SINGAPORE: More than S$1.2 million in cash was seized in a raid against a remote gambling syndicate, the police said on Wednesday (Apr 21).
The amount of cash confiscated is one of the largest sums seized in a single police operation against illegal remote gambling.
One woman and 27 men were arrested for their suspected involvement in providing illegal remote 4D, TOTO and horse betting services.
They are believed to be part of a syndicate that used betting websites and phone messaging apps in their illegal remote betting activities, the police added.
Over a span of two hours on Tuesday, more than 180 officers from the Criminal Investigation Department, Police Intelligence Department and Special Operations Command conducted simultaneous raids.
The raids took place at multiple locations islandwide, including Tampines, Punggol, Sengkang, Hougang and Yishun.
In addition to the S$1.2 million in cash, items such as computers, mobile phones, betting records were also confiscated.
The police said they have initiated the freezing of the suspects’ bank accounts for investigations and to prevent the dissipation of suspected criminal proceeds.
Six men, aged between 38 and 49, will be charged in court on Wednesday for offences under the Remote Gambling Act 2014. If found guilty, they face a fine of between S$20,000 and S$200,000 and jail of up to five years on each charge.
Investigations against the remaining suspects are ongoing.
Director of the Criminal Investigation Department, Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police How Kwang Hwee said the operation is part of the police’s ongoing efforts to “disrupt and dismantle” criminal syndicates in Singapore.
“The police will take tough enforcement action against such criminal groups to clamp down on illegal remote gambling and betting activities in Singapore. Those found engaging in illicit activities will be dealt with firmly in accordance with the law,” he said.
Man jailed for burning towels at Hotel 81 after staff said he could not join his male friend and woman in room
SINGAPORE - A man was sentenced to three months' jail on Wednesday (April 21) for setting fire to towels in a hotel after staff told him he had to leave the room occupied by his male friend and a woman they had just met at a karaoke lounge.
Lau Sheng Shiun, who was from the Republic of Singapore Navy, had faced trial and was convicted last month of mischief by fire with intent to cause damage.
The incident happened on Sept 12, 2017.
The 34-year-old had met up with Chua Wen Hao, 29, his friend and subordinate in the navy, before heading to the W KTV lounge at Foch Road at Jalan Besar.
They had a few drinks there and met a Vietnamese woman. The men later decided to head to Hotel 81 Violet nearby, and checked in at the front desk at about 9.20pm.
Shortly after, the hotel staff spotted through the security cameras that three of them had entered the room, in breach of its policy of disallowing more than two people in a room.
When the staff informed them that they were in breach of the policy, Lau left the hotel through a backdoor.
He started smoking in the area where the hotel kept crates of towels before eventually leaving at about 9.50pm.
But shortly after, someone passing the area Lau was in saw that some of the towels were on fire. The hotel staff were alerted and they extinguished the flames and called the police.
Using security camera footage and through ground inquiries, the police were able to identify Lau. He was arrested on Sept 21 that year.
On Wednesday, Deputy Public Prosecutor Zhou Yihong urged the court to jail Lau for at least three to four months, noting that it was purely fortuitous that the fire had not spread further and caused severe damage.
During sentencing, District Judge Ong Luan Tze said there was some element of vengeance in Lau's actions, and that he had admitted to being frustrated with the hotel. Lau said he had set fire to the towels to express his frustration.
His lawyer Josephine Costan said Lau will be appealing against the conviction and sentence.
Reporters has contacted the Ministry of Defence for comment.
Lau is currently out on bail of $10,000, pending the appeal.
For mischief by fire intending to cause damage, he could have been jailed for up to seven years and fined.
SINGAPORE - The compulsory roll-out of SafeEntry Gateway devices in places with large numbers of visitors was completed on Monday (April 19).
Malls, cinemas, supermarkets and hospitals are among more than 2,700 locations that are equipped with the new SafeEntry system.
Visitors can now tap their TraceTogether token, or phone with the TraceTogether app, on the devices to register their visit for contact tracing purposes.
This paves the way for TraceTogether to be the only means to register visitors at across 200,000 locations in Singapore where SafeEntry is deployed.
