As Canada wrestles with a growing demand for access to magic mushrooms by people craving mental health improvement, Capital Current’s Victor Vigas Alvarez takes a look at the ins and outs of this growing debate. Today: The limits of psilocybin.

Positive clinical trials and the proliferation of illegal dispensaries popping up across Canada over the last few years has brought public attention and interest in the potential efficacy of magic mushrooms and other mood altering drugs. 

In the United States, Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research is backed by $55 million of research funding to explore psilocybin as a mental health treatment. A year ago, Australia moved to allow mushrooms and ecstasy (or MDMA) to be prescribed by doctors for the treatment of PTSD and depression.

In 2023, Health Canada allowed the investment of nearly $3 million into three clinical trials involving psilocybin, bringing the number of such trials here to 37.

Kim Fluxgold says she is still dealing with the aftereffects of a psilocybin trial. [Photo courtesy Kim Fluxgold]

A former federal official familiar with drug legalization told Capital Current that the science is not there yet to make conclusions about psilocybin-assisted therapies. But the individual added that people should be able to decide for themselves if they want to use magic mushrooms. 

“Anecdotally we’re seeing good results, but we need to have that scholarly work and peer reviews done. That’s the work of medicine and progress. It’s proving safety and efficacy.”

The enthusiasm is not without risk.

Kate Caldwell, a psychotherapist at the Behavioural Wellness Clinic in Ottawa, believes, for example, that the media coverage of psilocybin has conflated recreational use with research into psilocybin’s therapeutic potential.

“Therapeutic use is so specific that it is relevant to have many more safeguards around it given the potential for harm,” said Caldwell. 

For Caldwell, this means noting the difference. Taking psychedelics alone or with friends for fun is not the same as administering them to someone in a crisis or to remedy troubles they may be facing. 

“You have to have relevant ethical standards and legal guidelines alongside it.”

Caldwell is specializing in ketamine-assisted therapy, currently legal in Canada. While she sees promise in psilocybin, she said the road to medical legalization is “quite long”.

Sarah McNamee, a licensed psychotherapist and a researcher at McGill University believes that existing research does not yet support legalizing psilocybin in a clinical capacity.

“I really profoundly do not believe we have enough of an understanding of the whole process of psychedelic therapy to be at this point in the game training and licensing clinicians.”

McNamee has no problems with psychedelics. She believes decriminalization is a good step forward.

“I get misrepresented as someone who is against (psilocybin). I’m really against harm and against bad research. I’m not against drugs or good medical treatment.”

McNamee recently co-authored an opinion article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examining the underreported harms to patients in psychedelic-assisted trials. 

Among the risks were increased suicidality, self-harm and abuse by therapists. The authors noted one study in particular that found suicidal thoughts and behaviour jumped from one per cent in the control group to eight per cent for those who consumed the highest dose of psilocybin. The study contained 233 patients and examined a single dose of psilocybin for the treatment of depression.

“Multiple research participants have come out to the media talking about having had quite harmful experiences, quite severe adverse events in these trials,” said McNamee. 

Kim Fluxgold, a Toronto woman who was administered psilocybin in a Canadian trial, said her experience was traumatizing.

Fluxgold suffers from Treatment-Resistant Depression. Over the years she tried prescription medications, intravenous ketamine therapy and medical marijuana but nothing worked.

After being referred by her psychiatrist, Fluxgold took part in a psilocybin trial. 

Inside a small room, Fluxgold says she was administered pharmaceutical psilocybin. She then lay down, had a mask put over her eyes, headphones with “distressing music” put on and within 20 minutes, she began to feel the effects. 

“I started convulsing and (had) almost like a seizure and spasming for the next almost six hours straight,” said Fluxgold.

Fluxgold says the two doctors did not do anything to help or comfort her as to not disturb the trip. After the doctors told her that the trip was longer than they were expecting. 

Fluxgold decided she wouldn’t return for the final two sessions. In check-ins following the session, Fluxgold said she didn’t feel supported. 

Now, the mother-of-three says she is living with adverse aftereffects from tics, tremors, sensitivity to noise, numbness in her hands and feet, and Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder (PGAD). PGAD symptoms can last anywhere from hours, days, and weeks.

“It has been hell. It is hell.”

Capital Current has obtained the trial results in which Fluxgold participated. In the results, the study summary says that adverse effects were only temporary. 

Further in the publication, the study results acknowledge that PGAD was an adverse outcome that had lasted throughout the six-month follow up with all patients, and that to the researchers’ knowledge it “has not been previously reported as an adverse outcome with psilocybin.”

Fluxgold, who used to work in creative writing, told Capital Current that participating in the psilocybin trial was the biggest regret of her life. She has since visited a number of psychiatrists and doctors to deal with the aftereffects, but to no avail. 

The most high-profile user of magic mushrooms in Canada is Nathaniel Veltman.

In 2021, Veltman mowed down a Muslim family of five in London, Ont. with his pickup truck. Four died and a nine year old boy survived. 

During Veltman’s criminal trial, it was revealed the accused had consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms about 40 hours before committing the murders. Parts of the trial focused on how the psilocybin mushrooms may have added to his compulsion to kill. 

Veltman claimed he had become detached from reality while the effects of the drug wore off, and that he couldn’t stop the “urge” to drive his truck into the family. 

Julian Gojer, a psychiatrist who testified at Veltman’s trial, said that some aftereffects from magic mushrooms can linger after the high is over — good or bad.

“The diagnoses he has had, including the depression, coupled with the use of psilocybin on that day can explain some of these experiences he’s reporting,” said Gojer.

“The urges combined with his belief system make him very intense and appear to have been triggered by actually seeing some Muslim people.”