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Eric probably isn’t the first person you’d think of if you were asked to imagine someone who regularly takes psychedelics.
A lanky man in his 30s, Eric works an office job in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He enjoys reading, working out, and staying active. He also regularly microdoses by ingesting small amounts of psilocybin — the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic “magic” mushrooms — for its supposed therapeutic effects.
Microdosing is the practice of ingesting about one-tenth of the amount of a substance usually taken for a recreational dose. It’s a growing trend among people looking to reap its supposed benefits, especially for those who want to avoid using pharmaceutical drugs to treat diagnosed or undiagnosed anxiety, ADHD or depression.
It is, however, still an illegal substance in Canada. Besides the threat of jail time, users often deal with stigma from friends, family, and employers. Eric, Syrah Bailey, and Kelsey Chamberlain are just a few Manitobans who say they have experienced the benefits of psilocybin but have no legal way of accessing it.
Eric’s microdosing journey started almost a year ago, when his barber told him about their positive experience with microdosing.
“I’d heard about it before, and it was something I wanted to dabble in, so I decided to give it a shot,” Eric said.
Eric then began a month-long microdosing experiment.
He wanted to see how he would feel: would psilocybin improve his mood, calm his social anxiety, and live up to any of the hype? For one month, Eric took psilocybin mushrooms on a two-days-on-one-day-off schedule, taking varying doses between 50 to 300 milligrams.
“I wanted to try a strict regimen and see how it affected me,” he said. “Would I be more productive at work? Would I do better in terms of athletic performance?”
Eric said the answer was yes.
After one month, Eric reported increased comfort in social situations, a boost in motivation, and an overall feeling of presence and connection to others.
Eric would take psilocybin on days when he was working. He would take a dose and then go for a coffee, grab lunch or go to a meeting. He says the affect it had on him was noticeable.
“I was a lot calmer, more focused,” he said. “I found that it almost took the edge off, like a drink would, but it wasn’t impairing at all.”
To Eric’s surprise, even his running times improved.
“I felt stronger and had more stamina,” he said. “It was also easier to talk with people — I didn’t feel as much of a barrier between myself and others.”
Eric eventually stopped his microdosing routine, feeling he didn’t need to continue a strict regimen. These days, Eric only microdoses occasionally to alleviate anxiety, usually before going out with friends.
“It’s almost like putting life on easy mode,” he said.
Microdosing is Trending
Taking a full dose of psilocybin or LSD usually results in a user experiencing a four-to-six hour “trip,” a psychedelic experience often accompanied by intense visuals, heightened senses, and distorted perception.
In 2019, Health Canada found that two per cent of Canadians had consumed hallucinogens in the last year, with consumption being higher among young adults aged 20 to 24. According to Health Canada’s Drug Analysis Service, the number of instances that psilocybin is seized in Canada has also been increasing, from 995 identifications in 2020 to 1,558 identifications in 2022.
A rising number of young people, not just in Canada, but around the world, are using psychedelics. In 2022, the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health conducted a study that found hallucinogen use in the U.S. had increased considerably since 2015 among adults aged 26 and older.
It is harder to find reliable research on how many of these people are microdosing, which usually has little-to-no hallucinogenic effects. Microdosers often report feelings of being grounded, motivated, and significantly less anxious or depressed, and while little is known about the long-term effects of microdosing, it hasn’t stopped the practice from gaining popularity.
In a 2022 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers found that 63.6 per cent of psilocybin users were taking the substance for general mental health and well-being, while 31.8 per cent were using it to self-medicate a medical diagnosis.
In 2021, the Global Drug Survey based in London found that one in four people that had used psychedelics recreationally in the last 12 months were microdosing for their mental health. Almost half of the respondents that were currently microdosing and taking medications for their mental health reported they had either reduced or stopped their medications entirely.
In Canada, a company called Gwella Mushrooms, which advocates for the use of psilocybin, ran a survey that found 91 per cent of 1000 respondents across North America were microdosing for mental health reasons, and were attributing it to pandemic stress.
