A Trip to the Future: the Unfolding of the Psychedelic Renaissance
Could psychedelics be the answer to America’s mental health crisis? For the first time in decades, the country possesses a promising tool.
by Matigan King
Drugs & Religion
In Kindergarten, all I wanted for my birthday was a statue of Mary. I loved the Blessed Virgin—her serenity, her kindness, her impossibly peaceful affect. I aspired to be like her. Whenever Mrs. Hogan or Ms. Smith taught the class stories from the Bible in which Mary starred, distraction became impossible; my mind occupied itself solely with absorbing the story.
My second grade teacher, Ms. Janet, almost became a nun. She went into teaching, but nevertheless maintained the severity of one. She was at once strict and loving, seamlessly transitioning from reprimanding me for asking an off-topic question to saying she loved me. One day she suggested that we should say a Hail Mary every time we heard a siren. I followed suit.
“Hail Mary, full of grace…”
As I progressed through elementary and middle school at Saint Theresa of Avila Catholic School in Carson City, Nevada, my religious inclinations morphed into an obsession with purity. I felt tainted by sin. The seemingly benign Hail Mary habit Ms. Janet prescribed turned into a tic. Even today, at 21, I still sometimes find myself reciting the prayer when a siren goes off.
My nightly prayers turned into a high-stakes ritual which, if skipped, risked dooming a member of my family to cancer, or death. Prayers became scripts, which I recited without fail, and left me feeling trapped, my torso crushed by an invisible weight.
Throughout the day, I mentally repeated little prayers at least three times. I had to mean it, and each additional recitation provided a buffer in case I failed to do so the first couple times.
Lord, please forgive my mom for cursing. Lord, please forgive them for saying your name in vain. Lord, please forgive me for thinking that thought. (Sex, a curse word, a mean wish toward a family member? I would surely be punished.)
Religion was the lens through which I viewed the world. Catholic teaching was, quite literally, doctrine. Sex was bad. Drinking was bad. Rap was bad. Drugs, especially, were bad.
The commute to Bishop Manogue Catholic High School took forty-five minutes, thirty-seven if I sped a little. We lived in Genoa, Nevada, at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Manogue, the only academically respectable Catholic high school in the area, was all the way in Reno.
It was a pain to get up before six each morning, forcing my eyes to remain open while I drove my Toyota RAV4. Podcasts provided an entertaining distraction, and the Tim Ferriss Show became my preferred selection. Ferriss is an excellent interviewer, and the breadth of his guests, some famous and others not, is vast, resulting in a fun, informative podcast brimming with colorful stories and practical advice. I still listen to every episode, regardless of the guest.
He started to bring on scientists and researchers who discussed the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs. Ferriss himself talked about his own profound experiences. Today he is one of the field’s most influential donors.
I was particularly intrigued by Dr. Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who offered a scientific view of what, in essence, were plant medicines. I had never heard this narrative applied to illegal “drugs”: healing, growth, profundity, oneness, love. This didn’t seem so bad.
I subsequently dug into the scientific literature churned out by institutions my classmates and I dreamed of one day attending: Johns Hopkins, UCLA, NYU. I read about psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”), LSD, MDMA, and various types of psychedelic plants that could help cancer patients feel less anxious and die peacefully, aid veterans struggling with PTSD, or allow smokers to quit.
These substances, I realized, were tools, and like any tool, they could be abused or used to heal. But I had been regarding them as “bad”—as “drugs.” My mindset began to shift. The tight hold my Catholic upbringing had on my psyche started to loosen.
At Manogue, students used drugs and alcohol, our plaid skorts (minimum length: two inches above the knee) and sweater vests be damned.
I didn’t drink or smoke, and never went to parties, lest I compromise my identity as a “good girl.” I was instead concerned with maintaining good grades and disciplining my body to conform to the standard of beauty I had foisted upon myself: skinny, starved, unimposing.
Calories and classwork consumed my mind. Both belonged to the realm of extreme discipline. This was how my obsessive-compulsive tendencies manifested themselves during high school. So when I conveyed to my peers my fascination with the emerging research surrounding drugs teenagers typically took at raves, yeah, it came as a surprise.
