“Our goal is mass mental health”
Rick Doblin, ICPR 2020
Mainstreaming psychedelics through the development of FDA-approved medical treatments has become the main agenda of the Psychedelic Renaissance, and the efforts are proving successful. In the last years, the field of psychedelic science has experienced a rapid expansion made evident in the increasing number of clinical trials, research centers, academic conferences, psychedelic start-ups and media coverage. As a result, the old stigma around these substances starts to recede whilst new actors are entering the psychedelic space, ranging from more orthodox medical psychiatrists to Silicon-valley entrepreneurs and philanthropist donors of all political orientations. While some regard these new incorporations as useful allies in a common struggle, others have raised concerns about the unfolding consequences of mainstreaming, especially the increasingly evident risks of capitalist co-optation.
With this background in mind, ICPR 2020 gathered a diverse set of voices to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of psychedelic mainstreaming. The discussion quickly polarized around the question of capitalism and the emerging psychedelic industry, confronting Erik Davis, independent psychonaut author, and Neşe Devenot from the leftist media organization Psymposia to Ronan Levy, founder of the start-up Field Trip Health.
Levy’s representation of corporate psychedelia in the panel (a role that other entrepreneurs had declined before him) was appreciated by his nonetheless critical counterparts who stressed the importance of preserving a plurality of voices in the ecology of psychedelia. To Davis, the issue with mainstreaming is not about how the psychedelic community deals with capitalist take-over. “This ecology is about how we, as a broad community, interact with each other.” Precisely for this reason, the presence of both for-profit entrepreneurship and Psymposia at the panel was necessary to have a productive conversation.
Some argue that mainstreaming has resulted in the scientific and capitalist monopolization of the psychedelic discourse. The multiple narratives surrounding psychedelic use in underground and psychonaut circles are being displaced by scientific and pharmaceutical perspectives. Contrary to the trope of the Psychedelic Renaissance, during the long hiatus of psychedelic science, research never really stopped but it rather moved to the underground where online psychonaut communities built up a vast repository of knowledge on the basis of personal experiences.“With the whole explosion of psychedelic mainstreaming for these larger scalable goals,” Davis argued, “we see a whole new crop of experts, of professionalized clinicians and pharmaceutical companies, happen in a space where there was already a robust way to deal with questions of expertise.” Similarly, Devenot recounted how the psychedelic space used to be a refuge where disenfranchised folks would gather. In this spirit, “Psymposia is trying to cultivate an area for anti-corporate views on psychedelics to flourish.”
Given the countercultural history of this community, it is no surprise that many have reacted with hostility to what is otherwise common practice in the capitalist pharmaceutical industry, namely patents and data exclusivity arrangements. Both Devenot and Davis criticized COMPASS’ psilocybin patent as a breach of the open science statement and a move to capitalize on knowledge already part of the public domain. Both the dominance of scientific understandings and the sprouting of psychedelic patents serve as examples of the potential monopolization that psychedelic mainstreaming entail.
On other hand, supporters of mainstreaming hold for-profit strategies as a pragmatic path to ultimately realize the healing potential of psychedelics. Levy argued that, with all its faults, “capitalism is a good solution for helping to make psychedelic therapies available on a wide scale and accepted basis across cultures, communities and professionals.” In fact, psychedelic organizations like MAPS have acknowledged the limitations of non-profit schemes to roll out expensive clinical trials and scale up a costly treatment like psychedelic therapy.
The underground may have been a diverse space of creativity and experimentation, but it remained a small and illegal niche inaccessible to the numerous people in distress who may benefit from these substances. Mainstreaming will not necessarily eradicate psychedelic subcultures, even though they might lose their prominent voice in the field. In contrast to Devenot who remarked how “monopolies only work if they are allowed to work”, to Levy, the rising dominance of pharmaceutical science over underground discourses appears as a natural process where capitalism only plays an auxiliary role. “The counterculture will become consumer culture and that is because when things are good and work, they spread. Capitalism is a system that is designed to enable that, and that is a good thing.” He invited his co-panelists not to be afraid of for-profit companies like COMPASS and doubted whether their patent over a manufacturing process will prevent other researchers or users from synthesizing psilocybin or growing mushrooms.
Is it naive to think that capitalism will deliver on its promises of accesible psychedelic medicine for all? Is this the only way? While the capitalist tendencies of the explosive mainstreaming of psychedelics will remain subject to skepticism, one thing seems clear. The psychedelic revival should not only focus on spreading psychedelic medicines in society. If their effectiveness depends on meaningful integration and the broader sociocultural set and setting, then we should also cultivate a diversity of narratives that appeal to different folks and that allow for a plurality of ways to make sense of the psychedelic experience. It is therefore imperative to continue an open and inclusive dialogue within this expanding community to avoid the monopolizing force of mainstream psychedelia.
Written by Alberto Cantizani López
Artwork by Anna Temczuk