A Canadian psychotherapist is seeking government approval to use psilocybin mushrooms to treat anxiety in patients facing the end of life. Bruce Tobin, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, recently announced that he has formed a group to help him get the permission he needs.
The group, Therapeutic Psilocybin for Canadians, maintains that psilocybin shows potential in helping patients with a terminal disease.
“The strength and consistency of the clinical research to date indicates a strong likelihood that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is a low-risk and effective treatment for end-of-life anxiety,” according to the group’s website.
Tobin told Vice that he is also receiving pro bono assistance from two cannabis attorneys. The legal team plans to argue that there is a legitimate medical need for the treatment and thus a constitutional right for patients to have access to it. It’s a strategy that was used successfully for medical cannabis in Canada after a struggle of many years. But with a more clearly defined focus, Tobin said he expects that the fight to legalize the medicinal use of psilocybin won’t take as long.
“I expect the timeline is going to be much shorter,” Tobin said. “My basic attitude toward this whole thing has been careful, modest steps—slow and steady wins the race. So we have given our project a very narrow focus in terms of what we want to see initially. We’re targeting end-of-life patients for whom nothing else has worked.”
Therapeutic Psilocybin for Canadians is currently only seeking permission to treat terminal cancer patients experiencing debilitating anxiety with psilocybin. But continuing research could find other medicinal uses for psychedelics.
“At this point we are really focused on turning that door handle, and that door at first is going to open just a very thin crack,” Tobin said. “My guess is that once we get that underway we’re going to start seeing news stories coming out about the success in treatment of those patients, and things will begin to broaden out from the focus on end-of-life cancer patients, to end-of-life patients suffering other kinds of serious diseases like HIV-AIDS, and things will continue to broaden out from there.”
Although Tobin admits that he most likely will not receive governmental permission in time to help all of his patients, he has decided not to use psilocybin before he is allowed.
“I’m prepared to stay legal, to completely respect the law,” said Tobin. “We have chosen to emulate the research at Johns Hopkins Medical Center as closely as we possibly can because they are the leaders in the science, and I think the less we invent our own wheel, the more we go with the accepted paradigm, the easier it will be for us, either with Health Canada or later in a court situation.”
Tobin said at an academic conference last week that he decided to act when a dying patient asked him to supervise a psilocybin therapy session.
“I was uncomfortable about breaking the law, but I didn’t want to ignore the suffering of my patients or my ethical duty toward them,” Tobin said. “I thought if I don’t want to break the law, I better try to change the law.”