On March 16, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) announced that selected places with crowds had to implement the new check-in method, using either a physical device called the SafeEntry Gateway Box or the SafeEntry (Business) app by April 19.
These venues included popular wet markets, large stand-alone retail outlets, selected museums and galleries, places of worship, and funeral parlours with wake halls, as well as Mice (meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions) venues hosting more than 100 people.
Existing SafeEntry check-in methods using QR codes or a visitor's NRIC will still be available at these places.
For now, public venues are not required to implement TraceTogether-only SafeEntry, except for events or businesses that are part of ongoing pilots, such as live performances, cinemas and selected nightlife venues.
In response to queries, the SNDGO said that the majority of mandated venues were already using the SafeEntry Gateway for check-ins before Monday.
Apart from enabling faster check-ins, the new system can tell whether a TraceTogether token is in working condition for effective digital contact tracing.
Those with TraceTogether tokens that are not working can take them to token replacement booths, which from this month are set up at some venues with the gateway system.
They can also get them replaced at any community club. Replacement is free.
With more than 90 per cent of Singapore residents on the TraceTogether programme, the SNDGO has encouraged more businesses to set up the SafeEntry Gateway device for the convenience of their patrons.
Operators of venues that the Government has identified as requiring the SafeEntry Gateway Box can get up to four for free.
If they need more, they can appeal to the Government Technology Agency, which developed the gateway system.
Operators can also download the free SafeEntry (Business) app from the Apple App Store or Google Play store.
More information on the application and set-up of the SafeEntry Gateway is available on the SafeEntry website.
SINGAPORE - A 33-year-old man, who was one of 17 migrant workers travelling on the back of a lorry, died after the vehicle collided with a stationary tipper truck along the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) on Tuesday morning (April 20).
The man died of his injuries in hospital, while the other 16 workers were also sent to hospital.
A 36-year-old male lorry driver was arrested for careless driving causing death.
Police said that they were alerted at 6.06am to the accident along PIE towards Changi Airport before the Jalan Bahar exit.
The Singapore Civil Defence Force said two people were found trapped in the rear compartment of the lorry. They were rescued using hydraulic equipment.
The lorry passengers, aged between 23 and 46, were taken to National University Hospital and Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.
The police said two of the workers were unconscious after the accident.
A Facebook video posted at around 10.30am shows the aftermath of the accident.
Several men were seen lying on the road, surrounded by at least two ambulances and a fire engine.
The accident caused traffic to be backed up until Pioneer Road North, according to the Land Transport Authority.
Reporters understands that all of the passengers are foreign workers who work for Bright Asia Construction.
When contacted by reporters, a man from Bright Asia Construction said that investigations are ongoing. He declined to comment further.
Masala Garlic Butter Bread is one of the very popular street food of India. Spicy and buttery soft buns make a perfect street style snack. On the other end pull apart bread is the new sophisticated way of eating garlic bread. Don't they both sound delicious? Now imagine combining those two ideas in one!
This makes a perfect and unique party appetizer. I guarantee your guests will devour this goodie. It is also great to prepare ahead. Baking can be down right before your gathering. It is loaded with some desi/Indian spices, butter and cheese. Trust me on this, it is worth every single calorie!!
This is definitely one my favorite things to make for my parties. My guests absolutely love it and so does my family. It makes a great happy hour treat too! I hope you like it as much as we do!
SINGAPORE - A global centre where those in the maritime industry can coordinate, research and make reducing shipping emissions a reality will be set up in Singapore, as part of recommendations by an international body to make shipping more environmentally-friendly.
More details on the global decarbonisation centre will be released later this week by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). The Straits Times understands there are two possible sites for the project, at either the 5.2ha former Pasir Panjang Power Station or the 1.55ha Marina South field.
Both locations are currently listed as reserve sites and a tender has been put up for architects to assess their suitability.
The announcement was made by Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung in his speech at the opening ceremony of the 15th Singapore Maritime Week that will run till Friday.
Other recommendations by the International Advisory Panel on Maritime Decarbonisation, set up by the Singapore Maritime Foundation last year with MPA's support, will also be made public in a report as part of the week's events.
The week-long conference focuses on the themes of decarbonisation, digitalisation and talent attraction, and is expected to have an international audience of 6,000 people, with most tuning in online.
