Op-Ed: Why new developments in the field of psychedelics are good and bad

Psychedelics have once again gone mainstream. After several decades of resting in the shadows, substances like LSD and psilocybin, have made a re-emergence in scientific and business communities alike. 

A few months ago, I received a text from my father, a self-proclaimed savvy ammateur investor. He inquired about a new stock, knowing I had been studying psychedelics in my psychology class. It was the world’s first psychedelic ETF, or bundle of publicly traded companies working on psychedelic research, development, and medical applications. 

With its IPO just this past January, you can now buy a share of Horizons Psychedelic Stock Index ETF for a mere $8.57, and own a piece of over 17 publicly traded psychedelic-focused companies, like MindMed (Ettinger). The New York biotech company MindMed touts its commitment to developing breakthrough compounds and therapeutic technologies for individuals with health issues like anxiety, addiction, and adult ADHD (MindMed). 

The move toward the commodification of psychedelics with public trading and corporate investment is a response to growing research on the subject around the world. Psychedelics are a new frontier in the treatment of medical issues affecting populations globally – and academic circles have taken note. 

Johns Hopkins University formally reinstated psychedelic research in 2000, and recently founded the Center of Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in 2019 (Hopkins). The scramble to piece together the puzzle of psychedelics and their therapeutic effect on the brain is well underway since a decades-long prohibition on research. 

Although this unique class of hallucinogenic drugs have an ancient history of medicinal use and a robust underground community of supporters including self-medicators and psychedelic guides, a large gap in knowledge still exists (Carhart-Harris and Goodwin 2017, Pollan). Anecdotal and subjective experiences do not meet our modern day standards for evidence-based practice. 

If psychedelics are able to improve a variety of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, and more, people suffering from these conditions deserve to have access to them (Carhart-Harris & Goodwin 2017). Scientists working hard at universities and biotech companies bring hope that if psychedelics truly are the missing key to mental health treatment, it will be unlocked.

Research and business developments on psychedelics come at a pressing time. Overdose deaths are accelerating amid the COVID-19 pandemic and have reached an all time high this year in the U.S. (CDC). Meanwhile treatment resistant depression has become a household name. But, I beg to ask the question… What do the recent changes in business and academic circles mean for the future of psychedelics and their ability to treat conditions like addiction, depression, anxiety, and ADHD?

Undoubtedly, there are positives and negatives that must be evaluated. 

For starters, a renewed focus on psychedelics by scientists at biotech companies and universities means answers. And we know that answers equate to applications. Current clinical trials have found that psychedelic experiences have helped individuals quit smoking, reduce their alcohol consumption, and even come to terms with terminal illness (Johns Hopkins). While researchers continue to search for answers if psychedelics work, more questions arise. 

Especially, those related to why psychedelics have a therapeutic effect, and how they work in the brain to do so. It is these very questions that are still out of our grasp. Beyond knowledge that such drugs act on the 5-HT2A receptor in the brain just like our body’s natural feel-good chemical serotonin, the scientific community isn’t exactly sure the nuances of how psychedelics impact the brain (Celada et al 2003). 

Learning the whys and hows is necessary. Scientific discovery will provide the evidence needed to safely and effectively treat individuals suffering from mental health disorders with psychedelics. Yet, there are concerns for the increase in research. 

The scientific community often struggles to easily share findings with each other and the public. This unfortunately slows the process of discovery and development of applications. Without transparency of research and a way to easily disseminate new findings, the development of new treatments will be decades away (Petranker et al 2020). Moreover, the historical stigmatization of psychedelics makes transparency more complicated (Pollan). Fear of backlash or jeopardizing one’s reputation may prevent scientist’s from sharing their findings with others in their field or the public. 

Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelics Science are keenly positioned to help facilitate the sharing of research findings among scientific, business, and general communities (MAPS). Only time will tell if MAPS and organizations like it will uphold their commitment to making research accessible. If not, those suffering from disorders that psychedelics may be able to treat will be forced to wait years, or even decades, for the evidence needed to implement therapies with these drugs. 

Much like the academic community, the businesses involved in developing psychedelic therapeutics also have benefits and drawbacks as well. 

Relying on the market to develop certain sectors can be useful. Businesses have the funds and investor-backed opportunities to make advancements in knowledge and develop therapies. In comparison, scientists in academia don’t have as easy access to such opportunities because they rely on inconsistent grants to fund research. 

Biotech companies don’t just have funding helping them out, but an environment that expects a lot as well. Companies need to prove they are making strong progress toward their mission to ensure their survival through investor-backed funding. This means companies like MindMed, who want to use psychedelics to treat ADHD and addiction, need to make tangible gains toward their goal each quarter. If they don’t live up to the expectations of investors, MindMed could face funding losses and a reduced stock value. From a production perspective, biotech companies driving research and development in the psychedelic field is promising. 

