News / Vancouver

British Columbia researchers want to use psychedelics to treat addiction

The B.C. Centre on Substance Use is seeking funding to start clinical trials using psychedelic drugs in a therapy setting to treat addiction.

A man walks past a mural by street artist Smokey D. about the fentanyl and opioid overdose crisis, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 22, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A man walks past a mural by street artist Smokey D. about the fentanyl and opioid overdose crisis, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 22, 2016.

The use of psychedelic drugs for therapy pretty much ended in Canada in the 1960s but British Columbia researchers want to bring the far-out treatment back in the midst of the province’s fentanyl-fuelled overdose crisis.

The B.C. Centre on Substance Use – set up by the provincial government in response to the public health emergency – announced Friday it is seeking funding to begin clinical trials studying the use of psychedelics as a treatment option for addictions.

BCCSU director Dr. Kenneth Tupper said Canada was once a world-leader in the field of psychedelics until street use of drugs like LSD became a problem in the 60s and government made them illegal even in clinical settings.

“Research was shut down for several decades,” said Tupper, currently attending the international Psychedelic Science 2017 conference in Oakland, California. “But in the last decade, really the last five years, there’s been a wave of new studies in other parts of the world. The BCCSU would like to get Canada back in the cutting edge of medicine.”

The latest studies on psychedelic-assisted therapies have been promising, according to Tupper.

The U.S.’s John Hopkins School of Medicine ran a pilot program using psychedelic-assisted therapy for people with tobacco dependency and had an 80 per cent success rate treating the addiction after six months.

Other studies have found the approach to be effective at treating people with alcohol addiction.

“We certainly have addictions to various types of substances here like alcohol and tobacco and, obviously, we have the opioid overdose crisis,” said Tupper. “It’s crucial to look for new tools in the toolbox.”

The BCCSU wants to see how psilocybin and other hallucinogens can be used to treat addictions in B.C.

Tupper says using the drugs – “pharmacologically pure substances, we’re not talking about street use” – in a carefully supervised and controlled therapy session has shown a “correlation between a mystical or spiritual-type experiences and healing outcomes.”

Although researchers will be working with controlled substances, Tupper doesn’t expect much opposition from Health Canada.

“Vancouver was the site of MDMA-assisted treatment for post traumatic stress disorder a couple years ago, so we know that it is possible,” he said. “I think the environment is such that we’ll be able to go through the appropriate regulatory structures and get approval for doing this kind of research. It’s happening in other countries such as the United States, Switzerland, Spain and the United Kingdom, so we don’t feel like that’s a huge obstacle.”

The trials would be privately funded through grant agencies and donors should they proceed, Tupper said.

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