It comes at a time when both Covid-19 and the Suez Canal blockage last month have disrupted the industry. These two crises have emphasised just how important it is to keep major sea arteries open, a task that will require the collective effort of all stakeholder countries, Mr Ong said in his opening speech.
Singapore, on its part, will continue to enhance its systems to detect collision and grounding risks early, fight piracy and ensure smooth crew changes in the Straits of Melaka and Singapore. But getting all seafarers, no matter their nationality, vaccinated against Covid-19 is also vital to the resilience of global supply lines.
"The Suez Canal carries around 12 per cent of all global seaborne trade. In comparison, the Straits of Melaka and Singapore carries almost three times as much. Any disruption along the Straits would be of greater impact," he said.
He added: "The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is working with international unions and shipping associations to secure vaccines for a network of seaports that can assist in the vaccination of international sea crew. This is an important effort to strengthen maritime resilience, and Singapore will do our best to support."
At the event, Mr Ong launched a digital system, digitalPORT @ SG Phase 2, which will cut berthing times for ships docked here by speeding up support and scheduling services. This will cut operating costs for businesses while reducing pollutive air emitted near Singapore, as ships emit about 45 tonnes of carbon dioxide each day they spend idle.
Phase one of the digital portal, began in 2019, focused on consolidating the 16 different forms for port, vessel and immigration clearances into one. This has already saved the industry about 100,000 hours worth of labour per year.
Port terminal operator PSA also already uses an artificial intelligence engine that optimises the movements of containers coming through Singapore's port, a transshipment hub with highly complex vessel and container movements.
In line with decarbonisation efforts, Mr Ong also said a levy on marine fuel consumption will be introduced, with proceeds to go to an International Maritime Research and Development Board and an IMO Maritime Research Fund.
Before zero-carbon fuels like ammonia and hydrogen can be used - a prospect that is still "quite some distance away" - Singapore will also support the use of liquefied natural gas as a transitional fuel by supplying this to ships that use them at its ports.
All these efforts, which will make the industry more sustainable, will require attracting more young talent.
"My sense is that the maritime sector has been less successful in attracting our young. It is ironic, given that we are an island, surrounded by the ocean. The sea is a fascinatingly complex and large ecosystem, bursting with life and diversity, waiting for curious minds to explore," Mr Ong said.
"My suggestion is to be less focused on selling the young specific professions and roles in the sector. Instead, get our young to love the sea."
He added that a common love for the sea can also drive international collaboration.
"We need to be committed to (international collaboration), and be driven by our love for the sea and the idea that the oceans are our most important global commons, which hold the common heritage of mankind and connect rather than separate the peoples of different lands."
SINGAPORE -A 46-year-old man has been sentenced to six months' jail for molesting an elderly cleaner after she gave him money to buy food.
Chua Wee Meng pleaded guilty on Monday (April 19) to one count of outraging the 68-year-old victim's modesty.
Another similar charge was taken into consideration during sentencing by District Judge Wong Li Tein.
The victim, who was working as a part-time cleaner when Chua committed the offence against her, cannot be named due to a gag order to protect her identity.
The court heard that on June 19 last year, the woman was waiting for the lift at the lobby of a Housing Board block in the Queenstown area.
Chua approached her and asked for $4 to buy food.
He molested her after she gave him half the amount.
Shocked, she refused Chua's subsequent request for money.
She then entered the lift and returned to her unit.
The woman later told her daughter about the incident, and a police report was made.
In sentencing Chua on Monday, District Judge Wong said the man had committed the offence to an elderly woman who "had demonstrated kindness to him".
The judge also said the amount of fear caused by Chua's act to the woman cannot be understated, noting that the victim was shaken by the offence.
Chua's sentence has been backdated to Feb 1 this year, when he was remanded.
For this offence, Chua could have been jailed for up to two years, or fined, or caned, or sentenced to any combination of such punishments.
It's always nice to come home to a clean-smelling house. Spritzing or stashing one of these air fresheners in strategic areas around your space (in combination with your regular home-cleaning routine) can help to minimize musty, less-than-fresh smells and make the space feel so much more inviting.