It is also promising from a policy standpoint as well. Companies have the power to influence policies related to psychedelics. For 40 years, drugs like LSD and psilocybin have been placed in the most restrictive drug category with other highly addictive drugs like cocaine and fentanyl. These restrictions make it hard for researchers to gain permission to study psychedelics, and slow any progress in therapeutic applications. But the tide is turning on these restrictive policies. 

Recently, Oregon became the first state to legalize the use of psilocybin for medicinal purposes (Ettinger). In the next two years, Oregon will be developing safety regulations around the medicinal use of psilocybin. Companies will play a pivotal role in influencing policy changes moving forward. Psychedelic biotech companies need this class of drugs to be legal in order to profit from the therapies they want to make. With such incentives for profit, it is likely that biotech companies will soon be lobbying psychedelic policies in states across the country. 

Nevertheless, there are potential concerns. And most of them involve the biotech and pharmaceutical’s focus on money.

Current therapies for mental health disorders don’t aim to cure. Instead they patch up the symptoms. If you’re diagnosed with depression, your physician will give you a pill that you have to take each day to boost that feel-good chemical in your brain I mentioned earlier, serotonin. From the business perspective, a constant treatment means a continuous stream of consumers and thus money. 

So is there really a monetary incentive for creating a cure? We know that many big pharma companies that produce vaccines often do not see large returns on their investments (Offit 2005). Cures don’t always make money. Unless you charge exorbitant prices.

Such high prices are commonplace for drug companies. For example, a new drug claiming to finally treat those suffering from Treatment Resistant Depression called Spavarto costs $6,700 a month. Breaking it down on their website, it’s $687 for two pumps of the nasal spray (Spravato HCP). The ketamine-based drug produced by J&J is exciting in the depression-treatment realm because there haven’t been any new drugs for decades. 

Psychedelic drugs, which offer promising benefits for many mental health disorders, could very well suffer the same fate. The commodification of psychedelic treatment could be disastrous. High drug prices could make them inaccessible to many who are uninsured who are underinsured. Just like MAPS’s claim to ensure the helpful transmission of information, only time will tell if biotechnology companies will stand true on their promise to improve the mental health of their customers. 

In sum, psychedelics may be a future treatment for a variety of mental health disorders. Academic circles and biotech industries have taken note of this and increased their research and development efforts to better understand how the drugs work and how they can be used in a therapeutic manner. While this news is promising for many suffering from mental health disorders that psychedelics may be able to help, there are potential concerns. Namely, that of transmission of information, timely development, receptive policies, and affordability. 

Works Cited:

“About MAPS.” MAPS, maps.org/about.

Carhart-Harris, Robin L, and Guy M Goodwin. “The Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelic Drugs: Past, Present, and Future.” Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 42, no. 11, 2017, pp. 2105–2113., doi:10.1038/npp.2017.84.

Celada, Pau, et al. “Control of Dorsal Raphe Serotonergic Neurons by the Medial Prefrontal Cortex: Involvement of Serotonin-1A, GABAA, and Glutamate Receptors.” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 21, no. 24, 2001, pp. 9917–9929., doi:10.1523/jneurosci.21-24-09917.2001.

Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, hopkinspsychedelic.org/.

Ettinger, Jill. “Oregon Becomes the First U.S. State to Legalize Psilocybin.” Psychedelic Spotlight, 8 Mar. 2021, psychedelicspotlight.com/oregon-becomes-the-first-u-s-state-to-legalize-psilocybin/.

Ettinger, Jill. “The World’s First Psychedelic ETF Just Launched: Here’s Why That Matters.” Psychedelic Spotlight, 3 Feb. 2021, psychedelicspotlight.com/the-worlds-first-psychedelic-etf/.

Ettinger, Jill. “The World’s First Psychedelic ETF Just Launched: Here’s Why That Matters.” Psychedelic Spotlight, 3 Feb. 2021, psychedelicspotlight.com/the-worlds-first-psychedelic-etf/.

Offit, Paul A. “Why Are Pharmaceutical Companies Gradually Abandoning Vaccines?” Health Affairs, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, pp. 622–630., doi:10.1377/hlthaff.24.3.622.

“Our Psychedelic Medicine Philosophy.” MindMed, 28 Jan. 2021, mindmed.co/our-focus/#philosophy.

“Overdose Deaths Accelerating During COVID-19.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 Dec. 2020, http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p1218-overdose-deaths-covid-19.html.

Petranker, Rotem, et al. “Psychedelic Research and the Need for Transparency – Polishing Alice’s Looking Glass.” 2020, doi:10.31234/osf.io/vgt3r.

Pollan, Michael. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Penguin Books, 2019.

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