Will psychedelics go corporate like cannabis?
As billionaires start to invest in psychedelics, some longtime researchers in the field worry they’ll just become another commodity.
At the end of last year, news outlets began to report that Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and one of the wealthiest men in America, had decided to invest in psychedelic mushrooms for depression. Thiel—a Silicon Valley giant who made early bets, and got massive returns, on Facebook and Airbnb—would be the primary financial backer of a company that was launching the largest-ever trials to get a psychedelic drug to market.
For the mainstream media, this was one more indication that we’re now amidst what’s being called “the psychedelic renaissance” as prominent institutions like Johns Hopkins and New York Universities generate promising data about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and push back on generations of stigma that associated them with Woodstock-era iconoclasts. But for many of the researchers and psychotherapists who pioneered the early psychedelic treatments of the 1960s, it signaled something else: that psychedelics, like cannabis, might soon become threatened by capitalist forces that prioritize profiteering over healing.
Soon after the announcement that Thiel—among billionaire ex-hedge fund manager Michael Novogratz and film producer Sam Engelbardt—would be funding the psychedelic trials headed by UK-based company Compass Pathways, a small group of longtime psychedelic researchers began to talk amongst themselves about what they could do, if anything, to ensure that psychedelic medicine becomes accessible rather than commandeered by one company controlling the market for profit.
After months of debate, they put out a public statement earlier this month—publicized by psychedelic site Chacruna—on their joint commitment to prioritizing the “common good.” It’s signed by nearly all the luminaries, living today, responsible for the psychedelic drug research movement. Ram Dass, Dennis McKenna, Amanda Feilding, James Fadiman, Rick Doblin, Bill Richards…these are names you might not know, but they, among many others on the statement, have fought for decades to reshape the way our society understands psychedelic drugs and, in turn, wellness.
“The statement was inspired by generations of researchers and practitioners who’ve shared their wonderful discoveries and know-how freely,” said Robert Jesse, a longtime psychedelic advocate and investigator on Johns Hopkins psilocybin trials. “Now, new entities, standing on the shoulders of those giants, are coming into the field. We’re at a choice point. Will the field grow with the ethos of open sharing? Or will it become clogged by proprietary methods, restrictive licensing, exclusive contracts, patents, and the like?”
In addition to Compass Pathways, which has established itself as a for-profit entity, psychedelic researchers have expressed concern about a company called Lightstar, which at one point on its website mentioned the use of “proprietary” psychedelic treatments. There are also two other companies, mentioned to Herb, which have raised concerns about profiteering in the psychedelic community, but there’s little information available about them now.
Jesse says the statement was not inspired by one particular company or actors, but rather the general notion that it can be challenging for people who get into a field for the business opportunity to also prioritize the common good. The picture that he and others paint about what could happen to the psychedelic field if it started to become competitive rather than cooperative is grim.
Firstly, for-profit companies that are funded by venture capitalist investors typically must respond to those investors, who expect the company to maximize profit. This means if a company was to discover, say, the most safe and effective way to administer a psychedelic that they would be unlikely to share that discovery with other clinics and researchers. It could also mean, Jesse says, patenting everything possible—from the drugs themselves to the tools used to administer those drugs—so that the company could charge whatever they want for their products. Psilocybin, the psychoactive component in psychedelic mushrooms, for example, can’t be patented as it’s in the public domain, but the process by which it’s made into a medicine can.
A number of researchers, who requested to remain anonymous, told Herb they’re concerned that this is already happening with Compass. Compass is one of the few—if not the only—companies that has figured out how to manufacture what’s called “GMP” psilocybin. GMP—which stands for Good Manufacturing Practices—indicates a certain quality required by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as regulatory agencies in Europe, in order to get a drug to market.
Compass is currently seeking approval for the last phase of trials necessary before legalizing psilocybin, in combination with therapy, for treatment-resistant depression in Europe. The trials, slated to begin sometime this year, include 10 to 15 sites in the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Katherine MacLean, another former investigator on the Johns Hopkins psilocybin trials, says the only reason Compass has gotten as far as it has is because psychedelic researchers shared much of their work with the company.
“Compass has, slowly over the years, managed to just take everything they can from every other group and individual without giving anything back and now they’ve established themselves as the competitor,” says MacLean. “So it feels quite deceptive and I don’t know if at some point they had this strategy or if they felt like they were doing the right thing all along.”
The other major organization involved in developing a psilocybin for depression treatment is the Usona Institute, a nonprofit based in the United States that many anticipated—and still anticipate—would be first to market. It’s unclear, however, whether they’ve been able to access or synthesize GMP psilocybin yet. The narrative, among some researchers, is that there’s now a sort of “race” happening between Compass and Usona.
Compass was founded as a for-profit company based in the UK in 2015. MacLean says that in the fall of 2014, she was introduced to George Goldsmith and Ekaterina (Katya) Malievskaia, a couple and the founders of Compass, at their home in Boston, Massachusetts. She then accepted an invitation to spend a few days with them at their home in London, where they discussed their mutual interest in using Compass, which at the time was a U.S.-based nonprofit also founded by the couple, to establish psychedelic hospices, a longtime interest of MacLean’s.
