“Do you like to get high? I’m too afraid to try.” These words are permanently etched onto my brain after growing up a fanatic of Big Sugar, listening to Gordie Johnson croon such lines over my speakers while listening to “The Scene” from their 1998 release, Heated. One can only guess as to which of the cornucopia of drugs Gordie was referring to, however, now that our country has legal access to such drugs as caffeine, alcohol, and cannabis, we should look to the future of what Gordie might be afraid to try.
This is because in Canada, a psychedelic drug renaissance is quietly building momentum, based on the results of exceptionally promising mental health research. Compounds such as psilocybin (the fun stuff in magic mushrooms), lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD or acid), and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (the non-scary and euphoric part of ecstasy… though strictly defined as more of a cousin as opposed to a true psychedelic) are currently being explored by the scientific community as potential saviors to a society plagued by mental health issues.
Many of these substances were not criminalized until the war on drugs was established in the early 1970s with the signing of the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Prior to this, these drugs were the fuel that guided much of the peace and love movement of the 60s. In fact, many point to the US government’s desire to target groups such as hippies and people of colour as the impetus for the war on drugs; it gave police the ability to search and arrest “suspicious individuals” on the grounds of such drug-related charges. And sadly, the loud voice of Timothy Leary and his army of psychonaut followers were all too easy a target for these new policies… leading to a long winter on understanding the value of psychedelics. While Leary and others were conducting their own research on the positive effects of psychedelics on expanding consciousness, creativity, and coping with trauma, catch phrases such as “turn on, tune in, drop out” became frightening war cries on the ears of many scared conservative parents.
This time around, the psychedelics movement is quieter, more careful, more rigorous, and yet potentially more ambitious. Leading the way are organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who are bringing psychedelics back into prominent discussion in the biggest way since the 1960s. This is because MAPS understands the value of these compounds for addressing issues as far ranging as PTSD, eating disorders, anxiety, addiction, and even end-of-life care. The promising results that are beginning to emerge are too important to leave to polarizing voices such as Leary’s, and instead have been replaced by the cold, rigorous, professional voices of a small army of dedicated researchers.
Canada is playing key roles within this army. With our slightly more relaxed drug laws, world-class academic institutions, and history of psychedelic research, countless universities across the countries are beginning their own investigation into the power of fungi and synthetic chemicals. Researchers at U Vic are exploring MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. A team from Laurentian showed that ayahuasca might be a potent therapy for difficult eating disorders. A U of T study investigated the effects of microdosing LSD and psylocibin on reducing anxiety and improving focus.
And perhaps most excitingly, a recent article out of the UK in the Journal of Psychopharmacology is helping to alleviate many of the concerns surrounding this work. In a randomized, double-blind, controlled study with healthy participants, researchers were able to show that moderate doses of psilocybin (the psychoactive component found in some mushrooms) were well tolerated and didn’t have any short or long term negative effects on cognition or emotional processing. This study is a welcome scientifically rigorous checkmark for what any regular user was well aware of: shrooms really aren’t that dangerous. Though it is an atrocity that possession of these substances enables the prosecution of people to a degree similar to murdering someone in many countries, studies such as this one are becoming increasingly common and are showing the gradual shifting of our society towards an acknowledgement of the power of these tools. While it may not be safe to grow, sell, buy, or possess psychedelic mushrooms, at least this recent study seems to indicate that it’s safe to use them, and other research shows that such compounds may be the answer to the growing deluge of mental health challenges plaguing our society.