This is the first time K-ART is bringing this Farcent Bubble Tea Air Fresheners from Taiwan. Many customers first time heard and saw this Bubble Tea Air Fresheners. They are very surprised and shocked by it as many of them thought it’s a real Bubble Tea that can be consumed. This Bubble Tea Air Fresheners even come with pearls inside. So it’s no wonder many people mistaken that it can be consumed. It comes in 3 different scents. Bubble Milk Tea, Tipsy Grape and Sweet Strawberry!
It is easy to use, especially since it is equipped with the Twist and Lock closing system. Smell refreshing and lovely when we want to freshen things up. Those interested to purchase this for yourself or as gifts for friends, you may want to check out K-ART Facebook page.
CHICAGO: A 13-year-old Chicago boy appears to have dropped a handgun and begun raising his hands less than a second before a police officer shot and killed him last month, footage released on Thursday (Apr 15) under community pressure shows.
A still frame taken from Officer Eric Stillman's jumpy nighttime body camera footage shows that Adam Toledo was not holding anything and had his hands at least partially up when Stillman shot him in the chest at around 3am on Mar 29.
Police, who were responding to reports of shots fired in the area, say the teen had a handgun on him before the shooting. And Stillman's footage shows him shining a light on a handgun on the ground near Toledo after he shot him.
The release of the footage and other investigation materials comes at a sensitive time, with the ongoing trial in Minneapolis of former officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd and the recent police killing of another black man, Daunte Wright, in one of that city's suburbs.
Before the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, an independent board that investigates all police-involved shootings in Chicago, posted the material on its website, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on the public to keep the peace and some downtown businesses boarded up their windows in the expectation that there could be unrest.
“We live in a city that is traumatised by a long history of police violence and misconduct,” Lightfoot said. “So while we don’t have enough information to be the judge and jury of this particular situation, it is certainly understandable why so many of our residents are feeling that all too familiar surge of outrage and pain. It is even clearer that trust between our community and law enforcement is far from healed and remains badly broken.”
"SHOTS FIRED, SHOTS FIRED"
Nineteen seconds elapsed from when Stillman exited his squad car to when he shot Toledo. His bodycam footage shows him chasing Toledo on foot down an alley for several seconds and yelling “Police! Stop! Stop right (expletive) now!”
As the teen slows down, Stillman yells “Hands! Hands! Show me your (expletive) hands!”
Toledo then turns toward the camera, Stillman yells “Drop it!” and midway between repeating that command, he opens fire and Toledo falls down.
"Shots fired, shots fired. Get an ambulance over here now," the police officer is heard saying in the video.
"Stay with me, stay with me" Stillman said. "Somebody bring the medical kit now!"
As other officers arrive, an officer says he cannot feel a heartbeat and begins administering CPR.
Adeena Weiss-Ortiz, an attorney for Toledo’s family, told reporters after the footage and other videos were released that they “speak for themselves".
"Adam, during the last second of his life, did not have a gun in his hand. The officer screamed at him, ‘Show me your hands.’ Adam complied,” she said.
Weiss-Ortiz said it is irrelevant whether Toledo was holding a gun before he turned toward the officer.
"If he had a gun, he tossed it. The officer said show me your hands, he complied. He turned around,” she said.
"I don't know if the officer had enough time or not. All I know is the officer is trained to not shoot an unarmed individual," she said.
Weiss-Ortiz said the Toledo family wanted "justice for Adam, whatever that may entail. This is a very close, tight-knit Hispanic family. All of those who lived with him adored this child."
The Chicago Police Department typically does not release the names of officers involved in such shootings this early on in an investigation, but Stillman's name, age and race - he's 34 and white - were listed in the investigation reports COPA released on Thursday.
Weiss-Ortiz said that she looked into Stillman. "From what I understand, he had no prior discipline, no prior events.”
MAYOR DECRIES LONG HISTORY OF POLICE VIOLENCE
Lightfoot, who along with the police superintendent called on COPA to release the video, urged the public to remain peaceful and reserve judgment until the police accountability board can complete its investigation.
Choking up at times, she decried the city's long history of police violence and misconduct, especially in black and brown communities, and said too many young people are left vulnerable to “systemic failures that we simply must fix".
She also described watching the footage as “excruciating".
“As a mum, this is not something you want children to see,” said the mayor.
