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2020’s Most Groundbreaking Developments in Psychedelics

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2020’s Most Groundbreaking Developments in Psychedelics

Certainly 2020 will be remembered for the pandemic, the civil rights protests, and the unorthodox Presidential election. But looking back a decade from now, this year’s rapid acceptance of psychedelics by mainstream culture may prove to be just as impactful. 

This year saw the first statewide decriminalization of psychedelics and other drugs, the first statewide legalization framework for psychedelic-assisted therapy (both in the same state, Oregon), the first legal access to psilocybin-assisted therapy in Canada, and the first successful vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to decriminalize cannabis (suggesting that psychedelics may soon follow). At the same time, the senseless murders of Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor focused national attention on the drug war’s centrality to our society’s systemic racism, lending an even greater sense of urgency to necessary political change. 

Alongside the drug policy victories comes increased attention by researchers into the benefits of psychedelic medicines. Scientists around the globe are providing further evidence that these mind-manifesting substances are introducing the most significant advances in mental health treatment in over two decades, capable of addressing depression, anxiety, addiction, and trauma. It seems that nearly every day another study is being released that lends more fact based, peer reviewed momentum to a revolution in society’s approach to wellbeing. 

This shift is reflected in the surge of new companies developing medicines from psychedelic compounds, and their embrace by investors excited by the prospect of entering the next disruptive industry on the ground floor. Before 2020, the idea of a psychedelics industry was still a peculiar abstraction. Today companies like COMPASS Pathways, ATAI Life Sciences, MindMed, Cybin, and Gilgamesh, among many others, are innovating a new generation of medicines that either include psychedelic compounds, or are based on the study of how psychedelics affect the body. The enthusiasm is not limited to the for-profit sector, as nonprofits like the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) raised record amounts in donations to support clinical trials and cutting edge research. 

All this activity takes place against a backdrop of a world in turmoil, rocked by the twin forces of Covid-19 and the long overdue public reckoning about society’s endemic racism. This climate has contributed to the concern among many psychedelic activists and longstanding participants in psychedelic communities that the sudden influx of energy, attention and resources coming towards psychedelics may go awry. Psychedelics are not simply another commodity or medicine, they are not an extension of the cannabis business. These substances, which are held as sacred among indigenous traditions all over the world, call for ethical standards higher than any other kind of business — with some critics believing that psychedelics shouldn’t be controlled by business or government regulators at all.   

2020 saw the rise of new associations composed of therapists, lawyers and other professionals seeking to establish ethical frameworks to guide the mainstreaming of psychedelics, creating inclusive and transparent structures to bring accountability to the field. Perhaps the best known of these groups is North Star, which introduced an ethics pledge to catalyze this conversation among a big tent of influencers, activists, investors, and workers in the psychedelics industry. This is a vital conversation that is sure to become even more important in the months to come. 

Limiting the groundbreaking developments of a year as unprecedented as 2020 to a list of 10 key events may be an impossible task. (For us it was; we couldn’t keep it to under 12.) Our hope is to reflect the wide range of remarkable breakthroughs, shine light where it deserves to shine, note the challenges facing the field, while prompting a true appreciation for all that has been accomplished over the past 12 months. 

We founded Lucid News this year as a journalism platform because we sensed that the psychedelics field was growing faster than any of us was able to track reliably on our own, through existing sources. We didn’t know the half of it. 

Here is the 2020 list: 

1. Landmark decriminalization passes in Oregon, DC, and Ann Arbor.

Following in the footsteps of Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, more cities and states passed initiatives and resolutions this year to decriminalize plant medicines and drugs.

The City Council of Ann Harbor voted unanimously on Sept. 21 to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi, including magic mushrooms, declaring it the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.

Oregon pioneered Measure 110, a ballot initiative that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of any drug, making it the first all-drug decriminalization measure in U.S. history.

Washington, DC decriminalized plant medicines with Initiative 81, which passed with 76% of the vote. The move applies to ayahuasca, ibogaine, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms and other plants and fungi with hallucinogenic properties considered illegal under state and federal law. (Mareesa Stertz)

2. Oregon votes to legalize psilocybin therapy.

This election season saw Oregon become the first U.S. state to legalize the use of psilocybin. Measure 109 passed with 55.8% of the voters, making psilocybin legally available for therapeutic use for Oregonians. 

Counselors and co-founders of the Oregon Psilocybin Society, Tom and Sheri Eckert developed a framework that allows clients access to purchase psilocybin under the supervision of a licensed facilitator.

Psilocybin is still illegal in Oregon under federal law, which supersedes state law. Measure 109 puts in place a two-year period for the state government to determine regulations around the implementation of the legislation.