These surveys suggested that for most people, microdosing wasn’t just an experiment or an attempt to be adventurous. Young people were microdosing to improve their mental health.
Although COVID-19 anxieties may have decreased, people are still microdosing. Some young adults say they have found it helpful in alleviating anxiety, and now regularly take psychedelic mushrooms to stabilize their moods.
Psilocybin, however, is still an illegal substance, and Canadians must break the law when they obtain it. Without medical exemption, possessing psilocybin for the purpose of consumption can result in up to three years of jail time.
When Stigma Strikes
Syrah Bailey, a graduate of Red River College Polytechnic’s Digital Media Design program, has been experimenting with psilocybin for about two years. After her first experience with a hallucinogenic dose, she wanted to try microdosing. Last year, she started taking smaller doses.
“I didn’t really want much of the visual effect. I don’t do it too often, but any time I need to reconnect and ground myself,” she said.
Syrah struggles with anxiety. She said microdosing psilocybin has been a way to calm that anxiety.
“When I started micro-dosing, I noticed a feeling like a calm wave; a light feeling is how I describe it,” she said.
Syrah said microdosing is what allows her to disconnect from everything else and reconnect with her emotions. In the past few years, she said psilocybin has helped her overall anxiety, and even helped her reconnect with her family.
Syrah said her dad was the one to introduce her to psychedelics, and she credits psilocybin with bringing them closer together.
“It’s helped him, he’s changed so much. It’s helped my whole family reconnect,” she said.
While she said that the benefits of psilocybin changed her life, Syrah’s also experienced her fair share of stigma. She’s noticed that when she mentions microdosing, some people tend to “move away” or become uncomfortable.
“Their body language or posture is going to change,” Syrah said.
“It alters the way people think of you, but people don’t really know what it’s actually like, what the effects are — that it’s not bad and doesn’t make people crazy,” she said.
Syrah has felt this stigma among acquaintances, and even around her own dinner table. One of these moments happened when her dad mentioned taking psilocybin at a family dinner in front of her grandparents.
“It accidentally slipped out. You immediately see facial expressions change. [My grandmother] was like, ‘what do you mean, you’re doing drugs?’”
Syrah believes that the stigma surrounding psilocybin won’t disappear until it’s fully legalized.
“People don’t want to be criminals. They’re just doing it to help themselves with their internal issues, with mental illness,” she said.
“But it’s getting better, even just in the past year. There are lots of new studies, people are starting to get on that train. Attitudes aren’t as bad as you think,” she said.
Who’s War on Drugs? Policy in Canada and the United States of America During Prohibition
Although attitudes around psilocybin seem to be changing through an increase in studies and research, distrust still looms over users and researchers today.
This distrust can be traced all the way back to the 60s and 70s.
In the 1960s, scientists began studying psychedelics. LSD had recently been invented, psilocybin was newly discovered by Western researchers, and people were embracing psychedelics as a new frontier in medical research. The youth embraced it as well. Both LSD and psilocybin quickly gained popularity among young people, musicians, and political activists.
Its rise in popularity among activists was especially controversial, leading politicians and policymakers to prohibit LSD and psilocybin.
Through the Controlled Substances Act, U.S. president Richard Nixon criminalized a wide range of psychoactive and psychedelic drugs, including cannabis, psilocybin, and LSD. Cannabis and psilocybin were declared Schedule I substances — the most dangerous category of drugs.
After the Controlled Substances Act passed, Nixon officially declared that a “war on drugs” had begun, beginning a movement that increased the presence of federal drug control agencies and introduced legislation targeting marginalized communities with mandatory sentencing and “no-knock” warrants.
This “war on drugs” quickly spread to Canada. When the United Nations introduced the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, Canada signed on and incorporated Section 5 into its laws, prohibiting drugs like LSD and DMT.
By 1974, psilocybin was added to the list. Under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the Narcotic Control Act, psychedelic drugs were prohibited in Canada.
