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Psychedelic Pharma’s Big Spin

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Psychedelic Pharma’s Big Spin

When I was a young boy the clothes dryer in our basement had a “fluff air” setting. With fluff air, the clothes would bat about in the dryer, puffed by a strong intake of room temperature air. This kept clothes from looking squashed or wrinkled and gave the appearance of a much fuller machine. We see a similar phenomenon in some restaurants, with carefully constructed salads of large-cut lettuce and field greens, tossed and fluffed in a high mound, giving the impression of more greens than actually sit on the plate.

More recently we have also witnessed a stream of breathless announcements put out by psychedelic pharma companies who hope to cash in on the popularity of the burgeoning psychedelic healing category. There are over 50 companies online who have gone public and are now trading stock. It’s a fever pitch out there. It’s also a big spin, PR on the fluff air setting.

To put The Big Spin into perspective, consider that while psychedelic pharmaceutical companies are making loud announcements as they try to carve out territory for themselves, none of them are actually selling any psychedelics. From the perspective of the current extra-legal market, which so many people rely on for their mind-expanding compounds, the existence of these companies has had zero impact. Instead these companies are burning heaps of cash, with ethereal landscapes on their websites. Data on psychedelic use is hard to pin down, and thus we do not know how many people globally take psychedelics. One 2013 estimate by TS Krebs put the figure at 30 million users in the US population, but that isn’t current at all.

Those who are utilizing LSD, Psilocybin mushrooms, Ibogaine, Mescaline, Peyote, San Pedro, Ayahuasca, DMT, 5-MEO-DMT and other visionary agents are not getting any of them from pharma companies. Instead LSD is coming from labs in the Netherlands and California, and all the other psychedelics are coming from small mushroom growers, recondite labs, ayahuasca shamans, prayer ceremonies and thousands of decentralized sources. The infrastructure for the manufacture, cultivation, preparation and dissemination of these agents is well developed, with supply growing to satisfy increased demand, despite potentially harsh legal penalties for doing so. A 2020 Scientific American article described an increased use of LSD among Americans over the past few years, and we see this with other visionary agents as well. Ayahuasca retreats, mushroom retreats, iboga retreats and scads of psychedelic events are happening all over the place. Increased use means increased production, none of it from publicly-traded pharmaceutical companies – not one tab, blotter, barrel or windowpane. 

Big Pharma’s Rumored Psychedelic Takeover

Many people with whom I have spoken over the past couple of years express concern and suspicion over a perceived pharmaceutical takeover of psychedelics. They fear it means the end of underground production and the psychedelic culture that it has made possible. But perception is not reality, just good PR applied judiciously, creating a sense of momentum, revolutionary change and visionary companies rewriting the rules of health and wellness. Finally, a new paradigm!

Sifting through what’s real and what’s fluff air takes discernment. For example, the recent Science News article “Psilocybin rewires the brain for people with depression, study finds,” is a good example of actual news reporting, focusing on a depression study conducted at Imperial College in London. So too this New York Times article from March, “Demand for this toad’s psychedelic toxin is booming. Some warn that’s bad for the toad,” is an actual piece of reporting.

But other stories are PR-generated star-maker fluff air for psychedelic companies, who want to sound as though they are going gangbusters. Take for example this tantalizing press release from last November: “COMPASS Pathways announces positive topline results from groundbreaking phase IIb trial of investigational COMP360 psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression.” As a press release, generated by a PR firm to bolster Compass stock and bring in new investment capital, it’s meant to be kindling for the investor fire. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But it does not mean that Compass received FDA approval, or that the company was imminently about to sell any form of product, even if other websites reproduce this press release as “news.” Any milestone, large or small, is turned into a full-on fluff air event. It’s kindling for the investor fire.

Or consider this from US News and World Report in March: “7 Psychedelic Stocks to Watch – Psychedelic stocks could repeat the cannabis stock boom.” Even after the air hissed out of the psychedelic industry investment balloon last year, you can still see many headlines like this meant to lure investors toward a questionable promised land of psychedelic therapy mega-profits. But millions of psychedelic users know little or nothing about the rise and fall of stocks, and only perceive a takeover.

Or how about this one, from the Guardian in December of last year: “‘This isn’t the 60s again’: psychedelics business takes off amid culture clash.” To reinforce the irrational sense of an inevitable psychedelic corporate takeover, the teaser for this article reads, “Experts fear if psychedelics fall exclusively into the hands of big pharma the industry will follow the same path as legal marijuana, making the rich richer.” 

And here’s another, from Forbes in February: “Big Pharma In Psychedelics: Inside Mindset Pharma’s Deal With Otsuka.”

The Corporate Psychedelic PR Machine

The aggregate effect of an avalanche of ongoing fluff air PR suggests that this is a momentous time, that a new and brilliant paradigm is emerging, that new companies are shaking up the norm and opening new dimensions of healing, and that a beautiful new world with a Stanley Kubrick futuristic design motif is just around the cosmic corner. Several public relations firms have declared themselves go-to shops for hot psychedelic companies, including Duree Company, NisonCo, Alan Aldous, and Buchanan. Where a few enter, throngs may well follow. Expect huge blue-chip agencies to step in and create a real rumble in the psychedelic media jungle. Think fluff air on turbo-charge.

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Back here on planet Earth, what does all the breathless hype mean to you, fellow psychedelic journeyer? Not much yet. Some psychedelic pharma companies will weather the years of studies and surrender the mountains of cash required to achieve FDA drug approval, and will channel their products into the medical, therapeutic and reimbursable sectors. For those who want a clinical environment and the attendance of a licensed health care provider, this sector may serve a great many people over time. But many highly touted psychedelic stocks will die in a seven alarm fire, as happens every time billions of dollars engorge a new, emerging sector. No, it’s not a new paradigm.

Intrinsic problems will bedevil the psychedelic pharma companies. Patents are the profit lifeblood of pharma companies, but the new psychedelic pharma entities face the same dilemma as the big companies like Pfizer, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche and others. They either must create novel molecules (which may or may not be safe), novel ways of making old drugs like LSD, or uses that others haven’t previously come up with. This is harder than it sounds. 

For the rest of the world, especially those who won’t tolerate paying ten or more times the market price for psychedelic materials, or for those who wish to trip in the woods on a beach or in a yurt, the existing, very well established and ever-expanding channels will strengthen and expand to meet demand by an underground willing to risk arrest. If there is an additional disadvantage to this market, beyond jail time, it is a lack of controls or oversight, and lack of assurances of purity or safety of products. At the very same time that these controls do not exist in the extralegal market, excellent ayahuasca is being made in many places, quality mushrooms are being grown by hundreds of thousands of small growers, and there is plenty of very good acid around. I suspect that rigorous standards set by pharma will help to bolster standards outside of pharma as well. 

When you go for that mushroom smoothie on a sunny Saturday morning, or you put a couple of drops of acid into some tea for a long and luminous day of tripping, relax. The psychedelic pharmaceutical companies are not taking over. At this point, they’re not even selling anything. Some of them may survive and go on to do good work and help others. Let’s hope so. But the world is already tripping. And thanks in no small part to the fanfare generated by The Big Spin, more and more people are getting a little bump – or a giant leap – from psychedelics right now today. So a tip of the hat to publicly traded companies for bolstering a sector many of us have been in for decades. The steady stream of fluff air has done us all some good.

Image: Nicki Adams

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