Health Canada denies terminally ill Sask. man permission to continue magic mushroom therapy

Thomas Hartle, who has terminal cancer, hopes he can get another exemption to use psilocybin therapy under a doctor's care to treat his anxiety. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)
Thomas Hartle, who has terminal cancer, hopes he can get another exemption to use psilocybin therapy under a doctor's care to treat his anxiety. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)

After waiting 511 days to find out whether he can continue to use psilocybin therapy under an exception to Canada's drug laws, a Saskatoon man who is terminally ill with cancer got his answer: No.

Thomas Hartle was the first person in Canada to complete a legal therapy session involving psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — to treat his anxiety.

The sessions were life changing, he says, but after one year his permission expired in October 2021 and he had to reapply.

This week, Health Canada responded that they intend to refuse his request.

"My options are really pretty limited," Hartwell said in an interview. "I can either just try to muddle through life without having any treatment or, you know, I would have to seek something in the underground, like so many other people have had to do, although obviously it's a long ways away from my first choice."

Hartle, a 54-year-old father of two, was diagnosed with Stage 4 terminal cancer in 2016. He has found the psilocybin therapy to be by far the most effective, long-lasting treatment to manage his anxieties about death.

In an open letter to Carolyn Bennett, the minister for mental health and addictions, Hartle noted that his form of cancer typically kills patients in about 18 months.

"The length of time you spent waiting on this application is the typical lifespan of someone with my terminal condition," he wrote. "Surely, you can see how cruel this looks to spend the expected lifespan of the patient just watching what he does and says instead of being responsive and helpful?"

AUDIO| Easing the anxiety of a terminal illness with magic mushrooms

Hartle was initially granted an exemption in October 2020 under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to use psilocybin under clinical supervision. After that expired, and while he waited for the response to his renewal request, he was able to access psilocybin through a supporting doctor under Health Canada's special access program (SAP).

However, he had to travel to British Columbia for those sessions, an expense he cannot continue to afford. Plus, the doctor there, Dr. Valorie Masuda, told CBC in December that a SAP representative told her she has been submitting too many applications and must run a clinical trial instead.

Hartle says that puts him in an impossible position.

"Because I managed to find access to an SAP on two occasions, Health Canada is using that as a justification to not give me a Section 56 [exemption]. In the same message, they have said that they recognize that going to B.C. isn't financially viable for me," he said.

"It feels like they're sort of hitting it from both sides. They're using my creativity against me as a reason why I should not get a section 56 [exemption]."

Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada
Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada

The letter from Health Canada, which Hartle provided to CBC, says Hartle should pursue psilocybin through other routes.

"After careful consideration, I intend to refuse your request for a subsequent subsection 56(1) exemption, on the basis that there are existing regulatory pathways through which access to a legal source of psilocybin may be sought, such as SAP," wrote Jennifer Saxe, director general of Health Canada's controlled substances directorate.

Calls for regulations

Spencer Hawksell, president of TheraPsil, a non-profit organization working on providing psilocybin therapy to Canadians in medical need, said he is appalled at the "cruelty" of Health Canada's decision.

It's "almost ironic," Hawksell said, that the same government pushing to expand medical assistance in dying won't respond compassionately in this case.

"The same government is allowing Thomas and people in Thomas's position to choose medical assistance in dying, to access drugs that will certainly stop their heart," Hawksell said. "Yet they won't allow them access to psilocybin and something that has proven, in Thomas's case, to be 100 per cent successful in his treatment."

The solution, says Hawksell, is to regulate psilocybin as cannabis is.

"People should not be waiting on bureaucrats to confirm whether or not a doctor's clinical decision is sound," Hawksell said. "That should be the doctor, and the fact that the government is in the way is only contributing to the suffering and delays such as the one Thomas experienced."