In the summer of 1927, R. Gordon Wasson, a vice president of J.P. Morgan, was honeymooning in the Catskills with his wife Valentina Pavlovna, a Russian physician. One afternoon they “went strolling along a lovely mountain path, through woods crisscrossed by the slanting rays of a descending sun,” Wasson wrote in Life magazine.
Valentina veered off the path when she spotted a patch of wild mushrooms. Her husband marveled at her enthusiasm as she crouched down and “caressed the toadstools, savored their earthy perfume.”
Wasson could not understand how someone could look so fondly upon “putrid, treacherous excrescences.” When Valentina gathered some in her skirt and suggested that they take the mushrooms home to cook, he looked at her with disbelief. He was certain they were poisonous.
“I was beside myself,” Wasson recalled in his book Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. “I acted the perfect Anglo-Saxon oaf confronting a wood nymph I had never before laid eyes on. I would eat nothing with mushrooms in it.”
Wasson, originally from Great Falls, Montana, and Valentina, who grew up in Moscow, became fascinated by the curious “cultural cleavage” they had observed in their starkly different attitudes toward mushrooms. They discovered the differences persisted among their respective friends as well: his “Anglo-Saxon mycophobes” and her “Russian mycophiles.”
The two decided to go further. “Well, we were off,” Wasson wrote.
Wasson began studying mushrooms, meeting with numerous experts in the field and consuming scientific literature, including the Revue de Mycologie. Wasson recruited the Revue’s editor, Robert Heim, to be his and Valentina’s mycology consultant.
In 1952 Wasson received a letter from his acquaintance, the poet Robert Graves, describing the work of Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard ethnobotanist who studied the use of mind-altering mushrooms among indigenous peoples in Mexico. Wasson immediately telephoned Schultes, who suggested that he and his wife instead continue their research in South America, which had a rich indigenous tradition of ceremonial and medicinal use of such mushrooms. “It turned out that we had happened on a novel field of inquiry,” he wrote.
Wasson’s path to mycology was unconventional. After graduating from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1920, he received the Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship and studied at the London School of Economics. He later worked as a journalist at the New Haven Register, Current Opinion, and the Herald Tribune. He joined J.P. Morgan in 1934 and became a vice president nine years later.
His marriage to Valentina triggered a lifelong fascination with mushrooms. Valentina possessed a love for fungi that resulted largely from her memories of foraging for them in the Russian forests. The couple’s 1927 encounter with the patch of wild mushrooms in the Catskills ultimately launched his own mycological interests, to which he dedicated his “leisure hours,” he later wrote in his 1986 book Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion.
Wasson traveled to Huautla de Jimenez, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico, in June of 1955 to “learn the secrets of the divine mushroom.” A local official helped Wasson locate some of the mushrooms before leading them to a curandera, or shaman, named María Sabina, a 61-year-old Mazatec woman. That evening Sabina led the two Americans in a sacred mushroom ceremony. “I could not have been happier,” Wasson wrote, “this was the culmination of years of pursuit.” For the next several hours Wasson saw intense visions ranging from “art motifs” to “resplendent palaces.”
“For the first time the word ecstasy took on real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind,” he recounted. Wasson sensed that psychedelic mushrooms could offer a mode of healing to many. He had yet to learn of the specific agent that had produced his hallucinations. “We are now reasonably sure that it differs from such familiar drugs as opium, coca, mescaline, hashish,” he wrote. “The problem is of great interest in the realm of pure science. Will it also prove of help in coping with psychic disturbances?”
When the Life article came out in 1957, Wasson sent fungi specimens to Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who, almost two decades earlier, had synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, while studying the chemical structure of ergot, a fungus found primarily on rye and other grains.
Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company for which Hofmann worked, had originally concluded that LSD-25, so named because it was the twenty-fifth lysergic acid derivative produced by the scientist, had no therapeutic potential. It was all but forgotten for half a decade.
Hofmann nonetheless continued to produce “fruitful” results from his research on ergot-derived alkaloids. The chemist, still haunted by the “relatively uninteresting” LSD-25, synthesized LSD-25 for further testing in 1943. When a bit of it penetrated his skin, he felt “unusual sensations” and had to go home, where he “lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination,” Hofmann wrote in a report to his superior.
