The Psychedelic Renaissance: The Historical Progression of Canada’s Legal Regulations on Psychedelics

war on drugs psychedelic research


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Although considered physiologically safe and non-addictive by current scientific standards, all psychedelics are Schedule I controlled substances under the three UN Conventions that make up the international drug control regime. This classification designates them as harmful, with little to no medical use and obligates signatory States to implement national laws that criminalize and prohibit access and use of these substances. As a Party to the UN drug conventions, Canada’s laws on substance control operate within the international framework on drug policy with psychedelics criminalized under the federal Controlled Drug and Substance Act (“CDSA”). The purpose of this article is to challenge the prohibition of psychedelics in Canada and argue for reform of the CDSA.

Part I: Historical Progression of Psychedelic Drug Regulation examines the history of psychedelic regulation from ancient times to the present. By viewing the development of psychedelic regulations in a contextual manner, it becomes clear that today’s global drug control regime is simply the byproduct of the previous generation’s political agenda and not rationally linked to the pharmacological properties of substances. Indeed, contrary to its primary objectives to promote health and welfare, the prohibition of psychedelics through the UN drug control conventions led to perhaps the greatest restriction of medical research and advancement in modern history. Furthermore, it is increasingly recognized that repressive drug control laws are not only ineffective in reducing crime and drug use but that such punitive enforcement measures actually produce adverse societal effects. Estimated at US$ 400 billion, the illicit drug market fuels corruption, violence, economic distortions and violations of human rights. Canada is no exception to these negative outcomes and its strict prohibitionist stance towards the ‘war on drugs’ has caused it to suffer from unnecessarily high economic costs and harms associated with this approach.

While it is evident that a review of Canada’s laws on psychedelic substances is crucial, legalization is not so straightforward. New legislation concerning drug control must be reconciled with Canada’s commitment to the international drug control conventions. Part II: Re-Imagining Public Policy within UN Drug Control Conventions considers the different approaches Canada can take towards the legalization of psychedelics while still maintaining its position as a signatory to the three UN drug control treaties.


Part I: Historical Progression of Psychedelic Drug Regulation

Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have sought to alter consciousness (Cohen, 1967). The pervasive drive to temporarily change awareness continues to manifest in modern society, most commonly achieved through the use of substances such as tobacco, alcohol, or caffeine. While currently Western countries largely prohibit the use of psychedelics as a means of mind-alteration, these substances have a long and rich history within human culture. Customarily used as an integral feature of many early religious and healing practices, psychedelics have gone through periods of time where its properties were greatly revered and celebrated. Yet, similar to today’s laws on psychedelics, there have also been intervals in the past where hallucinogenic substances were largely suppressed by powerful institutions. But why? Viewing the societal contexts of psychedelic drug usage from a historical perspective helps answer this question, and provides greater insight into why the designation of ‘illegal’ on this particular class of drugs is unjustified on a health promotion basis and in need of legal reform.

Early History of Psychedelic Drugs in Medicine

Ancient Psychedelic Use – 1950’s

Psychedelic or hallucinogenic substances contain chemicals that cross the blood-brain barrier to alter cognition, mood, psychological and behavioural functions, and are commonly accompanied by perceptual distortion and hallucinations. For the purposes of this paper, “psychedelic” or “hallucinogenic” substances include LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, DMT, ayahuasca, peyote, mescaline, and other psychoactive substances based on the tryptamine or phenethylamine classes of compounds.

Psychedelics have been embedded in almost every human culture for millennia and the practice of hallucinogenic plant ingestion is a core influence underlying our collective evolution. Archeologists have uncovered fossil evidence of rituals involving psychedelics dating back 10,000 years, although cave art from the paleolithic era suggests an even earlier origin of psychedelic usage (Merlin, 2003).

