Spencer Hawkswell of TheraPsil interview

TheraPsil CEO on Psilocybin Healthcare Exemption

  • Health Canada has exempted 16 healthcare professionals to legally use psilocybin during their training program.
  • The exemptions are a call to continued action for TheraPsil, CEO Spencer Hawkswell says.
  • Hawskwell discusses what lies ahead for TheraPsil, and the challenges of implementing and fundraising for the new program.

Canada is looking at a new beginning in developing mental healthcare treatment with recent exemptions allowing 16 healthcare workers to legally access psilocybin. These healthcare professionals will be the first in Canada allowed to consume psilocybin during their training program with TheraPsil as they learn to conduct psychedelic-assisted therapies.

“Medical access demands doctors and therapists have trained with psilocybin. The laws may change and allow people to possess and consume psilocybin but if doctors and therapists don’t know how to prescribe and don’t know how to administer it, then it really means nothing,” says Spencer Hawkswell, CEO of TheraPsil, sharing his satisfaction at the major accomplishment. 

The exemption was granted under Section 56(1) of the Canadian Controlled Drugs & Substances Act to multiple healthcare professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical counsellors, social workers, general practitioners, and nurses to participate in the training program. The training will be conducted by TheraPsil, a non-profit organization working to provide compassionate psilocybin-assisted treatment for mental health issues to Canadians suffering from end-of-life distress.

Explaining the need for a diverse set of trainees in the program, Hawkswell says, “All of these individuals may have to interact with the patient at some point, or will be involved in the actual psychotherapeutic sessions. Anyone involved in a session should know how to hold space and act in that room when the patient is undergoing an altered state of consciousness.”

Individuals conducting psychedelic therapies are expected to be empathetic towards their patients, helping them develop trust during their state of vulnerability. In Hawkswell’s opinion, empathy is best achieved when a prospective therapist goes through the same experience. With this exemption, each of the trainees will be consuming psychedelics to understand how the medicine works, and in some cases, may resolve their own issues before stepping forward to help their patients. 

Although this stands as a groundbreaking development in the Canadian psychedelic industry, it also calls for a lot of work on TheraPsil’s determining the program within the legal framework provided by Health Canada.

What Lies Ahead? 

The exemption comes after a wait of 170 days since the initial application. While the team is rejoicing over the verdict, TheraPsil is still in the middle of determining the details of the program. 

“We wanted these exemptions to be able to have the training and it’s been an accomplishment, but at the same time, it’s a wake-up call and it’s a lot of work ahead of us,” Hawkswell shares. 

The team is optimistically working towards rolling out the program as their first priority. “We’ve got to train the healthcare professionals who now have exemptions. We are going to have to expand this and start training other practitioners because that’s what our mission is.”

“It will take a lot of time and resources and that’s exactly why we’re fundraising right now. We’ve got to roll out the program and it is going to be expensive,” Hawkswell tells Truffle.

TheraPsil aims to work with Canadian federal and provincial governments and healthcare authorities in developing a reliable treatment standard around psilocybin.

The program will possibly be divided into 11 learning domains, bringing in the best practices from a diverse set of studies from across the world. Being a little hesitant about the details, Hawkswell says, “At this point in time, we’re in the final steps of figuring out exactly how it’s going to be administered. It looks like because of COVID, some of it will have to be online.”

The main component of the training session comprises in-person experiences with psilocybin, but the exact details and date of commencement are still not fixed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The TheraPsil team is hoping to start the training program with a few professionals in the new year. 

Exemptions for Psilocybin are Just the Beginning, There is More to Deal With

Although it’s been an incredible journey for TheraPil with multiple exemptions in the second half of this year, Hawkswell says that he wants to be careful with the organization’s pace.

“We got some sizable issues ahead of us. Few of them are going to be ‘Does it work for patients in the long run?’; ‘Does it work for healthcare practitioners?’, ‘Is there a way to train them?’. We’ve got to test this out and make sure we do it successfully,” Hawkswell says, maintaining a healthy skepticism.

He continues, “Because if we can’t, it may look like things are moving forward too fast and that things could change any day, like change in the government. Who knows? There are so many things still up in the air.”

Developing and administering psilocybin therapies are expensive processes, and issues of accessibility and affordability will add fuel to the debate. Moreover, Health Canada has been cautious with granting exemptions.

“TheraPsil realized that there’s so much work to be done until we are able to make an actual difference in Canadian lives and access to psilocybin. We’re both happy but also, we don’t want people to think that the journey is over,” Hawkswell shares.

While being optimistic towards legal reforms following the psychedelic developments in Canada, Hawkswell believes that regulators would like to see a successful training program, and more patients successfully treated, before engaging in wider policy reform.

Until then, he says, “The first step for us to get our training program done. Get it out there and find a way to scale this.”

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