Canada Steps Ahead of U.S. On Psychedelic Drug Legalization

Still following the U.S. playbook for legalization.

Canada was the first country on the North American continent to legalize cannabis. Now the country is on the same path with psychedelics, effectively mirroring the step-by-step psychedelics legalization efforts in the U.S. while moving the needle toward broader legalization ever so slightly.

On October 17, 2018, Canadians voted to legalize cannabis across the entire country, six years after the first U.S. state did the same thing (Colorado). But recreational legalization of cannabis for the entire U.S. is still years away—Missouri just became the 21st state to do so, but many states are still fighting efforts to simply legalize medical cannabis (cannabis is still completely illegal in Kansas, Wyoming, Idaho, and South Carolina).

Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin (2020), getting a jump on Canada’s efforts. Now in the U.S., there are 17 states and municipalities that have either legalized psychedelics (such as in Oregon and Colorado); decriminalized psychedelics at some level; or are working on legislation to do one or both. 

But Canada just jumped ahead of the U.S., going one step further toward psychedelics legalization.

SAP Program

On January 5, Health Canada amended its Food and Drug Regulations to allow practitioners to request access to previously prohibited drugs such as psilocybin, MDMA, and other psychedelic treatments through the country’s Special Access Program (SAP) for drugs. The amendment reversed a policy from 2013 that prohibited special access to restricted drugs. 

Through the SAP, practitioners may request access to drugs that are unavailable in Canada for treating their patients with serious or life-threatening conditions when conventional treatments have failed or are unsuitable or unavailable. 

Requests to the SAP are assessed on a case-by-case basis according to scientific evidence, including evidence about the safety and efficacy of the substance for the treatment of the patient’s specific condition. 

Nearly all comments requested by the Canadian government about the proposed amendment to the Food and Drug Regulations and Narcotic Control Regulations in December 2021, supported the proposed regulatory amendment and increased access to psychedelic substances more broadly. The department received very little opposition to the amendment proposal, making up less than 2 percent of all responses.

And in April, a non-profit organization advocating for legal and regulated psilocybin therapy in Canada, TheraPsil, became the first organization to receive authorization through the Canadian SAP to treat six patients experiencing end-of-life distress with psilocybin and psychotherapy.

These six patients were subsequently treated by Roots to Thrive, Canada’s first and only multidisciplinary, non-profit healthcare practice to legally offer group therapy programs for treating trauma, and includes the option of psilocybin-assisted and ketamine-assisted group therapy. 

But the legalization movement in Canada is poised to get even better.

2023 Treatment Begins

On January 16, 2023, regulations allowing Alberta to be the first province in the country to regulate the use of psychedelics, such as psilocybin, psilocin, MDMA, LSD, mescaline (peyote), DMT, 5 methoxy DMT and ketamine, to treat psychiatric disorders will come into effect.

Canadians are also watching and learning from the U.S. decriminalization and legalization actions.

In fact, on May 31, 2022, at the request of the province of British Columbia., the Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health announced the granting of a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) so that adults (18 and older) in the province will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs for personal use. The exemption begins on January 31, 2023

It’s the first province of Canada to take this step toward decriminalization. 

It is expected that the U.S. and Canada together will more closely track developments in drug reform, in part based on a new effort of health and wellness cooperation as evidenced by a white paper released by the Health Working Group under the Joint Action Plan, an initiative under the 2021 Roadmap for a Renewed Canada-U.S. Partnership by President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau.

Canada’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, visited the U.S. in August for five days, where she caught up on what Oregon was doing, commenting in a tweet: “A key aspect of drug policy changes is making sure we are capturing data on the impacts of these reforms. So great to speak to @OregonCJC’s RD, Kelly Officer, about their data collection and analysis of the criminal justice impacts of decriminalization.”

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.


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