The mind alteration that occurs as a result of psychedelics is unlike any other kind of drug, and the feature that distinguishes them as such is their capability to bring about states of perception, thought, feeling, “not usually experienced, besides in dreams or during religious exaltation” (Jaffe, 1990). Ancient civilizations considered hallucinogenics valuable learning tools and used them as a way to connect with the divine. The historic ritualistic usage is consistent with contemporary science, which has revealed that the spirituality associated with psychedelics is intrinsic to the properties of the drugs themselves (Nicholls, 2016). Modern studies on psilocybin and LSD have provided empirical evidence that these substances induce a variety of features of classic mystical experiences under double-blind conditions (Johnson et al., 2019). The experiences produced by psychedelics include but are not limited to: an internal identification of the divine within oneself, or an identification with an external divinity, losing all sense of self-identity in a unity with the cosmos, a perception of sacredness and a direct intuitive knowledge characterized as ineffable; a sense of transcendence of time and space; experiences of oceanic boundlessness; and positive mood (Griffiths et al., 2008).

Given the spiritual nature of psychedelics, it is not surprising that ancient civilizations incorporated these visionary substances within their worship. In fact, many scholars argue that all mainstream religions are actually derived from the use of psychedelic plants (Clark, 1968). While this theory is highly controversial, psychedelics have been confirmed to have played a significant role in certain religious sacraments, such as in the Amazon, India, and Ancient Egypt. Classical Greece, where much of Western culture originates from, also took part in rituals heavily grounded in psychedelics (Doblin, 2017). The Eleusinian Mysteries, a sacred initiation rite in Ancient Greece, required initiates to drink kykeon, a mixture which contained hallucinogenic compounds. What is most striking about the Eleusinian Mysteries is not their affiliation with psychedelics, but the subsequent prohibition of the entire ceremony in general. Lasting almost 2000 years during the Greco-Roman period, the influx of Christianity into Rome ultimately led to the downfall of the rituals. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church outlawed the Eleusinian practices in 396 A.D., because they were seen as a threat to the church’s power (Doblin, 2017). The Eleusinian Mysteries provided direct access to spirituality, whereas the Church wanted to mediate between individuals and the divine (Doblin, 2017). Thus, despite many early Christian works of art and literature that suggest a psychedelic premise, these substances became systematically suppressed from mainstream culture for many centuries.


ancient psychedelic medicine


Early Medical Psychedelic Research

Despite the Christian perception of psychoactive substances as heretical, psychedelics were rediscovered at the end of the 20th century. In contrast to the traditional conception of psychedelics as a religious sacrament, the re-emergence of these substances occurred within the bounds of Western science. Although scientific inquiry into certain hallucinogenic compounds (such as nitrous oxide) began as early as 1877, the synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) by Dr. Albert Hoffman in 1938 is the primary catalyst that spawned the major growth of scientific interest in psychedelics (Doblin, 2000). In particular, LSD’s extraordinary potency and effects on human perception illuminated the role of serotonin in the brain, a discovery that confirmed the connection between mental illness and disturbances of neurochemistry (Pollan, 2018). This had a profound impact on the development of modern neuroscience and psychiatry as it revolutionized scientific thinking on how the brain operates in conjunction with neurotransmitters.

By the 1950’s, psychedelics had become the subject of the bulk of research studies conducted by North American and European psychologists and psychiatrists (Carhart-Harris & Goodwin, 2017). Showing extremely promising results as a therapeutic treatment for an array of mental illnesses, many clinical practices started administering psychedelics, most often LSD, in conjunction with psychotherapy. Over the next 15 years, it is estimated that tens of thousands of patients were treated using psychedelic psychotherapy. Canadian researcher Humphry Osmond began treating alcoholics with LSD and achieved unprecedented rates of abstinence. The spiritual or transcendental experience induced by LSD often produced profound enlightenment that led to patient sobriety and was found to be a powerful alternative to conventional rehabilitative methods. Osmond’s findings are consistent with a recent meta-analysis of studies on LSD and alcoholism published between 1949 and 1973 which indicated support for its potential as an addiction treatment. Another meta-analysis of 19 studies within the same time period on psychedelics and mood disorders showed similarly promising results, finding that 79% of patients showed ‘clinically judged improvement’ post-treatment.

Despite the great enthusiasm about psychedelic therapy, the conditions of these studies need to be appropriately considered in context as the methodology expected in the 1950s quite often falls short of the rigorous scientific standards that exist today. Thus, while early psychedelic research yields valuable insights, it cannot be solely relied on to conclusively determine the medical benefits of psychedelics. Nevertheless, the premature termination of these promising research avenues highlights the importance of continued exploration into the outcomes elicited by psychedelic approaches to mental health.