So when the Swiss chemist later received the mushroom samples from Wasson, he knew what to do. Hofmann subsequently identified and isolated two psychoactive compounds: psilocybin and psilocin. He also manufactured a synthetic version of the former which is still used in clinical trials.
Wasson’s experience with María Sabina marked the first known time a Westerner partook in a sacred mushroom ceremony. The Life article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” was the first instance the term “magic mushroom” was used to refer to hallucinogenic fungi. It marked a pivotal moment in the modern history of psychedelic substances, which had long been used by the ancient Greeks and various indigenous cultures.
“In these cultures, it’s an ancestral use of these mushrooms that are still used in a family setting, and for a reason,” Giuliana Furci, the founder and CEO of the Fungi Foundation, the world’s first fungi-dedicated NGO, told me. “You work to heal something, or to find something, or to resolve something with a group.”
Hofmann’s inadvertent hallucinogenic experience changed his lab’s opinion on LSD-25. In a hunt to commercialize its discovery, Sandoz subsequently offered free samples of the substance to any “researcher” who promised to write up their results.
When psilocybin became mainstream, LSD-focused research had been ongoing for several years. With all the scientific promise, however—including positive results involving LSD and the treatment of alcoholism—certain public figures grew too excited.
Aldous Huxley, whose book, The Doors of Perception, chronicled his psychedelic experience on mescaline, and Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary shared the magical properties of LSD to all who would listen. The drug was especially important during the 60s because it was so easily synthesized. Substances like mescaline and DMT could not be mass produced or distributed, but a single chemist could produce millions of doses of LSD.
The proliferation of “acid parties,” and its use by those who were unqualified to do so, made authorities nervous. Sandoz stopped handing out Delysid samples; under the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments of 1962, the FDA had to approve any drugs under investigation. The U.S. Government started to crack down. “What was an experimental drug has become, now, a social problem,” Senator Robert F. Kennedy said in a 1966 congressional hearing. “We must be prepared to deal with that problem to educate people, particularly young people, about the dangers of LSD.”
Although Kennedy and others at the hearing expressed appreciation for the research on LSD, especially regarding its use in treating alcoholism, striking the right regulatory balance seemed daunting. “We are dealing with compounds having fantastic social implications that the old medicines did not have,” Senator Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut, said at the hearing. “Do we have imagination enough and flexibility enough to weigh the proper course of new drug development and guard against abuse?”
President Nixon answered Ribicoff’s question in 1970 when he signed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified LSD and psilocybin as Schedule I substances, with “high potential for abuse” and no “accepted medical use.” The age of psychedelic research ground to a halt.
LSD and psilocybin remain Schedule I substances, but emerging research offers an opportunity for their eventual rescheduling, decriminalization, and legalization for certain uses. Indeed, many people claim that the world is currently witnessing a “psychedelic renaissance.” Others are more cautious. With so much excitement comes the threat of repeating the past’s mistakes. “People are haunted by the ghosts of Timothy Leary,” Glenn Cohen, the director of Harvard Law School’s Project on Psychedelic Law and Regulation, told me.
These substances have profound potential, but they can just as easily be abused and disrespected. Wasson himself was horrified by the flurry of commercialization that resulted from his bringing “magic mushrooms” to the West.
“[W]hat I have done gives me nightmares,” he wrote in a 1970 op-ed in the New York Times. “I have unleashed on lovely Huautla a torrent of commercial exploitation of the vilest kind.”
In a cozy office on the 29th floor of The Future, a building in Manhattan’s Midtown, hangs a replica of an ancient stone relief from the Greek town of Eleusis. The stone depicts strands of barley casually bent by the breeze.
Eleusis is the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive rite performed each year by a select group of ancient Greeks. It is believed that during this ceremony, participants drank a psychoactive beverage derived from ergot-infested barley.
The office, and the relief, belong to Dr. Anthony Bossis, a clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. Whenever he lectures, he includes an image of the stone, he told me on a biting November evening.
Bossis, a proud Greek-American with a graying mane of hair and kind exuberance, believes the drink, the kykeon, likely generated psychedelic experiences. “We see antiquity as the foundation of Western civilization,” he said. “And did these medicines play a role in that?”
