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Opinion piece

by Marco Aqil

4 min

A recent viewpoint paper from the Griffiths Lab delivers a cautionary note on some trends which, according to the authors, might jeopardise the ongoing development of the psychedelic Renaissance in science and medicine. The authors provide a warning about the necessity of keeping psychedelic research as unbiased as possible, and distinct from psychedelic advocacy. In a time where hype and enthusiasm for the undeniable potential of psychedelics risk creating a new “bubble”, this is a much needed and sobering perspective, that anyone even remotely interested in psychedelics should keep in mind.

The conflation of advocacy and research is undeniably a danger: as the interest for psychedelics in the general public grows, unrealistic expectations and insufficient information increase the potential for harm. While it is now clear that the risks of psychedelics, at the population level, have been largely overstated, even a single case of harm has the power to override many more cases of positive outcome, in the public and government eyes. But does this mean that psychedelic culture and science do not overlap or cannot collaborate at all? Personally, I don’t think so. Many valuable scientific findings originate as anecdotal evidence, collected by enthusiasts, not by professional scientists (and many other times, scientific methods provide new knowledge by refuting anecdotal evidence); furthermore, field research in naturalistic settings (retreats, festivals, ceremonies) can provide scientific insights that are not necessarily achievable in controlled laboratory settings. So, cooperation between psychedelic culture and science is possible; but indeed, as the authors suggest, the two should not be conflated.

Next, I would like to ask: is the biggest danger for the future of the psychedelic Renaissance really the conflation of scientific and cultural agendas? Again, personally, I don’t think so. Or at least, I don’t think the biggest danger lies in the countercultural and anti-establishment sentiments of psychedelic culture that the authors seem to emphasise. Instead, my biggest concern comes from the newfound interest in the commercialisation of psychedelics on the part of business players with few scruples, little knowledge of the subject, and profit as the main goal. In the Netherlands, we’re already seeing a wave of newly-created businesses selling psychedelic products. Some (not all) of these companies seamlessly combine wildly unscientific properties for their products such as “third-eye opening”, “balance energy frequencies”, with scientific terms such as “depression”, “anxiety”, “PTSD”, and aggressive social-media marketing. Targeting people who may be suffering from clinical conditions, and without the training required to distinguish the use of scientific buzzwords from actual science, is at best an incredibly irresponsible and uninformed way to approach the psychedelic space; at worst, it is a conscious attempt to take advantage of preliminary scientific results, loopholes in regulations, and of confusion in the general public, to make a quick buck.

The misrepresentation of scientific results on the part of relatively small businesses is only one of the concerns I have about the commercialisation of psychedelics. To be as profitable as possible, larger businesses often focus their efforts on developing proprietary treatments and patentable new substances, rather than promoting research about substances and practices that are in the public domain, not patentable, and hence far less profitable. For large, for-profit psychedelic companies, having to maximize investors returns would provide a strong incentive to make their exclusive treatments as expensive as possible, possibly creating an ominous paradigm where only the rich can access the benefits of legal psychedelic treatments. In defence of these approaches, some may argue that making psychedelics as profitable as possible is the fastest way to bring their benefits to the masses. But is it the only, or the best way? Probably not. Non-profit initiatives established in recent years such as Usona Institute and Osmond Foundation, among others, are trying to imagine alternative paths.

In sum, I agree that there are very real dangers for the psychedelic Renaissance going off the rails, and I agree that the conflation of psychedelic research and advocacy is a big risk; but rather than the anti-establishment direction of psychedelic culture, I am most worried about the hyper-capitalist direction. What can we do to avoid both, regardless of which is actually the biggest danger? On the research side, it will be necessary for psychedelics to go “academically mainstream”, that is, for psychedelic research to be normalised. This also means psychedelic research should mostly be publicly funded and programmed by governmental and health agencies, with the public benefit in mind, rather than being subject to the whims of venture capitalists, private fortunes, and crowd-funds. On the culture side, the potential issues of psychedelic commercialisation lead me to caution psychedelic advocates about considering the possibility that legalisation of psychedelics, under the current neoliberal framework of unregulated capitalism, may not have the effects that they hope it would.

Finally, I note this is also not to say that it is impossible for values-driven, public-benefit-oriented, ethical businesses to exist. I am all in favour of the individual freedom to alter one’s own consciousness; and I would definitely like to see the largest possible number of people who could benefit from psychedelics actually being able to access these benefits: it seems plausible that at least some for-profit approaches will play a positive role in this sense. But how can such approaches be defined, and kept accountable? The discussion in the psychedelic space is already lively, with initiatives such as North Star leading the way. It seems likely that specific guidelines and regulations for scientific integrity of businesses will eventually be required to prevent toxic for-profit players from taking advantage of the millions of people looking for treatments or legal recreation. In turn, specific guidelines and regulations cannot be crafted without extensive, publicly available scientific knowledge. So, back to work: more psychedelic research is needed.

Further reading:

Psychedelics and cognitive liberty: Reimagining drug policy through the prism of human rights

Yes, Make Psychedelics Legally Available, but Don’t Forget the Risks