LSD psychedelic research renaissance

Legal Prohibition of Psychedelic Drugs & Its Effect on Research in Canada

The paucity of research in the latter part of the twentieth century was not a consequence of lack of scientific interest or dangers associated with psychedelics, but rather, from the political forces that manifested principally within the United States during the 1960s. Although the initial research on psychedelics had been almost exclusively positive, the changing political climate made it virtually impossible to study the clinical effects and medical value of psychedelics for more than 3 decades. By the mid-1960s, the popularization of LSD by prominent figures such as Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary caused psychedelic usage to extend past the controlled conditions of a psychotherapy office. Unqualified people began to set up LSD therapy practices and psychiatrists began providing it to friends and family (Novak, 1997).

As LSD became widely available for recreational use, the direct spiritual experience that many users encountered encouraged radical questioning of the government and social norms prevalent in the 1960s. LSD came to be associated with the ‘counterculture’ movement of anti-war attitudes, free love and rejection of conventional social norms. From an objective standpoint, these ideas appear to promote positive ideals, and yet, the counterculture movement was met with great political pushback, especially among American authorities and legislative bodies, both at the federal and state levels. As history tends to repeat itself, similar to the previous suppression of psychedelics by the Church, the widespread use of LSD in the 1960s posed a significant threat to the power structures in place at the time, and by 1970, all psychedelics were again outlawed in the majority of the world, including Canada.

The growing availability of LSD made it difficult for governments to maintain legal control over its distribution. Politicians began depicting psychedelics extremely negatively, purporting them to be a menace to society. At the same time, the media sensationalized unsubstantiated risks associated with its usage, including blindness, violence (including homicidal and suicidal behaviour), depression, recklessness, and even insanity. Unprepared for the significant public alarm towards LSD, the medical community struggled to maintain credibility. It became increasingly difficult for researchers to obtain funding, hire staff and find unbiased volunteers and several psychedelic researchers abandoned their work, citing negative publicity as the reason for that choice (Dyck, 2011). Although the published, peer-reviewed literature supported the need for continued study into the therapeutic uses of psychedelics, the inculpatory news reports and subsequent cultural reaction eroded any medical authority on the matter and replaced it with a demand for political action. In the parliamentary debates on the legal status of LSD in the late 1960s, discussions primarily centred on its negative publicity, with insufficient attention to the actual medical literature and as a result, the decision to reclassify these drugs as narcotics was made.


psychedelic drug research


International Drug Control Regime

There are three treaties that form the international legal framework that governs the global drug control regime, The 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (“Single Convention”), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances(“Psychotropic Convention”), and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 (“Trafficking Convention”). The stated purpose of these conventions is to “ensure the availability of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances for medical and scientific purposes, and to prevent their diversion into illicit channels.” According to a UN-backed report, “the ultimate goal of the international drug control treaties is to ensure the health and welfare of mankind.” In spite of these objectives, the origins of prohibitionist drug laws had little to do with the dangers associated with drug use but instead, were predominantly based in economics. Furthermore, the politics of the global prohibitionist model in practice only reinforces the artificial division between legal and illegal drugs and is ultimately in conflict with the goals of public health.

The United States had emerged from World War II as the dominant political, economic and military power, and accordingly, it had the necessary power to implement a new drug control regime that would be imposed on other countries. Determined to enforce a strict policy on substance control, the American government initiated the 1961 Single Convention, which set the foundation for an international prohibitionist drug control regime through the authority of the United Nations. The purpose of the Single Convention had been to replace the previous international agreements in a more systematic manner by limiting the “production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use & possessions of” opiates, cannabis & cocaine to “medicinal & scientific purposes.” It also established a classification structure, which sorts substances into Schedules I – IV depending on the amount of control that needs to be subjected. Schedule I and IV are the most restricted, with Schedule I containing the substances considered to be the most addictive and harmful and Schedule IV a subset of Schedule I, containing substances with “particularly dangerous properties” and “little to no therapeutic value.” The 1961 Single Conventioncontrolled opium, coca, morphine, heroin and cannabis and other drugs that produced similar effects. Psychedelic substances were initially not contemplated within this treaty. However, in response to the emerging drug concerns of the 1960s, the Single Convention has since been supplemented with the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The Psychotropic Convention acted as an addition to the Single Convention and added certain synthetic, prescription, & hallucinogens to the list of scheduled drugs. All known psychedelics were classified as Schedule I, deemed to pose a serious risk to public health, and not recognized by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs as having any therapeutic value.