The measure calls for the Oregon Health Authority to be responsible for developing a psilocybin-assisted therapy program, and establishing regulations around who can facilitate sessions, professional codes of conduct, and dosing standards. 

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that psilocybin will only be available through an “extensive, three-session therapy system located in the state-licensed clinic.” (MS)

3. COMPASS Pathways goes public on the Nasdaq. 

The Bloomberg headline says it well: “‘Magic Mushroom’ Company Goes Mainstream.” COMPASS Pathways, the UK company that patented a synthetic version of psilocybin for use in treatment-resistant depression, made history in September as the first psychedelic company to go public on the Nasdaq, raising $146.5 million. Since then its stock price has surged, placing the company’s market cap north of $2 billion

In a year marked by an influx of capital into psychedelic businesses, COMPASS has acted as a bellwether, demonstrating the market’s appetite to support a wave of medical innovation involving psychedelics. Over 30 companies have gone public in the U.S. and Canada, including Mind Medicine, Numinus, and Field Trip, while many more have attracted investment with the intention of going public in the future – even as psychedelic substances themselves remain on the Schedule 1 list. 

Founded in 2016 by George Goldsmith and Ekaterina Malievskaia, the company’s early backers included PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel and German entrepreneur Christian Angermayer. COMPASS received “breakthrough therapy” status from the FDA, and appears on track to win approval for its psilocybin-based treatment in two to three years.  (Ken Jordan)

4. The House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill that acknowledges the racist war on drugs. If passed, it could release thousands of people from prison. 

On December 4, the House of Representatives voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, a bill that, if passed in the Senate, would federally decriminalize cannabis and release people arrested for cannabis offenses from prison. The bill would allow for each state to regulate cannabis on its own terms. 

This vote suggests a possible path toward decriminalization for psychedelics and other drugs at the federal level.

Police made 633,367 marijuana-related arrests in 2018, surpassing arrests made for all violent crimes, with arrests rising consecutively over previous years. While the bill promises to rectify these numbers, drug policy advocates say there’s room for improvement. According to SELF, language in the bill was changed last minute to specify that only people with “nonviolent” cannabis convictions would qualify for expungement of their records, and specifically excludes high-level traffickers, a decision that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) “strictly opposes.” 

The bill’s language also acknowledges cannabis prohibition’s disproportionate impact on people of color in the context of their limited participation in the cannabis marketplace. “A legacy of racial and ethnic injustices, compounded by the disproportionate collateral consequences of 80 years of cannabis prohibition enforcement, now limits participation in the industry,” the bill states

Although the bill has shortcomings that must be addressed, it is a step in the right direction for the national discourse on the racist war on drugs. As Maritza Perez, Director of the Office of National Affairs at the DPA said in a statement, “Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve.” (Faye Sakellaridis)

5. Patients facing death are granted access to psilocybin therapy in Canada.

Four terminally ill cancer patients were approved to use psilocybin to treat end-of-life distress in Canada this August, marking the first legal use of psychedelics in the country in nearly half a century. 

The landmark approval, granted by Health Minister Patty Hajdu, came after years of effort led by clinical psychologist Bruce Tobin. Ever since being approached by a cancer survivor patient in 2010 who asked for psilocybin therapy to help alleviate their psychological trauma, Tobin has had his sights set on making this medicine available to those who needed it in Canada. 

In 2017, Tobin filed an application with the Canadian health authorities for a Section 56 (1) status exemption, which would allow him to give psilocybin to palliative care patients. After three years, the application was rejected on the basis of “insufficient evidence to demonstrate the medical need for psilocybin.” 

Shifting to a different strategy, Tobin founded TheraPsil, a non-profit advocacy group that assisted patients in applying for their own Section 56 (1) exemptions. Following the initial approval, TheraPsil expects more individuals will petition the government for exemptions, reported Marijuana Moment

“The acknowledgement of the pain and anxiety that I have been suffering with means a lot to me, and I am feeling quite emotional today as a result,” sayid Laurie Brooks, a terminally ill mother of four on being granted an exemption. “I hope this is just the beginning and that soon all Canadians will be able to access psilocybin, for therapeutic use, to help with the pain they are experiencing, without having to petition the government for months to gain permission.”

It was just the beginning. In November, the first non-palliative Canadian was granted access to psilocybin-assisted therapy, an auspicious step towards broadening the criteria for those who will receive Section 56 exemptions. (FS)

6. Black Lives Matter protests against police violence highlight deadly drug policies.

The protests against police violence that took place across the U.S. in 2020 included demonstrations against the deaths of Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor. McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, died last August after being placed in a chokehold by police in Aurora, Colorado and injected with ketamine by paramedics. His family has filed a civil rights lawsuit to seek justice for his death. 

