Slowly but surely, psychedelics are moving into the mainstream.
What’s happening: In the 1970s, psychedelics were criminalized, effectively ending research into therapeutic uses. More recently, regulators have eased restrictions on psychedelic research, fast-tracking clinical studies and legitimizing the space.
Why it matters: As the mental health crisis and addiction epidemic intensify, psychedelics are proving to be a highly effective remedy for anxiety, depression, PTSD, opioid addiction, and other treatment-resistant conditions.
The big picture: While research continues, psychedelic medicine could reshape the future of healthcare and wellness. As momentum builds, scientists, startups, investors, and big pharma are plotting their next move.
How We Got Here
Psychedelics have been used by a variety of cultures throughout history. The best-known include psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), LSD (known as acid), DMT (The Spirit or God Molecule), mescaline (found in peyote), ketamine (Special K), and MDMA (ecstasy/molly).
In the US, their use peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, significant research on the safety and efficacy of psychedelics was published. But that progress was largely undone when recreational use spiked. A highly politicized topic, psychedelics were associated with hippie culture and youth rebellion.
In 1970, when the US ramped up its war on drugs, Richard Nixon made psychedelics a Schedule 1 substance, stifling research and criminalizing their use.
The Psychedelic Renaissance
In recent years, psychedelics have seen renewed interest from the public, regulators, researchers, and funders.
- Johns Hopkins University launched a center for psychedelic drug research.
- The FDA granted “breakthrough” status to MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin.
- Oakland and Santa Cruz, CA and Denver, CO decriminalized psilocybin.
With an emphasis on mental health and addiction, psychedelic therapy is being used to treat a host of psychiatric afflictions. Recent clinical studies show mounting evidence to support their effectiveness.
In a Phase II trial of patients who suffered from chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD for an average of 17 years, 56% showed no signs of the condition after one MDMA-assisted therapy session. Following up at the one-year mark, 68% no longer had PTSD.
In another study, psilocybin significantly decreased depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. After six months, 80% of the patients were still less clinically depressed than before the treatment. Some participants said they lost their fear of death.
Additional research has signaled the effectiveness of psychedelics in treating opioid addiction, smoking cessation, and OCD.
Turn On, Tune In, Cash In
As psychedelics move into the mainstream, technology investors, drug makers, and wellness practitioners are paying attention.
Leading the charge, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has played a key role in legitimizing psychedelics. Of note, MAPS is a non-profit organization aiming to treat mental illness through psychedelic-assisted therapies.
Meanwhile, a growing number of for-profit ventures are targeting the space.
- Toronto, Canada-based MindMed raised $30M to develop 18-MC, a non-hallucinogenic compound based on ibogaine, targeting opioid addiction.
- COMPASS Pathways secured $116M in funding from well-known investors like Peter Thiel to create a synthetic version of psilocybin.
- German-based ATAI Life Sciences raised more than $100M to develop innovative psychedelic therapies by investing in other biotech startups.
- With $8.5M in funding, Field Trip is a “mental wellness company” offering psychedelic-enhanced therapies.
- London-based Eleusis is using psychedelics to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The company has raised $13.5M to date.
The downside: As investors and drug makers attempt to corner the psychedelic market, purists are sounding the alarm. Proponents believe access is being restricted to wealthy, well-connected individuals. And there’s a growing concern that big pharma will enact a prescription model, prioritizing profits over healing. As a result, activists are pushing for decriminalization and universal access.
Beyond medicinal applications, psychedelic wellness is gaining steam. From educational resources and healing clinics to luxury retreats, consumer-facing offerings could become a vertical unto itself.
Psychedelics-as-a-service. Unlike cannabis, proponents are quick to warn that psychedelics aren’t a commodity, they’re a service. Marijuana is a commodity that can be cultivated and distributed. Psychedelics, on the other hand, rely on delivery — or the service component.
Because education, intention, set-and-setting, and working with a guide or facilitator are central to the experience, new wellness-oriented companies focused on delivery are starting to emerge.
- The Third Wave is a psychedelic education platform.
- Synthesis and MycoMeditations are among a growing number of psychedelic retreats.
- Mindbloom recently opened the first legal psychedelics clinic in the US.
- Nana, a yet-to-launch startup, is building an integrated therapy solution for psychedelics.
And the list goes on… Companies focused on normalizing psychedelics through content and events are seizing the moment as well. The Delic, a media platform devoted to psychoactive compounds, recently acquired Reality Sandwich, a website dedicated to psychedelic news and culture. And DoubleBlind, a print magazine and media company, feels like the Kinfolk of psychedelics.
While wholesale legalization seems unlikely, especially in the nearterm, psychedelics have the attention of the medical establishment, business sector, and wellness community alike. As conflicting interests come to a head, the various use cases, business models, and regulations will be hotly debated. In the end, ego and power will ironically play a key role in determining the future of a drug known to dissolve egos and relinquish power. Maybe this is a case for getting high on your own supply?