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[5-min read] Q&A with Spencer Hawkswell, Patient Advocate & CEO
Welcome to Tricycle Day. We’re a psychedelics newsletter with common sense. We believe if you have the right to die, you should have the right to try. 🍄
When Spencer Hawkswell discovered psilocybin, he couldn’t sit back and watch his own government deny its citizens a viable path to healing. So he co-created TheraPsil, a nonprofit that helps Canadians in medical need access legal psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.
We asked Spencer about the currents paths to access in Canada, the specific ways TheraPsil is empowering patients and doctors to change the system, and why we’re truly in a life-or-death moment for many Canadians.
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Q&A with Spencer Hawkswell, Patient Advocate & CEO
How did you first develop an interest in psychedelics, and what led you to begin advocating for the compassionate use of psilocybin?
What initially drew me into the world of psychedelics was picking up Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods and shortly after, reading some Jungian psychology. These works, combined with my Christian upbringing, started to connect the dots for me and led to a newfound appreciation for mythology, storytelling, and most importantly, the power of the mind.
As a nurse, my mother oversaw the mental health, addictions, and palliative care wards at several Toronto hospitals. Conversations with her about the research on psychedelics really resonated with me. Having spent 30 years in the healthcare industry, she understood that while pharmaceutical solutions have their place, the majority of cases required psychological treatment. Hearing from her that psychedelics could be a tool to help people process their mortality, overcome addiction, and battle mental illness was impactful for me.
Once I had my mother's approval, I jumped in with both feet. After leaving my previous roles in sales, marketing, and customer success, I decided to take on the monumental challenge of legalizing psilocybin in Canada. This path ultimately led me to Bruce Tobin, who was willing to take a chance on me despite my lack of formal credentials or experience. Together, we built TheraPsil, and many of the incredible people who joined us early on are still part of our team today.
Right now, there are three pathways for Canadians to access legal psilocybin therapy. Can you break those down for us?
There are really four ways to go about it. First, we have Section 56. This is where TheraPsil began, securing legal exemptions from the Minister of Health, who holds the authority to grant exemptions from regulations for any individual or group.
Then there are the clinical trials, the more well-known route. This is a feasible option only for those with substantial financial resources, such as pharmaceutical companies, research institutions, and universities.
Next is the Special Access Program (or SAP), which also comes with hefty costs. It involves a significant amount of bureaucratic paperwork and red tape, and in some cases, people even need to hire a lawyer to facilitate the exemption process. We're actively assisting a considerable number of people through this channel, but it's undeniably expensive and has its limitations.
Finally, the fourth and most popular approach by far is to purchase psilocybin from the gray or black market and take it yourself. In Canada, I can confidently state that as long as it's for personal medical use, you're unlikely to face any legal repercussions. The nation has essentially de facto decriminalized it. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Canadians use it annually, we haven't seen anyone get into legal trouble for personal psilocybin use.
Returning to Section 56 and the SAP for a moment, it’s important to mention that the Minister of Health is no longer granting Section 56 exemptions. They've streamlined this responsibility into the SAP, partly because the latter offers access to a regulated, manufactured drug, unlike Section 56 which simply protects personal purchases. This shift gives the minister an easier way to handle exemption requests—just direct them to the SAP. It was a way out.
How does TheraPsil help patients in need? What are your main focus areas and how did you choose them?
We help both patients and healthcare professionals, recognizing their shared need for access. For patients, we offer support with Section 56 and SAP exemptions. We have a dedicated legal team to guide through SAP applications, and we provide consultations to determine the best approach, whether it involves psilocybin or another option. Most importantly, we advocate for them collectively, especially those facing tough situations where psilocybin could make a difference.
However, our primary focus is empowering healthcare professionals. Given our small team, our direct assistance to patients is limited. Instead, we coach and educate healthcare professionals to advocate for their patients. Currently, about 600 professionals have completed our training program and are now equipped to submit SAPs and champion access. This is, in my view, the most significant aspect of our work—enabling healthcare providers to help themselves and their patients.
One of our aims is to elevate all providers to the same level of training, so that they have a defense against potential inquiries by regulatory bodies. While the certification is not formally recognized, our approach is to provide the highest quality of psilocybin training to protect healthcare professionals and their patients.
We also have a number of ongoing research projects. Project Solace, for instance, collects feedback from patients accessing psilocybin through the SAP. We analyze this data to inform regulators and manufacturers about patient preferences and limitations. Through this program, we've identified that the SAP’s standard dosage of 25 milligrams isn't universally effective. Some patients require more, others less. So we're pushing for provisions that allow patients to test different dosages before their session, ensuring they receive the optimal amount for their circumstances. The current limitations are unacceptable, especially for people struggling with severe depression and suicidal ideation, who may never get a second chance.
By now, you’ve helped many Canadians access legal psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Can you share some success stories that highlight the positive outcomes of this treatment modality?
One gentleman comes to mind, who was considering medical assistance in dying due to a diagnosis that would likely result in the removal of vital body parts. He would have been approved for that option as well. But after a psilocybin experience, he realized that life's value transcends the physical condition. It was a moment where psilocybin offered an alternative, saving a life that might have otherwise ended prematurely. There are many stories like this.
On the flip side, we've worked with patients who, after a dose of psilocybin, came to understand that the constant fear and pain they endured, along with the opioids they relied on to survive, offered no real quality of life. Through a psilocybin journey, they found a new perspective. They were no longer afraid of death. They made the choice to face the inevitable on their terms, opting for a peaceful passing instead of lingering in a medical limbo for weeks or months.
In another case, a substance user grappling with addiction turned to psilocybin and successfully broke free from heroin and methadone dependence. He's now a lead plaintiff in our court case, advocating for psilocybin. For many like him today, their choices boil down to medical intervention, assisted suicide, or opioid treatments. Psilocybin offers them a beautiful, life-affirming, and transformative option, and yet it is overlooked all too often. This is the essence of what we're advocating for—acknowledging psilocybin's potential in cases where our medical system may seem limited.
What are TheraPsil's future goals and aspirations? How do you envision the landscape of psilocybin and psychedelic-assisted therapy evolving in Canada over the next few years?
As of now, psilocybin assisted psychotherapy is legally accessible in Canada through the Special Access Program, potentially benefiting around six million Canadians. However, the majority are opting for the illegal route due to its affordability. This disconnect highlights a gap in our healthcare system, particularly at the provincial level, where patients resort to underground options when necessary treatments aren't readily available.
Currently, our top priority is securing provincial funding. Inexplicably, our provinces cover legal opioids like methadone and medical assistance in dying, but not psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. This situation baffles us. In the coming months, regulations for medical assistance in dying will expand, allowing even non-terminally ill individuals, potentially including those under 18, whose mental health treatments haven't been effective. It's unfathomable that Canada would cover end-of-life options but not invest in psilocybin therapy, which has shown immense promise.
This is a critical juncture for our organization. We're working hard to ensure that anyone eligible for provincially funded medical assistance or methadone also has access to medical psilocybin, an option that offers safe, natural, and effective relief. Our provinces need to recognize the importance of medical psilocybin alongside other treatments. This is what we're working tirelessly to change.
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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.