Bossis has published several papers on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances. Most of his work concerns psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in what are colloquially known as “magic mushrooms,” and its use in palliative care. “How funny is it now that my level of dealing with research and psychedelics and religion dovetails with this Greek to the Eleusinian Mysteries?” he mused, maintaining a perpetually relaxed and welcoming posture as he spoke.
As a child, Bossis grappled with a fear of death, and in college was drawn to existential questions. He was influenced by Carl Sagan, Alan Watts, the Beatles—especially George Harrison—and authors like Aldous Huxley, who wrote about his own psychedelic experiences.
Bossis began to wonder if mystical experiences were in fact at the center of the world’s religions: “Are they all just coming out of the same experience, the numinous or mystical or peak—whatever we call it—as an attempt to connect to the ineffable, whatever this whole is?”
His fascination with death eventually led him to work in palliative care, the central topic of most of his research. Psilocybin’s effects on end-of-life distress in cancer patients had been studied in the mid-20th century. But research on psychedelics stopped after a series of scandals, irresponsible use, bad press, and politically-motivated crackdowns. In 2011, the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center conducted a small pilot study to investigate “the potential utility of a psilocybin treatment model” for advanced-stage cancer patients struggling with anxiety. The study was the first of its kind in 35 years.
Although the UCLA researchers used a relatively modest dose of psilocybin (.2 mg per one kg of body weight), they still saw improvements in depression six months after the drug’s administration. Immediate benefits were less pronounced. Still, it set the stage for future studies and opportunities to find the right dose and optimize the setting in which the experience occurs.
In the past decade, researchers like Bossis have worked to refine the psilocybin treatment model, which they hope will be implemented into a legal framework. Patients generally have two therapists, one male and one female, whom they get to know prior to ingesting any medicine. “A key part of that is developing trust and rapport,” Bossis said. “That’s crucial…that is why we don’t have any adverse effects in our trials.” Although there have been no adverse effects, Bossis emphasized that this does not mean there were no difficult experiences: “It’s not all peaches and cream.”
Giuliana Furci, the founder of the Fungi Foundation, also spoke about how a psychedelic session may bring up uncomfortable, even frightening, emotions and visions. “Healing experiences aren’t always beautiful,” she said over Zoom from her home in Chile. This is why having a trained guide is so important.
She doesn’t believe an advanced degree in psychology or psychiatry is necessary to guide someone on a journey. “You need to know how to face demons and you need to know how to get somebody out of a space that can be extremely scary, threatening, or painful,” she said. “And you’re navigating that in a dimension that is intangible.”
During a session, patients wear eyeshades and headphones “to encourage inward attention,” Bossis explained. They listen to a curated Spotify playlist—“mostly classical music.”
“The main recommendation is to trust consciousness, trust yourself as you move into these unfolding changes in consciousness,” Bossis said.
Furci also stressed how central cultivating a safe environment is for a meaningful experience. “I think the most important thing for anybody who’s going to have an experience like that is to feel freedom—freedom of movement, freedom of making noise,” she said.
Studies have indicated that psilocybin can help those struggling from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and smoking addiction. Future studies will involve eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. MDMA has been shown to be effective in treating PTSD, and may be legalized in as little as two years.
The resulting attention from the public, however, makes Bossis nervous. He and his team have gone to great lengths to deliver a measured, fact-based message. “We’re not saying it’s God in a pill. We’re not saying this is for everybody,” he said. New York’s Midtown glittered out the window. “So in terms of the radar, we wish it was a little quieter.” The likelihood of “bad outcomes” generated by untrained therapists in underground sessions threatens to reverse much of the progress already made. Bossis worries what could happen without the proper training. “It’s not just, Take this and go have a good time,” he said.
Cooper Union’s Great Hall, located in the Bowery in Manhattan, has hosted Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, and Susan B. Anthony in its cavernous space dotted with wide columns. On a chilly December Saturday in 2021, it housed the annual Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference.
The day’s talks covered laws and patents, FDA approval, and the biochemical effects of psychedelics. In the afternoon, the focus shifted. Dr. Matthew Johnson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins and one of the world’s most published researchers on psychedelics, walked onto the rounded stage. He bears a striking resemblance to Edward Snowden with his wire-rimmed glasses, clean haircut, and tall, lanky figure.
