Psychedelic drugs are having a moment in the sun. They have great potential, we’re learning, as a treatment for a variety of mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. They are also attracting interest as a gateway to meaningful experiences that, advocates say, should be available to all.
Philanthropists are taking note. More donors — though not nearly enough — are stepping up to support both research into the medical benefits of these days and advocacy on their behalf.
Here’s why psychedelics present an untapped opportunity for philanthropy.
The latest on psychedelics as therapy: Last month in London, Imperial College opened the world’s first formal center for psychedelics research, which will seek to developing psilocybin therapy into a licensed treatment for depression and investigate its potential for treating other conditions. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, a prominent researcher who is leading the effort, says: “This new Centre represents a watershed moment for psychedelic science; symbolic of its now mainstream recognition.” Five founding donors, including the best-selling author, podcaster and investor Tim Ferriss, have committed a total of £3 million ($3.9 million US) to fund the center.
“This is my №1 priority,” Ferriss told me recently. Ferriss has become a leading evangelist for psychedelic research, donating his own money as well as raising funds from others. “I have seen lives saved by these compounds, not once, not twice, but dozens of times,” he says.
Two months ago, the FDA approved esketamine, a derivative of ketamine — a party drug with psychedelic effects — as a treatment for depression. Unlike existing drugs that treat depression, esketamine appears to work by inducing an extraordinary mental state that causes shifts in perception and behavior.
“It’s a game changer for psychiatry,” says Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, the president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which provided funding to study ketamine as a rapid-acting antidepressant.
The latest on psychedelics for everyone: This month, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to effectively decriminalize psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in the so-called magic mushrooms that have been used for centuries in traditional cultures. (The Green Party and the Libertarian Party supported decriminalization, for whatever that’s worth.) Efforts are underway to decriminalize psilocybin in Oakland, CA, and in Oregon.
Next month will bring the opening of the Atman Retreat, a pop-up retreat center that promises to offer “safe, legal psilocybin experiences” at a beachfront property in Jamaica. Aaron Nesmith-Beck, who is starting the Atman Retreat, is active in the effective altruism (EA) community, where debate is underway about whether support for psychedelic research and advocacy should become a cause supported by EAs.
These are all exciting developments, although, as with everything related to psychedelic drugs, some caution is in order. The medical benefits of therapy assisted by psilocybin or MDMA have yet to be demonstrated on a large scale. Unfettered recreational use of psilocybin could prove unwise, not least because these drugs remain illegal in the U.S.
The author Michael Pollan, whose best-selling book about the new science of psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, has played no small part in rekindling interest in these drugs, took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times after the Denver vote to urge restraint.
“As much as the supporters of legal psilocybin hope to follow the political playbook that has rapidly changed the status of cannabis in recent years, they need to bear in mind that psilocybin is a very different drug, and it is not for everyone,” ” Pollan wrote.
My interest in these drugs, er, mushroomed after reading Pollan’s book. Since then, I’ve spoken with scientists, advocates and donors while reporting stories (here and here) about philanthropy and psychedelics for the May issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The evidence is growing that psilocybin and MDMA, when administered by trained professionals and accompanied by short-term therapy, can help to alleviate suffering from an unexpectedly broad array of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, anorexia, and addictions to tobacco, alcohol and opiods.
Surprisingly, patients in clinical trials report that a single drug experience or two can have lasting effects on their attitudes and behaviors. These drugs can literally help change your mind, it seems.
In a recent article in the journal Neuropharmacology called Psychedelics: Where We Are Now, Why We Got Here, What We Must Do, Sean Belouin and Jack Henningfield write: “Such lasting benefits aided by one to two doses of a medication, particularly in severely ill and debilitated patients, may emerge as one of the most momentous breakthroughs in psychiatry and medication development in decades." The so-called renaissance of psychedelic science is now proceeding apace, with research underway at Johns Hopkins, NYU, Yale, the University of California at San Francisco, as well as at Imperial College.
An unusual array of donors
Philanthropy is essential to this research. The stigma around psychedelic drugs remains so strong that there’s little government support for the research. With a budget of $1.8bn, the National Institute of Mental Health is the largest funder of research on mental illness in the world, but almost none of this money goes towards studies of psychedelics.
With a few exceptions, drug companies are disinterested as well.
“Psychedelics are off-patent, can’t be monopolized, and compete with other psychiatric medications that people take daily,” explains Rick Doblin, the founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, a research and advocacy group that is the leading nonprofit in the field.