In addition to posting Stillman's bodycam footage, the review board released footage from other bodycams, four third-party videos, two audio recordings of 911 calls, and six audio recordings from ShotSpotter, the technology that alerted police to gunshots in that area of Little Village, a predominantly Latino and black neighbourhood on the city's West Side, and led officers to head there that morning.
Toledo and a 21-year-old man fled on foot when confronted by police, and Stillman shot the teen once in the chest following a foot chase during what the department described as an armed confrontation. The 21-year-old man was arrested on a misdemeanour charge of resisting arrest.
The review board initially said it could not release the video because it involved the shooting of a minor, but it changed course after the mayor and police superintendent called for the video’s release.
The Chicago Police Department also released part of the same video on its website on Thursday. The department placed an arrow on a still frame, pointing to what appeared to be a handgun in Toledo's right hand before Stillman opened fire.
"838 milliseconds between gun shown in hand and single shot," the police department said in a caption.
About five minutes and 30 seconds into the video, the officer shines a flashlight on a handgun feet from where officers worked frantically to save Toledo's life, giving him CPR.
John Catanzara, president of the Chicago police union known as the Fraternal Order of Police, told reporters the officer had only eight-tenths of a second to make the decision whether to shoot and his actions were justified.
"It is 100 per cent justified. That officer's actions were actually heroic,” Catanzara said.
Footage of the Toledo shooting had been widely anticipated in the city, where the release of some previous police shooting videos sparked major protests, including the 2015 release of footage of a white officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him.
Before the video's release, some businesses in downtown Chicago's “Magnificent Mile” shopping district boarded up their windows. Lightfoot said the city has been preparing for months for a verdict in the Chauvin trial and that it had activated a “neighbourhood protection plan” ahead of Thursday's release.
“It happens now that these circumstances are sitting next to each other,” she said.
The Toledo family, meanwhile, issued a statement urging people to “remain peaceful".
“We have heard reports in the media that more protests are planned today, and while we have no direct knowledge of such events, we pray that for the sake of our city, people remain peaceful to honour Adam’s memory and work constructively to promote reform,” said the family.
Before the video's release, Lightfoot and attorneys for the family and city said in a joint statement that they agreed that in addition to the release of the video, all investigation materials should be made public, including a slowed-down compilation of what happened that morning.
“We acknowledge that the release of this video is the first step in the process toward the healing of the family, the community and our city,” the joint statement read. “We understand that the release of this video will be incredibly painful and elicit an emotional response to all who view it, and we ask that people express themselves peacefully.”
The Chicago Police Department has a long history of brutality and racism that has fomented mistrust among the city’s many black and Hispanic residents. Adding to that mistrust is the city’s history of suppressing damning police videos.
The city fought for months to keep the public from seeing the 2014 video of a white officer shooting McDonald 16 times, killing him. The officer was eventually convicted of murder.
And the city tried to stop a TV news station from broadcasting video of a botched 2019 police raid in which an innocent, naked, black woman was not allowed to put on clothes until after she was handcuffed.
TORONTO - To manage her stress and fears, Andrea Bird - who is suffering from terminal cancer - uses psychedelics, which are seeing a sudden re-emergence in Canada as a possible treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
The 60-year-old Canadian was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Despite aggressive treatment, the disease returned five years later, spreading to her lungs, bones and brain. As she tries to cope with her incurable ailment, Bird uses psilocybin, the psychoactive substance of hallucinogenic mushrooms that was banned in the 1970s.
"I found it to be the most helpful thing that I did in coming to terms with the fact that my life is ending much sooner than I thought it would," Bird told reporters. "I'm still dying," she said matter-of-factly, but added that psilocybin "makes me feel like I can stand up."
"I really love my life, and I really don't want to die, but I have to find a way to surrender to what is actually happening." Bird, who lives in Ontario province, is among about 30 Canadians, most of them struggling to face the end of their lives, who have received federal dispensation since August 2020 to use psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.
TheraPsil, a non-profit organization based in British Columbia, has helped most of them get exemptions to Canada's controlled substances and drug act for "compassionate treatment." The group also has connected patients to doctors and therapists who oversee their use of the drug. These trial cases come amid mounting interest from researchers and investors, as well as a public push to reconsider bans on psilocybin, LSD, DMT, mescaline and other mind-altering substances such as MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. The US state of Oregon legalized psilocybin for therapeutic use last November.
