Magic mushroom companies are now on the Nasdaq. This is a recipe for a bad trip | Ross Ellenhorn and Dimitri Mugianis
TThe new Hulu Dopesick series is a dramatic reminder of the devastation caused by the opioid epidemic. Like the book it was based on and like other journals on the Oxycontin crisis, the show makes it clear that members of the Sackler family, Purdue, unscrupulous doctors, and the FDA all played a role in widespread over-prescription of Oxycontin. Suddenly, every type of pain – not only physical but also psychological and social – seemed to have one answer: Oxycontin. Opioids are one of the oldest drugs in the human pharmacopoeia, but Oxycontin’s new patents have made every suffering person an easy source of money for Purdue. This led to a wave of addiction and overdose. When regulators cracked down on legal pills, many people turned to the illicit drug market, putting them even more at risk.
Yet even as America grapples with the aftermath of the Oxycontin disaster, it is embracing a new class of so-called wonder drugs. Like opioids, these “new” drugs have long been favorites: psychedelics. Ironically, one of their supposedly miraculous qualities is their potency in treating substance use disorders. The FDA – whose lax oversight and close ties to corporate lobbyists played a crucial role in the Oxycontin debacle – has placed MDMA and psilocybin on fast-track approval pathways for the treatment of PTSD and treatment-resistant depression. MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD is under advanced testing and may receive FDA approval as early as 2023.
Researchers and newly formed companies, many of which are backed by venture capitalists, are scrambling to study and patent the use of psychedelics not just for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and drug use disorders. substances, but also for Alzheimer’s disease, headaches, fibromyalgia, cognitive disorders associated with schizophrenia, traumatic brain injuries, etc. This long list may be the result of laudable scientific curiosity – but it could also be an attempt to find as many applications as possible for a potentially profitable drug. Researchers are also exploring ways to deliver psychedelics through patentable “tamper-evident” patches like those that have been used for fentanyl.
Opioids are vilified and increasingly difficult to obtain legally – even for acute pain and at the end of life, when they are extremely valuable – while psychedelics are in vogue among venture capitalists, medical researchers and psychonauts. No longer confined to the counter-culture, psychedelics are celebrated as a panacea for the afflictions of modern life: depression, anxiety, distraction, apathy, loneliness, loss of purpose, insufficient productivity at work. Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Death, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, is just the most famous of the many journalists and writers who have celebrated the beneficial effects of psychedelics.
These new so-called panaceas are taking hold simultaneously in the world of medicine and the booming wellness industry. The New York Times recently published an article on wellness citing a PR firm with the simple nickname “Ketamine Media”. The article included photos of the ketamine lozenges, newspaper and eye mask included in the kits which can now be ordered online – albeit at a rather steep price. There is a newsletter (Psilocybin Alpha) and a Reddit community (Shroom Stocks: Let’s Ride the Mush Rush!) Aimed at investors in the booming psychedelic industry.
Some of the organizations that research and advocate for the therapeutic use of psychedelics are nonprofits, and a number of them have signed a recent statement pledging to take an ‘open science’ approach that does not involve of patents. But other psychedelic therapy companies are listed on the Nasdaq, eager to rake in profits through the use of intellectual property law. They are developing “proprietary formulations” and synthetic versions of herbal remedies that have been used for centuries. Once treated as a mysterious gift from nature, psilocybin is now being commodified, turned into private property.
Not content with commodifying the drugs themselves, some in the growing psychedelic industry even try to take advantage of simple techniques familiar to anyone who has ever been a “trip-sitter”. In 2020, Compass Pathways, which receives funding from Peter Thiel, applied for a patent for methods such as providing psilocybin-assisted therapy in a room with soft furnishings, muted colors, and a high sound system. resolution while a therapist “provides reassuring physical contact” and “holds the hand, arm or shoulder”.
The history of Oxycontin has shown that there are many dangers in the motivation for profit in medicine: overprescribing, loss of freedom of choice for patients, sky-high prices, aggressive suppression of those who use or provide a drug outside of commercial channels. We must be careful not to repeat the same mistakes with psychedelics. Sick shows how for-profit companies can grow or just invent diagnostics, creating huge new demand for the product they want to sell. A familiar drug – whether opioid or psychedelic – can be altered, get a new patent, and bring huge benefits to the vendor, at a very high cost to patients.
One of the authors of this article has conducted over 500 ceremonies with psychedelic ibogaine, helping individuals to effectively and safely detoxify from heroin. He has also organized hundreds of individual psylocibine ceremonies outside the country and counseled thousands of people following self-administered trips, mostly in coordination with psychotherapists, following a professional model not unlike the typical coordination between psychiatrists and psychotherapists.
We know, from our extensive professional and personal experience, that psychedelics can be extremely helpful in many situations. They can bring relief, transformation, insight and deep awakening moments. But their value is rooted in cultural practices and social relationships. They have unpredictable results and should never be forced on anyone. Court-ordered drug treatment with psilocybin, for example, would be the recipe for a very, very bad trip that could cause lasting psychological damage. Above all, psychedelics cannot solve the problems of a society in which so many people have been hurt by violence and inequality.
Despite the public shelling of Purdue and the Sacklers, America is still plagued by unbridled greed from the pharmaceutical industry and the health lobby, runaway drug prices and a deeply unfair medical system that often relies on coercion and control. Treating psychedelics like new wonder drugs risks yet another pharmaceutical disaster. We need to step back and question the foundations and assumptions of our approach to medicine. Otherwise, we risk making the same mistakes that we have seen with Oxycontin.
Ross Ellenhorn is a sociologist and psychotherapist and founder and CEO of Ellenhorn. Dimitri Mugianis is a harm reduction specialist, activist, musician, poet, writer and anarchist, with over two decades of experience as a psychedelic practitioner. Ellenhorn and Mugianis are the founders of Cardea