Psilocybin Is Headed for the Mainstream — It’s Bringing the Problems of Big Pharma With It
The psychedelic community is torn over the growing interest in developing medical versions of a drug that may even help treatment-resistant depression
As recreational cannabis has inched toward legalization across the western world, scientists and other proponents expect that psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — will be next. This May, both Denver and Oakland, to many people’s surprise, voted to decriminalize it. And now that legalization appears on the horizon, several well-funded firms are jostling to make money in this new market.
Of all the psychedelics that have been studied for their medical potential, psilocybin arguably shows the most promise. Multiple studies have indicated it could help with a wide range of conditions, including OCD, eating disorders, and treatment-resistant depression.
To develop psilocybin commercially into a pharmaceutical-grade product, the drug must be produced synthetically to a medical standard of safety and purity. The nonprofit Usona Institute in Madison, Wisconsin, has been attempting to do this since 2014, refining its chemical production techniques, as well as developing therapeutic models for the treatment of a number of conditions, depression in particular.
As the profile of psilocybin has grown, so too has a cluster of for-profit firms. This includes the U.K.’s Compass Pathways in 2015, the U.S.’s CaaMTech in February 2018, and M2BIO in April 2019, a division of Chinese-owned biotech company MJ MedTech. All are eyeing the size of the psilocybin market since the global market for conventional antidepressants alone was valued at $13.7 billion in 2016, and is projected to grow to $15.9 billion by 2023.
Many researchers applaud the arrival of big business. “We should be seeing it as a sign of our success,” says Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an influential nonprofit research, advocacy, and educational organization. “There is very little government incentive to get these drugs out to people. Luckily in America, we have some very wealthy…