Canada Now Has Psilocybin Dispensaries

Welcome to the future

Miro Tomoski // Aug. 19, 2019

Dana Larsen is anything but discreet about his business—and that’s exactly the point. “I’m definitely not the first person to sell mushrooms online,” he says. “But I might be the first to put my name, face, and reputation on the line for it.”

Larsen’s worked in the cannabis industry for 30 years, but from the beginning, he says, “it’s always been a broader push than just cannabis.” To that end, he’s founded the online Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary that ships microdoses of psilocybin to patients across Canada. While the business isn’t technically legal, the authorities are so far indifferent. And if things did come to a head, all the better, with Larsen willing and ready to challenge the law and set a precedent in court. 

A fixture in Vancouver’s cannabis scene, Larsen’s accustomed to navigating legal gray areas. A cannabis dispensary owner and longtime legalization activist, he’s co-founder of the Vancouver Seed Bank, an online dispensary for cannabis, peyote, and coca seeds, and former editor of Cannabis Culture, a magazine founded by Canada’s “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery.

Larsen’s activism pushed him to run for federal office in 2000 and provincial office in 2001 as a founding member of the Marijuana Party of Canada and the BC Marijuana Party, respectively. He’s since become a member of the New Democratic Party, one of Canada’s three major political parties, urging its leadership to support alternative approaches to drug policy such as safe injection sites for opioids.

Yet he’s something of a strange politician, because the other side of Larsen’s activism has involved breaking the law in order to change it. As a dispensary owner, he’s contributed to the collective effort of the underground cannabis community to normalize and eventually legalize cannabis. Years of activism on behalf of that community has involved breaking the law to sell cannabis in dispensaries, publicly emphasizing its medicinal value, and challenging the federal ban on its use and possession in court—and the same could happen for psilocybin.

Throughout that time, cannabis existed in a gray area, in which police only actively pursued dispensary owners when ordered to do so by higher-ups. Just as the police have looked the other way for years while cannabis dispensaries opened up in major cities like Toronto and Vancouver, Larsen is now hoping that law enforcement will take that same approach to psilocybin. He’s not the only one. At least one other psilocybin dispensary in Canada, called Blue Goba, is doing the same thing.

Photo by Lincoln Clarkes

When DoubleBlind spoke to Larsen, he had only been operating the dispensary for two weeks and claimed to have served 100 patients in just that short time. At this time, all of Larsen’s patients are Canadian and his online service does not ship to the United States—though he notes that Americans have certainly made requests.

Patients who sign up for the service are more akin to club members than to customers. For a one-time membership fee of $10 CAD, they receive personally tailored microdoses of psilocybin with a recommended dose and rate-of-use based on the individual patient’s needs and experience with psychedelics. In addition to consulting with Larsen about dosage, patients must provide proof of a diagnosis that would warrant psilocybin treatment. This can come in the form of prescription bottles, insurance forms, or a recommendation from a doctor or naturopath to prove they’ve been diagnosed with an illness, such as PTSD, depression, cancer-related anxiety, or any other ailments that psilocybin has shown promise for.

Membership takes about 24 hours to process. After that, patients are sent $4 to $7 capsules, which contain 25mg, 50mg or 100mg of dried Golden Teacher strain mushrooms mixed with Spirulina—an algae-based dietary supplement added mostly as a filler for the capsules. At their highest dose, Larsen’s capsules are a tenth of what is considered a threshold recreational dose of one to three grams (depending on the mushrooms’ strain, how they’re grown, how they’re consumed, and a number of other factors that have yet to be formally tested for non-synthetic psilocybin, like the kind Larsen sells).

In the coming months, Larsen intends to open a safe consumption space, where patients who require higher doses can be treated in a therapeutic setting. Still in the planning stages, that physical location is all part of a grand scheme to change public perception and ultimately the laws around psychedelic mushrooms.

Larsen’s approach to psilocybin follows the model cannabis has set in Canada—one which attempts to prove the medical value of a plant before challenging its legal status in court. He’s even taken to calling psilocybin microdoses “the CBD of entheogens,” since microdosing, he says, is strictly therapeutic and its effects are relatively nonintoxicating. In talking about, and using, mushrooms in this way, the idea is to force both medical and legal authorities to see mushrooms in a new light, separate from stereotypes about recreational use.

“I think we’re seeing a similar shift [to cannabis] in public perception around psychedelics,” Larsen says—and the recent push from activists, researchers, and politicians, alike, for further study of psychedelics is proof of that.

Before Canada had even legalized cannabis for adult use in the fall of 2017, psychedelic advocates—with the support of Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith—were already petitioning the government to support further research into these entheogens. By April of 2018, the ruling Liberal Party amended its platform with the aim of decriminalizing the possession of all drugs, using Portugal as a model.

