I arrived at the September 2021 Oakland Psychedelic Conference full of professional and personal curiosity about the psychedelic space. As a product developer, supplement maker and cannabis industry veteran, I’ve attended my share of conferences, but this was by far the most community-driven, grassroots gathering I’ve seen.
Presented by Oakland Hyphae, this Black-led and organized gathering centered on psychedelics education and decriminalization, and offered a broad range of perspectives often missing in a space that’s notoriously lacking in diversity. Panel discussion topics such as “This Isn’t a White Thing: Decolonizing Plant Medicine” and “Beyond Buzzwords: Allyship, Community and Activism in Plant Medicine” reflected the community’s wariness of growing corporate interest in this brave new world.
Psychonauts’ skepticism about capitalist encroachment may sound paranoid to some — but entheogens have definitely caught the eyes of the C-suite. Fortune’s recent story “Why Investors Are Turning Toward Psychedelic Health Care Companies” claims “smart capital is moving in to take advantage of the opportunity to invest in the next frontier.” Bloomberg reports that psychedelics have become a “new favorite edgy investment” for many investors. For people who see psychedelics as ancient indigenous medicine, this type of investor glee sounds predatory.
Of course, the mainstreaming of psychedelics isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking book How to Change Your Mind to decriminalization in cities like Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz, Ann Arbor and others, even seemingly trivial moments like Gwyneth Paltrow taking the Goop crew on a psychedelic retreat have shifted the collective concept of entheogens.
World-renowned research institutions such as Johns Hopkins and the Imperial College in London are picking up the research that the federal government halted in the 1970s. According to a post on Twitter, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine psychedelic researcher Dr. Matthew W. Johnson recently received a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to study psilocybin as a treatment for tobacco addiction. There’s even a Psychedelic Bar Association. Psychedelics are having a moment, and that’s great news for research, access and education.
Just weeks ago, when Seattle became the biggest American city to decriminalize psychedelics, Tatiana Luz Quintana, co-director and co-chair of education and outreach at Decrim Nature Seattle, made it clear that decriminalization includes protecting individual rights to consume these substances: “Creating equitable access to psychedelics must be at the forefront.”
But some investors are already adopting a gatekeeping approach to these ancient medicines. For example, German billionaire Christian Angermayer, founder of biotech company Atai Life Sciences (ATAI), focuses on psychedelic treatment for mental health disorders. According to a piece on Business Insider, Angermayer’s company is looking into medical drug development only. The fact that someone who tried psychedelics for the first time in 2014 now talks openly about restricting access to them might be unsettling to many in the psychedelic community. The lengthy list of psychedelic patents filed just in the last 18 months shows many companies may attempt to make ancient plants and fungi formulations into legally protected intellectual property.
Particularly because psychedelics have potential with difficult-to-treat psychological issues, from addiction and alcoholism to treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, medical models, clinical trials and FDA approval could boost the legitimacy of psychedelics as therapy. But others argue these agency approvals and regulations could actually withhold plant medicines from those without resources. This sparks an important question: Should legal use be reserved for those with insurance, prescriptions and FDA-approved diagnoses?
As we saw with cannabis state legalization, meeting the needs of medical patients is crucial; at the same time, medical cannabis laws are still chock-full of structural barriers, from requiring recommendations from several different doctors to only permitting access in the case of specific catastrophic conditions to charging hundreds of dollars for a medical cannabis card. These “legal if you can afford it” laws have kept cannabis out of the hands of the poor and the uninsured. Psychedelic advocates want to make sure those same barriers to entry don’t happen with entheogens.
Is there a healthy middle ground between strictly medicalized, corporate, difficult-to-access psychedelics and an underground, unregulated, every-psychonaut-for-themselves approach? From my perspective, I think so. With panel discussions such as “Entheogens in Business” and “Bridging the Gap: Taking Your Business From 1 to 100k Units,” the Oakland Psychedelic Conference organizers also seemed to acknowledge that you can make a business or a living from psychedelics ethically.
Oakland Hyphae founder Reggie Harris said during the conference that the psychedelic community can learn from the missteps of legal marijuana. While legal cannabis brands often strive to distance themselves from the plant’s countercultural roots, Harris and his colleagues advocate for local control of psychedelic legislation, and the need to ensure that select rich stakeholders aren’t the only ones with access to the space. As for the ubiquitous discussions around equity in the psychedelic industry, he argues that the emerging psychedelic industry needs to actually create barriers to entry for big business, citing that this will cultivate a more people- and community-centric industry.
My advice to those who might be interested in breaking into this space:
Earn the respect of this community before barging in headlong. It takes time to build trust within this cohort, and for good reason. Too many ignorant venture capitalists think the psychedelic space is “brand new” or automatically associate it with Timothy Leary and Rubber Soul, when in fact the cultural use of these compounds is far older than modern society.
Follow the work of experienced advocates and educators. From MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) the Johns Hopkins Psychedelic Research Center, DoubleBlind magazine and Third Wave to your friendly neighborhood psychedelic society, there’s never been a better time to become a student of psychedelics.
Do your homework. Understand the difference between decriminalization and legalization, and why the distinction matters. Know what you’re getting into — and whether those business ventures will function as gatekeepers or pro-access entities.
As Tessa Love at Third Wave puts it, we can build “businesses [that] balance purpose and profit to everyone’s benefit.” If you’re interested in the psychedelic space, think about how you can become part of an already-existing, activated community with leaders and traditions, rather than behaving like a parasite in someone else’s sacred space. Listen and learn.