Big Pharma’s Bet on Psychedelics

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: Psychedelic. The very word makes me think paisley tie dye, taking trips and getting high. But the idea of getting magic mushrooms from real medical doctors. Well, a few decades ago, if you told me that, I would ask you, what are you smoking? The current reality. Psychedelic drugs are still classified as schedule one drugs. Schedule one drugs or drugs with no current accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But as regulations around these drugs are beginning to loosen, they’re becoming accepted treatments for a host of mental health issues.

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Speaker 2: Our real focus is on transforming mental health care, and that’s something that really needs to happen for lots of people.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: That’s George Goldsmith. He’s the CEO of Compass Pathways. It’s a biotech company that’s been investing money in research on psychedelics. The goal to cash in on the potential benefits psychedelics could have for mental health.

Speaker 3: Compass is one of these major biopharma players that has entered the scene that’s really focused on psychedelic drugs. They were, for a time the highest valued, publicly traded company that specializes in psychedelics, which I think to me is even a weird thing to say at all, that there’s any publicly traded psychedelics companies these days.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: And that’s John Semler. He covers psychedelics and the pharmaceutical industry. He recently wrote on Big Farmer’s Push into psychedelics for Wired magazine. For the article, he visited the Discovery Center. It’s a research lab at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The lab got funding from Compass to create new psychedelic drugs led by chemist Jason Wallack.

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Speaker 3: They have researchers working with existing compounds that we might be familiar with, such as psilocybin is their main one, which is the active psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: You might think that a lab dedicated to researching psychedelics would be like an underground drug den, or maybe the basement of that 70 show. But according to simply, that’s just not the case. The lab is an unassuming building on Saint Joseph’s campus.

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Speaker 3: It looks like a university building. I mean, I guess I kind of had these sort of, you know, Breaking Bad, Walter White, super lab visions or, you know, men in white coats scuttling around. But there’s kind of a very sort of charming, almost scuzzy feeling to it on campus.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: Jason and his team are hard at work, manufacturing over 150 new drugs for campus, all of which could potentially be patented and brought to market at some point. But there are some who feel that the corporatization of psychedelics flies in the face of the work of the forefathers of psychedelic research and even the culture around psychedelics themselves. Even Simili has had his reservations.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. So, you know, I went in with my reportedly skepticism and cynicism intact. You know, these guys are shills working for big corporate psychedelia, and they’re all carpetbaggers and sellouts. So much of the work in psychedelics hitherto has been done in the underground by what’s often called clandestine chemists. And there is something that feels kind of secret about it.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: And as Compass moves to expose those secrets, patenting synthetic versions of psilocybin, that’s the chemical compound found in magic mushrooms. Critics claim they are capitalizing on what they see as a life altering drug that has been around for hundreds of years.

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Speaker 3: I don’t think it’s just necessarily, oh, these people are haters. They hate us because they’re too big. I think it’s because Compas represents a sort of value shift in the world of psychedelics that a lot of people take issue with.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: Campus is not alone. The market for psychedelics is growing exponentially. There are estimates that this could be a $10 billion industry in just a few years. A number of pharmaceutical companies are investing in research for these psychedelics. The promise is to find a cure for an array of mental health ailments, such as depression in the life anxiety and PTSD that would replace the costly prescriptions of what they argue are ineffective drugs.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: So today on the show, is the corporatization of psychedelics going to revolutionize mental health? Or is it just all a bad trip? I’m Sonari Glinton filling in for Lizzie O’Leary and this is what next? TBD a show about tech power and how the future will be determined. Stick around. Psychedelic drugs to some extent have been with us for millennia. It was when they became part of hippie culture and the counterculture in the sixties that they began to enter the mainstream. But the war on drugs made research practically impossible. Now they’re making a comeback due to loosening of regulations and an interest from Big Pharma in treating mental health. To hear assembly tell it, pharmaceutical companies always saw the potential. It’s just that it took decades for psychedelics to be considered acceptable.

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Speaker 3: I mean, there has always been a long pharmaceutical interest in these drugs. But as far as the renewed interest, what we call the psychedelic renaissance, I think that kind of begins in I believe it was 2006 when Johns Hopkins University managed to put together a double blinded study that kind of proved what, you know, any old hippy could tell you, which is that psilocybin can produce what they call the mystical type experiences. You know, these are these sort of hallucinogenic reveries that are ranked as being intensely emotionally and psychologically important. Ranking among one of the most profound experiences that the patients have had. And by most important, it’s like this was as big a deal to me as my wedding day or the birth of a child or the loss of a parent. But the point is that Hopkins found a way to sort of do these studies in a way that was within the boundaries of traditional clinical science. Right. So after that, this newfound seriousness was afforded to these drugs.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: One of the things that this new renaissance has opened up is the possibility of treatment. And there seems to be all kinds of mental ailments that are treatable by these therapies. Alzheimer’s, ADHD, depression, PTSD, you know, the anxiety before death. Where do we see the biggest impact where psychedelics could potentially make a difference?