Adopted in response to a rapid expansion of an illicit-drug trade market, the third and final convention within the international drug control framework is the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. With a more robust and restrictive framework, the Trafficking Convention requires member countries to impose criminal sanctions to combat all aspects of illicit drug production, possession and trafficking.

The global drug control system continues to be regulated by these three conventions, which at their core, aim to curtail drug use through criminalization. As of March of 2019, there are 186 parties to the Single Convention, 184 parties to the Psychotropic Convention, and 190 parties to the Trafficking Convention. While there is almost universal participation, the self executory nature of the Conventions affords signatory nations with a degree of freedom when formulating domestic policies. Indeed, the International Narcotics Control Board (“INCB”), which is the body responsible for overseeing the operations of treaties, has no formal power to enforce implementation of domestic legislation or punishment for non-compliance. As a result of this autonomy, there exist many variations between countries with regards to the application of the Conventions.

Canada’s Federal Drug Regulations

As a signatory of the UN drug conventions, Canada’s drug control policy operates within the international framework on drug policy. Canada follows a dualist approach to international agreements, such that international treaties are only given effect upon integration into domestic legislation. The provisions of the Single Convention 1961 are provided for in Canadian domestic legislation via the Narcotic Control Act (“NCA”) and the 1971 additions are incorporated into the Food and Drugs Act (“FDA”). Both these Acts are highly punitive, and are framed in a criminal law context, consisting of provisions that contain prohibitions and penalties on unauthorized importing and exporting, trafficking, possession for the purpose of trafficking, simple possession, and cultivation.

The majority of hallucinogens listed in Schedule I of the 1971 Convention are found in the “restricted drugs” Part IV of the Food and Drugs Act. Schedule H included the substances that were the most controlled and listed LSD, DET, DMT, MDA, MMDA, LBJ, harmaline, harmalol, STP(DOM) and various forms of dimethoxyamphetamine. Despite psilocybin and mescaline both listed under Schedule I of the UN Conventions, mescaline was listed in Schedule F of the FDA, with a lower control scheme and psilocybin was surprisingly not included in any Canadian schedules.

In 1969, the Le Dain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs was formed to study illicit drug use in Canada and analyze the consequences of the criminalization policy. Between 1969 and 1973, the Commission produced four reports that demonstrated that prohibition of certain substances was not producing the desired effect of lowering drug usage.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians were found to be convicted of illicit drug possession with lifetime barriers to personal freedoms which resulted in substantial costs to not only the individual but to society at large. Accordingly, the Commission recommended a gradual withdrawal from criminal sanctions against users and greater leniency within the law for possession, including the abolishment of incarceration.

In May 1997, Parliament passed the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (“CDSA”) to replace both the NCA and the FDA in one consolidated drug control act. Although the passage of the CDSA offered the opportunity for Canada to heed the Le Dain Commission recommendations, Canada’s drug policy remained unchanged from its previous prohibitionist stance and continued to follow suit of the American ‘war on drugs.’ Under this act, all hallucinogens including DMT, psilocybin, LSD, mescaline are all classified as Schedule III, which is the third-highest level of offence. Without a legal license or prescription, possession of a substance in Schedule III can carry a maximum penalty of up to 3 years imprisonment as punishment for contravening the Act. However, researchers are able to apply for an exemption under section 56 of the CDSA which allows the individual to possess a specified quantity of the controlled substance and to administer the controlled substance to human subjects or animals for the purpose of research.

