Psychedelic Therapy and Corporate Profiteering

I have Google alerts set up for the term ‘psilocybin’ and very frequently what shows up in my inbox are stories regarding the boom dynamics that are unfolding in anticipation of a changed legal paradigm for psychedelics. Start-ups and venture capital are swarming a market that doesn’t exist yet, except in terms of stock prices. (For a decent article on this topic, check out this piece from The Guardian).

Business speak is always dumb, but I suppose it’s like academic jargon in that it makes sense within the culture and also impresses those who are unfamiliar with it. It’s specialized but it’s also ridiculous and unnecessary. 

There’s a frequent stumbling that goes on with the people representing these companies, where contradictions that make sense in the pursuit of legality and profit abound: Psilocybin is safe and effective but we need to develop compounds that reduce cardiac risk; psilocybin is immensely beneficial and has a long record of use with few instances of dangerous outcomes but it’s incredibly powerful so we need to make sure that professionals supervise; psychedelic use needs to be supervised by a professional but we’re working hard to develop a product for use at home because of how expensive it will be to administer in a clinical setting. 

Here’s a succession of quotes from a Nasdaq interview with Chris Witowski of Psilera Bioscience (gross name, by the way, you leeches): 

“Psilocybin is safe and non-toxic”. 

“We can tailor our compounds […] to harness the beneficial properties of psychedelics while reducing off-target effects like hallucinations and cardio risks.” 

“[…] these are powerful substances that need to be treated with caution and only used under qualified supervision.” 

“We are conducting a Phase I trial with a DMT transdermal patch […] this would greatly improve treatment scalability as patients do not need to undergo a day-long psychedelic trip and insurance companies are more likely to provide coverage for more traditional out-patient treatments.” 

The introduction of Dr. Witowski by the interviewer is hilarious, as “he has helped design and build multiple facilities and labs around the country and launched an international product line.” What, did he pour the foundations and trim bud? 

Psilera is diligently attempting to eradicate psychoactivity from psychedelic therapy, loudly trumpeting the development of a “DMT derivative” (I’m pretty sure that’s not correct, but there is little about this that is correct) that doesn’t make mice hallucinate. As it is not possible to ask mice what’s going on with them, the determination that they are not hallucinating was based on an “HTR” (head twitch response, which sounds a lot cooler as an acronym). No mention of clinical efficacy, but they were able to shoot the mice up with an astounding quantity of the stuff, without a head twitch to be seen.  

All of this shit is stupid, but when discussing pharmaceutical companies who are drooling over share prices it needs to be stupid. And thus, entities that are seeking to profit off of a tremendous psychiatric gold rush provide proprietary data produced with proprietary compounds. 

The study that seems to have prompted this excitement at the prospect of a non-psychedelic riff on psilocybin involves the treatment of ‘chronically stressed’ (read: tortured) mice following the administration of ketansirin, which blocks the receptor sites in the brain that are thought to be responsible for the psychedelic effects of psilocybin. 

In rodent studies, the presence of psychoactive effects is based on this aforementioned ‘head-twitching’ behavior among subjects, and antidepressant effects were assessed based on how much they wanted to drink water with sucrose in it and how interested they were in smelling the urine of female mice. This is not how I behave when I’m not depressed, and in fact, when I sniff urine it’s considered weird.   

This is interesting from a research perspective, but as metrics of depression require subjective description by a patient, these findings don’t provide a definitive conclusion for depressed humans, just another interesting hypothesis (that other serotonin receptors might be responsible for antidepressant effects). 

Another unanswerable quantity in the study is the brains of the subject mice treated with psilocybin alone and psilocybin with ketanserin: These mice had a greater number of synaptic connections and these connections were stronger, this being significant because synaptic ‘pruning’ is strongly correlated to acute and chronic stress. 

Obviously, for the purpose of this study, the mice were killed and their brains dissected. Had these mice, with their vigorous brains, been exposed once again to the stressful conditions that they experienced prior to the study (in this instance, being chucked into water until they were about to drown), would these vigorous synaptic connections still exist? Or would they have withered? As I’ve done a ton of psychedelics and experienced chronic and relapsing depression, I’m going to put my money on ‘withered’. 

But I get ahead of myself. The researchers don’t put on airs and do not attempt to attribute more significance to the study than it deserves. But it raises a mildly dystopian possibility, that being that our society may at some point develop a way to erase misery without changing the misery’s context.

I don’t exactly know how I feel about this, and it’s not a realistic possibility anyway. I doubt very much that this will bring SomaTM to the masses. I know tons of people who are on antidepressants and they’re still able to distinguish between what is objectively awful and what isn’t. I know tons of people who have dosed psychedelics and have not been converted into plankton. If treatment provides them with anything at all, they’ve been better able to pursue a better world under shitty conditions. 

And as much as the new psychedelic capitalism wants to exorcize wonder and revelation from the orgy of short-term profit that they anticipate, it’s extremely unlikely that the ‘legitimate’ benefits of a neutered psilocybin or DMT will overtake the desirable and ‘illicit’ benefits of their forebears. I won’t make a fun analogy about diet soda or margarine, but I will say that people will continue to want something completely different from their standard mode of consciousness. Insurance companies and venture capital don’t care about ‘visionary’ anything (unless by visionary they mean making a ton of easy money), but people on the ground do. 

From the perspective of someone who sincerely wants other human beings and myself to have astounding and life-changing experiences, it sure is nice that with a bag of manure, a pressure cooker and a couple of days of training, or a field guide and a good eye, the industrial production of psychedelics looks like a ridiculous, cumbersome anachronism.

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