The article ATMA Journey Centers and Legal Psychedelics in Canada was originally published on Microdose.
The paths to psychedelic legalization are many. While cannabis was, and still may be, a journey through courts and activism, the CEO of ATMA, David Harder, outlines a different path for psychedelics — one of government acceptance through cooperation with governmental bodies, training professionals, and clinical trials.
David’s desire to develop ATMA stems from personal experiences with psychedelics that “brought him to his knees” and forced him to face his ego. The teachings of psychedelics unwound an upbringing in organized religion, and he settled into what he calls “comfortable agnosticism.” David explains that:
“The medicines have shown me a darkness I didn’t know was possible and created a much greater empathy and softness with those who struggle in these areas.”
The understanding led to David’s focus on Atma and psychedelic legalization, not only as a business opportunity but as a deeply held conviction.
Working with Health Canada
There is a fairly common narrative that activists will have to force the hand of governments to push through drug reform. That may be the case, but ATMA believes in a multipronged approach to change.
Harder is clear that “our strategy, and it has been working so far, has been to work with, rather than against what is.” For ATMA, ‘what is’ is seeing Health Canada as an organization composed of individuals, with some people sympathetic to the cause of opening Canada to psychedelic access. He says that Health Canada’s perspectives on psychedelics are being dismantled, and by working towards change from inside the system, he has settled into a unique perspective.
That being said, Harder does appreciate the approach of Bruce Tobin and Therapsil, another Canadian group currently suing the Canadian government over the right of terminally ill patients to access psilocybin. But he adds that his perspective is that changing systems will likely come from many places. Therapsil may bring down walls preventing access to psilocybin, but Harder believes allies within Health Canada will also be needed to “bring medicines to the people.”
ATMA Journey Centers Clinical Trials
ATMA’s contribution to the effort is not only forging relationships with Canada’s governing body but producing evidence to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of psilocybin clinical trials.
The group is now in phase II of clinical trials while simultaneously training practitioners who can earn continuing education credits. In Phase I, the team at ATMA gave 25 mg of naturally extracted psilocybin to patients. It monitored vitals, cleanly showing the tolerability of psilocybin and laying a framework for its safety.
Phase II, N 500 was recently given a letter of “no objection” from Health Canada and focuses on frontline health workers whose mental health has been affected by the stresses of the Covid 19 pandemic. The participants will self-report anxiety, depression, and burnout levels before and after 25mg psilocybin journeys. The hope is the results will demonstrate the effectiveness of psilocybin on mental health.
Psychedelic Legalization in Canada and Alberta
With the recent news that Alberta, where ATMA operates, has issued regulations on psychedelics, it seems that the needle is moving. Harder says that Alberta’s policy
“flies in the face of the national Scheduling of the drugs, so it seems that battle lines have been drawn.”
When asked where all the chips would land, Harder speculated on a hybrid medical model partnered with decriminalization, similar to that of Oregon. He puts forward a vision where “ideally, therapists and psychologists would be able to provide the therapy in a relationship model, rather than a prescription model.”
While Harder cautions that preventing psychedelics from being released on the streets like cannabis is a key to safe legalization, he supports access to folks who don’t have a clinical diagnosis. Ultimately, Harder and ATMA believe psychedelics can be “freely available for those who want to pursue a higher level of consciousness, not just for helping people get to a baseline of coping.”
Training Practitioners and Psychedelic Access
There may indeed be battle lines to be negotiated in the coming years and months, as current criticisms of regulations in Alberta lean heavily on psychiatrist prescriptions. The guidelines are designed to protect patients participating in an emerging industry, yet highlight the challenges of access to psychedelics. For example, in Alberta, it can take up to 18 months to see a psychiatrist.
Timelines like that mentioned above are one aspect of the issue of equitable access to psychedelics. Also at the forefront is the need for practitioners qualified to administer psychedelics. Harder explained in a press release, “it is neither cost-effective nor the best use of a physician’s time for them to spend six hours monitoring a patient in an altered psychological state.”
To remedy this, ATMA is creating a training program for therapists, nurses, and psychologists to assist in the administration of psychedelics. ATMA hopes that their trials with healthcare practitioners, spread between clinics across Canada, may inspire greater interest in psychedelic therapy. Therapsil is also creating training for psychedelic therapists.
Psychedelic Retreats and Peer Support
The retreat model will also explore other models of accessing psychedelics. ATMA has a center in Alberta where patients granted access to psilocybin through Canada’s Special Access Program can be safely guided through psilocybin journeys. Harder suggests that retreats and “group therapy is the key to accessibility and affordability.” The challenge is that retreats can be expensive, and how that will be balanced out isn’t clear.
Psychedelics taken in groups aren’t just a way to cut costs either. Harder believes that group settings are ideal for deep healing and growth and that the community created in circles is valuable peer support for those navigating psychedelics. The community component is so significant it will be included in the ATMA’s trials with healthcare professionals.
ATMA’s approach of building bridges, leveraging clinical trials, training the people needed, and exploring avenues to more equitable access is a model that, alongside organizations like Therapsil, is shaping the future of psychedelics in Canada. How the government will respond is anyone’s guess at this point, but it’s clear the pressure is on Health Canada now, both inside and out.psilocybin decriminalization health canada legalization psychedelics psychedelic