Johnson conceded his topic, the “pitfalls” of psychedelics, may not be the most popular at a psychedelic-centered conference. He discussed the tendency to fall victim to an “amplification, irrational exuberance” regarding these medicines, which can sometimes erroneously be viewed as a panacea. “There will be casualties,” he warned during his discussion of the risks involved.
Psychedelics, he added, “shake things up” and could worsen psychiatric disorders in some instances. Researchers and guides need to consider the protocol for patients leaving a clinic after having a disruptive experience.
Johnson considered the “clinical boundaries” that would also need to be established. A sort of “guru complex” can result from such an unequal power dynamic, and can create an environment ripe for sexual assault. This, he stressed, must be seriously considered—and prevented. With psychedelics, people are at their most vulnerable.
Laura Mae Northrup, a somatic psychotherapist whose work deals largely with how psychedelic medicines can help survivors of sexual trauma begin to heal, spoke of similar issues. Her podcast, Inside Eyes, includes several conversations with such survivors.
“The reason we cause harm is being wounded and having the power to do it,” she told Cooper Union’s hushed audience. When therapists have undergone trauma themselves, they are more likely to harm their clients. This is a cycle that must be broken, Northrup demanded as her voice cracked. “Being a healing practitioner is a sacred role.”
What constitutes a psychedelic experience? The range of possibilities is vast, and an individual’s mindset and physical environment greatly influence what occurs. Still, there are some common elements. William James’ 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience provides “the foundations to this whole field,” says Bossis.
Bossis sat back in his chair as he cited some of the relatively universal aspects of a psychedelic experience relayed by James: transcendence, unity, ineffability, among others. Study participants often transcend their own bodies or even “time and space as we know it.” This is especially helpful to people whose bodies are riddled with cancer. Patients receive the “profound gift” of recognizing “that I’m not just my body, that there’s something more enduring,” Bossis said.
Psychedelics also prompt a sense of unity, that “all things are connected. Literally, everything is interconnected.” With this comes a sense of wonder, sacredness, and a “deeply felt positive mood.”
Bossis has written and spoken about the noetic quality, another criterion of many psychedelic journeys. The adjective as it is used today was coined by James and derives from the Greek word for “intellectual,” noētikós. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James writes that mystical episodes with this quality are “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.”
Bossis described it as the understanding “that this is not the only reality. There’s even a greater reality. And it speaks with authority…this thing we’re living in right now, whatever this is, it’s one sliver of what’s available.”
Ineffability, too, is a hallmark of psychedelic-induced, “non-ordinary consciousness.” With this comes “paradoxicality” (“Isn’t that a groovy word?” Bossis asked.) Patients experience conflicting feelings: being “dead” but feeling fully alive, or seeing the entirety of nature in a single object, for instance.
Scientists have yet to discover precisely why and how psychedelics produce the effects they do. But the experiences they promote have nonetheless garnered powerful results.
Richard Cone was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005. In 2011, he discovered the disease had metastasized to his bones. With his diagnosis came a crushing bout of depression.
Cone had worked as an assistant biology professor at Harvard and later taught biophysics at John Hopkins. In 2012, Hopkins was conducting a study investigating psilocybin’s effects on cancer patients suffering from depression or anxiety. He was desperate; the psilocybin study offered a vague sense of hope.
Before the study, Cone struggled to get out of bed. “I’d rather just stay there, lie there, thank you,” he shared in a video produced by one of his guides, Cody Swift. “It was the impending arrival of the end of my life.”
Swift, a therapist-guide who has worked with and funded several Johns Hopkins psychedelic studies, believes much of the unhappiness and problems humans face stem from attachment to our identities and what we believe reality should look like. Psychedelics, he said recently, “have a way of…dislodging that a little bit so there’s more fluidity. And so there’s more room for creativity. There’s more for play. There’s more room for breathing.”
Cone received a dose of psilocybin and embarked on what he hoped would be a psychedelic healing journey. Rather than confronting his mortality, however, he revisited the death of his first daughter, Tanya, who had herself died of cancer at the age of eight. He experienced a “reawakening” of what it felt like when she died.
“The feelings just came flooding up,” he said. “And I howled.”
