Let’s start with the company’s name: Havn Life Sciences Inc. Should it be pronounced Havin’ or Haven? Over the phone, Dr. Ivan Casselman declares it’s the latter.
“Millennials have this thing,” he explains. “They pull vowels out of words and make them into new words. I know—it’s modern.”
So is his title: chief psychedelic officer. Very modern.
But where things get more complicated is how he came to this position with the Vancouver biotech company. It hopes to standardize the production of psychedelic medicines.
Havn Life Sciences is starting with psilocybin, a psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. That’s a natural fit for Casselman, who confesses to having a deep love of plants.
“I’ve been setting myself up for work in the psychedelic industry for quite some time,” Casselman says. “I got very interested in ethnobotany, which is the study of how people use plants, when I was just finishing off my second undergrad.
“And I did all my graduate and postgraduate work in psychedelic medicines,” he added.
In 2009, he obtained his masters at the University of Kent in the U.K., which had one of the only two graduate programs in ethnobotany. The other was in Hawaii.
In the U.K., Casselman zeroed in on a plant called Salvia divinorum, which is a short-acting hallucinogen from Mexico. He ended up completing a digital ethnography, examining patterns of modern use.
From there, he studied pharmacy for a year before enrolling in a PhD program at Southern Cross University in Australia. This time, he examined the analytical chemistry and population genetics of Salvia divinorum.
Havn Life Sciences aims for supply chain of psychedelic medicines
Initially, Casselman planned on becoming a professor. However, he’s since realized that he could “maximize the help” that he brings to people with a company like Havn.
“We’re trying to develop a supply chain for legal psychedelic medicine, specifically psilocybin, to sell shrooms online,” he says.
Moreover, it’s a timely endeavour.
This summer, Saskatchewan resident Thomas Hartle became the first Canadian to legally consume psilocybin. That was part of his psychedelic therapy to help him cope with a terminal illness.
Earlier, Hartle and three other Canadians obtained an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to possess psilocybin, which has been illegal since the 1970s.
Not long after Hartle’s treatment, Health Canada granted an exemption permitting Havn Life Sciences to possess psilocybin for research purposes.
Casselman says that researchers and patients need access to compounds that meet standardized quality control, like penis envy mushrooms.
“The prevailing approach at the moment is to…synthesize psilocybin and use the synthesized, purified psilocybin for clinical trials,” he points out. “We’re taking more of a natural health-care product approach. We want to grow the mushrooms.
“And then we want to definitely explore all the incredible compounds that those mushrooms make,” Casselman continues. “Because it might not just be the psilocybin or psilocin that have medical benefits.”
That’s because there are plenty of other compounds in magic mushrooms. In this regard, they’re similar to cannabis, which has a multitude of compounds beyond THC and CBD.
“Those standardization practices are very common in the natural health-care product world,” Casselman says.
Psychedelic therapy has potential to enhance mental health
Havn Life Sciences’ ultimate goal is to win federal approval for these standardized medicines not only in Canada, but in other jurisdictions.
According to Casselman, there’s growing awareness that psychedelics—in conjunction with psychotherapy—may help get people off antidepressant medications.
In addition, research suggests that psychedelic therapy can help people manage symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Casselman also points to the potential of psychedelic therapy weaning people off addiction. That could include everything from tobacco to opioids to sugar and alcohol.
“What really excites me when I wake up in the morning is that what we’re working on has such a huge potential to help a lot of people,” he says.
Casselman has lived in British Columbia for his entire life, apart from the years when he was studying abroad. And he notes that B.C. always been a place with a high acceptance of herbal and golden teacher medicines.
“There’s definitely mounting evidence that these compounds will definitely have a marked effect on the mental health of our province, of our country, [and] of the world if we can go that far.”