Applications have opened for Canadian researchers seeking federal funding to study psilocybin treatments for substance use disorder (SUD), as well as for depression and end-of-life distress. The grants mark the first time federal funding has been provided for psilocybin studies of this kind.
“Psychedelics can provide a forum for people to address root causes.”
The Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), a federal agency, will provide CA$3 million to fund three grant recipients and support their proposals through phase 1 or 2 clinical trials, one of which will focus on SUD.
“This funding will support clinical trials to generate evidence on the therapeutic efficacy and safety of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for substance use disorder, Major Depressive Disorder or treatment resistant depression, and end-of-life psychological distress in patients with advanced-stage cancer, which is needed to inform clinical and regulatory policies,” a CIHR spokesperson told Filter.
One study will be funded for each of the three conditions. Researchers with lived and living experience of SUD are being encouraged to apply.
“Psychedelics can provide a forum for people to address the root causes of why they’re using substances, address the pain that’s being masked,” Scott Bernstein, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Canada, told Filter.
We don’t know whether the successful applicants will factor in root causes such as insufficient social safety nets and unmet basic needs like housing. CIHR has funded a number of studies in the past few years related to substance use and the overdose crisis, but none specific to psilocybin therapy. Once the funded studies are completed, “CIHR will work with the grantees to mobilize the knowledge from the research to relevant stakeholders,” the spokesperson said.
“There’s so much work to be done refining these interventions, figuring out what works best for who; we need a bunch of different approaches,” said Zach Walsh, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has researched cannabis and psilocybin therapies for more than a decade. Federal funding is a way of adding peer-reviewed clinical trials to the body of evidence, he told Filter, “but also a way of validating how worthwhile this research is, and perhaps bringing in other investigators.”
During the pandemic patient advocates and researchers gained a legal foothold.
Though psilocybin remains federally banned in Canada, during the pandemic patient advocates and researchers gained a legal foothold with the limited authorization of psilocybin-assisted therapy for end-of-life treatment. In December 2021, the requirement that eligible patients be in palliative care was broadened to include patients who did not have a diagnosis of terminal physical illness, but who did have mental health diagnoses including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Spencer Hawkswell, chief executive officer of Victoria-based patient advocacy group TheraPsil, which petitioned the government on behalf of the original palliative care patients, characterized the scope of the new funding as “a bit limited.”
“CIHR should be helping community members with applied research,” Hawkswell told Filter. “Researching what’s being used on the ground in the real world, in Vancouver, and all across Canada.”
Correction, May 3: This article has been edited to reflect that CIHR, not Health Canada as previously stated, is funding the research, and to remove a related suggestion that exemption requests to Health Canada were a factor in the funding decision. The article has also been updated to add comment from CIHR received after publication.