Medical psilocybin requests are being denied in Canada

Published Mar 27, 2022 09:00 a.m. ET
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Psilocybin health benefits are something we’re only beginning to understand, but now that there’s data to show how much it can improve the lives of patients, in particular, those facing end-of-life care, we’re seeing a big push for safe access. Some countries like Canada took the lead by allowing practitioners to recommend psilocybin therapy in certain situations, an incredibly narrow list many hoped would soon expand, but unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case.

A massive success

Canadian health care professionals began requesting access to psilocybin for training, and patients were reporting an increase in quality of life. To date, more than a dozen people with qualifying medical conditions have been approved to use psilocybin as an alternative treatment, a fact that one would think might indicate we’re on the right track, but there’s now another bump in the road for patients to scale if they want the same opportunity from this point forward.

The rules

A section 56(1) exemption allowed dozens of patients to access, consume, and possess psilocybin for medical purposes on compassionate grounds. All they needed was a letter from a doctor confirming the healthcare professional's support, proof of diagnoses and confirmation that previous attempts of traditional legal treatments had failed. From there, if approved, it was up to the seeker of the therapy to source the product until or unless an appeal to access may be considered. It was straightforward and still a lengthy process, but now the rules have changed.

Changes made

On January 5th of 2022, Health Canada changed the rules so that patients may now only get approval for psilocybin if their doctor is willing to formally apply through what is known as the Special Access Program. Through SAP, physicians may apply for approval to legally prescribe psilocybin, but in doing so, they must take on a whole new world of responsibility. Doctors are asked to monitor patient outcomes source psilocybin, and they may only get the drug through a select few Health Canada approved providers who only offer synthetic versions of the treatment.


Sadly, very few practitioners have the time or confidence, or know-how to follow through on all of these new requirements.

Why it happened

Experts say the program's access was dialled back in an attempt to slow down progress while researchers work to determine possible adverse effects and evidence of benefits. We do not yet know enough to write a prescription for a reliable standard dose of psilocybin, and that is likely one of many goals of Health Canada. The fear is that something bad and unexpected might happen if we open these floodgates too quickly without a basic understanding of the possible results, a valid concern that is standing in the way of many patients.

Why this is concerning

If we want to learn more about psilocybin, then there’s no better way to do that than by monitoring patients in real-time, something that isn’t going to happen if the rules to apply are so strict they deter physicians from participating in the program. In the meantime, many patients will continue to suffer in silence through an end-of-life transition that isn’t easy for anyone, without access to a medicine that could make those final moments more enjoyable and meaningful.

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