Psychedelics seem to initiate “a process of opening doors,” Swift explained on a Zoom call from Santa Cruz. They allow participants to access the “deeper shadows,” which otherwise would be too painful to confront and ultimately work through.
This is what Cone experienced after ingesting the psilocybin. “A lot of his depression wasn’t about the cancer. His depression was about this old trauma that he had, that he hadn’t fully addressed,” Swift said.
After the session, Cone said he felt “fully alive,” and “ecstatic” at the prospect of living. He experienced a profound sense of interconnectedness: “Humans are not separate from nature,” he said.
“He found himself just excited about the day,” Swift said, “waking up in the morning with life again.”
Wyly Gray came from a “broken family,” he told the Psychedelic Times in 2019. His parents divorced when he was two years old. Although his mom won custody, his dad kidnapped him. At age four he was returned to his mother. Gray did not see his father again until he was 27.
His mother started using drugs during the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged the 80s and 90s. At age ten, he was put into foster care. As a teenager, Gray joined the Delayed Entry Program for the Marines, his “first solid family,” he recalled on the Straight Outta Combat podcast.
Gray worked in logistics for the artillery battery, and finished eight-and-a-half years of active duty in 2008. Upon finishing, however, a cascade of events took a toll on his mental health. His grandparents died, his wife suffered a miscarriage, he suffered from severe insomnia. “For a while I trucked along and felt like I could still manage it,” he said in the Times interview.
Gray realized he had been struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress. The VA did not provide much help, he told me. “They basically told me, ‘You know, we can’t do much here, like, we can give you handfuls of pills. That should make you okay.’”
He knew that SSRIs typically take a couple months to start working. He worried what could happen in the interim. “I found my journey in desperation,” he told me. If things didn’t change, he thought he’d kill himself.
Psychedelics have helped veterans heal from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Gray had read about the psychological healing properties of Ayahuasca, a South American psychedelic plant brew used by indigenous cultures. It is generally consumed in a group and prompts multiple hours of vomiting. He decided to give it a try.
He found a shaman and flew to Peru. The experiences he had there with Ayahuasca did not cure his PTSD. But it did alleviate some of his most painful symptoms, including insomnia.
Gray attributes his regained ability to sleep to developing a sense of security. “That’s what most veterans have lost. It’s this idea, like when you come home, you know that home is safe. Veterans don’t have that.”
His Ayahuasca journeys placed him in the “passenger seat of someone else’s consciousness.” It was an unfamiliar position for someone who had always had to be in charge. Rather than reacting immediately to a trigger, he now had “a preview second that didn’t exist before,” where he could ask himself, “Is that the way I want to react?”
In 2015, Gray founded Veterans of War, a non-profit that holds Ayahuasca retreats for veterans suffering from PTSD. The program includes months of therapy and a “guided psychedelic therapy workshop” in Peru. Gray believes a large part of what makes Ayahuasca so effective is its group dynamic. “Healing happens in community,” he told me. He had found community in the Marines, and he could now find it though helping others heal. “The most I’ve ever felt whole was when I was a part of something. And I think that many of our traumas stem from inability to feel whole,” he said.
Psychedelic medicine will likely generate handsome profits. But it too is a business that risks falling into the Big Pharma playbook of limiting access, driving up prices, and restricting the manner of therapeutic treatment.
COMPASS Pathways is a British pharmaceutical company that has conducted clinical trials into psilocybin’s therapeutic use. It has ten patents, many of which concern a synthesized psilocybin molecule called Polymorph A. It is not possible to patent a naturally occurring substance, so a company could not patent a mushroom belonging to the Psilocybe genus, for instance. But a specific molecular configuration of a synthesized compound is fair game.
But is Polymorph A a novel, patentable molecule? In December of 2021, Freedom to Operate, a non-profit to protect psilocybin research for the public benefit, filed a petition for a post-grant review of COMPASS’ most recent patent. It argued that Polymorph A is in fact a mixture of different pre-existing polymorphs, and presented examples of past instances, or “prior art,” which challenged the seemingly novel elements of COMPASS’ patent. COMPASS must respond to the claims within three months of their filing, at which point the Patent Trial and Appeal Board will examine the case and reach a decision.
