The psychedelics industry has been on fire this year, as companies position themselves for expansion while research and development look to be making serious progress. It’s easy to see that, compared to the 1960s and 1970s, psychedelics are indeed experiencing a renaissance.
But amidst all the sound and fury of an emerging industry is trepidation about an industry that deals with neural pathways and brain chemistry and the unknowns of the mind, in a field of endeavor still discovering what unique plant-based molecules can accomplish to help humans achieve better mental health.
Psychedelics have become the business of exploring the known unknowns.
Now that so much has been accomplished in the psychedelics industry, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look at what remains as challenges going forward for researchers, scientists, and business developers.
Here are some of the common myths and misunderstandings of psychedelics that people shaping the industry still have to come to grips with.
Myth #1: Psychedelics are good for all humans. Proponents of psychedelics espouse the life-changing experience of their personal journeys with psychedelics. They talk about profound, mystical, and sometimes scary moments that either illuminate their connectedness with the world or clarify what they already believed. But there are still people who should not be taking psychedelics for any reason. And sometimes, those people find out the hard way that their psychedelic experience may have scarred them for life, creating such outcomes as LSD psychosis that lasts for a few days or longer. “Psychedelics are psychologically intense, and many people will blame anything that happens for the rest of their lives on a psychedelic experience,” a researcher reported. In guided therapeutic sessions, a client may think psychedelics are a “magic bullet,” unaware of the potential for challenging experiences or the emergence of avoided problems, memories, or emotions, a study noted. People with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are routinely disallowed from any psychedelics research. There are potential interactions between psychedelics and psychotropic medications. Some study subjects don’t reveal family histories of psychotic episodes that can lead to problems during therapy. And some who make it into research groups experienced ongoing psychosis after their psychedelics treatments; others reported feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, and even thoughts of suicide.
Myth #2: Psychedelics change mindsets and core beliefs. Psychedelics were originally thought to be in the domain of so-called left-wing liberals—the Bay Area hippie scene of the 60s—which they used to confirm a broader world view, expand consciousness and maybe even change political views. They were encouraged to turn on, tune in and drop out of regular social life through their use of LSD. But psychedelics do not cause a huge shift in core beliefs. The use of psychedelics crosses all political lines and doesn’t sway anyone’s political opinion. According to a study, research supporting the hypothesis that psychedelics induce a shift in political beliefs must address the many historical and contemporary cases of psychedelic users who remained authoritarian in their views after taking psychedelics or became radicalized after extensive experience with them. The study concluded that common anecdotal accounts of psychedelics precipitating radical shifts in political or religious beliefs result from the contextual factors of set and setting, and have no particular directional basis on the axes of conservatism-liberalism or authoritarianism-egalitarianism.
Myth #3: The risk/reward of investing in or building a psychedelics company is easily managed. Investors are used to risk. Around 90 percent of any startup company that has been funded will not make it to the initial public offering (IPO). But investors in regular startups usually know more about what to expect than they do in the up-and-down psychedelics industry. Psychedelics business investors see psychedelics startup companies backed by big money, with a good roster of scientists and business managers, and an as-yet-unmade product or product line identified in a study or studies as the next great thing for mental health. That’s all good, and it’s tempting to go all in. But their investment in this particular biotech business means that they will have to wait on the actual product development to be completed, which uses a federally illegal substance in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has to approve it for sale before any investor sees serious payback on their investment—while it works out dealing with the federal restrictions. Sure, that serious payback could be very serious indeed.. if they can wait out the development process. And if the science proves the benefits of the psychedelic. And if the patent doesn’t get challenged. And if the company has enough cash to float it through the expensive research and development process. These ifs-and-buts may be too much for even the biggest risk-taking investor.
Myth 4: Research is quickly answering all the questions about using psychedelics. There has been a surge of studies about psychedelics. Academia is adding more credibility and depth to the study of psychedelics. But most of these studies use small study groups, and many conclude that “more work needs to be done,” implying that this nascent industry may be more nascent than imagined. Researchers may have just scratched the surface of what psychedelics can do. Their newest research raises more questions than answers about psychedelics—how they do what they do, and why. There is still so much to find out. The greatest minds from NYU, Johns Hopkins, and other large research institutions are getting more funding and digging deeper. But it’s slow going for now.
Myth #5: Psychedelics are a cure for (fill in the blank). Psychedelics don’t cure anything. It’s a treatment, like most other pharmaceuticals. It’s not a miracle cure, and its unlikely to replace the current pharmacological treatments for various mental health disorders. But again.. no one can say for sure because research is picking up intriguing hints that psychedelics may in fact be at least a better treatment than anything else currently available that essentially numbs a patient or masks their condition. Take depression, for example. There is a Stage 3 clinical trial with MDMA to treat PTSD that keeps popping up in any psychedelics news feed which is creating a lot of excitement about the potential of psychedelics as more than just a treatment. A recent study at Johns Hopkins found that patients with depression who were getting psilocybin treatment were still free from depression episodes up to a year after treatment—with more research planned to see exactly how much longer this effect could last.
Bottom line is that we know more about psychedelics than ever before. But that additional knowledge is beginning to create a bottleneck between what science knows, and how it can be knowingly applied to better human mental health.
For example, we now know how different medications act on specific neurotransmitter systems in specific brain regions. But that just opens up another can of worms, as it were, according to one study: “However, we now know that any particular neurotransmitter system may be involved in a range of disorders, that any specific medication may act on a wide range of neurobiological systems and psychological processes, and that the effect of medications and of molecular alterations may be mediated by a range of variables, such as psychological expectancy and socioeconomic status.”
In other words, proceed cautiously—the known unknowns are leading to more unknown knowns.