Psychedelic Philanthropy

An unusual array of donors

Philanthropy is essential to this research. The stigma around psychedelic drugs remains so strong that there’s little government support for the research. With a budget of $1.8bn, the National Institute of Mental Health is the largest funder of research on mental illness in the world, but almost none of this money goes towards studies of psychedelics.

With a few exceptions, drug companies are disinterested as well.

“Psychedelics are off-patent, can’t be monopolized, and compete with other psychiatric medications that people take daily,” explains Rick Doblin, the founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, a research and advocacy group that is the leading nonprofit in the field.

Rick Doblin

Two years ago, MAPS’ own research into the use of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder was granted “breakthrough therapy” designation by the FDA. MAPS’ protocol, which combines therapy with three administrations of MDMA, is currently in a final phase of clinical trials, and could gain FDA approval as soon as 2021.

MAPS has been sustained entirely by donations from individuals and family foundations. These donors include ex-hippies, liberal activists, New Age types, political conservatives, technology entrepreneurs and an anonymous Bitcoin millionaire known as Pine. Prominent American families, including the Rockefellers and the Hyatts, have funded research.

Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz — he’s the billionaire co-founder of Facebook — have supported three nonprofits that focus on research into psychedelics. Good Ventures, their family foundation, has made two $100,000 grants to the Heffter Institute and a $500,000 grant to the Usona Institute for research testing the use of psilocybin to treat depression. Good Ventures also made two $500,000 grants to MAPS for its research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.

The philanthropy of Tuna and Moskovitz has been influenced by effective altruism, which encourages people to use reason and evidence to do as much good as they can. EAs look for causes that are importanttractableand neglected (for explanations, see this and this), which makes psychedelic research an excellent fit. The suffering from mental illness is widespread, there’s growing evidence that psychedelics can help and relatively few philanthropic dollars flow into the cause — well under $100m a year, by my estimate. By comparison, the American Cancer Society spent $838m and the American Heart Association spent $890m in their most recent fiscal years.

“If you look at the amount of funding for brain research, as compared to other illnesses, such as cancer, it’s minuscule,” says Dr. Borenstein of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Particularly as we learn more about the workings of the brain through scans, the opportunity to help those who suffer from mental illness is growing.

That said, there’s reason to be skeptical about psychedelic therapy, as blogger and psychiatrist Scott Alexander explains. He writes, among other things, that “between 10% and 50% of Americans have tried psychedelics. If psychedelics did something shocking, we would already know about it.” It’s important not to let the exuberance surrounding psychedelics get too far out front of the evidence.

Psychedelics’ transformative potential

Meantime, the advocacy work being done on behalf of psychedelics could have even more world-changing potential, some say. The advocacy is driven by a simple but profound belief: That people should have the freedom to choose what substances to put into their bodies.

For many, the mind-expanding benefits of psychedelics could outweigh the risks: An intriguing 2006 study led by Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins found that psilocybin could reliably lead to “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” It was a small study, with just 30 volunteers, but two-third of them said the drug trip was among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.

By starting Atman Retreat in Jamaica, Nesmith-Beck will make psilocybin legally available to those who can spend four days and about $1700, plus airfare, for a group experience with doses tailored to each user’s preferences, preparation and integration with trained facilitators, and amenities such as beachfront access and vegetarian meals. His first retreat aims to attract EAs, and it is mostly filled.

On an Effective Altruism Forum, Nesmith-Beck makes a bold claim:

We believe increasing access to high quality psychedelic experiences can be impactful for improving mental health, boosting personal efficacy, perhaps making people more altruistic, and promoting human flourishing in the long run.

I heard similar claims while reporting my story for The Chronicle. Several enthusiasts told me that psychedelic experiences will connect people more closely to nature, and there’s at least weak evidence that people who have experienced LSD, psilocybin and mescaline during their lifetimes feel closer to nature and engage in ecological behaviors like recycling. Of course, that could be a matter of correlation, not causation.

Allan Badiner, a writer, editor and environmental activist, has experimented with psychedelics while supporting environmental causes. He served on the board of the Rainforest Action Network for more than 25 years and now helps to fund for psychedelic research and advocacy at the Threshold Foundation.

Read the full article at Medium