Therapists who use ketamine for mental health treatment spoke out against the forced sedation of McClain, which they describe as an act of police brutality. The Aurora police have a history of racial profiling and have been repeatedly sued for violating the rights of people of color. McClain’s death has drawn attention to the use of ketamine by paramedics to sedate people during police encounters under emergency medical protocols for “Excited Delirium Syndrome.” 

The death of Breonna Taylor, a Black front line health care worker from Louisville, Kentucky, also sparked national protests in 2020 and renewed calls for the elimination of no-knock warrants. The war on drugs has fueled the increasing use of no-knock warrants, a search warrant that allows police officers to enter a person’s home without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose. 

Police used a no-knock warrant to justify breaking down Taylor’s door in the middle of the night. After Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired a single shot to defend against what he thought was a home invasion, police filed 32 rounds into Taylor’s home and killed her. A judge approved the search warrant for Taylor’s home because her previous boyfriend was suspected of storing drugs and suspicious packages at her apartment.   

Taylor’s family received a $12 million dollar settlement from the City of Louisville for wrongful death. But the use of no-knock warrants, racial profiling and forced sedation continues. The social justice movement of 2020 intensified demands to hold law enforcement organizations accountable for the deaths of Taylor, McClain and many others victims of police brutality and systemic racism. (Ann Harrison) 

7. North Star amplifies conversations about psychedelic business ethics.

In a year when the “psychedelics industry” shifted from an apparent oxymoron to a dynamic business sector, many veterans of psychedelic communities became concerned about the trajectory of this transformation.   In response, the nonprofit organization North Star launched a series of conversations in 2020 about the future of psychedelic healing and ethical, equitable and accessible models for delivering these services. North Star has brought together wisdom from within psychedelic communities to help develop business practices and improve mental health care. 

Focused on the transformation of business both within and outside the psychedelic space, North Star is developing role models who have made a commitment to integrity. The North Star Ethics Pledge was created with input from one hundred stakeholders who are shaping the psychedelic industry. The pledge is intended to create shared values and to serve as a tool for individuals to shape and name their intentions. 

As an emerging trade association, North Star acknowledges that its ethics pledge is just the beginning of a moment to create guiding principles for those engaged with psychedelics. North Star has spoken out against psychedelic commercialization that reproduces power structures which support systemic racism. The organization hosts online gatherings and publishes perspectives on ethics and impact from leaders across the field.  (AH)

8. DARPA plans to develop trip-free psychedelics to treat mental health. 

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has big plans for developing a new class of psychotherapeutic drugs from psychedelic compounds that treat mental health conditions without the psychoactive effects.

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DARPA – the government agency responsible for developing cutting edge military technologies –   funded a four-year $27 million research project to develop these new medicines. The effort comes in response to the mental health crisis among U.S. military veterans suffering from PTSD, chronic depression, and substance abuse.   

According to the project’s lead researcher Dr. Bryan Roth, “There is no real evidence that the psychedelic effect per se is essential or even necessary for the potential antidepressant effects of drugs like psilocybin.” 

Can psychedelics be healing without the psychedelic effect? Research has correlated mystical experiences during psychedelic-assisted therapy with more effective   therapeutic outcomes. While a trip-free psychedelic may be more accessible, psychiatrist and ayahuasca researcher Dr. Simon Ruffell doubts that such medications will be as effective as active psychedelics. (MS)

9. Hard science brings clear guidelines to psychedelic-assisted therapies. 

This year saw striking advances in our understanding of how to use psychedelics in therapy. While the field has seen an explosion of published studies, psychiatrist Julie Holland points to three that stood out.   

Rosalind Watts and her team at Imperial College published a paper outlining a new model for approaching psychedelic-assisted therapy. Designed to increase psychological flexibility in patients, Watts’s ACE (Accept, Connect, Embody) model was crafted specifically for the psychedelic experience, which tends to be more intense than regular talk therapy. Speaking at Horizons before the study was published, Watts explained that her team’s approach helped patients to reframe negative or challenging emotions during a psychedelic journey.“It’s an approach for getting in touch with emotions – accepting, learning from, and connecting them to meaning in an embodied way.” The model is now being used in a psilocybin trial for treating depression.

In a study published in November, researchers explored how context, such as watching a movie versus resting with eyes closed, affects the brain during a psychedelic experience. As the authors explained, “Despite its presumed importance, to our knowledge no previous study has systematically assessed the influence of set and setting on brain activity and subjective experience during a psychedelic experience.” This study is an effort   to close the gap in our scientific understanding of set and setting and provide clinicians with hard data on how best to create environments and practices that support psychedelic-assisted treatments.

