A Canadian Senate committee is calling on the federal government to launch a “large-scale research program” to explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA to treat mental health conditions that commonly afflict military veterans.
At a press conference on Wednesday, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs unveiled a report that recommends “the immediate implementation of a robust research program” funded by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and the Department of Defence, in partnership with federal health agencies, to carry out studies into the efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapy for veterans with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The panel criticized VAC’s current “wait-and-see” approach to psychedelic medicine, calling it “ill-suited” to meet the moment and arguing that the agency “should be doing everything in its power to improve the health of veterans, particularly those who have exhausted all the treatment options available to them.”
A comprehensive research program would both ensure that the government is doing its part to explore all potential therapeutic options that could be available to the veteran community while determining whether psychedelic treatment is “proven or qualified.”
“Research on these subjects is constantly evolving and will continue to do so. No one can predict whether progress will be spectacular or whether there will be setbacks. What we know today is that there is no reason to wait for results from other countries, because the results would still need to be confirmed for our veterans,” the report says. “It is the Government of Canada’s duty to assure veterans that it is doing everything in its power, immediately, to respect its solemn commitment to support, at any cost, those who chose to defend us with honour.”
Sen. David Richards, chair of the subcommittee, said that the panel “heard harrowing stories from veterans who have returned home from conflict zones only to face the darkest moment of their lives.”
“The research into psychedelic-assisted therapy is too promising to ignore,” he said. “Our veterans sacrifice so much—we must do everything we can to help them.”
The report from the subcommittee—which falls under the Committee on National Security and Defence—is titled “The Time is Now: Granting equitable access to psychedelic-assisted therapies.” But contrary to the implication, members made clear that they are not recommending that substances be made immediately available for regulated use in the short-term. Rather, they argue the science must guide next steps before therapeutic access is widely approved.
“The advantages and risks associated with these substances are known only when taken in a very regulated psychotherapeutic context, usually involving two psychotherapists for an extended period,” the report says. “Subcommittee members believe that expanding access without being able to guarantee a safe environment is too risky, given our current limited knowledge.”
“Even the most cautious recognize the tremendous potential of psychedelics in conjunction with a structured psychotherapeutic approach. However, scientific evidence confirming these results is not strong enough to overcome the real and perceived risks associated with these substances. There is also insufficient evidence of the beneficial effects of these substances among veterans, who tend to respond differently to treatments than the general public, and yet all studies to date have only involved the general public.”
The report comes as a coalition of Canadian medical professionals is asking the Federal Court of Canada to overturn an earlier ruling that denied them access to use psilocybin that they want to personally use for training purposes to better serve patients seeking psychedelic-assisted therapy. Meanwhile, individuals suffering from terminal conditions like cancer are able to apply to participate in a “special access program” through Health Canada to utilize psilocybin.
The Senate subcommittee recognized that its recommendation to establish a veterans-focused research program “will surely come as a disappointment to those witnesses who would have preferred granting much wider access to psychedelic substances.”
“Subcommittee members wish to help expand this access, but in a way that takes into account both the limited scientific knowledge and the current capacity of health care professionals to offer therapeutic support safely,” it said. “Although the encouraging findings of the preliminary studies have made some people eager to proceed right away, if these results are confirmed, it would still take several years before this type of psychotherapy could be provided on a larger scale.”
Still, the Senate panel is pushing government officials to accelerate efforts to investigate the healing potential of psychedelics.
“The Subcommittee does not want to downplay VAC’s efforts to support veterans, but Subcommittee members would like to emphasize that the Department must recognize the urgency of addressing the outstanding questions about the therapeutic value of psychedelics, and that it must take the lead on implementing this recommendation quickly,” the report says.
“We owe it to our veterans to explore every possibility. They should not be left to explore these options on their own. The entire hierarchy of the Canadian Armed Forces, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, every employee at Veterans Affairs Canada and the entire Government of Canada, plus whatever researchers and health care professionals that the government can mobilize, should tackle this issue without hesitation. These veterans are suffering because they rose to the highest calling of our nation. In return, Canadian decision-makers should do everything in their power, explore every avenue, leave no stone unturned, in case even one is hiding a wisp of a solution that could help them improve their daily lives. Let’s tackle this problem with all available resources, motivated by their despair. What could be more important than that?”
Across the border in the U.S., lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have also expressed interest in exploring the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for veterans.
For example, pair of measures to encourage studies into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA were approved by the House in September as part of a Department of Defense (DOD) spending bill.
Rep. Morgan Luttrell (R-TX), co-founding member of the Congressional Psychedelics Advancing Therapies (PATH) Caucus, has publicly shared how treatment with ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT “changed my life” and was “one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.” Earlier this year, he and several other GOP lawmakers spoke in favor of a bill to create a $75 million federal grant program to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for certain health conditions among active duty military service members.
A congressional subcommittee’s hearing on the use of psychedelic-assisted treatments for mental health disorders was supposed to be held last month, but it was postponed indefinitely amid a leadership scramble and it’s not yet clear when the rescheduled event will be.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) launched a new podcast about the future of veteran health care, with its first episode focused on the healing potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Dick Culbert.
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