Open this photo in gallery:Police raid the Fun Guyz magic mushroom store for the third time on Aug. 3 in Montreal. The shop specializes in hallucinogenic mushrooms which are illegal in Quebec.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Last week, Vancouver police raided three stores that have been openly selling “magic mushrooms” and other psychedelic drugs for years.

In recent months, similar raids have happened across the country, mostly at mushroom dispensaries with names like Fun Guyz and Shroomyz, in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton and elsewhere.

Yet, nothing much ever comes of these raids and the stores continue to operate and proliferate.

It all has an early 1990s feel to it, when owners of “medicinal cannabis” shops openly defied police and mounted legal challenges to archaic drug laws.

In 2000, Ontario’s top court ruled on the case of Terrance Parker, who used cannabis to control his epilepsy, saying that it was unconstitutional for him to have to choose between his health and imprisonment. Shortly after, the federal government formally regulated the use of medical cannabis. Years of widespread public acceptance led to the legalization of recreational cannabis in 2018.

Will history repeat itself? Will psychedelic drugs like psilocybin eventually be legalized?

Probably. And it’s a shame we’re going to waste countless police and court resources to get there when policy-makers and politicians could instead be proactive.

Prohibition has never worked, and it never will.

The Supreme Court has also made it abundantly clear that, under Canada’s Charter of Rights of Freedoms, individuals have pretty broad leeway to a) put whatever substances they want into their bodies, and b) that access to care must be straightforward and equitable.

The learned justices said so when they struck down unduly restrictive prohibitions to medical cannabis and to medical assistance in dying. And they would almost certainly say so if we continue to restrict access to psychedelics for people who find them helpful to treat conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like medical cannabis, the evidence for the benefits of psychedelics is not especially strong, but the potential harms are also minimal. If benefits outweigh harms, what justification is there for denying access to patients?

To date, the response of governments to psychedelics has mirrored that to medical cannabis – creating bureaucratic hurdles. Health Canada has allowed some patients to buy the drugs legally, either by applying for apersonal exemption (few of which are granted) or by requesting “special access” via their physician.

But most people who want to self-medicate with magic mushrooms can’t be bothered with onerous paperwork and intrusive scrutiny. Hence the popularity of dispensaries.

Health Canada has also approved about two dozen clinical trials. But it has blocked many more researchers from studying the popular drugs, creating frustration.

Meanwhile, as with cannabis, the public relations war is being won, hands-down, by activists. They have powerful anecdotal stories about the benefits of psychedelics, often told by military veterans with war wounds like PTSD.

Investors are also salivating about the possibilities, with the market for psychedelics estimated at US$7-billion by 2027, according to Data Bridge Market Research. Every hip venture capitalist is betting big on ‘shrooms.

The danger is that, like cannabis, we see an orgy of get-rich-quick ventures, and patients get trampled in the capitalist stampede. We’re already seeing a flurry of clinics making outrageous claims and offering dubious psychedelic therapies. These clinics have the potential to do a lot more harm than storefronts selling microdosing kits to consumers who are generally quite well-informed.

Broader decriminalization of drugs is coming because the war on drugs has been an abject failure. But there will be some growing pains.

B.C. is in the midst of a three-year pilot project where anyone can possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy) or similar drugs. Trafficking, production and exportation of these drugs is still a crime. So far, the change seems to have made little difference, good or bad. No single measure will resolve the toxic drug crisis. But psychedelics are the least of our worries.

Where drug use is more public, governments have responded with restrictions on where drugs can be used – not near schools, daycares, playgrounds, splash pads, skateboard parks, and other places children congregate. That’s good policy.

Decriminalization shouldn’t be a free-for-all. We regulate where other drugs – alcohol, tobacco, cannabis – can be used; we should do the same with other drugs. We also need to make spaces available for safer drug use; proportionally, we need as many safe consumption sites as the population of drug users demands.

In the end, a drug is a drug is a drug. People should be free to use whatever drugs they choose. Public policy responses should focus on education and public safety, not stigmatization and criminalization.

 Psychedelics activists are following the cannabis playbook and looking to challenge outdated and draconian drug laws  Read More