Speaker 3: Effort, everything under the sun if we’re going to use psychedelics to fix homelessness. You know, let’s put Israel and Palestine in a room together and give them psychedelics and create world peace. I mean anything under the sun. But the most serious indications have been for using MDMA to treat PTSD. And then the second is psilocybin for depression. Psilocybin has proved pretty effective in treating end of life anxiety, which is, you know, people who have terminal diagnoses, who can’t get out of bed, who have crippling anxiety, they do a magic mushroom trip, and suddenly they feel that anxiety lifted from them. They connect with their friends, they connect with their family. You know, it doesn’t fix their stage for cancer, per se, but it allows them to live out the last couple of months of their life in relative peace and harmony with themselves.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: A big part of the use of psychedelics to treat mental health is the use of what’s called psychedelic therapy. Think of it like this Instead of sitting down and talking to a therapist about what’s wrong, you take a managed amount of a psychedelic with someone there to monitor you while you trip. Now you lay down on a couch, listen to music, and talk about what you’re experiencing with a professional. Essentially, you process your thoughts with a certified trip center.

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Speaker 3: People report all kinds of, you know, hallucinations, visuals, deep emotional feelings that they were not able to access, a sort of therapeutic, cathartic feeling by the end of it. And then you come out of it and you’re settled. And a lot of people report drastic change. I think one thing that’s interesting is a lot of people might have the trip and be like, Oh, that was weird, but it doesn’t really make sense to me. But then maybe a couple of weeks later, things will kind of click into place, or they’ll find that they’re thinking about things differently. They’ll find that their mental state has shifted without it necessarily being this light bulb. Eureka, I’m cured, you know, and then leaping out of the bed and something like that.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: There’s long been an association with psychedelic drugs and the underground. The drugs bring to mind, you know, the hippie movement in the sixties, Woodstock and in general the counterculture. But it wasn’t always like that. Researches were examining psychedelics decades ago until the law told them not to.

Speaker 3: One day that always strikes in my mind is October 6th, 1966, which hippies sometimes called the Day of the Beast because of this 666 connection. And that’s when California, I believe, under then Governor Reagan, ruled LSD illegal. And there was a big party in Golden Gate Park to say, this should not be illegal, we’re happy, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I think the real practical thing was the introduction of the Controlled Substances Act in the early 1970s. Right. And what the controlled, you know, people who do these drugs and legally they’re still going to do them illegally, whether they’re controlled or not. But the Controlled Substances Act did it. It made it far more difficult for scientists, for chemists to research, for researchers to get their hands on these drugs. Right. To be able to conduct serious research around them. And again, I think to a certain extent, that serious research had also been affected by the cultural perception of these drugs.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: What role have the underground players had in the Big Pharma resurgence of psychedelic?

Speaker 3: You know, again, for decades, the bulk of serious research was happening in the underground. A character who comes up in my story and who is key to Jason’s work. It was kind of an influence to everyone working. The Discovery Center is Alexander Shulgin, who’s best known as the godfather of MDMA or Ecstasy, as it’s sometimes called. Shulgin was a Dow chemist who actually had a license from the DEA to experiment with psychedelic drugs. And he and his wife, Ann, who recently passed away, they published two books, Tickle and Pickle, which are basically cookbooks and how to make scores and scores and scores of psychedelic drugs. So it’s not that this research wasn’t happening. It’s just that it was happening in the underground.

Speaker 3: Right. And anyone who’s been paying attention to it has been paying attention to what’s been happening in the underground. I mean, I know some chemists these days who served jail time for manufacturing LSD, who are now consulting with psychedelics companies. But I think if anyone deserves to benefit from this new boon and the money coming in to the psychedelics space, you know, it’s people who not only propagated the taste and the widespread interest in a lot of these drugs, but who risked life and limb doing so.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: You know, it seems inevitable that OG hippies would have problems with it. I love this phrase German farmer brokers who’ve taken up a lot of this space. Hope me the the economics reporter understand that fear.