The implementation of the CDSA reinforced and expanded Canada’s strictly prohibitionist approach to drug control and the punitive focus of these laws has attracted significant criticism. Firstly, the lack of express criteria that defines scheduling decisions has resulted in the absence of a rational correlation between the potential harms of drugs and the corresponding punishment. Furthermore, the current prohibitionist policy has continued to unnecessarily criminalize drug users which have resulted in the misdirection of resources and undue harm to individual Canadians. In particular, Canada has turned hundreds of thousands of people into criminals for the possession of arbitrarily defined substances. The unjustified incarceration of people is not only a significant violation of human rights, but it continues to impose severe financial costs on the criminal justice system and greater economy. Thus, in addition to the substantial scientific losses associated with the inability to conduct psychedelic research studies, the laws criminalizing drug users are increasingly recognized as a harmful and ineffective approach to public health.

Psychedelic Revival

After an approximate 25 year dormancy, an international resurgence of interest in the potential medical benefits of psychedelics has led to what is frequently referred to as the ‘psychedelic renaissance.’ Due to a combination of the liberalization of political attitudes, technological advancements and the perseverance of researchers to obtain research approval, the late ’90s and early 2000s have seen public and government perspectives towards the use of psychedelics in medical and scientific research slowly become more accepting and positive (Williams, 1999). While psychedelics are not available for medical use in the majority of the world, many countries including Canada have legislative provisions under which individuals can apply for permission to distribute or possess illicit drugs for the purposes of clinical or laboratory investigation. As early as 1991, federal regulators in the United States resumed granting approval for controlled clinical trials involving psychedelics and many acclaimed institutions such as John Hopkins University and New York University began to re-investigate the therapeutic potential of a variety of hallucinogenic substances under stricter research requirements than the previous work in the ’50s and ’60s. Prominent scientific journals have since published numerous articles showing evidence-based reasons for supporting psychedelics as a treatment for a multitude of different mental conditions such as easing anxiety in terminally ill patients, improving PTSD symptoms, and treating therapy-resistant depression (Pollan, 2018). Furthermore, when appropriate safeguards are used, the likelihood of serious or enduring adverse effects is almost non-existent, as psychedelics have been shown to be non-toxic and anti-addictive. Following the lead of the United States, Canada authorized its first psychedelic clinical study since the 1970s in 2013 and has thereafter approved at least two more.

While the research is still in the preliminary phases, there is no doubt that a transition to legalize psychedelics in Canada is on the horizon. Alongside the research that consistently supports psychedelic use, there has been a growing movement of dissent towards the prohibitionist UN drug control conventions. Sovereign states around the world have already implemented or have seriously discussed legislative reforms that reflect a more liberal drug policy. As these trends continue to change the political atmosphere surrounding the legal status of psychedelics, a reconsideration of Canada’s prohibitionist model of substance regulation is deeply warranted.


psychedelic revival

Part II: Re-Imagining Public Policy within UN Drug Control Conventions

While Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969) obligates Canada to uphold its commitments to the UN drug control conventions and interpret the treaties in good faith, flexibility in application does exist at the national level. Thus, despite a strict prohibitionist international regime, there are a number of different approaches Canada can take to expand its policies on the medical use of psychedelics and still remain within the boundaries of the Conventions.

Legalization for Medical Use

Scientific & Medical Exception

In the Single Convention, Article 2(5)(b) and Article 4(1)(c) offer an exemption that justifies the use of illicit drugs for the purpose of conducting scientific research (under the supervision and control of the Party to the Convention). As noted above, Canada has already implemented this exception through the few psychedelic studies that have recently been approved and are currently underway. Similarly, under Article 4(1)(c) there is a medical purposes exemption, which allows parties to the Convention to permit the production, manufacture, export, import and trading of narcotic drugs, for treating ailments or symptoms associated with them. Additional leeway for the ability to justify the use of psychedelics in a variety of different circumstances such as in psychotherapy, or through a personal prescription is provided for by the fact that the Single Convention does not define medical and scientific purposes. Canada has already been successful at making use of the medical exemption with marijuana, as Canadian health care practitioners may prescribe cannabis to alleviate symptoms associated with a variety of disorders. Thus, as research continues to demonstrate the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, it is likely that soon Canada will begin to allow psychedelics to be prescribed under a medical exemption.

