Like cannabis, wealthy investors are shoving millions of dollars into psychedelics
This is a story about business, not about drugs. It's about a new field that will likely flourish in the next decade or two, one selling mushrooms and other psychedelics as legally as alcohol and marijuana are today. There will be DMT retreat centers, doctors who administer LSD microdoses, and centers that use ketamine to permanently cure depression.
But first, to convince you this business is important, this business will matter to regular people, a tale must first be told about a "sweet old lady" (as her friend calls her, despite her being only 59) who was once afraid of death.
DEAD IN 3 YEARS: MEET DIANE DODGE
Diane Dodge was always straightlaced. She was a systems analyst. A college grad. A rule follower. But after doctors told her she'd be dead in three years from colorectal cancer, she decided it was time to do drugs.
Much like the cancer, the anxiety of dying was also killing her. In the beginning, she thought about simply offing herself to get it over with. Then, she read an article in The New Yorker by Michael Pollan titled, "The Trip Treatment," which highlighted studies from Johns Hopkins and NYU showing that after a single dose of psilocybin mushrooms, cancer patients "who had been palpably scared of death, they lost their fear" — as researcher Stephen Ross of NYU told Pollan.
"The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding,” Ross continued. “We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
Diane Dodge wanted in. She lived in North Carolina, but called the distant university to offer herself as a subject anyway. They were full. This is where corporate industry stepped in. Business. By chance, Dodge found a newly created business that was going to help her.
FINDING PEACE WITH DEATH
It was MycoMeditations, a company founded by a man named Eric Osborne that runs five-day mushroom trip getaways starting at just $1995. The price includes a room, two meals a day and a few opportunities to do mushrooms while sitting around a campfire on the beach. Because it’s in Jamaica, it’s perfectly legal, a fact Osborne caught wind of after being arrested for growing mushrooms in America years ago.
Dodge went. She did drugs. As waves crashed on the beach, waves of light crashed inside her head. She hallucinated children, elves. "You're in a place that's outside of time," she says of her experience. "You feel like you're in eternity."
Dodge came away with the sense that, when she died, she'd be in that place of “oneness and eternity” again. She says the comforting thought makes it easier to live today. Her energy is back and it’s "amazing," she explains.
BACK TO MUSHROOM BUSINESS
Simply put: Osborne's business made Dodge look forward to an afterlife, and she found peace in this life.
And, to bring it back to business, Osborne's business is succeeding. He says his retreats are filling up fast. He makes more now than when he grew shrooms illegally. He pays taxes, and supports three kids. He hopes to expand to Portugal one day, where shrooms are decriminalized. "I'd like to see MycoMeditations become a global company," he adds.
Of course, Osborne has reservations about all this, mostly about the trip business expanding too fast. He says three times recently people have called him, wanting advice on how to get in on the loot. But without them having experience handling the "psychological crises" that happen during a bad mushroom trip, he's worried people will get hurt.
Because these drugs do have risks. Even most who champion psychedelics think they should in some way be controlled. For "sweet old ladies" like Diane Dodge who choose to do them of their own volition, a controlled setting that is regulated and insured and inspected and safe will likely be the norm.
Business. Industry. Corporations. Profit.
To many people who do hallucinogens, those words sound like nails on a chalkboard. The drugs are supposed to be about peace, love, sharing, not money.
Businesses, including corporate prisons and big pharma, it’s believed, have colluded with the crooked government to keep these drugs illegal. And so the idea that business and industry could be the things that bring these drugs out of the dark ages and to people like Dodge isn't just ridiculous, it's wrong, unethical, immoral.
"Tyler" is one person who believes this. He lives in Asia, and does much the same thing as Eric Osborne: giving people drugs to help them through their problems. But he "can't take money for it," he says. Working for months at a bank, Tyler saves up enough money and then drops out of the grind to go give out drugs for free. He sounds like a priest; like drugs are his eucharist.
