Market Battle Lines are Being Drawn in Psychedelics—But What are the Warring Camps Really Fighting About?
As I traverse the psychedelic conference circuit, the internecine feud that I’ve discussed in past posts is only growing.
Take the Wonderland Miami conference. My team and I had a great experience there last November. I had never been to a show with “big psychedelic” corporate sponsors before, but it looked to me like the grassroots legacy community was out in full force. We were treated well, the turnout was great and we formed friendships that I hope last a lifetime.
Behind the scenes, however, controversy brewed. An attendee caught sight of a list of purportedly banned journalists, academics and industry members and promptly photographed and circulated it. The people on the list had reported on or criticized the influx of corporate interests in the psychedelic space, and as the news of the list spread throughout the conference, presenters began calling it out from the stage. #Wonderbanned trended and the outrage was palpable. Banning critics from a psychedelic conference seemed to exemplify the corporate gatekeeping that the grassroots community has warned against.
At Psychedelic Spotlight, James Kent agreed: “A line has been drawn in the psychedelic sand and people are taking sides.” Wonderland conference sponsor Microdose claimed the bans were about personal security and safety — but Kent wasn’t buying it. “Corporate psychedelia has created a privileged class of industry insiders,” he wrote. “If you are not showing up to specifically amplify their message, you could find yourself on the outside looking in.”
Not everyone thinks Big Entheogen is all bad, however. In his op-ed at Microdose, “In Defence of Psychedelic Capitalism,” James Hallifax insists that, despite capitalism’s myriad flaws, we can avoid the corporate exploitation of psychedelic medicine with regulation and oversight; that the billions pouring into research from private companies will benefit the public; and that problems of medicalization and access stem from the American healthcare system, not psychedelic investors.
Halifax acknowledges that we have to ensure “the patent system is not abused” by biotech companies — but drug developers are already filing patents on psychedelic compounds. As Shayla Love at Vice points out, this IP land-grab frenzy isn’t new: “The for-profit psychedelic field is behaving the same as other biotech companies have before — they’re taking notice of potentially beneficial compounds and research, and trying to patent ‘novel’ uses to build profitable patent libraries.”
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Psilocybin occurs naturally and cannot be patented, so much of the IP protection that investors seek is around the use and formulations of psilocybin. Some of these patent applications beggar belief: Biotech company MindMed actually received a patent for the utterly unoriginal pairing of MDMA and LSD, a.k.a. “candy flipping,” while Compass Pathways, a Peter Thiel-backed psychedelic mental health company, has made patent application claims on aspects of psilocybin-assisted therapy like using soft furniture, “muted colors” or holding hands.
Advocates are understandably concerned that patents will be used to withhold medicine from people who need it: “Nobody wants to see the magic mushroom Martin Shkreli showing up in the psychedelic space,” reporter John Semley told Slate. But I think that genie is long out of the bottle. Compass Pathways is not going to be able to suppress the already-thriving underground market for psilocybin, no matter how many patents they acquire. If these biotech businesses try to be rent-seekers of the entire industry, it will go about as well for them as it’s gone for corporate cannabis.
Despite their mutual antipathy, I would argue that cultivators making small-batch chocolates and billion-dollar corporate entities do actually have something in common: they’re all incentivized to paint psychedelics as a miracle cure-all. Psychedelics’ potential is genuinely awe-inspiring — but as a long-time supplement manufacturer, I can assure you there are no magic bullets for physical or mental health. These psychoactive compounds are tools for change, not the change itself — and overstating their capabilities does consumers a disservice.
Dr. Rosalind Watts, a researcher who gave a famous TEDx talk promoting psilocybin as a treatment for depression in 2017, apologized for oversimplifying psychedelics in a 2022 Medium post: “If I could go back in time, I would not now be so foolish as to suggest that a synthesized capsule, by itself, can unlock depression.” She believes now that “the greatest threat to a healthy psychedelic future is the fetishizing of just the drug alone.” When Oregon legalized recreational psilocybin use but required it to be consumed with a licensed guide, critics accused them of gatekeeping — but psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman applauded the choice. “Reshaping your mind isn’t always a great idea,” he argued in a recent Atlantic piece titled “Psychedelics Open Your Brain. You Might Not Like What Falls In.”
Clearly, big businesses shouldn’t be allowed to “own” plant medicines that have been used for millennia. But reasonable people with honorable motives can differ on some of these other issues, from regulating therapeutic training standards to what we should teach consumers to expect from psychedelic experiences. In his in-depth reporting on California’s decriminalization movement, DoubleBlind’s Ben Adlin points out that even legacy activists can clash over how we should carve out protections for non-corporate, non-medicalized cultivation and consumption. The infighting among psychedelic stakeholders and activists only benefits the corporate carpetbaggers.
At the “Business of Psychedelics” panel at the California Psychedelic Conference in 2022, I’ll never forget the moment when moderator Dennis Walker of the Mycopreneur Podcast asked the audience “Who’s making the regulations on psychedelics in your county or state?” Few hands went up. If you care about equity and access in psychedelics, there are amazing people and entities out here who are taking meaningful action. Freedom to Operate is a non-profit fighting ridiculous patents on age-old psychedelic substances. Psychedelic Alpha provides a legislation and decriminalization tracker. We can rail against the corporate water that’s flooding the psychedelic ship — or we can all grab a bucket and start bailing. We can also model responsibility in this space by not overpromising on psychedelics or misleading consumers into thinking they’re a magic antidote to all that ails us.
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