Constitutional Exception

Legalization of psychedelics for medical use can also be justified under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Both the Single Convention and the Trafficking Convention contain a constitutional exemption. Article 35 of the Single Convention requires Parties to implement legislation that prevents against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs “having due regard to their constitutional, legal and administrative systems.” Article 36 of the Single Convention also makes mention of the constitutional exemption, stipulating that penal consequences should be adopted “subject to the constitutional limitations of a Party, its legal system and domestic law.” Likewise, Article 3(1)(c) of the Trafficking Convention mandates that each Party must adopt the stipulated penal consequences “subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system.”

Canadian courts have established that the absolute prohibition of cannabis under the CDSA violates Section 7 of the Canadian Charter, which protects individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and security of the person. In particular, courts have concluded that restricting access to medical cannabis “limits the liberty of medical users by foreclosing reasonable medical choices through the threat of criminal prosecution. Similarly, the law also infringes on the security of the person by forcing a person to “choose between an inadequate treatment or an illegal but effective one.”

Given the success of the Section 7 arguments regarding medical access to cannabis, it is likely that the same arguments in the context of legalizing psychedelics for medical purposes will be given constitutional protection. Psychedelics, like cannabis, have the potential to represent a ‘reasonable medical choice’ and a ‘more effective’ treatment for some patients who suffer from mental disorders or end of life anxiety. Therefore, the absolute prohibition of psychedelics is contrary to section 7 of the Charter and legislative reform is necessary to account for the medical use of these substances.

Legalization for Non-Medical (Recreational Use)

Human Rights Exception

Alongside peace and security, human rights are the third pillar of the UN and are recognized to be the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Under the Trafficking Convention, human rights are mentioned in Article 14(2), which states that measures under the convention “shall respect fundamental human rights” and in Article 14(4) which states that measures should be focused on “reducing human suffering and eliminating financial incentives for illicit traffic.”

It is increasingly recognized that repressive drug control laws have not only failed to achieve their primary mandate to reduce crime and combat harms associated with drugs but have also contributed to the growing human rights concerns against people who use drugs by undermining access to harm reduction services and appropriate treatment. In addition, the drug strategy currently in place in Canada with the CDSA has severely impeded the human right against arbitrary detention. Evidence has demonstrated that drug offences are ineffective in reducing crime and drug use, and moreover, have significant adverse societal effects, and are a detriment to public health. Canada can thus try to reconcile the legalization of psychedelics with its commitment to the UN drug control treaties under a human rights justification. However, non-compliance solely under a human rights justification is unlikely to be considered an acceptable means of derogating from the obligations to enforce strict drug control measures under the Conventions.

In 2013, Uruguay was the first country to legalize cannabis on the basis of human rights, with its new policies focusing on “prevention and treatment at the world level balance those of supply reduction and that criminal policies include a criteria of proportionality so as not to criminalize consumers and to address the prison crises suffered by many countries.” However, the Uruguayan decision to legalize cannabis encountered a large degree of resistance from actors in the international community. UN governance bodies continue to maintain their position that drug control efforts should be “carried out in full conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and other provisions of international law and for all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and urge Parties to adhere to all of the provisions. Thus, many international actors criticized Uruguay’s new law as “violating and weakening the overall strength of the UN drug control system.”

Canada’s recent decision to legalize marijuana for non-medical (recreational) use with the introduction of Bill C-45 in 2017, has demonstrated that pragmatic change to drug control is possible at the national level. While the Canadian government acknowledged that the new legislation extends beyond the confines of the three UN drug Conventions, it has defended its decision on human rights grounds stating that “it is nevertheless our government’s view that our approach is consistent with the overarching goal of these conventions, namely, to protect the health and welfare of society.” Comparable to Uruguay’s 2013 policy reform, the passage of these laws was met with direct opposition from certain members of the international community, including the United States. The INCB publicly denounced Canada for moving forward with the legalization of cannabis, stating that it contravened and exceeded the latitude offered by the international drug control regime. Despite their concerns, there are limited actions that can be taken by the INCB to force signatories to comply and thus, the same route may be taken for the legalization of psychedelics. However, breaching its commitments to the drug control Conventions will have political effects, and Canada must be prepared to handle the reactions of other nations.

