This is part six of a six part series on the intersection of psychedelics and capitalism, and the early investors making it happen. 

Traditionally, psychedelic drugs have been used and studied in culturally-specific rituals, academic research, through nonprofit organizations, and by curious psychonauts the world over. Information gleaned from these contexts has, for the most part, been openly shared for the betterment, convenience, and safety of the global community of psychedelic drug users. 

Today, millionaires and billionaires are backing for-profit psychedelic pharmaceutical start-ups and preaching that the shamans of the future will be doctors and psychotherapists. Investors are valuing psychedelic companies by how much intellectual property they have acquired and by how quickly they can turn a profit as the “psychedelic renaissance” bubble blooms larger. And, psychedelic businesses are patenting everything from psilocybin synthesis techniques to psychedelic-assisted weight loss strategies. All of these factors contribute to a competitive atmosphere in which businesses—and nonprofits, too—are incentivized to wall off information and valuable insights, and venture capitalists are encouraged to view traditionally sacred substances as the new trending “cash cow.”

This behavior is predictable of any industry in a capitalist system, and it was anticipated by some as it became increasingly apparent that a flood of for-profit psychedelic pharmaceutical companies was imminent. As this loomed on the horizon, good-faith attempts were made to mitigate the potential damage to be wrought upon the sanctity of psychedelic substances and the communities who use them.  

In December of 2017, Bob Jesse—a pivotal figure in the formation of the psilocybin research team at Johns Hopkins University and former vice president of business development for software company Oracle—created the “Statement on Open Science and Open Praxis with Psilocybin, MDMA, and Similar Substances” (referred to as “The Statement” moving forward). To  date, this document was signed by 134 individuals and organizations—including Psymposia—who work in psychedelic medicine, media, and education and acknowledge that, “From generations of practitioners and researchers before us, we have received knowledge about these substances, their risks, and ways to use them constructively.” And who commit that, “In turn, we accept the call to use that knowledge for the common good and to share freely whatever related knowledge we may discover or develop.”

Signatories agreed to uphold four principles. 

The first—”Intellectual and scientific integrity”— affirms that research will be presented as discovered, not solely as is beneficial. And, that work will be properly attributed. 

The second—”In Service”—states that, while acknowledging that it may be necessary to get paid for labor, signatories will place the common good above private gain. 

The third—”Open science and open praxis”—states that signatories will not withhold, nor require others to withhold, materials or knowledge for commercial advantage. 

The fourth—”Non-Interference”—states that signatories will strive to place discoveries into the public domain, for the benefit of all. And, if signatories have patents, they will license the intellectual property for no more than reasonable and ordinary administrative costs to others in alignment with these principles. 

In 2018, Jesse appeared on stage in San Francisco at the “Cultural and Political Perspectives on Psychedelic Science” symposium, as part of a panel entitled, “Capitalism’s Systemic Issues: Will They Emerge in Psychedelic Medicine and Practices?” He began his talk with a bag full of books that he felt represented the essence of open science and praxis in psychedelic history. A few of these books included the anthology “Higher Wisdom;” Sasha and Ann Shulgin’s “Pihkal;” James Fadiman’s “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide;” and Huston Smith’s “Cleansing the Doors of Perception.”

“What’s in common in these books is that they are written by or they have chapters by people who have done very significant work in the psychedelic field. And, they have taken—in some cases, literally—their entire life’s professional output, or very close to it, and have made it available as a gift to the world. Or, at least for the price of nothing more than the cost of a book. Or, if you wanted to see them in person—the cost of a workshop. But, what has been absent is the notion of patenting. Or the notion of trade secrets,” Jesse said. “These people have done the opposite. They’ve given the world, pretty much, their all.”

Jesse said that through 2016 and early 2017, he developed an uneasy feeling when he began noticing organizations who were “looking for ways to enter the space, be active, and, by inference, get big.” He acknowledged the possibility that an organization may want to get “big” to build a franchise in order to get a large amount of a quality product to the world. But, he said, there can be another reason—depending on who is behind it, where the capital comes from, and what the expectations of investors are.

