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Are magic mushroom stores the next pot shops?

By Heather Wright, CTV National News Correspondent

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    TORONTO (CTV Network) — There’s no hiding what’s being sold inside Shroomyz Dispensary in downtown Toronto. A giant rainbow mushroom covers the windows, with a sign below inviting customers to “walk into a new reality.”

The shop is one of three locations the company has in Ontario, and there are plans to expand further.

“We are operating a medical protest,” James, who would only give his first name as what he and the others who work at Shroomyz are doing is illegal, told CTV National News.

“We are here to give the public easier access than having to go to street dealers,” James said. “It’s a safer alternative.”

Magic mushroom dispensaries are popping up in cities across Canada, with customers ranging from those looking for treatment for depression or PTSD to people wanting to “micro-dose” a small amount of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms.

A Shroomyz locations was raided by Toronto police on Nov. 13, 2022, a couple of months after it opened. Two men were arrested and charged with drug and trafficking related offences. The store re-opened two days later.

“We all know the risk that’s here,” James said. “It’s all fighting for the cause, to legalize it.”

While the situation is in some ways reminiscent of when cannabis retailers set up shop before marijuana was legalized in 2018, Health Canada says there are no plans to legalize or decriminalize psilocybin products.

“Health Canada is aware of increasing interest in the potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin,” the federal agency wrote in a statement, adding “there are no approved therapeutic products containing magic mushrooms or psilocybin in Canada or elsewhere.”

While legislative and regulatory changes are not planned, there also appears to be little effort to stop people from opening dispensaries and selling products containing psilocybin.

It’s a frustrating situation for Thomas Hartle, who has Stage 4 cancer that’s terminal. In 2020, the Saskatoon man became the first person in Canada to legally gain access to psilocybin-assisted therapy to help deal with his end-of-life anxiety.

“I don’t really know when the end is going to come for me,” Hartle told CTV National News. “And there isn’t really anything I can do about that. The looming nature of that gives me really bad anxiety, as you might imagine.”

Hartle says traditional medication helped take “the peaks” off the anxiety, but they also numbed him to other emotions like joy and love, things he wants to experience with his family as much as possible. For him, psilocybin-assisted therapy helped ease his anxiety without compromising other emotions.

But his legal exemption for psilocybin expired more than a year ago, and Health Canada has not responded to his renewal application. As he waits for a legal way to obtain psilocybin he’s watching an illegal market grow.

“It seems a push in the wrong direction, to be encouraging Canadians to do something illegal,” he said.

Hartle and six others are taking the federal government to court, challenging the constitutionality of the current controlled substance status of psilocybin, calling it a roadblock to health care. Hartle says he could access doctor-assisted death in a matter of weeks, yet is being prevented from accessing a drug that could improve the life he wants to keep living.

“It has taken 400 or 500 days to try to get access to a therapy that will improve my quality of life,” he said.

Health Canada says the best way to access psilocybin is through a clinical trial, of which a number are being conducted. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto just began a three year clinical trial looking at whether psilocybin can be an effective treatment for mental health issues like depression without the psychedelic effect.

While other studies have shown some promising results, CAMH clinician scientist and psychiatrist Dr. Ishrat Husain says much more “robust science” is needed to determine the safety of psilocybin.

“I’m concerned about the increase in access to psilocybin and other psychedelics,” Dr. Husain told CTV National News. “We don’t know who it’s helpful for, who it’s safe to use in. And you often don’t know what you’re getting when you’re getting it from these dispensaries.”

Some argue legalizing psilocybin would lead to more regulation and a safer drug supply, pointing to the legalization of cannabis as a roadmap. But Dr. Husain says there are key differences, especially given the psychedelic nature of psilocybin.

“I don’t see it becoming a product that would be suitable for personal consumption,” he said. “My view is that it will be hopefully a treatment option because we definitely need more, but it will probably be delivered at places like CAMH with the proper support.”

But with thousands of Canadians experimenting with “micro-dosing,” the shops and websites supplying them magic mushrooms have no plans to stop.

“We are trying to give accessibility to the people who need it,” said James.

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