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The Dangers of Commercializing Psychedelics
Thoughts on indigenous wisdom
After months of therapy, you are finally ready to check into a wellness clinic for your first psychedelic experience. Your healthcare provider refused to cover the total cost of the treatment, which reaches tens of thousands of dollars, so you had to save up every last penny. The clinic is nicely appointed but feels cold, like any other medical facility you’ve visited. You are led to a doctor's room outfitted with amber Philips hue lights and a Buddha statue that you might find on a special at Bed Bath & Beyond.
As with so many medical experiences, you are left alone for long periods waiting for a doctor. Finally, your therapist pops in for a quick hello. But he can’t stay because of his busy schedule and, well, you haven’t booked an hour of his time. After more waiting, a trip sitter arrives. You have never met her and can’t even remember her name because the nerves are becoming too much to bear. She enters the room with a tray containing a blindfold, a generic-looking pill, and a short glass of water.
You will be going on a psilocybin journey, but you won’t eat mushrooms picked from the ground and dried in the sun. Instead, you will be ingesting a synthetic psilocybin compound whose exact chemical makeup is the patented intellectual property owned by a conglomerate of Silicon Valley tech overlords and venture capital firms. The chemical mixture regulates the amount of synthetic psilocybin that goes into your system over several sessions to maximize profits. Instead of one “hero’s dose,” you must return for five trips at varying intensities (and costs).
In the near future, this dystopian version of psychedelic therapy will be available across the US. Goop already has a guide to the top 10 clinics offering a variety of psychedelic treatments that don’t seem far off of this uninviting portrait of therapy. For better or worse, the medicalization (and financial exploitation) of psychedelics is here.
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What began two decades ago with ground-breaking research on the use of psychedelics to treat a range of mental health issues – from addiction to Alzheimer’s to depression and PTSD – has transformed into a mainstream conversation about the legalization and commercialization of these substances. Newsweek even put a psilocybin mushroom on its cover last year with the headline, “Magic Mushrooms May Be the Biggest Advance in Treating Depression Since Prozac.”
The next step in the commercialization of psychedelics is taking shape thanks to an unlikely hodgepodge of Silicon Valley elites, VC firms, and pharmaceutical companies. Before psychedelics can fully get into the hands of these questionable players, they need to be legalized. In this month’s mid-term elections, Colorado voters approved a landmark initiative to decriminalize and regulate some psychedelics. Proposition 122 passed with 53 percent of voters in favor of decriminalizing the possession and use of psilocybin, psilocin, DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline for adults 21 and older. Prop 122 also establishes the framework for licensed facilities that will be allowed to sell and supervise the use of psilocybin mushrooms. By 2026, licensed facilities will also be allowed to distribute and govern the use of DMT, ibogaine, or mescaline.
Proponents of Proposition 122 view it as an essential step toward mainstream acceptance of plant medicines and increasing access for people who benefit from psychedelic treatment. Some pro-mushroom advocate groups, Mindbetter notes, believe the measure is a step towards privatizing natural medicines and opens the door to corporate interests.
They are right. Early-stage venture capitalists are swooning around the psilocybin startups, believing they will follow the cannabis sector, which is now worth $13.2 billion globally. Some analysts predict the psychedelics industry will be worth nearly $7 billion by 2027. Patents for synthetic psychedelics have been quietly gaining momentum since 2020. A patent tracker created by Psilocybin Alpha identifies 33 psilocybin-related applications and another 60 approved patents related to psilocybin. The actual number is likely higher because applications aren’t made public until at least 18 months after they are filed.
There is nothing inherently wrong with psychedelics becoming big business. Still, the pharmaceutical industry's track record, the nefarious ways Silicon Valley has already altered our consciousness, and our infant understanding of these substances stemming from mainstream ignorance of indigenous knowledge give me pause. From the Opioid epidemic to new research on the effectiveness of antidepressants like SSRIs, there is strong evidence that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t hold our best interests at heart with their soft embrace of psychedelics. When it comes to Silicon Valley’s interest, does anyone want Peter Thiel involved in their consciousness?
Our society's continued inability and unwillingness to learn from indigenous cultures that have used psychedelics for longer than our societies have existed is one of the larger barriers we have to face. Consider Michael Pollan’s landmark book How to Change Your Mind, which helped usher in a new conversation about these substances. The book is fantastic on many levels, but it almost completely ignores indigenous use and knowledge of psychedelics. When our contemporary sages of these substances are unwilling to engage with such vital information, we must consider how little we actually understand about psychedelics. To be clear, I am certain Pollan is aware of much of this history but was likely subject to pressures from his editors and publishers not to dwell on it in the book.
Using psychedelics is hard work requiring genuine effort, introspection, and surrender. Indigenous cultures have long understood this dynamic and developed reverence for these substances. They also codified their knowledge into Shamans and elders who could guide their communities in the right ways to proceed with these complex substances. Would you trust Mark Zuckerberg or one of his companies to guide you through a psychedelic journey?
Most people don’t have the time or resources to do the work these substances require. It’s much easier to pop an SSRI on the way to work than find the mental fortitude to surrender to one’s unconscious mind and work through the challenges that arise. In our toxic culture, there is no space or time for healing. The sicker we get collectively, however, the more I think we will eventually get to the stage where healing is possible because we can’t live like this forever. Yet, the companies and individuals that profit from our unsustainable mental health status quo are the very ones interested in profiting off of the psychedelic renaissance. How is that going to work out?
This calls to mind a passage in James Bridle’s brilliant New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future: “Over the last century, technological acceleration has transformed our planet, our societies, and ourselves, but it has failed to transform our understanding of these things. The reasons for this are complex, and the answers are complex too, not least because we ourselves are utterly enmeshed in technological systems, which shape how we act and how we think. We cannot stand outside them; we cannot think without them.”
Further decriminalization efforts will give us the space to mature, learn, and incorporate the wisdom humanity already holds about psychedelics. We have to ensure the long arm of the pharmaceutical industry and corporate influences don’t spoil our evolution too much. Easier said than done.