While the scientific literature on the use of psychedelics in therapy is growing rapidly, few studies have focused on its use during therapy with couples. That imbalance starts to be addressed by this important study which examines how couples with one partner suffering from PTSD respond to MDMA-assisted therapy. The authors noted that MDMA should be a good fit for partner therapy because it promotes “feelings of connection and greater ease in communicating.” Researchers found significant improvements in symptoms, depression, and sleep issues, among other indicators, while noting an uptick in patient happiness within their relationship. While the study was limited to only six couples, the promising outcome suggests that MDMA could be valuable in a wide range of therapeutic settings, and not just between a single patient and therapist. (Nicole Adams, KJ)

10. President-elect Joe Biden advocates for drug law reform. 

After years of spearheading legislation that helped fuel the war on drugs and mass incarceration, President-Elect Joe Biden made drug law reform part of his platform during the 2020 presidential race. Biden has been trying to reverse his own policies for more than a decade, especially the RAVE Act and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which Biden sponsored and partially wrote. 

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act increased prison terms for drug violations and set out a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity   between crack and powder cocaine that created large racial disparities in incarceration. During the final presidential debate Biden admitted that the legislation should be rewritten and changes applied retroactively. “It was a mistake,” said Biden. “I’ve been trying to change it since then, particularly the portion on cocaine.” 

Biden says he will shift drug law enforcement from incarceration to a rehabilitation model. On his campaign website Biden called for an “End all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment.” 

Biden says he will incentivize states to put these policies in place and expand funding for federal, state and local drug courts. Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, a former District Attorney, says she is also committed to criminal justice reform, including eliminating private prisons and cash bail. (AH)

11. MAPS raises a record amount of money in non-profit donations for psychedelic research.

In August, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) made psychedelic fundraising history when they announced that they raised $30 million in non-profit donations in less than six months. This unprecedented success is a beacon for the rapidly growing acceptance of psychedelics into the mainstream.

The donations were part of The Capstone Campaign, a fundraiser initiated by MAPS and the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative (PSFC), aimed towards funding the last stretch of research needed for FDA approval of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD. 

The Capstone Campaign launched in March 2020, raising $10 million dollars, and took off when author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss put in a $10 million challenge grant (contributed to by a number of philanthropic donors), on the condition that it would only be accepted if MAPS could raise another $10 million in 90 days. After he announced this challenge on his podcast “The Tim Ferriss Show,” small and large donations from over 2,500 individual donors flooded in, successfully meeting the historic goal.  (FS)

12. The pandemic creates an explosion of psychedelic culture online.

In the long strange trip that has been the year 2020, Covid-19 shut down physical gatherings for an indeterminate amount of time, forcing psychedelic communities to find new ways to connect and journey together – which for many meant turning to cyberspace.

Keystone psychedelic conferences such as Chacruna’s Psychedelic Liberty Summit and ICPR 2020, became multi-day virtual events, with the Psychedelic Liberty Summit attracting over 1,300 digital participants. Horizons, one of the longest running psychedelic conferences, reimagined their format altogether, transforming their annual in-person event into digital films, forums, and classes accessible throughout the year. 

Psychedelic and consciousness luminaries also turned to cyberspace. The anniversary of Terence McKenna’s birthday became a three-day virtual fireside chat organized by the McKenna Academy, pulling together speakers like Wade Davis, Dennis McKenna, and Rupert Sheldrake. Louie Schwarztberg’s movie Fantastic Fungi, featuring Paul Stamets, initially released to a limited number of theatres, moved online with multiple showings followed by community discussions. 

For the first time in its 34-year history, Burning Man was canceled, but only physically. Leaning into the festival’s 2020 theme of “The Multiverse,” the organizers moved the event entirely online, giving themselves a handful of months to recreate the protean streetscapes of Black Rock City in virtual reality. In an April announcement they said, “We’re not sure how it’s going to come out; it will likely be messy and awkward with mistakes. It will also likely be engaging, connective, and fun.” Which for many it was, though some had reservations

Psychedelic societies across the US, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, held weekly Zoom integration circles and happy hours to provide support to their communities. The necessity for connection increased as George Floyd’s death sparked protests across the US, igniting a movement that forced Americans to take a hard look at the racial and social injustices rampant in their communities. Psychedelic groups like The Sabina Project held free virtual events to support their BIPOC members and educate many on diversifying the psychedelic space. (NA)

Image: Nicole Adams using adapted images from Dav Hir, Neon Tommy, and Caleb Brown (Joust)

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