The city says it has no plans to use its powers to shut down Toronto’s only magic mushroom dispensary after a Toronto police raid earlier this month, leaving the shop still operating in a kind of grey area.
Shroomyz — a dispensary chain that first opened in Ottawa — became Toronto’s first mushroom dispensary after opening this September. While the sale of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, is illegal under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act, that hasn’t stopped the store from operating out of its Queen Street West location.
Toronto previously saw a situation like this pop up — though with more city interventions — when cannabis retailers rapidly expanded in the region before pot was legalized in 2018. Now, this shop is operating in a similar sort of way, filling a void advocates say is sorely needed, though one expert cautions this can come with risk for the public.
Paul Lewin, a lawyer who specializes in issues surrounding cannabis and psychedelics, said he wasn’t surprised Shroomyz had opened in the city, given the current limited access to psilocybin for people who need it for medicinal purposes. He told CBC News he also thought a crackdown on the dispensary would eventually happen.
“There’s a general sense that the law is out of touch,” Lewin said.
“Many patients who would benefit from medical psilocybin cannot get access and this tends to happen when there’s a substance that does a lot of good and the government is making it very difficult to access it,” he added.
“Others will spring up and fill the void.”
While Shroomyz may be the only known psilocybin retail store in the city, signs promoting anonymous online businesses selling magic mushrooms can also be found across Toronto.
While the City of Toronto previously enforced bylaws on illegal cannabis dispensaries before it was legalized in 2018, it has taken a hands-off approach in enforcing any bylaws in this case. The city confirmed Shroomyz has no business licence, but said any crackdown on its operations would be a “police matter.”
“The City of Toronto does not have the jurisdiction to enforce the Controlled Drug and Substances Act nor is a business licence issued for this type of business,” said Naomi Ahmad, a city spokesperson, in a statement to CBC Toronto.
“The city issues business licences and permits to certain businesses as specified in the licensing bylaw.”
Shroomyz’s manager, who previously spoke to Radio-Canada under condition of anonymity, said his store exists as a “medical protest.”
“Shroomyz came about in lieu of what we believe to be unfair medical laws around psilocybin and its use — similar to the way cannabis was four or five years ago,” he told Radio-Canada in September.
He said his store sells psilocybin products strictly for medical purposes, though that does not stop recreational users from purchasing from the shop. According to the store’s website, customers need to fill out a medical form in the store to buy psilocybin products.
Police cracking down on dispensary
On Nov. 13, Toronto police executed a search warrant and arrested and charged two men for the first time since the dispensary opened. Police said there is no active investigation into the dispensary at this time but said they are aware it has since reopened to the public, adding that police enforcement will continue as needed.
So far this year, police said they have made 38 arrests for charges related to hallucinogens like psilocybin, LSD and DMT.
CBC Toronto also reached out to Toronto’s Board of Health, which has been vocal in support of decriminalizing possessions of small amounts of drugs as a response to the worsening opioid overdose crisis, but the board did not respond to any questions.
“The Board of Health has not taken a position regarding Shroomyz,” the board said in a statement Wednesday.
Studies into the substance are still ongoing and medical experts have said the actual risks of using psilocybin are still under investigation.
Lewin said in the meantime, the city should look at harm reduction tools that can allow psilocybin to be available in a “safe and responsible” manner.
“It’s not like the city has to sit back and do nothing and say, ‘Well, it’s a crime under federal law and nothing we can do about it.’.Actually, there are things they could do about it, all kinds of good harm reduction,” he said.
“If the government wants to fix it, what they should do is fix access to the medical, access to the drug … create a good solid legal alternative. And until they do that, they can expect that this will happen more and more,” Lewin said.
Health Canada said it has granted exemptions to 81 patients for psilocybin treatments since August 2020, and 19 to health-care specialists for training purposes. In 2022, only five exemptions have been granted, 16 applications are currently under review. The exemptions are valid for a one-year period.
Methods to legally access psilocybin ‘deeply flawed’
In Canada, there are three ways a person can use psilocybin legally: participating in a clinical trial, requesting an exemption under Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act or applying to Health Canada’s Special Access Program, which require both a recommendation from a doctor and government approval.
“All of these methods are deeply flawed,” said Lewin.
Even when patients do get approved to use psilocybin by the government, there is no legal way to access it, he said.
While enforcement of mushroom dispensaries is still fairly new, Toronto criminal defence lawyer Alex Karapancev says the charges can be serious.
“Psilocybin is an illegal substance, however, it’s not considered by many to be as serious as some of the other controlled drugs and substances such as cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl, especially if small quantities are possessed by the individual,” said Karapancev.
“[But] it is still viewed as an illegal drug and the individuals are prosecuted and can face stiff penalties.”
More research needs to be done
Dr. Ishrat Husain, a researcher at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), has been leading a study exploring whether psilocybin can alleviate depression without psychedelic side effects.
In July, the study received the first federal grant to study psilocybin as a treatment for depression.
Husain said he worries the increasing popularity of magic mushrooms could undermine future studies into psilocybin’s benefits — studies which could be key to a potential legalization process.
Husain said he advises people not to use it for recreational or self-medicative purposes without speaking to an experienced health-care provider.
“We aren’t still clear about the actual risks to the general population,” he told Radio-Canada in October.
Husain said more research must be done in order to get a better understanding of how psilocybin affects people diagnosed with schizophrenia, noting that a person must know their family’s medical history before taking the drug.
“I’m concerned that if people, who may react badly to this, get access to it and start to use it, it could actually have negative impacts on their mental or physical health.”