After leaving the Catalyst Summit, I am more confident than ever in the governmental and regulatory pathways for legal psychedelic medicine. Here's why.
Last weekend, I attended the Catalyst Summit, a psychedelics conference in Kingston, Ontario. There, I heard from leaders of psychedelic medicine companies, researchers, politicians, representatives of Health Canada—Canada’s version of the FDA—trained psychotherapists, and patients who have been helped by psychedelic medicines.
Through panel discussions, networking events, and even a boat party, I left Kingston with a more holistic grasp of the progress Canada is making toward introducing psychedelic medicines to treat a range of mental health conditions.
The overarching message I departed with, is that the study of psychedelic medicine has institutional buy-in, at least in Canada. Assuming later-stage clinical trials continue to be as positive as earlier-stage trials, it is only a matter of time until these medicines are legalized in specific medical contexts.
But in order to understand this overall impression, I first have to break it down into four key takeaways I had from the conference.
1. Canada Leads the Way
A topic that was constantly discussed was how Canada is leading the world in researching the potential for psychedelics to be used as medicines. This was a sentiment we heard not only from Canadian researchers, business leaders and former politicians, but also from international participants.
Here, the person with the most authority who espoused this sentiment was the Honourable Crispin Blunt, a British Conservative MP who is co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform in the UK Parliament.
Speaking on a panel that included Canadian Independent Senator Larry Campbell—who had earlier admitted his wife secretly dosed his coffee with psilocybin microdoses to treat his depression—Blunt lauded the evidence-based approach that Canadian regulators were taking, allowing for experimentation and study.
An example of this can be seen in Health Canada’s Special Access Program (SAP), which is starting to allow a limited number of patients with chronic conditions—such as depression—who have attempted to treat their condition unsuccessfully multiple times in the past, to receive psilocybin therapy.
2. The Culture Has Shifted
In democracies, there is an ideal that our politicians will be led by the will of the people. In other words, in order for a large policy change to occur, the culture of the nation must first be on-side.
And that is exactly what is happening.
In Canada, the public seems to be ever-more in favor of legalizing psychedelic medicines in specific circumstances. For example, at Catalyst there was much discussion regarding a recent Nanos Research poll, conducted for the Psychedelics Association of Canada, which found that 78% of Canadians “would support a government that legalized psilocybin-assisted therapy to improve the quality of life for palliative and end-of-life patients.”
Part of the buoyant mood stemmed from the understanding that the public was ahead of the government on this matter, and that the government understood this fact.
Another clear sign of the shifting cultural landscape was the celebritization of Paul Stamets, a mycologist and psychonaut. One of the main draws of the event, hundreds of people traveled from across North America–and some from even further–for the chance to meet the now legendary psychedelic trailblazer. While Stamets has long been famous in the psychedelic underground, the fact that he has reached mainstream popularity is a sign of the shifting culture. Heck, he even has a character based on him in the new Star Trek: Discovery TV show: Paul Stamets, astro-mycologist.
3. The Government is Watching (in a Good Way)
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Catalyst Summit was how much Canadian government representation there was.
Not only were there many representatives of Health Canada present, and a sitting Canadian Senator, but an influential former Minister of Health even gave a keynote speech. Dr. Jane Philpott was Justin Trudeau’s Federal Minister of Health from 2015 to 2017, and among her many accomplishments was the legalization of cannabis.
Though she is no longer a member of the governing party—she was booted after refusing to tow the party line in an ethics scandal—Philpott made clear that the current government is watching the advancements of psychedelic medicines closely.
Furthermore, during a panel discussion titled Health Canada: In Conversation, representatives of the regulatory body made it clear that though they may move slowly to ensure that health policy is in line with current scientific evidence, the body was watching developments closely. They had already modified the SAP program mentioned above to give access to psilocybin to a limited number of people, and they were not standing in the way of research conducted by both private companies and universities.
As the evidence becomes more clear with larger clinical studies, access to psychedelic medicines will increase. In other words, there will not be political interference in the decision of what medicines will and won’t be allowed. That will be based on the best scientific evidence available.
4. There is Still a Lot We Need to Figure Out
Despite the above excitement, at Catalyst there was an acknowledgment that we are still closer to the beginning of our journey than we are to the end, and there is much we must figure out before getting to legalized medicinal psychedelics.
First, is the science. Though there have been many positive clinical trials, we still don’t have the answers to many questions. For example, what is the perfect dose level for a psychedelic such as psilocybin? What is the perfect therapy regiment? In which circumstances may one psychedelic be better than another? How frequently should a patient receive psychedelic therapy?
These questions—and hundreds more—are all still in the realm of speculation and we will need dozens, if not hundreds, of more large clinical studies to begin answering them all. Though they do not all need to be answered 100% before medical legalization, it is essential we are armed with as much science as possible before expanding psychedelic treatments to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people.
Next, is the question of financing. Funding the search for answers to the above questions will be very expensive. As in potentially hundreds of millions of dollars expensive. Where will this money come from? Some will come from private investors, but the public sector is being battered right now. How much of the bill should governments foot? Certainly they can fund some of it, but governments are facing many simultaneous crises at the moment, and expecting a huge investment is probably out of the question. Therefore, in order to have the science completed that will convince the regulators, the psychedelics industry needs to become better financed.
Finally, there is also the question of ethics. In the shadow of the MAPS scandal, where several clinical trial participants allege that abuse happened, how do we ensure that future trials are held not only to the highest possible standard of ethics, but also are conducted as transparently as possible? It is essential that we get this right to ensure that there are no lingering questions as we move toward medical legalization.
After leaving the Catalyst Summit, I am more confident in the governmental and regulatory pathways for the legalization of psychedelic medicines in Canada.
If clinical trials for treating mental health conditions continue to be positive—which there is no guarantee of—then it is only a matter of time before medical legalization happens. In that period, however, we need to ensure that all stakeholders in the psychedelic movement, including for-profit companies, research institutions, patients, psychedelic advocates and public servants, work towards answering the open questions examined above.
At the moment, there appears to be institutional buy-in to at least consider the data, from the powers that be in the Canadian political leadership, and the health bureaucracy. This is important, because without this, then even all the positive data in the world would not change our current system. Of course, we need to continue studying the possibilities of psychedelic medicines in the most controlled and transparent manner possible, but the Catalyst Summit left me feeling very positive about the future of psychedelic medicines.