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This two-time cancer survivor has been waiting more than four months to receive a government exemption for psilocybin therapy

At least 15 Canadians, some of whom are facing a terminal diagnosis, are waiting to hear whether or not they will be granted a federal exemption.

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This story first appeared in Weekend Dispensary, a weekly newsletter from The GrowthOp. Signup now to get a story delivered to your inbox every Saturday


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Trevor Smith* has tried almost everything to alleviate his anxiety and treatment-resistant depression. 

The 60-year-old Montreal resident has taken traditional pharmaceuticals, he’s undergone consciousness training, he’s tried yoga, meditation, and wellness retreats. He’s had limited success.

In 2014, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a radical prostatectomy. The physical and mental toll of that experience led to a long bout of depression, only for his cancer to return in 2018. 

Smith’s depression deepened and he grew fearful that his second bout of cancer would end his life. In November 2020, after 36 consecutive radiation treatments, the cancer entered remission. 

Now, every six months, Smith gets blood work done to check his prostatespecific antigen (PSA) level and screen for any signs of recurrence, but he says he lives in constant fear that cancer will return and in a deadlier form.  


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Earlier this year, his psychiatrist suggested he might be an ideal candidate for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. 

In February, with the assistance of TheraPsil, Smith applied for a Section 56(1) exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Over the past year, the non-profit has helped 30 Canadians secure exemptions.

Last August, Thomas Hartle, a father of two in Saskatchewan who has been living with a terminal cancer diagnosis since 2016, became the first Canadian to undergo legal psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy


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For Smith, who says he’s long been interested in trying psychedelic therapy with a trained professional, everything seemed to finally align after submitting his application. 

“It was perfect timing,” he says. “And then Health Canada went on full stall mode.”

It’s now been more than four months since Smith applied for his exemption. In June he followed up directly with Health Minister Patty Hajdu, the lone minister that can grant the exemption.

“I’m aware that you and your team at Health Canada must be overloaded with the ongoing demands of the pandemic, but I would be greatly appreciative if you would greenlight my Section 56 exemption as soon as possible,” he wrote. “My very fragile emotional and physical well-being are highly dependent on it.” 


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He has yet to hear back.

When Smith applied for the exemption at the end of February, applications were being processed about every two to four weeks. On paper, he appeared to be the perfect candidate. TheraPsil was hopeful that he would get a positive response within a week.

Encouraged, Smith and his psychiatrist set a date of May 9 for the initial therapy session, giving them a five-week window just in case there were any delays. As part of his preparation for that session, Smith stopped taking his selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) medications.

“Part of the requirements of doing a psilocybin session is that to really get the maximum benefit you should be off your SSRIs for a minimum of six weeks,” Smith suggests. “And I don’t know if Health Canada really understands that.”


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A 1996 study published in Neuropsychopharmacology found 28 out of 32 individuals who had taken an antidepressant with inhibitory effects on serotonin reuptake for over three weeks had a subjective decrease or virtual elimination of a response to LSD. Another study participant who took an SSRI for one week had an increased response to LSD.

“You have to reset your neurotransmitters in your brain, they have to recalibrate from being on the SSRIs,” Smith says. Having been on antidepressants most of his adult life, he says coming off them was “very frightening.” When May 9 came and went without an exemption it was also disappointing.

He has yet to resume his medication, beyond a small amount of Clonazepam when his anxiety spikes, so he can move ahead with the therapy as quickly as possible, assuming the exemption is granted. 


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He says he’s doing “surprisingly well” but there is collateral damage. 

“I’m experiencing sometimes very high levels of anxiety. I sometimes have a lot of anger coming out and frustration. And I’ve always had sleep problems, but I’m having more chronic insomnia,” he says. 

To complicate matters further, his psychiatrist is shutting down his practice in September and moving out of the country. 

“I’m caught in a bit of a bind,” Smith says, adding that he has a “built-in end date.”

He’s not the only one. 

TheraPsil says there are 15 patients they have supported who are currently waiting to hear whether or not they will be granted an exemption. Some of those patients are facing terminal diagnoses and, like Smith, have been waiting more than 100 days for a response. 


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“Palliative patients who are on the waiting list, they have a built-in end date, too, and it’s called their life,” Smith says. “I never anticipated this. If you would have told me in February, that I’d be sitting here at the end of June without an exemption, I would have been shocked. And I would have maybe said, ‘Geez, is this worth going through?’”

Spencer Hawskwell, CEO of TheraPsil, says that delaying the applications appears to be a new approach from the government.

“There was a time when people with the same diagnosis were given responses in a number of days,” he says. “So it’s a real shame. And it’s bringing a lot of people to a point where they’re threatening with court.”

In fact, Hawkswell says there are a number of Canadians who have applications in limbo who have offered a deadline to the government before they look into legal action. That deadline has since passed. 


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In support, Hawkswell points to Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says every Canadian has the right to life, liberty and security of persons. Canadians have the freedom not to be “under a scope of the law or to be possibly at risk of committing a crime, in accessing medicine,” he says. 

“In past cannabis cases, that’s the way it’s been interpreted. And there’s very little reason to believe that they wouldn’t interpret access to psilocybin the same way,” Hawkswell says. 

He also notes Section 15 of the Charter, which protects Canadians from discrimination based on race, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, sex, age or physical or mental disability. 

“That’s exactly what’s happening here,” he says. “What warrants access to psilocybin and what doesn’t? Why do some palliative patients get it while others don’t? Why do some patients in remission for cancer get access while others don’t? It’s discrimination. And I think that’s the issue here that has got to be solved.”

For Smith, who has now been waiting more than 125 days for a response, he says he worries about “falling into a full-blown chemical depression” and having to go back on medication only to stop again ahead of his first session. 

“Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet,” he says. “But it’s been a real high wire act. And this is the one thing that I don’t think Health Canada realizes. Some days I’ve been really worried.”

*Note: Smith’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.


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