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Young Psychedelic Philanthropist Blazes Path for the Psychedelic Future

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Young Psychedelic Philanthropist Blazes Path for the Psychedelic Future

It’s been said, only partly in jest, that the secret to success in life lies in choosing the right parents. If true, that helps explain how Thomas Cody Swift has become a leading philanthropic supporter of research into psychedelic medicines. His grandfather, George Dempster Smith, accumulated a fortune as the chairman and CEO of UPS. His father, James L. Swift, experimented with psychedelics in the late 1960s and encouraged his son, who’s known as Cody, to pursue his fascination with psychoactive compounds. .

“I thought it was absolutely terrific,” says James Swift, 76, who retains clear memories of his first LSD experience as a student in the 1960’s when authorities warned of dire consequences for those who ingested. “I never believed any of the bullshit about psychedelics.” 

Cody Swift, 37, who made his first grant for psychedelic research soon after finishing college, says, “I was fortunate. I was very young, and my father really trusted me.”

That trust has been rewarded. Since giving $50,000 to Johns Hopkins University for a pivotal clinical trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy to treat anxiety in cancer patients in 2008, Cody Swift has funded some of this century’s most consequential research into psychedelics. He has supported early-stage research at Johns Hopkins and NYU into whether psilocybin-assisted therapy can treat major depression, alcoholism and tobacco addiction, as well as the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) for clinical trials to demonstrate that MDMA-assisted therapy can treat PTSD. 

Through his RiverStyx Foundation and a personal trust, Swift has spent or committed $9 million for psychedelic research, $4.2 million into drug policy reform and $3.1 million to support Indigenous peoples who use sacred plant medicines, according to federal tax returns and his own records.

“He’s played a really seminal role,” says Roland Griffiths, director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins. “He’s become a close friend as well as a supporter.”

Unlike most philanthropists, Swift immersed himself in his chosen field. He says he uses psilocybin in non clinical settings for his own personal growth. “I became aware we are constantly making meaning out of the world, and the world is not what it seems,” he says. 

Swift earned a graduate degree in existential phenomenological psychology. He became a guide at Johns Hopkins, working on the study of cancer patients that he helped to fund. “It was one of the best times of my life,” he says. He even wrote a peer-reviewed paper, Cancer at the Dinner Table, for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, about the experiences of those patients.

As new donors have stepped up to support research and startup money has flowed into the sector, Swift has pivoted slightly. With Miriam Volat, RiverStyx’s co-director, he has begun to examine potential harms from psychedelics. They’re worried about the threats to the plants, lands and cultures of Indigenous peoples. They’re also concerned about new problems that are arising as psychedelics become more widely available. 

“I don’t think there’s been enough space to talk about the potential risks, psychologically or even sexually, that we’re seeing now,” Swift says. As an example, RiverStyx supports the Fireside Project, which operates a peer support phone line for people seeking support for challenging experiences with psychedelics. “We try to stay on the leading edge of what is needed next,” says Swift.

A Path Toward Philanthropy

Being a philanthropist is nice work if you can get it. On a lovely July day in Santa Cruz, California, Swift and I are enjoying the view of Monterey Bay from the deck of his home. It’s not a big or opulent house, but it’s worth more than $2 million as are other houses in his neighborhood. He’s renovating, in part to create an office for RiverStyx. 

Swift’s interest in drugs, he tells me, goes way back. As a teenager, he read Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire and Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness and learned about psychedelics. “I was fascinated that you could take a substance in micrograms and it could change your whole conscious experience,” he says. He discussed drugs with his dad, James Swift, who went on to earn a PhD in psychology, met Ram Dass several times and briefly attended the trial of Timothy Leary for breaking out of a California prison. James has good memories of these years. “For the most part, we had nothing but wonderful times and great experiences,” he says. “It was mind-opening.”

Working together at RiverStyx in the early 2000s, father and son shared an interest in drug policy reform, supporting the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU, prisoner aid groups and marijuana legalization in Washington state, where they lived. They also backed nonprofits like Compassion and Choices that helped people make their own choices about how and when to die. Cody Swift’s interests in drugs and end-of-life issues came together when he read about Dr. Charles Grob, a co-founder of the Heffter Research Institute who was studying the effect of psilocybin on patients with advanced-stage cancer. He learned that similar research was just getting underway at Johns Hopkins. 

Swift called Hopkins, got a social worker named Mary Cosimano on the phone and offered to help. Hopkins had no money to do the cancer-patient study. “It was a perfect moment of synchronicity,” Swift says. Thus began a long relationship between Swift, Cosimano, Roland Griffiths and Hopkins.

At the time – in 2008 – money to pay for research into psychedelics was scarce. Governments had little interest because of the stigma surrounding the drugs; pharmaceutical companies had less. Startups and venture capital investors would not discover the sector for another decade. Working with Heffter, Swift became one of three major donors in the field, along with Carey Turnbull and Bill Linton, who were successful businessmen nearing the end of their business careers and shifting into philanthropy.

“It was really striking to me that here’s a very young man, almost a kid, with unusual maturity and vision,” says Griffiths. Cosimano, who is now the Director of Guide Services for Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, describes Swift as “a genuine, compassionate, caring human being.”