Research Efforts in Canada Before Prohibition
Before psychedelics were criminalized in Canada, research into their medical use was widespread.
In 1944, Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas recruited psychiatrists to develop a psychiatry research program as part of a massive health-care reform effort. This initiative led to psychiatrist Dr. Abram Hoffer and his colleague, Dr. Humphry Osmond to recommending LSD as a potential treatment for mental health issues.
Hoffer and Osmond administered LSD to a group of 2,000 patients. After two years, they found that the patients with alcohol use disorder had 50 to 90 per cent recovery rates — a groundbreaking discovery.
During this period, the Saskatchewan government supported research into psychedelics by providing researchers with grants and, often at no cost, LSD. Studies were published on psychedelic drugs’ effect on addiction, depression and even metabolism.
Research in other provinces was also flourishing. In New Westminster, British Columbia, a private psychedelic clinic known as the “Hollywood Hospital” became a hotspot for LSD research. Between 1957 to 1975, more than 6,000 supervised LSD trips took place.
Despite meaningful results from the research, growing fear around recreational psychedelics eventually caused policymakers to introduce new laws. Psychedelic research was stopped in its tracks, beginning the legacy of distrust that follows researchers and users today.
A Renaissance in Psychedelic Research
Attitudes towards psychedelic research have gradually been changing since “the war on drugs” and its onslaught of anti-drug legislation.
In 1992, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed for the resumption of research into psychedelics, letting a group of researchers obtain Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) permission to study psilocybin for the first time. This encouraged more researchers to follow.
In 2017, the peer-reviewed medical journal Mental Health Clinician cited several studies that showed promising findings on psilocybin’s effectiveness. One study used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) to show that past-year suicidal thinking and planning were lower in those that took psilocybin. Their research also found that odds of past-month psychological distress were significantly lower in the psilocybin-taking group.
As the demand for research grows, Canadian policy has gradually shifted to accommodate researchers.
In 2020, Health Canada granted 16 healthcare professionals permission to use psilocybin in developing therapies. And in 2022, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) received Canada’s first federal grant to study psilocybin and its effect on treatment-resistant depression.
Slowly, policy makers are changing their minds about psychedelics. But what about microdosing?
Some studies have shown promising results. According to a 2022 article in Scientific Reports, one study that assessed 98 microdosers for six weeks found that participants had improvements in psychological functioning. They recorded reductions in stress, depression, and distractibility. A subsequent study that assessed 81 participants who microdosed for four weeks saw similar results — participants reported experiencing enhanced emotional stability and decreased anxiety and depression. And in 2019, a study published in the Harm Reduction Journal found that people who microdosed had improvements in mood and focus.
Despite positive findings from multiple studies, not identifying whether a “placebo effect” is present makes it difficult to determine their accuracy. In a 2021 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers tried to address this problem by comparing the claims of two groups — one that received psilocybin, and a placebo group that only thought they had received it.
In this case, researchers found that psilocybin didn’t affect emotions or symptoms of anxiety any differently than the placebo group. Participants in both groups reported the same results, showing that expectancy and the “placebo effect” can affect a user’s perception.
Besides the uncertainty of whether microdosing psilocybin actually works, long-term effects are still largely unknown. But this hasn’t stopped some people from trying to treat their mental health concerns with psilocybin.
When Some Medications Just Don’t Fit
Kelsey Chamberlain is a 24-year-old. She microdoses regularly, a practice she began after deciding that pharmaceutical drugs were hurting her more than helping.
While attending the University of Regina, Kelsey struggled with her workload. She was dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, depression, and what she thought might be ADHD.
“My biggest hurdle was trying to get through university. I had a hard time focusing and getting stuff done,” she said.
Knowing she needed help, Kelsey sought out a diagnosis from her doctor, who she says evaluated her too quickly.
“My doctor was prescribing me [medications] to treat what was immediately evident to him,” she said. “I just told him I’m a student. These are my stresses; this is what’s going on.”