Speaker 3: Is a big tension in my piece specifically deals with the for profit nature of a lot of these companies. Right. They’re essentially playing by the big pharma handbook. Right. And Big Pharma. I mean, it doesn’t have a ton of fans, I don’t think. Right. Like nobody wants to see the Magic Mushroom. Martin Shkreli showing up in the psychedelic space right now, specifically with companies pathways. They were coming under fire because people were claiming, firstly, that they were trying to patent psilocybin, the compound in magic mushrooms, which is, you know, a thing that abounds in nature. And B, that they were trying to patent sort of discrete elements of psychedelic therapy that were kind of well-known and were sort of shopworn hippie wisdom. Right? You know, stuff like use a comfortable couch, give someone a hug if they’re feeling sad.

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Speaker 3: So when you see these kind of what’s been called to me, you know, a patent land grab, when you see corporations and big money coming into the space, it just scrapes against those values. If you want to say that, you know, these drugs were originally valued, or at least in the sixties, valued as a form of escape from a corporate I straight laced capitalist world, see them incorporated within that world. Just rubs people the wrong way. Right. It just doesn’t jibe as one person says my story. The other thing is that for many people, the inherent properties, allegedly inherent properties of these drugs is that they facilitate feelings of love and togetherness and equality and that a sort of corporatized capitalist model stands fundamentally opposed to that.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: When we come back, will big pharma help or hurt? Psychedelic treatments. Critics of Big Pharma are worried about their move into psychedelics. Why? They point to the attempt of big companies to synthesize and then patent new forms of psychedelics. To them, capitalizing on these quote unquote miracle drugs is a slap in the face to what they believe psychedelics are used for. But others see it very differently.

Speaker 3: What is happening with this sort of synthesis aspect is that people are creating new drugs that are like psilocybin but a little different, or like LSD or DMT, but a little different. And then because of that difference, there are then able to patent the drug and say, This is ours and you can’t use it, you can’t sell it, or you have to get a license from us to use it and sell it. And that kind of rubs people the wrong way, right? They think that it hampers creativity to say, well, we own and I’ll just make up a random drug by looking at my keyboard. C f g 45 Right. And if you want to use CMG 45, you have to buy it from us or you have to license it from us. People say that totally hampers creativity.

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Speaker 3: Now, the classic kind of capitalist slash tech bro answer is it doesn’t hamper creativity. It actually fosters creativity because people will have to develop around it and they’ll have to innovate around it, etc., etc., etc.. So a lot of these sort of ideological squabbles that are playing out, I mean, the things we’ve seen before in countless different spaces. Right.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: You know, what I wonder now is, well, where is the federal government at with with these drugs? And we’ve seen reports I’ve seen reports that the Biden administration expects that these drugs will be legal in the next couple of years. So where regulatory late are we at?

Speaker 3: Yeah, well, certain places in the United States. Oregon, for example, has psilocybin therapy that you can take legally. Colorado is putting a ballot measure in November for a similar model. That seems to me last I checked it on it pretty likely to pass. And as you say, the Biden administration is putting together a task force to sort of fast track therapies for MDMA and psilocybin. So, I mean, I think we will see a lot of this stuff, you know, being much more accessible within two years. And I mean, Jason, who I profiled in the article, they recently successfully pushed back against the DEA for wanting to schedule a group of other psychedelic drugs. They said, no, we need these drugs for research. And this is only sort of exacerbating the war on drugs. And they were successful in that. I mean, they won against the DEA, which is pretty impressive.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: You know, when you say, well, if you could spend $10,000 and rid yourself of something as, you know, horrifying as depression. I can imagine that that out there going to be a lot of money in that. And we see that Big Pharma is making the investments. This is expected to be a $10 billion industry. You can’t have capitalism without insurance. Where are the insurance companies? And this in this conversation.

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Speaker 3: As I understand it, insurance providers are the hottest under the collar for psychedelic therapies of anyone because $10,000 for a magic mushroom treatment is nothing compared to putting someone on Zoloft or an anti-anxiety or an ADHD drug every day and having to sort of pay for those subscriptions week after week after week. So even though yeah, if you’re to go out of pocket and pay $10,000 to take magic mushrooms, especially when you can get the same amount of magic mushrooms on the street for 75 bucks, I think people would say that seems weird. But from the insurance perspective, I think that’s part of the interest in this space, is that the total lifetime cost outlay for a patient is going to be drastically less than the current cycle. Pharmacological Interventions.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: One potential drawback in the current psychedelic market is misinformation about what psychedelics can actually do. Some startups getting into space are claiming that psychedelics can cure almost everything. With little research backing it. Now the hype is real, but not always accurate.