The psychedelic community is worried by COMPASS’ efforts to patent treatment and administration methods. At the annual Horizons Conference in New York City, the company took on the aura of Voldemort, as none of the speakers there would utter its name.
Over a recent Zoom call, Tracey Cheung, COMPASS’ Chief Communications Officer, told me that COMPASS is a “mental healthcare company, not a psychedelic company,” later adding, “our goal is to help people with mental health, our goal is not to get psilocybin legalized.” Cheung is a lovely British woman with short black hair and kind, gentle eyes. She is very good at her job.
“If you didn’t have any patents, there would be no incentive for anybody to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars required,” she said, referring to research and development, or R&D. “We persuade our investors to invest in the company. And in return, we promise them that we will protect our innovation.”
She emphasizes that COMPASS is a for-profit company, unlike, say, the Usona Institute, a 501(c)3 non-profit research organization that conducts clinical psilocybin research, or the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelics Studies (MAPS), also a 501(c)3, which is primarily concerned with MDMA-assisted therapy. (I currently intern at MAPS.) Both of the latter organizations manufacture their respective compounds to use in clinical trials, and both are concerned solely with psychedelic research. Once psilocybin and MDMA are legalized, they hope to profit off of their sale and distribution.
MAPS does not intend to patent its discoveries. Usona plans to license any intellectual property “to anyone who will use it for the common good.” Both Usona and MAPS adopt an Open Science approach, where scientific discoveries and results are kept public, for the benefit of the “public good.”
“We will not withhold, nor will we require others to withhold, materials or knowledge (experiences, observations, discoveries, methods, best practices, or the like) for commercial advantage,” reads a statement published by Usona and signed by multiple researchers, including Dr. Bossis.
Cheung did say that COMPASS supports this approach.“Open science is about publishing your studies and research and sharing that,” she said. “We are absolutely committed to doing all of that.”
None of these companies are anti-profit or anti-competition, but the race for patenting psychedelics poses unique challenges. Because these substances have been illegal for decades, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) will likely not have the expertise required to determine if a specific molecule is in fact novel.
In an article for Harvard Law Review, esteemed bioethics experts I. Glenn Cohen and Mason Marks write that much of the “relevant knowledge” that would help identify prior art comes from non-U.S. sources, was passed down orally, or was never publicly shared out of “fear of arrest and prosecution.”
“Some stakeholders,” they warn, “could exploit these blind spots to blanket the landscape with broad patent claims, using language and technology that is foreign to examiners.”
COMPASS’s pending patent involves administering psilocybin in a room with “muted colors and soft furniture,” and with “a therapist holding the patient’s hand,” among other elements that have been used in clinical trials, underground, or by Indigenous communities.
Cohen and Marks write that examiners unfamiliar with this history “may issue patents on this and similar inventions that lack novelty.”
This is largely why MAPS supports an anti-patent strategy in this space. The organization hopes to prevent prohibitive patents by making as much information public as possible.
Others are more blunt. “I don’t agree with what COMPASS is doing,” the somatic psychotherapist, and podcaster Laura Mae Northrup, told me. “I do not believe it’s in the spirit of healing.”
I can’t wait until the session is over. My left AirPod cuts out, and the silk mask covering my eyes only reminds me of the sunshine of which I am depriving myself on this uncharacteristically gorgeous March day in New York. I lie on my yoga mat, which I rolled out on my living room floor. I had to move the coffee table to make room.
I heard “neurodynamic breath work” was a stepping stone to a psychedelic experience, and could, for some, produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness akin to one brought on by ingesting a mind-altering substance. A colleague of mine told me about Neurodynamic Breathwork Online. I just began an internship at MAPS, and she informed me that employees could take advantage of a free session. The online convenience, coupled with the fact it was free, intrigued me. In an effort to increase access to this type of work, the founder, Michael Stone, started the workshop in 2017. I was skeptical, but curious.
During the session, I resolve to “surrender” to the experience, as Michael instructs our Zoom group of over 100 participants. After an over-long introduction, we begin. The soundtrack starts with fast-paced, drum-based beats interspersed with the occasional chirp of a distant bird or insect. Michael instructs us to breathe in and out through the mouth, “deeply and rapidly,” forming a continuous circle of breath.
