“Psychedelic drugs cured my chronic pain”: Meet the founder of a clinic that offers guided mushroom therapy
Numinus offers psychedelic therapy in 13 clinics across North America, including one in Toronto. Its founder, Payton Nyquvest, tells us why we should take mushrooms more seriously
Psychedelics: they’re not just for music festivals anymore. In fact, researchers are finding mounting evidence that psilocybin, the active ingredient that puts the “magic” in magic mushrooms, can have significant health benefits when used to treat depression, anxiety and PTSD. Health Canada, however, is playing the role of The Man, limiting legal administration of the drug and enforcing a rigorous application process. The approach to enforcement has spurred calls for expanded access and led to the emergence of illegal shops in Canada, many of which have been subject to police raids over the past year. Still, a select few medical centres are authorized to legally provide psilocybin therapy, and one such centre is Numinus. Founded by Payton Nyquvest, Numinus operates 13 clinics across North America, including a Toronto location that opened in 2021. Here, Nyquvest tells us why he’s optimistic about psilocybin becoming widely available, what happens in a psychedelic therapy sesh, and why we should take mushrooms more seriously.
First things first: why mushrooms?
Since birth, I dealt with overwhelming gut pain. It would come and go at inexplicable times, and no traditional diet or medication ever really helped. By 2018, I felt like I was out of options. The pain had gotten so bad that I was being hospitalized three days a week. I turned to psychedelic therapy as a last-ditch effort. Psilocybin was nearly impossible to find in Canada, so I travelled to a retreat centre in Costa Rica that offered it. After just one week, my chronic pain went away and never returned. I wanted to give other people a chance to access that kind of treatment, so I founded the company out of my hometown, Vancouver, that same year. We’ve since opened 12 additional locations.
How do you turn a somewhat niche interest into a North America-wide network of clinics?
We came in at the right time. Ten years ago, there was no corporate interest in psychedelics. But a growing body of academic and not-for-profit research has turned some heads. For example, a study published in Nature Medicine in 2021 found that two-thirds of people with post-traumatic stress disorder who took just three doses of MDMA stopped having symptoms. From there, it became a bit of a race to provide safe access.
Surely not every psychedelic therapy session is a miracle cure.
For me, the change was phenomenal, but I’m certainly not suggesting it’s a panacea. Different things work for different people. That being said, I think we have to at least make this an available treatment option.
For those only familiar with the “magic” effects of psilocybin, what’s the rationale for bringing it into a clinical setting?
Psilocybin activates serotonin receptors in the brain, which can lead to changes in mood, consciousness and thoughts. It’s becoming an increasingly popular treatment for depression, anxiety, OCD and PTSD. Early research shows it could lead to long-term positive changes in mental well-being.
So, let’s say I walk into your clinic and I’m approved by Health Canada to get psilocybin treatment. What’s next?
We’d start with a preparation meeting. A therapist would ask what symptoms you’re hoping to alleviate and get your medical history. Then they’d take you through preparatory breathwork, like meditation. If that goes well, you’d book a second appointment for the actual treatment, which takes 4-6 hours.
That’s a full afternoon. What happens in that time?
People generally feel the effects of psilocybin for four hours, but the appointment is six hours to ensure that no one is leaving before the effects wear off. The appointment starts with a briefing about what’s going to happen, then clients can set up the room to their liking. That could be requesting particular music or mood lighting, or getting cushions and blankets. After that, the practitioner administers the medicine and proceeds to guide the patient through a session that’s not unlike regular talk therapy.
But not just anyone can come in and access this treatment, right?
Correct. Psilocybin is still not a legal form of treatment in Canada, and I think we’re a few years away from seeing that happen. The only people who can come to Numinus for psilocybin therapy are those who have been approved through Health Canada’s special access program, which allows select Canadians to access drugs or therapies that haven’t yet gone through the standard clinical trial process.
And psilocybin is one of the drugs on that list?
Yes, since early 2022.
How many people get approved in Canada these days?
Health Canada is approving roughly 20 people per week, which is way more than had access at this time last year. In October 2022, Alberta legalized all forms of psychedelic therapy on a provincial level, which I think put added pressure on Health Canada to make it more accessible. The state of Oregon has moved to a regulated psilocybin-assisted therapy model, where they have licensed facilities and production partners who can legally offer that therapy. I’m hoping we can get there in the next few years.
What’s holding us back in Canada? Stigma around psychedelics?
Possibly, but I actually think society is warming up to these drugs. Unfortunately, Covid-19 took a toll on our mental health and showed us that our current therapies are failing us. We need something better than antidepressants, which have their place but work like band-aids—they temporarily address issues but rarely fix them. Psychedelics, in contrast, might be curative. Clinical trial results have shown great promise in that regard.
Meanwhile, there is clearly an appetite for psilocybin therapy in Canada—illegal dispensaries are opening across the country, only to later be raided by law enforcement. Should Health Canada be moving faster on legalization?
We do need to be careful. Psychedelics are a powerful tool. For example, a hammer can be very effective when in the hands of someone with training and skill. But when used by someone without training, it can be very harmful.
What would you say to people who see mushrooms as a party drug and might be skeptical of this whole thing?
Not everyone understands psychedelic therapy—some people may still lump them in with other drugs and even advocate for banning them. Meanwhile, we have alcohol and cigarettes being sold legally while arguably causing much more harm. I would encourage skeptics to look at the compelling clinical trial results we’re seeing around the world and open their minds to the possibility that these drugs could have great benefits. These are not new substances that we’ve recently produced in a lab; psychedelics were being used therapeutically as early as 2,000 years ago.
We saw marijuana legalized in Canada in 2018. Are we close to seeing psilocybin undergo a similar process?
It’s impossible to predict what will come next. However, we anticipate that FDA approval for MDMA will come very soon—it could be in U.S. hospitals by 2024. I’m hopeful that legalization for other psychedelics will come after that, both in the U.S. and Canada.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.