Psychedelics and mental health research: hope for public and policy support

Jamaica is attempting to make itself as synonymous with medical-grade psychedelics in the minds of researchers as it is with cannabis production in the minds of many.

In 2021 Jamaica hosted its inaugural Psychedelics Summit, where its minister of Agriculture and Fisheries at the time, Floyd Green, spoke about building links between agriculture and the country’s wellness industry, and exploring the “healing, transformative and transcendent qualities” of psychedelics. “We want to train our community groups as growers so that Jamaica can become the psychedelics mecca of the Caribbean,” said the ministry.

Interestingly, the country now appears to now be friendlier to the product of compounds such as psilocybin than it has been to the legal production of cannabinoids. This may be because of the massive lucrative economic opportunity with few competitors it sees in psychedelics compared to cannabis, though it could be said to be perhaps taking an overly optimistic view.

“Jamaica is excited about psychedelics and tapping into this industry which is predicted to reach US$10.75 billion in value by 2027,” declares the Facebook page of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

 

Agriculture workaround can lead to medical trials

 

One company that has been leveraging Jamaica’s favourable regulatory climate is the Canadian biotechnology firm Havn Life Sciences, which opened a psychedelic mushroom lab in Jamaica in February 2021 to grow mushrooms as an agricultural (rather than medical) product for clinical trials in the US and Canada.

Growing as an agricultural product allows the company to work within lesser licensing and compliance parameters – though the end product must still meet the same minimum medical quality standards and can be sold only to licensed entities.

“We still need to work within the regulatory framework and quality control for agricultural production, but at least we’re allowed to grow them, and the government isn’t holding us up with excessive paperwork,” said Ivan Casselman, chief psychedelic officer and co-founder of Havn Life Sciences.

Havn is exporting “naturally” derived psilocybin from its facility in Jamaica into Canada and the US to research its efficacy as an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) to support brain health and treat mental health conditions.

“There’s currently a deficit of supply in the market,” Casselman added, “because there’s a lot of interest in researching the benefits of psychedelics, but there isn’t a lot of high-quality product for clinical trials.”

The idea is that the science will inform the policy, which will then inform the bureaucrats, a process Casselman describes as “glacially slow”, although small shifts are happening.

“The government puts blocks in our way,” he said. “Health Canada, for example, is a very conservative organisation, but it has taken some slow steps toward more reasonable access.”

 

Policy and public perception bring challenges

 

One policy-related step that has eased up the paperwork for Havn and other researchers is outlined in Section 56 of Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This now permits “practitioners, agents, pharmacists, persons in charge of a hospital, hospital employees, and licensed dealers to conduct activities with psilocybin and MDMA in relation to a special access program authorisation”.

Havn has also been interacting with policy groups to support further progress – both inside and outside Canada. Such groups include the UK’s Drug Science Group and Conservative Drug Reform policy group, as well as Heroic Hearts – a not-for-profit organisation with branches in the UK, the US and Canada which connects military and emergency services veterans struggling with mental trauma to pioneering therapy services, including psychedelics.

Casselman’s goal is to weed out misinformation and myths, and increase acceptance and education among authorities and regulators.

“We have to help the regulators because they’re always going to be playing catch-up,” said Casselman.

But getting the authorities to accept the use of the psychedelics to treat severe mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or treatment-resistant depression is one challenge, while gaining mainstream acceptance for their use to treat less severe cases of anxiety and depression is another entirely. Still, Casselman remains hopeful.

“Severe cases of trauma such as veterans suffering from PTSD are the tip of the spear, and as psychedelics prove their efficacy in treating these within a clinical environment, acceptance will grow,” he said.

Casselman’s long-term vision for the future is one in which consumers can buy their own supply of microdose psychedelics from easily reached convenient dispensaries to relieve their underlying anxiety or stress.

“Life is stressful, and mental health issues have been on the rise for the last decade,” he added. “The pharmaceutical industry does not have effective treatments for mental health, and talk therapy takes a long time.”

 

Growing up out of the war on drugs

 

Microdosing is an important part of educating consumers because it busts the myth and stereotypes of “bad trips”, which are often portrayed in films – an experience Casselman compares to binge drinking alcohol versus having a glass of wine with a meal.

“If a person had never taken psychedelics and was given a big dose, that could be dangerous and it’s something we should be scared of,” he said. “Traditional cultures give their young people societal training in how to use substances such as ayahuasca, but we haven’t been trained outside of movies, and they never seem to get it right.”

After the surge of interest in the 1960s and 1970s, the “war on drugs” campaign led by the US government shut down years of important research into psychedelics, but modern-day investigators are now drawing and building on those studies, and there is now a core group of politicians who understand the benefits.

It’s  noteworthy that support for psychedelics is also coming from a wider variety of sources, with politicians who would normally be on the prohibitionist side of drug policy wanting to look into the potential of psychedelics as an option for groups like military veterans, and many traditional opponents within the established pharmaceutical/medical field saying it’s worth seeing if psychedelics prove to be more efficient than current treatments.

“In the 1960s no industry would touch psychedelics, but now we’re seeing researchers, industry and regulators wanting to push to push this forward,” said Casselman. “It’s the political right identifying the case for psychedelics now, so it’s the opposite of the 1960s.”

Casselman hopes the science will prove this to be the case. He believes it will demonstrate mushroom-derived psychedelics to be an overall cheaper, more effective solution than current pharmaceutical antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Casselman remains an overall optimist. He predicts that in Canada, the next step in the process of normalisation – comprehensive regulation that will allow patients to have access to psychedelics for medical purposes – will be in place in the very near future, perhaps even by the end of next year.

  • Ivan Casselman will be speaking at Lift&Co. Expo in Toronto, Canada, from 12th to 15th May 2022.

Lorraine Mullaney CBD-Intel staff

Photo: Havn Life Sciences

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