'Revolution in psychiatry'
Psychedelics have been used by indigenous peoples for millennia, but Western researchers only started delving into their properties and potential uses in earnest in the middle of last century. But that work came grinding to a halt when the substances quickly became symbols of the anti-establishment counter-culture movement of the 1960s and were banned.
Over the past 20 years, however, the persistence of some researchers, a mental health crisis and a shift in public opinion towards greater tolerance of drugs such as cannabis - which Canada legalized for recreational use in 2018 - paved the way for a psychedelics renaissance. "Now there are more people who are willing to just look at the facts rather than the political weight they may carry," explains Rotem Petranker, associate director of the University of Toronto's Psychedelic Studies Research Program, which looks at the effects of micro-dosing on mood and creativity.
Researchers are studying the potential benefits of these substances for treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance addictions and anorexia. The most advanced clinical trials are focused on using psilocybin for severe or treatment-resistant depression, and MDMA for PTSD. Some of the studies have yielded promising results. A recent clinical trial from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University - which has just opened a research center dedicated to psychedelics - showed that two doses of psilocybin, accompanied by psychotherapy, produced "large, rapid and sustained" effects in patients suffering from serious depression.
Of the 24 participants, 71 per cent showed a reduction of more than 50 per cent of their symptoms after four weeks and half went into remission, the study revealed. Another small-scale study involving 59 participants, conducted by Imperial College London's Centre for Psychedelic Research, showed psilocybin was "at least as effective" as conventional antidepressants, the research team said this week, though adding that larger trials were needed. "We're experiencing a revolution in psychiatry," Alexandre Lehmann, a cognitive neuroscientist who teaches at McGill University in Montreal, told reporters. "There are new approaches to alleviating and curing serious and disabling mental health problems, which affect a large number of people, and for which there are currently no good solutions."
Since their discovery in the 1950s, drug treatments for depression have hardly changed at all. Conventional antidepressants - which notably target serotonin, a key hormone that regulates mood - have been criticized for being slow to act and for their side effects, including dulling emotions and reducing creativity. They also don't always work, explains Nisha Ravindran, psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto.
"We know that standard antidepressants don't help a significant proportion of the population. In fact, more than 30 to 40 per cent simply don't respond and require alternatives," he said. For some patients, psychedelics could come to the rescue through a new model of therapy involving a limited number of doses providing a "transformative experience" that might address their core issues. Psychedelics can cause a profound alteration of perceptions and consciousness. The experience is unpredictable.
For some, it can seem otherworldly. Although much is still not known about how the drugs work, researchers believe they act on the brain's default mode network, associated with introspective thoughts and ruminations, by "temporarily lulling the ego," explains Lehmann. Animal studies suggest they enhance brain plasticity, helping to re-organize neural connections, he says.
Learning to face death
Psychedelics have low toxicity and are generally not addictive, but they can cause paranoia and anxiety attacks, especially in high doses. Researchers are still unsure about the addictive nature of MDMA, a derivative of amphetamines. For therapy uses, doses are prepared in labs and the experience is supervised, so the "risks are limited," says Lehmann. The substances make patients more sensitive to their emotions and allow them to examine their thoughts from a new perspective.
"Psychedelics are catalysts for psychotherapy," says Lehmann. Before receiving government dispensation to use the drugs, Bird had twice tried psychedelics on the sly, ingesting them at her home in the company of a "guide." She brewed and drank a hallucinogenic mushroom tea that led to several hours of "vivid" waking dreams. It took months of analysis to make sense of them, she says.
"Death showed up a couple of times but it was not at all scary... it was just waiting for me," she said of her first experience in late 2018. "It was the idea that this happens to everyone, that life is a gift that we get to have for a little while and then we have to give it back. And that became very clear to me." Since the cancer spread to her brain, Bird has - on the advice of her doctors - reduced her intake of the drug and now takes micro-doses.