"Tyler" and I met in Oakland this spring, at the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference, the largest of its kind in the history of the world. A lot of people there were like him, saying they could no more take money for these drugs than they could take money for having sex.
But quite a lot of people were open to the future of industry. A number of students from the University of Colorado Boulder Psychedelic Club had traveled there, eyeing this new class of drugs as a viable career opportunity. Nick Morris, for example, dreams of doing marketing for Alex Grey and Allyson Grey, two artists who are inspired by DMT. James Casey wiped out his PTSD with MDMA; now he wants to be a lab assistant for the Johns Hopkins magic mushroom studies.
Sure, a money-free world is the hippie dream. But "we live in a capitalist culture," Rick Doblin, the head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which hosted the conference, says. "People need to make a living."
One Saturday morning at the conference, I sat at a table and had a discussion with Alex O'Bryan-Tear. He's a recent college graduate working at the Beckley Foundation, a psychedelic research nonprofit. He’s helping design the first scientific study of a promising new use of a hallucinogen: microdosing LSD — a trending behavior in places like Silicon Valley.
"It's a new health fad, like it's acai berries or goji berries," he said.
This could be a big deal. In the 1960s, the Swiss chemical company Sandoz (where LSD was first cooked up in 1938), knew it had a powerful chemical on its hands. It gave away big batches for free to any researcher who wanted it, hoping that one of them would find an application Sandoz could market and profit off. No one did.
Microdosing might just be that long sought-for profitable application. But it needs capital for the studies. Without it, there's less hope for an industry — and for O'Bryan-Tear's career.
On the conference program that morning, in fine print, were these words: "Partner forum: Bicycle Day Ventures." The words meant nothing to me, and there was no explanation on the program, but O'Bryan-Tear knew, and he ended our conversation to check it out. With a spring in his step, he bounded upstairs and darted into a small room where 27 people listened to a man who seemed to have come from the future.
The man wore purple sneakers and habitually pushed his long hippie hair behind his ears. It was tech entrepreneur Chris Kantrowitz from Los Angeles, founder and CEO of Gobbler, a subscription service that helps musicians mix and record audio. John Legend and Jared Leto are invested in it.
Kantrowitz had a life-changing experience on ayahuasca once, and was wowed by fMRIs showing how magic mushrooms light up the brain. Now, as a sidelight, Kantrowitz is one of the heads of Bicycle Day Ventures, a venture capital fund dedicated to this new psychedelic space. He told the group, listening with attention, that he ha $10 million to invest in psychedelic startups. He wasn't sure what he wanted to invest in: a lab? A pharma company? A software developer? A college?
With all the confidence of the serial entrepreneur that he is, Kantrowitz said that money will flow, that psychedelic business will end up being on the scale the industries of alcohol, tobacco or cannabis. "There will be a few billion-dollar companies in this space," he said.
The room buzzed with excitement. These were people who had already made small bundles legally off ketamine, ayahuasca, cannabis and ibogaine.
O'Bryan-Tear, too, fidgeted in his seat, smiled, and rubbed his hands on his legs with excitement. He had a couple drugs in mind he thought someone might turn into a great medicine; some of the 2C's are nice, he claims. A brighter future seemed to come into view.
Psychedelic businesses already exist plenty, most of them are just illegal. However, gray market jobs around them thrive, like selling research chemicals that aren't illegal but mimic (or even improve upon) the effects of classic psychedelics.
As for people making money directly off psychedelics, legally, right now? There's actually a lot.
- Trip leaders of ibogaine tours in Mexico and mushroom retreats in the Netherlands.
- Labs that check the purity of street drugs, like Energy Control.
- Academics working on the scientific studies of hallucinogens in a few universities around the world, from Barcelona to Japan.
- Lab techs manufacturing those drugs for studies, at universities in Indiana and in private labs in San Diego, among others.
- Teachers training academics, like at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, which offers a certification in psychedelic assisted therapies and research.