The condemnation of Canada’s derogation to the treaties reaffirms that the flexibility in the conventions is not unlimited, however, it is currently unclear how the entire global community will respond to Canada’s disregard of its international obligations. Canada has set a precedent as the first OECD country to legalize the non-medical use of marijuana, and several other jurisdictions are closely monitoring its example. Although Canada’s decision to opt out of selected portions of the UN drug treaties has been supported by opponents of the prohibition based international system, it raises serious concerns with regard to the international legal regime. Indeed, the possibility of more Nation States unilaterally disregarding all or parts of international treaties threatens the stability of the entire treaty framework as it challenges the validity of these commitments.

However, as a member of the G7, Canada is in an ideal position to advocate for collective action towards an official re-examination of the UN drug control Conventions. Canada’s decision to legalize cannabis effectively re-opened the debate on the efficacy of the prohibitionist regime and has provided the opportunity for nations to consider reform of the current UN drug control Conventions to reflect a more health-oriented drug tolerance policy. Modifications could include the rescheduling of certain drugs, by reclassifying substances that do not pose health risks such as psychedelics.

Canada faces a number of different options in how it can progress towards the legalization of psychedelics. It is likely that it will follow a similar route to cannabis by legalizing it initially for medical purposes and perhaps later for recreational use. In fact, medical legalization of psychedelic substances is already underway. Early into 2017, a team of health professionals in British Columbia filed an application with Health Canada to make psilocybin available as a treatment for terminally-ill patients under the CDSA Section 56(1) exemption. Still waiting for approval, the psychotherapist heading the petition, Bruce Tobin, is determined to do whatever is necessary to ensure that his patients can have access to medically legal psilocybin. If unsuccessful in his application, he plans to bring his claim to the Federal Court of Appeals and is confident that the same Charter arguments used in changing the federal law for medical access to cannabis will be equally as compelling for psychedelics.


legalization psychedelics canada


An examination into the history of drug control exposes the political motivations that produced the global prohibitionist model which exists today. As illustrated with psychedelic regulations, these restrictive laws emerged not based on assessments of the risks associated with the drug, but as a result of changing power dynamics. The failure to establish clear, scientifically-grounded criteria for the scheduling of drugs has had severe consequences on the health of both the world economy and the individual. In particular, the criminalization of psychedelics prematurely halted promising investigations into its therapeutic benefits and continues to hinder patient access to effective medicine. Across the world, mental illness has reached epidemic proportions. In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem and the economic costs of this on Canada’s health care system is estimated to be at least $7.9 billion. Revisiting psychedelics as a therapeutic approach has demonstrated clear potential to revolutionize current treatment paradigms for mental disorders.

In addition to their capability to alleviate a wide range of mental health problems, psychedelics have also been shown to enhance the wellbeing of healthy individuals. With such high potential to counteract the growing epidemic of mental illness a rational drug policy is crucial for the benefits of psychedelics to be fully realized by Canadian society.

While amending federal legislation to shift away from the absolute prohibitionary model appears to derogate from Canada’s commitments under the three UN drug control treaties, the flexibility in interpretation at the national level makes it possible to justify an exemption for medical use. Thus, it is possible to reconcile the legalization of psychedelics for medical use and the UN Conventions. On the contrary, non-medical recreational use of psychedelics is largely incompatible with the international drug regime and as such, amendments of national laws to permit such activities will most certainly be considered a violation of the treaties. Canada can still choose to disregard its commitments and proceed forward with recreational legalization of psychedelics as it did with the legalization of cannabis. While the undertaking of such an action will drastically alter the international political landscape, the current movement to legalize psychedelics happens to coincide with a greater political legitimacy for drug policy reform. The recent legalization of cannabis in Canada may serve as a template for global changes to the international system of drug control. Accordingly, Canada can devise a strategic approach to legalize psychedelics on a national level in a manner that maintains positive international relations.


future psychedelic legislation



Desiree Smith

Desiree Smith

Desiree Smith is a Canadian law school graduate with a passion for innovation that makes a positive impact on the world. When she's not working on the legal team at Canada's largest digital asset exchange, she is actively involved in the movement towards the legalization of psychedelics for therapeutic use.