad trip, sometimes there was no turning back. If I’m going to do it, I want to regulate it and I want it to be monitored just for safety reasons.
Pope said in the judicial review application that he also wants the federal government to recognize that patients’ rights to life, liberty and security are being infringed.
McKenney said if more professionals were trained and she had easier access to psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy, her life would change.
“I have been relatively disabled for 10 years. If I can get even a tenth of my old life back, that would be something.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 11, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press