MacLean says she then served as a sort of gateway into the psychedelic community for Goldsmith and Malievskaia: she got Roland Griffiths, a prominent psilocybin investigator at Johns Hopkins University, to share his work, which Compass then used to seek regulatory approvals in Europe; she introduced them to researchers who were key in helping them design and execute their trials; and then, despite the fact that she considered them friends with a shared mission, they ended her contract as a consultant to the company without an explanation.
“I helped connect them with a lot of other people who also visited and kind of helped boost the interest in their vision, helped convince the people involved that this was serious work, like ‘here are the experts, here’s the research, here are all the compelling personal stories.’ And after helping them craft their scientific proposal, using all the language from Roland’s hard work at Hopkins that he graciously let me share with them, all of a sudden it was like no communication,” MacLean said. “When I reached out a couple times they said ‘oh, actually, you know, we’re updating the people involved.’ And it was like, ‘oh, so I’m not involved anymore?’”
Compass told Herb they “don’t recognize MacLean’s version of events” which they believe to be “inaccurate and unfounded.” Goldsmith, the founder of Compass, has said that they’ve chosen their business model because they believe it “incentivizes ongoing innovation” and “enables [the] patient access” which is “most likely to deliver the required sustainability.”
It costs tens of millions of dollars to conduct the research necessary to get a treatment to market. Some believe this price tag necessitates venture capital investment, even if that means giving some control over the drug development process to the investors. But Compass is adamant that they’re committed to prioritizing patients.
This, the company says, is largely inspired by Goldsmith and Malievskaia’s personal experiences unsuccessfully treating a family member for depression. The International Business Times reported last year that the couple has a son who developed severe depression while in college in New York and that the available therapies didn’t work for him.
Compass said in a statement sent to Herb that it will make all its data available to the research community “as soon as possible after study completion.” The statement also said that the company is currently supporting outside research by providing their GMP psilocybin to scientists at below cost, and has developed a program with the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, Europe’s leading scientific association of neuroscientists, in which its members can receive their psilocybin for free.
“We do not want pricing or intellectual property rights to stand in the way of scientific research or patient access to care,” read the company’s statement.
The couple of longtime psychedelic researchers, Robin Carhart-Harris and Bill Richards, who continue to serve as scientific advisors to Compass have been questioned by colleagues for assisting a for-profit entity (Compass) when a nonprofit entity (Usona) is competing with them, but they don’t see it that way. They’re just researchers, they both told Herb, and their priorities are the safety of the patients participating in trials and helping to make psychedelics accessible to the public.
“What I would say about Compass is that my interaction with them has been positive,” said Carhart-Harris, a leading scientist on psychedelics and the brain. “I quite admire what they’re doing.”
“My commitment is to do everything in my power to launch psychedelic research and treatment in safe and effective ways on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Richards in an email statement to Herb. “Thus, my counsel is for all to move forward, communicating well with one another even if they may be employing different research designs or financial strategies.”
Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization which has spent decades breaking barriers to psychedelic research, feels the same way. He’s shared all of MAPS’ communications with the FDA with Compass to help them get approval for their trials. He signed the statement, put out by Jesse and others, as “MAPS,” but says he was reluctant to do so because of “a clear bias against for-profit drug development.”
He sees interest from billionaires like Peter Thiel and Rebekah Mercer, who recently donated $1 million to MAPS’ MDMA for PTSD research, as a sign of progress in the psychedelic field. “It’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” he says, because it means we’ve “cleared out the political obstruction and “shown there’s a regulatory pathway” to psychedelic medicine. This is just an inevitable part, he argues, of the mainstreaming process.
The “common good,” Doblin continued, can be defined in different ways, but from his perspective it’s about making psychedelic treatment as widely available as possible. He has a vision of thousands and thousands of psychedelic drug clinics, where anyone, even people who might not be comfortable smoking cannabis, might go for help with anxiety, depression, and a number of other mental health conditions. Ultimately, Doblin says, he’ll help anyone who shares this vision, because anyone who gets psychedelics to market will be doing a “huge public service” and “contribute in a major way towards changing public attitudes.”
But many of the researchers who signed the statement are unconvinced. They continue to be concerned that if they’re not proactive now, they’ll lose control over that which they’ve spent their careers fighting for.
As Robert Jesse says, he’s not against capitalism—he recognizes that it can fuel innovation. He’s merely against capitalism when it comes to psychedelics. Like longtime cannabis enthusiasts, there’s this sense in the psychedelic community that these substances, many of which have been used in spiritual settings as medicines for millennia, should transcend self-interest. There’s also a sense—like with cannabis—that as psychedelics emerge as an industry, that newcomers with capital could displace those who gave them legitimacy. The statement, for now, may just be a page on a website, inspired by this hypothetical scenario, but in the future it could serve as the foundation for a movement to ensure that never happens.