Kelsey’s doctor prescribed her Concerta Oral and sent her on her way. Concerta Oral is a drug often prescribed for people with ADHD, but for Kelsey, taking it made her feel uncomfortable — too “amped up,” she said — and the thought of its addictive quality worried her.
“From [the doctor’s] perspective, he just says to himself, ‘okay, you’re a struggling student, and you need to focus; I’m going to give you this prescription’ without genuinely caring about what that could do to me in the long term,” she said.
After weening herself off Concerta Oral, Kelsey said she decided to try a different approach to managing her symptoms — microdosing psilocybin.
She began microdosing regularly to treat her symptoms, a method she said she prefers to pharmaceutical drugs.
“The drug that I was on for a while is essentially legal meth, which is terrifying. The come down symptoms from that were no fun at all. The symptoms of psilocybin are way less and more manageable than any kind of pills that a doctor would prescribe,” she said.
For Kelsey, psilocybin gave her the ability to manage her symptoms without risking the side-effects of ADHD medication. Microdosing psilocybin has, in her experience, led to greatly reduced symptoms, and an overall improvement in her quality of life.
When she microdoses, Kelsey said she’s much more aware of her “emotions and her body.”
“I’m much more present in my physical body. If I start to feel like my heart’s racing, or I’m feeling anxious, I can pick up on those changes,” she said.
This awareness is a stark contrast to periods of her life when she didn’t microdose.
“If I’m not [microdosing], I’ll just find myself in a bad mood at the end of the day. And I’m kind of like, ‘where the heck did this come from?’” she said.
“At the end of the day is kind of when I start to ruminate over things that happened. But if I microdose, I feel like I’m much more aware of when my mood changes, or if something throws me off,” she said.
Kelsey sources her psilocybin from online stores that operate out of British Columbia, but she often worries about the reliability of these sites.
“Nothing about what you’re buying is guaranteed,” Kelsey said. “That’s scary for me.”
She said that not being able to find a reliable source online is why she had to take a temporary break from microdosing.
“I don’t like to not know who I’m buying from. Ordering online is difficult, it can be sketchy,” she said.
Now that she’s found a reliable source that some of her friends use, Kelsey feels more comfortable shopping online, but the lack of access still concerns her.
“I’ve found a few good online sites that I trust, but if anything were to ever happen to those sites, I’d be screwed,” she said.
Who Gets Special Access?
Canadians’ options for obtaining psilocybin are limited, but some avenues still exist.
In 2022, Health Canada reinstated its Special Access Program — a program that had been abolished in 2013. Its main purpose is allowing health-care experts to request restricted drugs for the purpose of treating patients. Patients struggling with life-threatening conditions or serious, treatment-resistant mental health disorders can now ask their doctors to request restricted drugs, including psilocybin.
It’s a streamlined way for patients to gain access to psychedelic-assisted therapy, but many people who might benefit from psilocybin are left out if their mental health conditions aren’t severe enough. Drugs can only be requested through the Special Access Program if the patient has a “serious or life-threatening condition” and if conventional treatments have failed, are not suitable, or not available in Canada.
Besides the hurdle of eligibility, small doses of psilocybin for the purpose of microdosing can’t be requested through the Special Access Program. This leaves microdosers like Eric, Kelsey and Syrah still unable to access it legally.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Despite the uncertainty on whether microdosing works, some Manitobans are adamant that the effects are not only real, but life changing.
Keeping psilocybin illegal doesn’t prevent people from using it, but it does make it harder for people, including those with mental health conditions, to access it. Legalization would not only help people like Eric, Syrah and Kelsey access psilocybin legally, but would also significantly decrease stigma faced by those who do incorporate microdosing into their lives.
Studies might not have proven that microdosing is completely safe yet, but more research is underway. And with individuals continuing to push for psilocybin’s legalization and acceptance, it’s likely we haven’t seen the last of drug policy changes in Canada.