After 283 Days, Health Minister (Finally) Grants Psilocybin Exemptions To Three Canadians With Mental Health Conditions

After waiting more than nine months, three Canadians were finally granted exemptions to legally undergo psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy by the federal health minister last week.

Yesterday, the Vancouver Sun’s Sam Riches reported that on December 6, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos granted Section 56 exemptions for three patients with mental health conditions. They were assisted by TheraPsil, a non-profit organization that advocates for compassionate access to psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Since 2019, it has helped 47 patients gain access to psilocybin through federal exemptions.

When the first exemption was granted to Thomas Hartle, a patient with cancer and end-of-life anxiety back in August 2020, it wasn’t clear if the health ministry would grant exemptions to non-palliative patients with mental health conditions such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

That changed in October 2020, when Mona Streleaff, a British Columbian suffering from anxiety, depression, and addiction, was granted an exemption by then-Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

Hajdu was also responsible for granting exemptions to healthcare practitioners including doctors, therapists, and a nurse, back in December 2020—although they waited as long as six months before their requests were granted. (Since then, 120 more healthcare professionals have applied for exemptions with TheraPsil’s help and are still waiting to hear back.)

For newly appointed health minister Duclos, these three recent exemptions mark the first granted to non-palliative patients since he took on the role in October 2021. 

While it’s a relief that these three patients will finally have legal access to psilocybin-assisted therapy after such a long wait, the ministry’s cumbersome decision-making process is neither consistent nor efficient. Putting these decisions into the hands of one individual fails to account for the high stakes patients are dealing with, regardless of whether they are suffering form palliative or non-palliative conditions.

Hajdu and Duclos are both members of the Liberal party; is it too much to expect a little consistency in how and to whom they grant exemptions? As TheraPsil CEO Spencer Hawkswell told the Sun, while the latest exemptions indicate that the newly appointed minister is open to granting them to more people, “The process is still broken… It’s ad hoc.”

Waiting for months and months to receive legal access to a potentially life-saving treatment is not only impractical; it’s not ethical. In a country known for its progressive health policies including assisted dying and legal cannabis, the reluctance from our so-called “liberal” government to adapt existing drug policies, especially in the face of a pandemic and national overdose crisis, is appalling. 

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