Making Mushrooms Legal | The Nation

In November 2020, voters in Oregon passed a historic pair of drug policy ballot measures. The first was Measure 110, a proposal to decriminalize low-level drug possession, with 58 percent in favor; the second was Measure 109, a proposal to grant legal access to psilocybin (the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms) for mental health treatment, with 56 percent in favor. It was an turn of events in drug policy. But as always in the United States, businessmen were waiting in the wings.

Compass Pathways, a biotech firm backed by the right-wing Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, had been preparing for a “psychedelic revolution” and the subsequent investor windfall, accumulating patents here and abroad for its synthesized formulation of psilocybin and its use in therapy. In a patent application the same year as the Oregon ballot, Compass Pathways filed claims for specific aspects of psychedelic therapy, including “the room is decorated using muted colors” and “the room comprises a bed or a couch.” The claims also included behaviors like holding hands, the therapist providing “reassuring physical contact,” and the use of breathing exercises. This attempt to commodify the basic elements of psychedelic therapy, or trip sitting, signals that psychedelics are the latest trend to catch Big Pharma’s eye.

Compass Pathways was cofounded by George Goldsmith and Ekaterina Malievskaia, a wealthy married couple. The London-based company started as a nonprofit but quietly transitioned to for-profit status in 2017, a move that was criticized by a number of experts and researchers in the psychedelic community, as Quartz reported in 2018. After building its business on top of years of expert research and Indigenous knowledge, Compass Pathways wants to dominate the market, filing broad patent claims to try to gain ownership over the nascent field.

For decades, psilocybin has been at the forefront of the movement to decriminalize psychedelic drugs. A growing body of research into the therapeutic potential of mushrooms and other psychedelics, particularly in treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and end-of-life distress, has helped destigmatize this class of drugs and bring them further into the scientific and cultural mainstream. After more than 50 years of the War on Drugs, the politics of psychedelic reform are evolving at a remarkable speed, with many cities and states actively considering decriminalization or reform. But altered states of consciousness are no safe harbor from the pursuit of profit.

The emerging psychedelic industry is projected to grow to a $10.75 billion business by 2027, and it’s already being flooded with millions by investors, mostly from venture capital, Big Tech, and philanthropic donors. These days, psychedelic companies are listed on the Nasdaq, valued at billions of dollars, and locked in a fierce battle over intellectual property rights and research. Freedom to Operate, a nonprofit that fights overreaching patents in the psychedelic industry, has challenged Compass Pathways’ synthetic psilocybin patents, arguing that their formulation isn’t a novel invention.


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