Over the past few years, several scientific studies have shown psychedelic drugs like magic mushrooms, MDMA and LSD may help treat mental health issues. In a series of reports and in an upcoming documentary, CityNews is investigating what’s being called the psychedelic revolution.
A major push is underway to move these drugs from underground to mainstream backed by powerful and well credible research studies.
For years, these drugs have been labeled as dangerous and destructive but now science is showing they could be breakthrough treatments for a variety of issues including depression, anxiety and PTSD, if administered under the correct setting.
Eric Bjarnason, a retired firefighter and rescue member from Vancouver, says one psychedelic saved his life.
“What it did is basically showed me how I could cure myself,” Bjarnason said.
His troubles began after a rescue training mission on Mount Logan in southwestern Yukon back in 2005.
“We got hit by a sub-tropical cyclone at altitude. We just happened to be at the worst possible place at the worst possible time when the cyclone hit us and we ended up digging in and trying to survive. It took about three days for our buddies to get to us.”
During those three days, the exposure to extreme low temperatures took a toll. After being rescued, he recovered but only after his fingers were amputated due to frostbite. Depressed, he turned to alcohol.
“The depression went it hit, it made me feel like I was all alone. There was no way out. The world would be a better place without me,” Bjarnason said. “I gave up on myself and that’s why I was drinking. And when you’re drunk, you don’t care.”
Years later, Bjarnason was told about a plant called Iboga. It’s grown in Africa and is a powerful mind altering psychedelic drug which he was told could help treat his addiction.
He traveled to Costa Rica and ingested it during a ceremony under the care of an experienced practitioner, Mark Howard, who is from British Columbia.
“Iboga is a medicine that has physical abilities to help someone purge toxins out of their body,” Howard said. “It has the ability to go and clean someone’s spirit up as well. It offers them the opportunity to take a deep dive into their self.”
Psychedelic drugs like Iboga are not legal to prescribe in Canada but there’s a huge push to change that. While Iboga is still waiting to undergo clinical trials, other psychedelics like magic mushrooms, are being heavily studied worldwide and the results are promising.
“Research really shows that there’s a very strong signal that we may have something here that metaphorically has the potential to be the equivalent of a cure for cancer in the mental health space,” said Dr. Evan Wood, a B.C.-based world renowned addictions specialist.
Studies have been published by several research centres like Johns Hopkins which shows psilocybin, the psychedelic prodrug compound found in magic mushrooms, can positively impact the brain to treat mental health disorders like depression.
In most cases, psilocybin and other psychedelics are illegal to prescribe in Canada. But there are signals of approval. In 2020, Health Canada allowed a few patients facing end-of-life care to access magic mushrooms to help them mentally cope with their terminal illness. The agency also gave exemptions to 16 health care professionals to use psilocybin to study its potential benefits.
“Psychedelics will knock you off your socks, they’ll knock you off your base. That’s the whole point,” said Dennis McKenna, a B.C.-based Ethnopharmacologist who’s been studying drugs like psilocybin for decades.
“The psychedelic experience is a tremendously intense experience that lets you step out of your reference frame. You can have insights into why am I traumatized? Why am I depressed? Why do I feel this way?” he said.
While other drugs like Iboga wait for further study, Bjarnason, says it was a game changer.
“The Iboga makes you have a real conversation with yourself. It seems to open up the doors of your perception,” he said.
“There’s a bit of hallucinating, but it’s not really what you concentrate on. For me, I was concentrating on how do I make myself better? How do I cure myself? And for the most part, it told me what I had to do.”
But with any drugs, there are risks and Iboga is no different. In fact, if given to someone without proper medical supervision, Iboga can be deadly. Bjarnason, who was supervised by a medical professional during his Iboga ceremony, says it’s not for everyone.
“The Iboga didn’t cure me instantly. What it did is basically showed me how I could cure myself. It’s not like I take this one pill and I’m better. It’s a long journey afterwards with therapy, but what it shows you is how to be a better person.”
Bjarnason is now helping others interested in Iboga, including a Hamilton-area war hero who’s suffering from PTSD. He’s a man CityNews has been following for the past several months and we’ll share his entire experience with Iboga in a new documentary called “The Psychedelic Frontier.”
Will Iboga change this veteran’s life too?
You can watch that war hero’s journey Monday, January 25th at 10 p.m. on CityTV. We’ll also show you how scientists, based here in Canada, are working to make psychedelics safely available to those who may benefit.