Investing in spa-like clinics
The potential medical benefits of psychedelics have piqued the interest of a growing number of investors in recent years. Some startups are developing treatments based on these substances, while others are opening psychedelic therapy clinics. Several are listed on stock exchanges, notably in Toronto and New York, which already trade shares in numerous cannabis companies. The British firm Compass Pathways, one of the heavyweights in the sector, is currently valued at more than CAD$1.8 billion (S$1.92 billion) on the Nasdaq. Field Trip Health is one of those companies betting on psychedelics. Founded in Toronto in 2019, it has already opened five clinics in Canada and the United States and plans to build a network of 75 clinics in North America by 2024.
"Psychedelics are happening," Ronan Levy, one of the founders, told reporters. The company offers psychotherapy enhanced by low doses of ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic that is legal for medical use, which can induce a trance-like state or a sense of disconnect between body and mind. Ketamine has been used in surgeries since the 1960s, and also became a fixture on the club scene. Some studies have suggested it may allow rapid relief of depressive symptoms for people with treatment-resistant depression.
With moss-covered walls, essential oil diffusers and comfy armchairs, the Field Trip Health clinic in Toronto - located in a trendy neighborhood, in a loft with exposed pipes and with a view of the iconic CN Tower - has the feel of a spa. The clinic is accessible to those whose depression or other mental disorder is clinically resistant to treatment, meaning patients must have already tried at least two types of conventional treatments. A typical course of treatment - costing CAD$4,700 (S$5,000) - includes six doses of ketamine and about ten sessions of psychotherapy.
Lying on a zero gravity chair with a mask over their eyes and music in their ears, patients let a ketamine lozenge melt under their tongues and are transported on a "trip" of about an hour. A therapist stays in the room throughout the treatment, and then talks to the patients. Mathieu, a 35-year-old Canadian who underwent treatment in June 2020 and asked only to be identified by his first name, called the experience "really powerful." "I had the impression of breaking into a thousand pieces and being everywhere at the same time," he told reporters. "When I was going back down, there was an hour window where my emotions felt pure - what I had in mind came out without worry, I had no more filters."
Easing Covid-19 blues
Putting aside the hype and promising early results, the use of ketamine in mental health care is not universally backed. The length of its effects appear to be limited, and critics point to risks of dependence and other possible complications. There is also no consensus on the value of combining its use with psychotherapy. In the United States, many are worried about the boom in private clinics offering intravenous ketamine, without systematic psychiatric follow-up.
For Jeffrey Lieberman, chief psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center, it is a worrying sign that "the practice has leapt ahead of the research." More generally, others note that there is still a lack of solid evidence on the benefits of psychedelics. They say more and larger clinical trials are needed. Some researchers are also concerned that the current commercial craze and enthusiasm among top proponents are giving rise to a sense that psychedelics are a "miracle pill," leading some to try it alone or with low-quality substances. In Canada, reports have surfaced of people turning to unlicensed therapists and bootleg psychedelics for personal growth or to ease pandemic fatigue, leading to a blossoming black market.
Proponents of ketamine therapy say it helps lay the groundwork for the future use of classic psychedelics such as psilocybin, with the most enthusiastic projections suggesting the first new treatments will be approved in the coming years. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already indicated that it is receptive to the idea: since 2017, it has granted a "breakthrough therapy" designation for trials on psilocybin and MDMA.
'Remove the stigma'
In Canada, a pioneer of the cannabis industry, legalization of psychedelics is not yet on the table, but Health Minister Patty Hajdu has said she is open to supporting research, saying it would "help move forward this conversation." In addition to exemptions for patients, the government has just authorized 19 health professionals to test psilocybin themselves in an effort to understand its effects and train themselves on how to use it in a therapeutic context.
The country has also announced its intention to restore access to restricted drugs including psychedelics through its Special Access Program, which allows doctors to request the use of substances not yet approved for clinical use in dire situations. A public consultation ended in mid-February. If the proposal is approved, requests will be handled on a case-by-case basis, meaning access to these therapies for certain patients could be facilitated. Bird says she hesitated before speaking publicly about her use of psychedelics, but she says she felt it was important to do so to help "remove the stigma" and "try to illuminate this option for other people."
"I'm not that adventurous, drug-wise," she said. "But it has been really helpful to me... So, why hide that?"