By Jake Sherman
Psychedelics have come a long way in the last 20 years. For proof of that, simply look to the growing number of companies in the space. Clinical trials are in advanced stages for a host of therapies that are transforming how we approach mental health. Addiction, depression, ADHD, and post-traumatic stress could potentially be history thanks to psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD treatments, among others. Nonetheless, the industry’s biggest challenges endure.
In fact, the still-growing psychedelics space faces a number of challenges as it struggles to upend the current landscape. Most of the challenges stem from a blanket government policy enacted in 1970, listing psychedelics as Schedule I substances. The UK and United Nations followed suit in the next two years. This led to a halt in medical research, setting the field back decades. It also brought unwarranted cultural stigma as people associated psychedelics with societal breakdown and crime.
This narrow view of the re-emerging psychedelic field seems to be falling away. In 2019, Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin, followed shortly by Oakland and Santa Cruz, CA. Last month, Oregon became the first state to officially do the same. Still, the field of psychedelics faces an uphill battle. Here are three of the biggest challenges facing the industry today.
Prior to 1967, many promising studies showed the effectiveness of psychedelics in treating psychiatric disorders. This research was effectively halted when drugs such as LSD and psilocybin were listed as Schedule I substances. The decades-old classification describes them as having “no accepted medical use and the greatest potential for harm.” Ironically, this same categorization also makes it nearly impossible for researchers to obtain the compounds and prove otherwise.
Oregon recently passed Measure 109, which will make it legal to use psilocybin (and things such as magic mushroom tea) for mental health treatment in supervised settings. And the FDA gave MDMA and psilocybin a Breakthrough Therapy Designation, which can expedite clinical trials.
Still, federal legislation remains largely the same. Therapeutic substances remain federally banned even in Oregon. And countries around the world continue to follow America’s example in upholding their own bans. In the UK, for example, hospitals must hold a costly license to even possess a Schedule I substance. Only a handful of facilities have even made the effort.
America’s Controlled Substances Act also prohibits doctors from prescribing even FDA-approved drugs without a “legitimate medical purpose.” This means that even when drugs like psilocybin and MDMA do get FDA approval, doctors may not be able to give them to patients who don’t display an illness – even though the drugs have been proven to have a positive effect on general wellbeing, mental health, and more.
Representation in Society and Stigma
Psychedelics still carry a real stigma in mainstream society and the scientific community, despite the fact that research has shown them to be non-addictive and beneficial in controlled settings many times over. In popular culture, the drugs are associated with hippies or subversives. But even more alarming is how this stigma carries over into scientific studies.
Researchers often cite studies conducted by a pair of doctors between 1989 and 2002 “proving” the harmful effects of MDMA. At least one of these studies was famously retracted by its authors after the researchers admitted to accidentally switching bottles containing MDMA with those holding methamphetamines.
In 2004, MAPS also revealed that the aforementioned research team received $14.6 million in government grants over that 13-year period. This is an astronomical sum as far as research goes. During that same timespan, not a cent of federal money went into funding research on MDMA’s therapeutic properties.
Another study on serotonin reduction conducted by one of the doctors is now considered to be methodologically flawed. Subsequent studies on a far greater number of subjects have contradicted the findings. But anti-MDMA research continues to surface with titles such as “The Potential Dangers of Using MDMA for Psychotherapy.”
With psychedelic drugs more restricted by law than cocaine and heroin, the continued bias is not surprising. This is unlikely to change until psychedelics achieve proper designation.
The Psychedelics Market is Strong but Has Vulnerabilities
The stigmas carry over into the financial side of psychedelics, as well – though knowledgeable investors are enthusiastic. In fact, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, has invested huge sums in a number of publicly-traded psychedelics companies. But Thiel remains an anomaly for the moment, mostly due to a lack of awareness in the greater investor community.
Many potential investors erroneously doubt the legality of current psychedelics trials. And with current legislation as it is, who can blame them? In reality, researchers get government approval before conducting their clinical trials. This can be difficult to attain – another possible deterrent for investors.
Updated legislation and increased public awareness are today contending with psychedelics’ biggest challenges. The growing momentum of these two fronts represents shifting winds – though the accomplishments gained thus far signify that change is already here.