- All the realtors, lawyers, equipment manufacturers, janitors and so on that surround these enterprises.
This is a small legal community of course, then again, it was like this in cannabis once.
If you're 21, you were born just as the first medical marijuana law passed in California. So you don't remember a time when all types of cannabis sativa were totally illegal. And you can't quite grasp how anti-drug the country really was then. Many wholeheartedly believed the propaganda that marijuana fried your brain like an egg on a hot pan, or caused crime and ruined children. Back then, only 25 percent of Americans wanted weed legalized, compared to over 65 percent today. The law, blind as it was, didn't even distinguish been pot and hemp, a strain of cannabis sativa without (or at least an insignificant amount of) THC. Even messing with hemp was taboo.
Yet then, an unconventional businessman named David Bronner took a big risk. He sued the government for the right to put hemp oil in his soap, Dr. Bronner's. It made the soap lather better.
"At the time, it was very controversial," Bronner says. He was, later, arrested protesting the anti-hemp laws. He was, then, roundly criticized for messing with hemp. But he weathered the backlash. After years of court fights, hemp was finally allowed. With hemp in the soap, and the admiration of thousands who support hemp, the company has grown 1000 percent.
Two decades after the lawsuits, the Dr. Bronner's company has taken another controversial step. It’s donated $5 million to MAPS, a psychedelic advocacy and research organization. David Bronner knows that hallucinogens are just as illegal now as hemp was then. Today, only about 20 percent of Americans support legalizing even the safest psychedelic drug, mushrooms.
But Bronner says he’s felt the ground shift. Psychedelics are on the verge of coming back in vogue. In fact, psychedelics now are not as controversial as hemp was then. Aside from a little Facebook sniping, the reaction to his donation has been "a lot of love."
The donation will ultimately be advantageous for his business' bottom line, he says. "As we play this advocacy role, I think we benefit financially, through allegiance and brand recognition," Bronner says. "I could definitely see this effort building us bigger and badder than ever."
The Sixties wave of psychedelics was doomed by its excess. The drugs “loosed the Dionysian element” on America, once said researcher Stanislav Grof. And as American psychologist and author Tim Leary urged people to quit their jobs and sit around to do drugs all day, it threatened the county's Puritanical values of hard work and industry.
This time around, in what's being called the Psychedelic Renaissance, things are different. Even the government is joining the revolution.
For nearly 10 years, MAPS has been doing government-approved clinical trials of MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly), for post-traumatic stress disorder. It's working like crazy. After just two months of treatment, 83 percent no longer meet the criteria for PTSD. No other treatment for it comes close.
MAPS is confident MDMA will be a prescription drug soon, probably by 2022. Because of that, MAPS has created a for-profit corporation to sell it. Over its first three to five years of selling MDMA, MAPS communications director, Brad Burge, predicts it will make $30 million.
"We're not talking about marijuana-level money," Burge says. "Marijuana has a much wider use." But with its predicted $30 million from MDMA, MAPS plans to fund studies into LSD, psilocybin and ayahuasca, to make them legal, too. If those drugs become legal medicines, corporations will be created to distribute them, too, and those tens of millions of dollars in investment will likely turn into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Of course, none of this is guaranteed; politics and fear might stop it. "Psychedelics may be too disruptive for our society and institutions ever to embrace them," wrote Michael Pollan in that New Yorker article Diane Dodge read that spurred her trip to Jamaica to do drugs.
But the profit motive is woven into American life. "It's one of my most favorite topics," Burge continues. "If there's anything that conveys that psychedelic science is legit, it's the emergence of an actual industry." Even people who don't do drugs, Burge says, will sometimes pay attention to a solid business plan.
“The business of America is business,” President Calvin Coolidge once said in the 1920s, at the the dawn of modern consumerism. Money in the bank can't be hallucinated away.[Originally published on September 28, 2017]