Patients and campaigners claim that Health Canada is stalling its heels on psilocybin.

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Kirti Pathak
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Health Canada

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Nathan Kruljac, a 25-year-old male, was out for a drive in Surrey, British Columbia, when he noticed some shortness of breath. He visited a walk-in clinic. He has transported to the hospital minutes afterward. After a week of examinations, physicians determined that the patient had follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma. While the disease was finally cured, Kruljac claims he was never completely healed.

He still suffers from trauma and PTSD fifteen years later. Conventional medications and counseling, according to Kruljac, only go so far. As a husband and father, he frequently thinks he fails his four-year-old daughter. Kruljac saw a glimmer of optimism last August when he learned that Health Minister Patty Hajdu had given a legal exception to Saskatchewan cancer sufferer Thomas Hartle, enabling him to use psilocybin as an adjuvant to psychotherapy.

It was the first of perhaps dozen exemptions Hajdu would issue to patients and even some therapists for the hallucinogenic ingredient in magic mushrooms. In 1974, psilocybin was outlawed in Canada. It and the mushrooms that contain it are still prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act (CDSA).

But, thanks to compelling studies at schools such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, psilocybin is currently at the vanguard of a resurgence in psychedelic treatment.

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Kruljac sought for an exemption in March, with the assistance of TheraPsil, a British Columbia-based non-profit that persuaded Hajdu to give the first psilocybin exemption. But, after more than four months, Kruljac has received no response from Hajdu or her department. Hundreds of additional applications appear to be in limbo as well.

Previous exemptions, primarily granted last year to roughly three dozen people and 19 therapists, were generally granted within a few weeks, with some approved in as little as 48 hours. Jim Doswell is one of them. The 67-year-old from Victoria has battled colon cancer as well as T-cell lymphoma. But he is still dealing with the consequences of that struggle, as well as several trying years as a negotiator and senior adviser to a federal deputy minister.

Doswell applied directly to Hajdu for an exception to take psilocybin two months ago. He is still awaiting a response. However, Doswell believes that without the minister's approval, no therapist will be able to treat him. Even those who qualify for an exemption may feel as if they are doing something wrong. In St. John's, a successful teacher claims the procedure for obtaining the exemptions is opaque and arbitrary, making him afraid to divulge his identity.

"My main concern, I suppose, is my job," he said because the exemptions appear to be in the grey area - permissible only under specific situations and because the minister says so. Neither Hajdu nor Health Canada representatives have been able to explain why the application approvals have stopped.

Health Canada stated recently that it is "committed to thoroughly examining each request for an exception... on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant circumstances." Kruljac isn't happy. On Monday, attorneys funded by TheraPsil filed documents in federal court trying to compel Hajdu to respond.

According to TheraPsil CEO Spencer Hawkswell, there is a broader problem at stake than one person's legal capacity to consume psilocybin.

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