“It’s Easy to Let Go of the Clutter in my Head”
Thomas Hartle, wearing a red T-shirt that reads ‘failure is not an option’, sits patiently in front of his computer, waiting to be interviewed on a chilly October morning. During a pandemic, when so much of our lives have moved to virtual worlds, time and distance have become the least of our concerns. While I fix glitches for the online session, sitting in a different timezone, Hartle smiles from the other end and says, “Take it slow. I have all the time in the world. That’s the positive side of being a cancer patient.”
Hartle, 52, recently became the first Canadian to legally consume psilocybin for medical purposes.
Earlier in August, Health Canada granted an exemption to four cancer patients, including Thomas Hartle, to use psychedelic mushrooms as a component of psychotherapeutic treatments for end-of-life distress. The applicants had appealed to the ministry through a social media campaign, as well as reaching out to Health Minister Patty Hajdu to make their requests heard. Hartle first put forward his application on June 4.
Sitting in his Saskatoon home, Hartle says, “The idea that someday I will not be here with my wife and kids was making me anxious every day of my life. I was surrounded by doubts about what would happen next.” He told Truffle he was constantly held back by the emotional clutter of anxiety, and was finding it hard to live the days he has left to the fullest.
Hartle’s Psilocybin Journey: How did it Start?
“I started looking for psilocybin therapy in Canada when I began experiencing extreme anxiety. I wasn’t sure if it was even a thing here,” Hartle shared.
Psilocybin, a hallucinogen, is regulated as a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).
“I lived my first 48 years of life having mixed feelings about the psychotic drugs. I graduated high school and completed university without experiencing any kind of psychoactive drug, not even cannabis,” Hartle said with a smile on his face.
There’s a lot of stigma around the term ‘magic mushrooms.’ Scientific terms like psilocybin or psychedelics seem considerably more approachable. These are nice words but at the end of the day, “it is a natural plant medicine,” he advocated.
Reading Johns Hopkins’ research on psilocybin, Hartle said, helped him to convince himself, and aided in putting together his legal papers.
The work in question, published in 2016, involved fifty-one cancer patients with life-threatening diagnoses and subsequent symptoms of distress and anxiety. The study showed therapeutically beneficial results, with 80 percent of participants feeling significantly less anxious. Their perspectives about life had improved, they were more satisfied with where there were in their lives, and found they generally better able to face their mortality.
In the meantime, Hartle came across TheraPsil, an organization advocating for psychedelics in palliative care and research, which helped him to process his request for the medicinal use of psilocybin.
Thomas Hartle’s Legal Journey
There were a series of questions to be answered, along with supporting documents to be filed, before submitting the application to Health Canada. Hartle was the fourth applicant to request this particular exemption. He also had Therapsil’s legal team at his disposal.
Psilocybin therapy is not for everyone, and has a qualification round to go through before the exemption is granted. Medical conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia exclude an individual from undergoing psychedelic therapy. Essentially, if the applicant has a condition that might potentially challenge their grip on reality, then substance-induced therapy or the hallucinations caused by psilocybin are deemed medically inadvisable.
“It’s like any other medication. It works for some, but doesn’t work for others”, Hartle says.
Before submitting his application, Hartle had to answer questions about the storage and acquisition of his psilocybin mushrooms. He was also required to prove whether or not psilocybin therapy was even a form of therapy, and submit that proof alongside a note from his doctor, suggesting the treatment.
“The ministry, on their behalf, ensured that I was well aware of the subject and was making a well-informed decision,” says Hartle.
“We were prepared for the application to go the same route as the people who applied for cannabis. This meant that it did have to go through the legal system,” Hartle tells Truffle Report. However, everyone at the ministry was very accommodating and supportive, he says, while talking about his experience with Health Canada. “It is very genuine of the people in the ministry that they are very interested in the mental health of Canadians.”
The earliest applicant had to wait about one hundred days to get his request processed. By the time Hartle had entered his petition, Health Canada already had a rough framework in place, making the process more efficient. It took Hartle about sixty days to get federal permission.
“I Decided to Grow my own Mushroom”
It’s an interesting legal situation. The mushroom is legal in Canada, the psilocybin in the mushroom is not. This makes buying a mushroom spore legal, as it doesn’t contain the psychoactive substance.
