Research utilizing magic mushroom derivatives has potential to help those suffering from mental health and addiction issues, say experts.
Numinus Wellness Inc., which has a facility in Nanaimo, recently cultivated its first harvest of magic mushrooms for research purposes via a Health Canada licence.
Health Canada says no studies have been conducted on the long-term effects of magic mushrooms, containing hallucinogens such as psilocybin and psilocin, which the body converts psilocybin into. Short-term effects can include heightened emotions and a sense of mental and emotional clarity. Hallucinations, panic attacks, facial numbness, increased heart rate and loss of urinary control are other effects, according to Health Canada.
Mark Haden, executive director of non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Canada and adjunct professor of population and public health at UBC, said most of the research is being conducted for “end-of-life anxiety, depression, addiction issues and anxiety issues,” while Elliott Marchant, a neuroscientist and Vancouver Island University psychology professor, said the only completed clinical trials using psilocybin have been for treating people who were about to die from a terminal disease. The drug alleviated many of their fears and provide some respite, he said.
Studies have been “small-scale” so far, said Haden, and while definitive statements can’t be made on psilocybin’s effectiveness, a 2014 Johns Hopkins University study on people looking to quit smoking saw 12 out of 15 participants “abstinent after the experience,” something that was “unparalleled” as no one has ever demonstrated smoking cessation that effective. It offers people a different perspective, he said, and the positive outcome is “highly correlated to the degree to which the individual has a mystical experience.”
“There’s a thing called the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, the MEQ, and the higher people score on [it], the more likely it is that they’ll have a positive outcome on the treatment effect that’s being measured,” said Haden. “So that tells us a lot. It’s really about if you go off and meet your maker and you have a spiritual experience and you understand the universe is boundless and that you are just one with everything, then that actually can help when you’re looking at the tiny little human being who’s having trouble stopping smoking. It brings a larger perspective to the challenge that you’re struggling with.”
Clinical trials for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD are also underway and several other studies have already shown positive results, Marchant said.
“Currently there are more than 55 clinical trials underway, with many focused on anxiety and depression. I believe that it can create a sense of de-personalization, and it allows people with PTSD to examine their trauma from a position of safety,” said Marchant. “It’s probably similar to what therapists try to create. Psilocin, or psilocybin, can help with that.”
Shannon Dames, a VIU nursing program professor and researcher, said her work involves ketamine as psilocybin is only legal for “compassionate exemptions for end-of-life care” and clinical trials.
For treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, psychedelic drugs like ketamine and psilocybin are “the best tools we have right now,” for research on mental health disorders, Dames said, adding that “status quo treatments” are only working for 20 per cent of those suffering from these mental health conditions.
“The research is showing us that we have access to other medicines that have much higher effectiveness, so us using these psychedelic medicines are actually the most research-informed strategy we have to address mental health conditions right now, including the aging brain,” said Dames. “Dementia is exactly where we’re moving next, which is good news for the older generations. Because of the neurological repair and how it promotes connection between the right and left hemisphere, there are all sorts of neurological potentials. We are seeing benefits across the board on mental health conditions.”
Dr. Evan Wood, chief medical officer for Numinus Wellness Inc., said in the research trial context and in Mexico, where they are used as a traditional medicine, psilocybin and other psychedelics have proven safe. However, there could be negative effects for people who consume magic mushrooms recreationally, or obtain them via the underground market, he said.
“Certainly people can have negative psychological experiences … the biggest health issues would be someone having a negative psychological reaction, like a ‘bad trip,’ or drug-impaired driving, or things like that would be the biggest risks,” said Wood.
Marchant warns about the misconception that magic mushrooms are safe, which isn’t the case. If you get the wrong mushroom, it can kill you, he said.
“People get that a little bit mixed up … psilocybin is a psychoactive drug and so just because it’s in a mushroom growing on the ground doesn’t mean it’s safe,” said Marchant. “Cocaine and morphine are from plants, but you wouldn’t say they’re safe either.”
There are challenges when dealing with someone who has taken a psychedelic drug, such as psilocybin, for therapy, said Haden.
“It can be a very intense experience,” said Haden. “It depends what people are taking it for, but if you’re taking it for trauma, for example, part of the process of healing is going to that place of trauma and, to some extent, reliving it and so that can be really difficult. If you’re sitting there dealing with somebody who’s been traumatized and they go to the place of trauma, it kind of takes psychotherapy and it collapses 10 years into three sessions.”
Michael Tan, chief operating officer for Numinus Wellness Inc., said its controlled drugs and substance-use licence allows the company to test and conduct research on several psychedelic substances, including psilocybin, and the drug is only one part of the protocol Numinus is looking to develop and support. A lot of research and development will be required, he said.
“It goes together with an integrated therapeutic approach, so there’s talk therapy before, during and after and the administration of this substance in between one to three doses,” said Tan. “The drug is not the end goal. Of course, the end goal is to address mental illness with curative intent, through psychotherapy supported by the psychedelics.”