“And that could be, ‘Oh. Here’s the next big gold rush. Let’s homestead. Let’s stake out our territory. Let’s patent what we can. Let’s figure out the regulatory apparatus and try to jigger the regulations in ways that allow us to serve preferentially.’”

In a for-profit free market system, where competition is inevitable, Jesse described two possible shapes this competition could take. 

One, in which competitors all want to be the best they can be, and in some way also want the best for everyone else involved. An example he used was the general spirit of Olympic athletes. Sportsmanship. The second form of competition he highlighted centered around becoming the best you can be through interference at the expense of others. Taking steps to slow down or interfere with people who might be eating into an organization’s potential market. 

“That’s the type of competition—it pains me. In the psychedelic arena, it pains me. I feel it in my gut,” Jesse said. In the closing of his talk, he explained, “When given under propitious circumstances—with a measure of grace, some would say—[psychedelics] fairly reliably lead to experiences which are frequently beyond words and frequently change lives. When that phenomenon occurs, it is my wish that that happens in the best possible, cleanest space, being held by people who are very clear about their motives.”

In the Q&A session at the end of the symposium, Jesse continued that the motives of people in charge of capitalist systems can’t always be trusted. He compares the intersection of psychedelics and capitalism to the tale of the boy and the snake. 

A boy wants to befriend a snake, but is afraid of being bitten. The snake tells the boy he won’t bite him, and they become friends. Then, the snake bites the boy. When the boy asks him why he would do such a thing, the snake exclaims, “Well, you knew I was a snake.” 

“I think we need to be very careful of what capitalists and capital-driven structures will do to stay alive. They have a lot of tools at their disposal. Regulatory capture was mentioned [in an earlier talk]. It’s not just patents. There’s the whole world of commercial contracts, of being first movers, of having very keen marketing departments that will build your brand. There’s a whole wonderful-awful toolkit available. And, I have to believe, as a starting assumption, that if there is a venture capital backed entity coming into the psychedelic space, that they will use all those available tools unless they promise not to,” Jesse said. “And, so far, guess what? None of the two [at the time] venture-backed organizations that I’m aware of have agreed to promise not to. So, make of that what you will. If the snake bites, you knew what it was.”

Several days before Jesse spoke up about the origins of The Statement, another member of the “Capitalism’s Systemic Issues” panel discussion and co-host of Psymposia’s “Plus Three” podcast—David Nickles—had posted his “Consideration on the Breach of The Statement on Open Science and Open Praxis” to The Nexian. This document attempted to unpack the The Statement in the context of the real-world dynamics surrounding for-profit psychedelic pharmaceutical companies at the time. Nickles concludes the document by asserting several figures are in breach of The Statement’s spirit: namely Rick Doblin, MAPS, and Bill Richards, for contributing information, connections, and resources to the for-profit mental health company COMPASS Pathways. Due to their for-profit tactics and controversial entrance into the psychedelic space, COMPASS did not sign onto The Statement. Their actions precluded them from doing so. 

(For more on MAPS connections to COMPASS Pathways, see “Christian Angermayer’s ATAI Life Sciences is positioned to take the psychedelic throne from MAPS” and “Talking Psychedelic Capitalism in a WeWork Ballroom.

Bob Jesse's presentation, "Psychedelics: The Uncertain Paths from Re-emergence to Renaissance," at Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics 2016. © Horizons Media, Inc

The spark for the Nexian post was another open letter that Nickles had posted ten days earlier to Facebook, in which he tagged and invited all signatories of The Statement to have a public discussion around his concerns about the potential breach. 

“Does signing onto the ‘Statement of Open Science’ and then providing material aid, logistical support, or other important resources/input to organizations who actively refuse to ‘place the common good above private gain,’ and, ‘work for the welfare of the individuals and communities served’ present a breach of commitment?” Nickles asked in the Facebook post. “If not, why not? Doesn’t engaging in such behavior ultimately lead us down the same path as not signing the statement in the first place? If there is a difference, can you articulate what that difference is?”