While mushroom growing kits are widely available and legal to use in private homes, it enters the ‘illegal’ stage when the mycelium —‒ the vegetative part of fungus where the psilocybin develops —‒ starts growing.
“I am naturally prone to caution due to anxiety, and wasn’t looking to risk buying mushroom laced with some other substance. So, I decided to grow my own mushroom,” Hartle said.
Describing the process similar to gardening, he said it wasn’t hard to obtain the spores online. “Unless you take the spores and grow them into a complete mushroom, you are allowed to transport it through the mail system,” Hartle told Truffle.
Psilocybin Therapy Process
The therapy process begins well before any psychedelic substance comes into play. Trust between the patient and therapist is an important part of the process and marks an essential cornerstone of the overall treatment, but it requires time to reach that point.
The patient develops trust with the therapist through talk therapy sessions. In the meantime, the patient also becomes aware of their needs, their fears, and their emotional constraints and expectations from the healing process. It may take years for some people to reach that point. In Hartle’s case, the psychedelic process started within a few weeks of talk therapy.
“I had my doubts about psilocybin until my very first dose. It was certainly the unknown factor of the substance that made me anxious,” Hartle said. On the day of his therapy, Hartle was tested for his despondency, as well as anxiety and depression levels. He was tested at 36 on the scale of anxiety, which was higher than the maximum limit of 30 on the scale.
Hartle’s therapist, Dr. Bruce Tobin, founder of TheraPsil, followed a three-dose process, while Hartle meditated with music and eye mask during the session.
“I had expected a lot of unpleasantness through psilocybin but it really wasn’t that. I was able to communicate properly and take bathroom breaks, while also experiencing the effects of the mushroom,” Hartle said.
Having tried it for the first and only time, Hartle described his experience as “very lucid.” It was surprising for him because his experience was very different from those who had described it as an “out of mind” experience. Rather, he was more at peace and experienced calmness after the therapy, which continued during the integration processes.
“It’s much easier to dismiss negative thoughts that you can’t do anything about,” Hartle said after the therapy. He felt as if he was intellectually describing the feeling of love.
Thomas Hartle on Psychedelics/Psilocybin vs. Cannabis
In Hartle’s experience, cannabis has been more traumatic physically than psilocybin ever was. He said, “Cannabis makes me feel anxious, causes muscle spasms and so on, but psilocybin was a complete 180 degrees from that.”
Cannabis has been shown to help certain patients deal with the side effects of chemotherapy, but it hasn’t been a great experience for Hartle.
“[The] Psilocybin experience was a lot more palatable for me because it didn’t have a lot of the unpleasantness attached to it, like cannabis had for me,” Hartle said. He said that he was more at ease, and his thoughts were very quiet and easy to manage afterward.
His anxiety rate had dropped to zero from 36 after undergoing psychedelic therapy.
Hartle also compared his psychedelic experience with antidepressants. He said, “I have a limited number of days left and I want to experience all those feelings.” While antidepressants tend to numb emotions, psychedelic therapy gives him the power of acceptance, and the presence to feel emotions while he is alive.
He clarifies that he is not considering another psychedelic session at the moment. “When the thoughts start getting heavy again, I can definitely benefit from another session, but right now, I can easily dismiss thoughts I can’t do anything about.”
How Does it Feel now? “I was Busy Being Something Else”
Explaining his mystical experience, Hartle said that the end of the day result was much more satisfactory than expected.
“Before [my] psilocybin experience, I didn’t have any way of conceptualizing what consciousness without me would be like,” he said. While on the hallucinogen, “my consciousness became my environment. I became the space. There wasn’t anywhere to go or anything to do because I was everything. I was aware that I had a body but it was more like looking after a pet or plant… I was busy being something else.”
Hartle’s thoughts and change in perception were quite visible right after the experience. He can accept reality openly. Now that he has witnessed his consciousness apart from his ego, he finds it easier to talk about sensitive emotions without a moment of doubt.
Throughout the interview, he was calm, open, and optimistic about his life and experiences.
As a parting thought, he said, “We have a lot of preconceptions about psychedelics but what we fail to recognize is that these are traditions that have been handed down by our ancestors and we shouldn’t be dismissive about the ancient traditions. Mental health challenges have always existed. So, why are we so resistant to look at it in a modern way?”
Ritika is a Toronto-based reporter. She writes about drug policies and developments in psychedelics.