Friendly-looking signs direct wanderers on a residential side street near the city’s Little Italy neighbourhood halfway down an alleyway, and into a dark doorway that opens up into a minimal-but-beautifully designed space. It sort of looks like a coffee shop, only a biology lab-themed coffee shop — or a human-sized terrarium.
Glass jars filled with shockingly orange cordyceps and soft white, stringy lion’s mane mushrooms adorn the wall behind two masked baristas. Bottles of mushroom stock and fungi-infused tomato cocktail sit on the counter, and the menu offers items like mushroom tea ($3.50), made with dried chaga, cordyceps, reishi or lion’s mane—all purported to help with things like the appearance of aging, stress, and some are even purported to contain anti-cancer properties.
Similar to Tokyo Smoke’s initial iteration—a thoughtfully designed coffee shop that sold high-end cannabis accessories as a way to start open, destigmatizing conversations to dispel the stereotypes dogging weed culture before legalization—A Good Mushroom is about destigmatizing the medicinal properties of fungi. Many species have been utilized by ancient cultures for centuries, and by simply placing the still prohibited psilocybin, a.k.a. magic mushrooms, among them. While there aren’t any psychedelics on the premises, books about ancient psilocybin rituals and the 60’s counterculture movement are for sale, and barista Philip O'Shaughnessy is a recent transplant from Amsterdam where mushrooms are legal.
He says microdosing—taking small amounts of psilocybin on and off through the week—improved his life.
“When I did my Masters in Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Development, I got into microdosing psilocybin,” he says, as he heats some mushroom broth for me to sip. “I thought it really helped me kick into gear for writing my thesis. I found myself practicing pilates more and what I wanted and what my body wanted were more in sync. I wasn't smoking when I was doing it. I was eating healthier. I just felt better about myself.”
There aren’t any magic mushrooms here, but they’re not far from mind. Backed by Lorne Gertner, founder of the Tokyo Smoke cannabis brand, and brought to life by restaurateur Jimson Bienenstock, A Good Mushroom is the latest signal that a handful of Canadians are leading the “Shroom Boom.” On the heels of Michael Pollan’s bestseller How To Change Your Mind, which highlighted the well-documented health benefits of psilocybin to treat mental health conditions like depression, magic mushroom companies are now popping up and going public on the stock market. Field Trip Health, which has clinics in Toronto, New York and L.A., is launching an app to guide people on their next therapeutic magic mushroom trip, and government policy is showing signs of loosening as well: This past summer, with the help of psilocybin therapy advocacy group TheraPsil, four people in palliative care qualified for an exemption by the federal government from drug laws so they could try psilocybin treatment to improve their mental health as they near death.
But will Canadians see a chain of magic mushroom dispensaries opening across the country in the same way Tokyo Smoke evolved into a cannabis retail chain? There are parallels to the policy changes that led to the medicalization and then legalization of cannabis, according to Steve Sadoff, who heads up psilocybin research company Sansero Life Sciences. But there are also differences.
“With the recent news of the health minister in Canada granting exemptions for a few individuals with terminal illnesses to consume psilocybin to help overcome their end of life anxiety, we saw similar activity in the early days of cannabis when it was petitioned to be available for medical purposes as well,” he says. “So with this news, I suspect there will be charter challenges, again, which was similar to the path that cannabis took, which will require a legal access point for patients to have it provided and potentially administered.”
But psilocybin—particularly macro dose therapy—also has some promising clinical evidence supporting its benefits for those with chronic depression and PTSD. That already makes it different from cannabis in two ways. Conventional medicine is still waiting on non-anecdotal evidence supporting cannabis therapies to treat many ailments including mental health, so many Canadians are self-medicating, and/or accessing medical cannabis through private clinics who take kickbacks from sales. And because macro doses require supervision by a doctor (or at least that’s what western medicine recommends) that therapy will likely move from private clinics to public medicine without as much resistance because the necessary clinical evidence is already existent or underway. And because of that, it will also likely stay within the medical community, rather than become legally available through retailers for recreational purposes.
Lorne Gertner says he also sees parallels when it comes to the stigma associated with prohibited substances, but the conversation is a little easier this time around.
“When I first used to go in to talk to people about cannabis, they would laugh and they would refer to their stigma and there was a joke, right? And it was a long conversation to get them to where they would think about medical cannabis,” he says. “In the case of psychedelics, there's the same kind of stigma. But you get over it much quicker because we shift really quickly into mental illness and mental health. And right now, the world we're living in, the number one concern of people is COVID. Number two is mental health and mental wellness.”
Both Sansero and A Good Mushroom fall under the CannaGlobal Wellness umbrella, which also includes Rise Wellness, a microdose therapy retreat in Jamaica that is now expanding to Canada. It’s a reminder that psilocybin therapy may be new to a lot of Canadians, but it’s been legal in Jamaica and the Netherlands for a long time. It’s also a reminder that when it comes to medicinal or therapeutic mushrooms of all kinds, there’s a long history that includes community-based practices and ancient rituals that were gentrified by western counterculture in the 60’s, and which are now undergoing the corporate treatment.
Canadian community-based practices also exist. Vancouver advocate Dana Larsen has been selling microdoses of psilocybin online since cannabis was legalized at Mushroom Dispensary. And recently Toronto’s Jess Nudo launched Psilo & Spice, so far a visual-only platform showcasing mushrooms in a new, Instagram-friendly light. Soon, she’ll populate the site with more content about microdosing, self-medicating and its potential benefits, but with a more spiritual side, and incorporating some information about adaptogens and how combining them with psilocybin can be beneficial.
She says that rather than only legalizing the medical side of psilocybin through clinical settings, psilocybin should be decriminalized on the whole.
“I think cannabis legalization was very experimental,” she says. “Not to say that this isn't, but we saw how that went. And I'm hopeful that because of the pandemic, and just where we are now in our new normal, that decriminalization would be something that the Government of Canada would consider. Legalization takes a long time to do, it takes a lot. If they were to choose to decriminalize psilocybin and eventually, other psychedelics, that would just make the most sense. Hard drugs is a completely other category. But we're talking about plant medicine. To have that considered criminal, I believe is criminal.”