As a parallel to Jesse’s statement, Nickles asked readers to consider the “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” which states that signatories may not “in any way assist, encourage or induce any non-nuclear-weapon state in the manufacture or acquisition of a nuclear weapon.” The point is non-proliferation, not leveraging public relations by claiming, “Look, I signed onto this idealistic statement.” 

Nickles continues that his reason for bringing the discussion to Facebook, where he could tag all possible signatories, was to get sanctioned psychedelic researchers to publicly weigh in on these points. He acknowledges that the unfortunate reality is that non-institutional voices have never been valued as much by authorities as those of institutionally-sanctioned researchers. 

“I understand that doing this publicly may feel difficult,” Nickles wrote. “But you’ve already signed the statement, so you’ve already taken a public stand.”

In the “Considerations on the Breach” Nexian post written after the open letter on Facebook, Nickles notes that “many signatories (including all parties alleged to be in breach) chose not to participate in this discussion.” It has become apparent, he wrote, that many of them do not feel they can publicly comment for political reasons and fears of job security. And, while he does not want to see anyone lose their job or reputation for defending the statement, “the notion that you can sign onto an ideological commitment and not defend it does not hold water.”

My own experience with signatories has been similarly un-fruitful. I reached out to about a dozen different signatories from prominent institutions, including Usona and Johns Hopkins University, for comment on their reasons for signing. As of the time this was published, I have only heard back from two signatories. 

Albert Garcia-Romeu, a signatory of The Statement and researcher for Johns Hopkins University, told me that he doesn’t have much to comment on in regards to The Statement, other than that he agreed with the original thrust of The Statement to make as much psychedelic research as possible freely available from a biomedical and scientific viewpoint.

“I think it’s important that we share our findings and experience transparently in order to move the field forward,” Garcia-Romeu wrote in an email. 

Katherine MacLean, a former member of the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin research team and a signatory of The Statement, told me that she saw The Statement as a good way to slow down or halt for-profit companies like COMPASS Pathways. When she found out that the founders of COMPASS Pathways, George Goldsmith and Ekaterina Malievskia, were dropping their nonprofit work with hospice patients to pursue a for-profit drug development company focusing on depression, she was “shocked and concerned.”

MacLean reached out to people in the psychedelic community who she had worked with and considered mentors, and found out they were concerned, as well. But, they weren’t sure what could be done, other than making sure that psychedelic professionals understood the ramifications of COMPASS being a venture-backed entity, and the implications that would create for the rest of the field.

MacLean said that it was encouraging when Jesse developed The Statement, and she saw it as a way to encourage colleagues to commit to shared ethical guidelines.

“We hoped it would work and appeal to some shared values, but it turned out many of our colleagues did not see things the same way as us. People like Robin Carhart-Harris and Dave Nichols [by proxy of Heffter Research Institute signing] and Bill Richards and MAPS (Rick and others) signed, even though they were aiding or working for COMPASS,” MacLean said. “Some of my most respected colleagues refused to sign, or removed their names, once it was clear that some of the signatories did not actually align with the intentions of the statement.”

As the psychedelic industry shifts into an aboveground, for-profit system, more straight-laced, profit-focused entities are going to come out of the corporate “psychedelic closet,” supporting and advocating for the system which will benefit them the most. It remains to be seen if players such as the institutionally-sanctioned signatories of The Statement will feel comfortable enough to stand up and advocate for a system that represents the values of open science and inclusivity which Jesse envisioned in 2017. 

In the end, advocating for a system like this may fall less on the signatories who refuse to speak up, and more on communities of psychedelic users and concerned parties who aren’t afraid to raise their “un-sanctioned” voices to those in power and demand a little decency—at the very least.


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Russell Hausfeld


Russell Hausfeld is an investigative journalist and illustrator living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Religious Studies from the University of Cincinnati. His work with Psymposia has been cited in Vice, The Nation, Frontiers in Psychology, New York Magazine’s “Cover Story: Power Trip” podcast, the Daily Beast, the Outlaw Report, Harm Reduction Journal, and more.