Two years ago, MAPS’ own research into the use of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder was granted “breakthrough therapy” designation by the FDA. MAPS’ protocol, which combines therapy with three administrations of MDMA, is currently in a final phase of clinical trials, and could gain FDA approval as soon as 2021.
MAPS has been sustained entirely by donations from individuals and family foundations. These donors include ex-hippies, liberal activists, New Age types, political conservatives, technology entrepreneurs and an anonymous Bitcoin millionaire known as Pine. Prominent American families, including the Rockefellers and the Hyatts, have funded research.
Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz — he’s the billionaire co-founder of Facebook — have supported three nonprofits that focus on research into psychedelics. Good Ventures, their family foundation, has made two $100,000 grants to the Heffter Institute and a $500,000 grant to the Usona Institute for research testing the use of psilocybin to treat depression. Good Ventures also made two $500,000 grants to MAPS for its research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.
The philanthropy of Tuna and Moskovitz has been influenced by effective altruism, which encourages people to use reason and evidence to do as much good as they can. EAs look for causes that are important, tractable and neglected (for explanations, see this and this), which makes psychedelic research an excellent fit. The suffering from mental illness is widespread, there’s growing evidence that psychedelics can help and relatively few philanthropic dollars flow into the cause — well under $100m a year, by my estimate. By comparison, the American Cancer Society spent $838m and the American Heart Association spent $890m in their most recent fiscal years.
“If you look at the amount of funding for brain research, as compared to other illnesses, such as cancer, it’s minuscule,” says Dr. Borenstein of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Particularly as we learn more about the workings of the brain through scans, the opportunity to help those who suffer from mental illness is growing.
That said, there’s reason to be skeptical about psychedelic therapy, as blogger and psychiatrist Scott Alexander explains. He writes, among other things, that “between 10% and 50% of Americans have tried psychedelics. If psychedelics did something shocking, we would already know about it.” It’s important not to let the exuberance surrounding psychedelics get too far out front of the evidence.
Psychedelics’ transformative potential
Meantime, the advocacy work being done on behalf of psychedelics could have even more world-changing potential, some say. The advocacy is driven by a simple but profound belief: That people should have the freedom to choose what substances to put into their bodies.
For many, the mind-expanding benefits of psychedelics could outweigh the risks: An intriguing 2006 study led by Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins found that psilocybin could reliably lead to “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” It was a small study, with just 30 volunteers, but two-third of them said the drug trip was among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.
By starting Atman Retreat in Jamaica, Nesmith-Beck will make psilocybin legally available to those who can spend four days and about $1700, plus airfare, for a group experience with doses tailored to each user’s preferences, preparation and integration with trained facilitators, and amenities such as beachfront access and vegetarian meals. His first retreat aims to attract EAs, and it is mostly filled.
On an Effective Altruism Forum, Nesmith-Beck makes a bold claim:
We believe increasing access to high quality psychedelic experiences can be impactful for improving mental health, boosting personal efficacy, perhaps making people more altruistic, and promoting human flourishing in the long run.
I heard similar claims while reporting my story for The Chronicle. Several enthusiasts told me that psychedelic experiences will connect people more closely to nature, and there’s at least weak evidence that people who have experienced LSD, psilocybin and mescaline during their lifetimes feel closer to nature and engage in ecological behaviors like recycling. Of course, that could be a matter of correlation, not causation.
Allan Badiner, a writer, editor and environmental activist, has experimented with psychedelics while supporting environmental causes. He served on the board of the Rainforest Action Network for more than 25 years and now helps to fund for psychedelic research and advocacy at the Threshold Foundation.
Threshold, a liberal foundation, has a funding circle called PREP (psychedelic research education and policy) that is “grounded in the view that psychedelics are powerful tools for the expansion of consciousness and have been so for all of human history.” It aims to “support smart psychedelic use as a medicine, a powerful adjunct to therapy, a tool for self-development, and as a result, contribute to a more compassionate, healthy, and peaceful society.” PREP has made small grants to such groups as MAPS, the California Institute for Integral Studies, and the International Center for Ethnobotanical Research and Service.
Badiner sent me these words from Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who has studied psychedelics and other altered states of mind for more than 60 years:
Deep reverence for life and ecological awareness are among the most frequent consequences of the psycho spiritual transformation that accompanies responsible work with non-ordinary states of consciousness….It is my belief that a movement in the direction of fuller awareness of our unconscious minds will vastly increase our chances of planetary survival.
For philanthropists, there may be risk in getting behind psychedelic research and advocacy — but the potential upside is huge.