Speaker 3: Yeah, well, I think that I think right now we’re still at the discovery stage. And the more things being investigated, the better. I do think fundamentally this explosion of money in the space, the ceiling is already coming down. A lot of these big companies have lost 50% of their value since they went public precisely because people just bought into the hype. It’s not like cannabis where it’s essentially a consumer packaged goods seen as selling beer or wine or potato chips. This is a biopharma play. If you’re investing in it, you know, this is something that we might see in two or five or ten years. So if you’re getting into this, hoping to just kind of make money, I think you need a bit of patience. And I think probably 90% of these newcomers to the scene, they probably won’t exist in five years. You know, I spoke to a chemist a while ago. You know, a guy who knows more about LSD than anyone I’ve ever spoken to. And he goes, you know, I have all these meetings with these people. I’d say 90% of the things you can use LSD for are never going to work. But if they’re going to pay us to investigate it, why not investigate it? You know?

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: You know, in your article, you talk about, you know, all these new types of drugs that one can be patented and and the understanding of them is out there. I wonder about where the mischief making comes in with the patented in a non patent that drugs.

Speaker 3: Right. Well I think critics of come back specifically they sort of accuse them of almost what we call patent trolling. Right. In the article, I talk about how at the Discovery Center there’s been, you know, at least 150 new drugs found now. Are they going to do anything with those drugs? Not necessarily. But they could patent them just so other people can’t discover them or use them, etc., etc., etc.. That is a real concern. Right. You know, some people might say that there’s only so many spaces on the board and they’re just trying to take up the spaces so that no one else can invent along with them.

Speaker 3: I would say as far as that goes, there’s two things I want to bring up. First of all, when you’re talking about chemistry, the amount of possible chemicals you could create, even psychedelic chemicals, even five H-2A agonists, psychedelics or triple means or whatever the combinations you could create approach infinity. Right. We’re talking about like the number of stars in the galaxy. So. Well, it’s very impressive that Jason and Company have created 150 plus psychedelics. That’s nothing. You know, there’s plenty of room, I think, for other people to play if they decide to play. Now, the issue, obviously, is that there will be ones that are better than others and that companies or another company might have control over those. How that will be mediated in patent disputes, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve talked to companies who say, well, we’re going to patent our drugs, but then we’re going to release that patents so that everyone can use this. At this point, you have to take arguments like that in good faith.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: One aspect in all of this that’s not always considered is the black market for drugs. In theory, once the drug is created, any chemists with the know how can create their own version of the drug and then sell it on the street.

Speaker 3: When a patent gets published. That is like a recipe card to an underground chemist, right? Anyone who makes drugs in bunkers or barns or basement and has been doing it for decades can look at that recipe and say, Hey, I’ve created whatever the drug had made up before age to 45 or whatever. And I know how to make it though. And that can now become an underground drug or a street drug, if you want to call it that. People who work in these labs in this field have already seen drugs that they’ve synthesized enter the black markets, whether through China and Hungary, places like that.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: As these drugs get researched and connected with big pharma, etc., it’s not like the underground market in marijuana has gone the way. It’s actually just gotten more complex. I wonder, what do you see happening in the underground market connected with these drugs?

Speaker 3: I don’t have numbers on that except for sort of studies I’ve seen about the increase in usages of drugs like psilocybin, LSD. And where are people getting psilocybin in LSD if the use is increasing? They’re not going to Johns Hopkins and saying, give me some psilocybin, you know. They’re they’re buying them at parking lots, in concerts or in people’s apartments or the same places where people have conducted these transactions for decades. So, yeah, I mean, I think that, a, the seriousness that the psychedelic renaissance has afforded these drugs has created whole new market bases. And I also think that there will be whole new drugs that will enter these marketplaces. You know, so this this idea that the corporate psychedelic world is going to stomp out the underground. I mean, I just don’t really see it happening.

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Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: Thank you so much, John, for joining us.

Speaker 3: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Sonari Glinton, Sonari GLINTON: John Smiley is a freelance writer and researcher who covers psychedelics and the pharmaceutical industry. And that’s it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Jonathan Fisher. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger what next family TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. If you’re a fan of the show, I have a request for you. Become a Slate Plus member. Just head on over to Slate.com, slash. What next? Plus to sign up. And we’ll be back next week with more episodes. I’m Sonari GLINTON, filling in for Lizzie O’Leary. Thank you for listening.