Heffter was also key to Swift’s philanthropy. It functions as a scientific advisor and intermediary between the donors and researchers, typically funding small pilot studies that produce data that can then be shared with government agencies, nonprofits or private industry. 

George Greer, a co-founder of Heffter who was then its medical director, recalls that Swift “was just like a sponge, absorbing everything from our world.” In return, Swift says he values the guidance that he got from Heffter’s staff and board. “I always felt at home at Heffter,” says Swift.

Several studies funded by Swift are helping bring psychedelic therapies to a larger market. So promising were the early results from a small study of psilocybin-assisted therapy for tobacco addiction that the National Institutes of Health last year awarded a grant of nearly $4 million to Johns Hopkins, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and New York University for further research. It was the first NIH grant in more than 50 years to directly investigate the therapeutic effects of a classic psychedelic. Mydecine Innovations Group, a startup, is funding a second study into psilocybin and tobacco at Hopkins.

Meantime, B.More, a nonprofit startup founded by Carey Turnbull and his wife, Claudia, is building upon the findings of a study into psilocybin and alcohol use disorder at New York University funded by the Turnbulls and by Swift. B.More recently asked FDA for permission to begin a Phase 2B clinical trial to investigate this treatment with more than 200 participants.

As for the study of cancer and end-of-life anxiety, a startup called Reset Pharma is developing psilocybin-based treatments for patients with life-threatening illnesses. The cancer study was also the focus of Michael Pollan’s 2015 New Yorker article, “The Trip Treatment,” which brought favorable attention to the field and led to his bestselling book.

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Other research funded by Swift reflects his broader interests. Although he was turned off by religion for years, Swift and the Turnbulls funded a study at Johns Hopkins to see what effect experiences with psilocybin would have on religious professionals and their practice. The idea, Swift says, is to “give clergy the opportunity to connect deeply with a sense of spirit, of the divine” and, ideally, to reinvigorate “the spiritual foundation of our society with more meaning.” 

Swift’s interest in the sacred nature of psychedelics was also deepened by his work with Native American churches that use peyote as a sacrament. “It’s not psychedelia to them. This is church for them,” Swift says. “It’s very sober and reverential. They’re wearing boots and jeans and bolo ties and their Sunday finest.”

With Volat, who is trained as an ecologist, Swift looked for ways to support Native Americans who have been concerned for decades about threats to the sustainability of peyote. In 2017, RiverStyx funded a nonprofit called the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI), which is dedicated to ensuring that peyote and the spiritual practices of Native Americans are sustained for generations. The IPCI subsequently bought a 605-acre tract of land near Laredo, Texas, where the cactus grows. It has become the site of cultural activities, education about conservation and nurseries where peyote buttons can be grown before being planted in the native habitat.

IPCI’s work on behalf of peyote has bumped up against some who want to decriminalize all drugs. In particular, Swift, Volat and a key ally, David Bronner, have aligned themselves with Native American Church officials and clashed with those who want peyote to be included in local and state drug decriminalization efforts. In an open letter to the psychedelic movement published last year, the IPCI and, more importantly, the National Council of Native American Churches, which represents the majority of church members, called upon the movement to exclude peyote from all decriminalization measures. 

Broadening the effort to protect medicines impacted by the greater interest in psychedelics, RiverStyx and others last year became seed funders of a new nonprofit called the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund (IMC Fund) to preserve five “keystone” medicines – ayahuasca, toad, iboga, mushrooms and peyote. Key backers of the IMC Fund include Dr. Bronner’s, environmental advocate Christiana Musk, and author Michael Pollan. The IMC Fund’s decision-making body, which is made up of people from Indigenous communities, has made about two dozen grants to Indigenous groups that are intended to strengthen their capacity to protect the keystone medicines.

For now, Volat is executive director of IPCI and co-director, with Benjamin De Loenen of the IMC Fund. De Loenen, a Belgian living in Spain, is also executive director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service, which he founded. Both organizations are guided by committees of Indigenous people, and Volat says that each will within a year begin a search for Indigenous people to lead the staff. 

All of this leads to questions about accountability. Swift, after all, is the steward of a fortune built a half century ago. RiverStyx has about $35 million in assets, according to its latest tax return, and, like most family foundations, it’s controlled by the family. Foundations are, essentially, answerable to no one except state and federal regulators who provide minimal oversight. 

Asked about checks and balances, Swift and Volat, who has been with RiverStyx for seven years, say they are true equals; they share authority over every grant decision, as well as the overall direction of RiverStyx. Swift also consults regularly with elders of the psychedelic movement, including Native American Church leaders, David Bronner, Bob Jesse of the Council on Spiritual Practices and, of course, Griffiths. “I trust him immensely,” Swift says. 

What’s next for Swift? He and Volat want RiverStyx to stay nimble, able to step in where others are not and where results look most promising. “As a philanthropist, I’m always looking for the leading edge,” Swift says. They are, for example, supporting the early-stage research of Charles Nichols, a professor at the Louisiana State University medical school and scientific founder of the drug development company Eleusis. Nichols is investigating the anti-inflammatory potential of the psychedelic DOI. That work could impact a range of ailments, from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis and reshape thinking about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. Fortunately for Nichols, his funder also has his eyes on the far horizon.

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