Though mushrooms are currently illegal in Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), exceptions can be made under a provision known as Section 56. Currently, a team of seven therapists, known as TheraPsil, is trying to obtain that exemption.

Those who apply for that exemption are often bogged down in a lengthy approval process from Canada’s Department of Health, which could eventually, nonetheless, deny their application. Yet even if they’re approved, TheraPsil’s lead therapist, Bruce Tobin, tells DoubleBlind that their services will be restricted to patients who have exhausted all other treatment options for symptoms of serious psychological distress such as PTSD and end-of-life anxiety. “Psilocybin will not be more generally available until it has successfully completed Phase 3 clinical trials, which are just now starting [in Canada],” he says. “That will likely take several years.” The only alternative is to challenge the government in court, which Tobin has said he’s willing to do as a last resort.

Larsen, on the other hand, whose online service is not exempt under Section 56, argues that defying the law and pushing for a court battle is the only real option for legalization. “I think it’s time to start using the same tactics that we used to get the law changed on cannabis,” he says. “From my perspective, it was primarily civil disobedience and court cases that really advanced legalization.”

“It’s time to start using the same tactics that we used to get the law changed on cannabis,” Larsen says. “From my perspective, it was primarily civil disobedience and court cases that really advanced legalization.”

In essence, the idea is that an unjust law has to be broken in order to prove its injustice, especially when many of the experts on psychedelics are either limited in their research or pushed entirely underground.

“Ultimately, if you want to change the law, that requires some good politicians willing to vote to change the law,” Larsen says. “But I saw most of our success come from opening [cannabis] dispensaries in violation of the law and forcing the government’s hand toward decisions in court battles.”

It’s certainly true that in Canada medical cannabis laws were practically litigated into existence, beginning with the R. v. Parker case in 2000, in which an epilepsy patient challenged the federal ban on cannabis possession based on the plant’s medicinal value. In 2016, criminal defense attorney John Conroy was part of the last landmark court battle to date (one of nine cases), known as the Allard Medical Marijuana Case, which challenged a ban on growing medicinal marijuana as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada’s Bill of Rights).

In that case, Justice Michael Phelan ruled that a denial of access to medicine violates a citizen’s Section 7 Charter rights to “life, liberty, and security of the person.” Justice Phelan’s ruling found that the ban was imposed arbitrarily under the CDSA because, according to Conroy, “the purpose of the CDSA is to protect people’s health, so when a doctor comes along and approves you for a particular drug [on the banned list] that becomes inconsistent with the purposes of the Act.”

Conroy told DoubleBlind that if Larsen’s business and others like it are operating with the recommendation or involvement of medical professionals, an eventual court case regarding psilocybin could follow the same path as cannabis.

“If they busted Larsen, he would bring forward that evidence to show that he was only supplying it to people who were medically approved and he’d probably bring a constitutional challenge that busting patients would violate their Section 7 Charter rights,” Conroy says. “It would be Allard revisited, but specific to psilocybin.”

But that doesn’t mean that Larsen is providing his services just to get caught. In fact, he insists that his goal is not to get anyone—including himself—arrested (even though shipping psilocybin pills on a national scale certainly carries the potential for legal issues, which could result in a court case that challenges prohibition). Ironically, the only thing standing in the way of another major court case is that the police don’t seem to care enough about Larsen’s business to bring him to court, so any challenge would have to come directly from a patient who believes they could win a case with the support of a medically licensed doctor.

“I must confess, I haven’t had a psilocybin case for an awfully long time,” Conroy says.

He suspects that the police consider it a lower priority because Vancouver is currently fighting a deadly opioid crisis. Larsen, who’s grown comfortable with challenging hazy or unjust legal territory, agrees. He says that if he turned in a list of his customers to the police, they wouldn’t even care. “I don’t think the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] are going to harass my customers for buying non-psychoactive doses to treat their migraines,” he says.

In fact, when DoubleBlind reached out to Canadian authorities, they replied with what amounted to professional shrugs. The RCMP, Canada’s federal police force equivalent to the FBI, referred us to the local Vancouver Police, despite the nationwide nature of Larsen’s business. The Vancouver Police gave us a boilerplate assurance that they know what’s happening and promised they were looking into it. “We are currently assessing the business to determine if any criminal offenses have been committed,” VPD Media Relations Officer Sgt. Jason Robillard said. “I am not aware of any enforcement action taken at this point.”

Miro Tomoski is a Canadian journalist reporting on politics and drug policy. His highway journalism covers American presidential campaigns as well as legalization efforts across the U.S. and Canada. Follow him on the road, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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