It isn’t long before my mouth is dry. I miss the automaticity of normal breathing, which, I realize, I took for granted. But the rest of my body begins to respond. My chest feels hollow, my limbs buzz.
“What am I doing?” I wonder anxiously. I don’t know why I am resisting. My mind wanders to all the things I should be doing. I feel guilty, unproductive. “Should I abandon the Zoom session?” I think.
And yet, I know the discomfort and impatience I feel is part of the therapy. Indeed, psychedelic therapy, like breath work, requires surrender, something I have always struggled with. But I have grown less rigid. I stick with it and allow myself to breathe through my nose a bit, aiming for the faster pace Michael suggested. My body becomes chilly and my hands grow numb. My fingers curl into claws. Michael said this was extremely common. There’s even a name for it: tetany.
“This is actually a very healing experience,” the preparatory information read. Apparently, my body was “taking energy that has been stuck…creating maximum tension which will then turn into an amazing release.”
I feel hopeful something is happening. As the music changes to melodic voices punctuated by gentle ocean waves, my body feels heavy. I sink into the floor and enjoy the natural, slow rhythm of my breath.
I never experience an amazing release, but this is surprisingly pleasant. It resembles how I feel after working up a robust, cathartic sweat from intense strength training or cardio. As I lie on my mat, eyeshades on, my body and mind loosen. It is just a taste, but one that reminds me of what’s possible.
In many ways, the future is already here. Companies like Field Trip and Mindbloom administer Ketamine, a common anesthetic, as a form of therapy. Ketamine is not a classic psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD, but at low doses, it can prompt a dissociative, psychedelic experience.
Patients working with Mindbloom undergo a psychiatric evaluation before they are prescribed the medication. The company then ships Ketamine lozenges to the patient’s home. After a virtual preparatory session with a therapist, the client embarks on their own psychedelic journey without having to leave their house. A family member or friend is present to silently check in on them every fifteen minutes. After an hour, the trusted at-home sitter helps them “land” from their experience.
After the journey, the patient journals, uses the restroom, eats a snack. Then they hop back on Zoom to “debrief” with their therapist, Juanita Vera, a therapist who contracts with Mindbloom, told me.
At Field Trip, patients come into the clinic to receive the medicine intramuscularly. Patients at both clinics undergo six ketamine sessions, and participate in therapy and integration work, crucial aspects of the treatment.
“I always like to tell my clients, you’re coming in here, you’re doing the real nitty gritty work,” Radhalisa Zarzuela, a therapist at Field Trip, told me. “But the real, real hard work happens outside of here. It’s what you do after you leave.”
Kim Clay, another therapist at Field Trip, told me that intentionality is key. Without an intention and without integration, she said, the experience risks turning into a “fantasy.” But if a meaningful intention and effective therapy were behind such promising results, was Ketamine any different than an SSRI? In other words, if someone coupled an SSRI prescription with intentionality and a good therapist, would the outcome prove comparable?
With Ketamine, something else seems to be occurring. As with the classic psychedelics, Ketamine has very few side effects and is not addictive. The experience, too, seems to be important.
Viera, of Mindbloom, told me that the speed of treatment is accelerated. The medicine lowers a patient’s defenses, allowing them to go “straight to the root” of the issue. “The substance itself is an opener,” Clay said.
Ketamine clinics provide a viable model for how MDMA, psilocybin, and other substances might be administered in the future. Rather than relying on a lifelong prescription, perhaps psychedelics will offer lasting healing to those suffering from addiction, depression, OCD, PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, alcoholism. Perhaps psychedelics will help enrich the lives of those without a diagnosed condition, but who nonetheless, crave an expanded worldview or a peek into their consciousness.
In his New York office, Dr. Bossis, the palliative care researcher from NYU, spoke about the seemingly universal human inclination toward mystical, “peak experiences,” which can be produced by playing music, exercise, nature, a brush with death. “It’s part of who we are,” he said. Psychedelics, especially when paired with therapy, offer yet another possible peak experience—another opportunity to connect with our shared humanity, or something larger.
They seem “to give us temporary access to a part of the landscape of consciousness, whatever that is,” Bossis told me with a twinkle in his eye. “Our life map is there for us.”