LSD Capitalism Promises a Bad Trip for Us All
Silicon Valley figures like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are getting excited about the growing market in psychedelics. Their rising quasi-medical use provides profit opportunities for a few — but it’ll be a bad trip for the rest of us.
In the last century, humanity expanded its horizons on a scale that our ancestors could not have imagined. The will to know, armed with technology, proved unstoppable. Man sent spacecraft into space and learned how to extract energy from the tiniest particles.
Man also looked inside himself — and sought answers to the most important questions. At the beginning of the century, Sigmund Freud discovered the unconscious. In 1938, Swiss chemist and Sandoz employee Albert Hofmann synthesized the psychedelic LSD-25 from the ergot alkaloid. In 1953, British writer Aldous Huxley took four-tenths of a gram of the hallucinogen mescaline, derived from cactus, under the supervision of psychiatrist Humphry Osmond.
A year later, Huxley wrote an essay about his experience entitled “The Doors of Perception.” And three years later, Osmond coined the word “psychedelic” to describe the religious-mystical state of altered consciousness induced by the ingestion of psychoactive substances. “The term psychedelic . . . can be translated as ‘mind-manifesting’ or ‘mind-expanding,’” Hofmann wrote in his book LSD: My Problem Child.
Thus began the era of psychedelic psychiatry. Osmond began to treat alcoholism with LSD. British psychiatrist Ronald Sandison combined taking LSD with therapy, music, and creativity. In 1955, he opened the world’s first clinic where LSD became the main drug. In 1963, the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center launched Spring Grove, one of the most authoritative experiments in psychedelic therapy, in which Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof gave LSD to cancer patients to help them come to terms with their deaths. Acid was prescribed to treat schizophrenia, sociopathy, and neurosis and given to the military. The scientific research was leaked to the press, after which the general public became aware of the new drug, and Hollywood’s top stars began to be treated with acid for depression.
LSD was set to become the next big thing in psychiatry. During that period, there were over a thousand scientific publications and six scientific conferences on psychedelics, until in 1962 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) imposed a restriction on research using LSD. Acid then spilled out onto the streets, becoming one of the main tools of the hippie counterculture. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs and signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
The law states that psychedelics have no “accepted medical use” and therefore should be classified as the most highly regulated category of controlled substances. As a result, their use in both laboratories and clinical trials has been de facto banned, creating a trap: these drugs are banned because they have no accepted medical use, but neither can researchers study their therapeutic potential, because they are banned. Three United Nations treaties have extended such restrictions to much of the rest of the world.
Yet today, after a half-century-long ban, psychedelics are returning to the market along the same road that marijuana paved twenty years ago. However, unlike marijuana, psychedelics represent an entire class of substances with different effects and enormous potential for change. In the hands of Silicon Valley natives and frenzied technocrats, psychedelics will transform capitalism itself — allowing capital to invade another level of reality.
Nixon’s war on drugs was driven by the worst intentions, targeting black people and the Left. As former presidential domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman explained in 1994:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying?
We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
This so-called war had “devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” the Global Commission on Drug Policy reported in 2011. In the 2000s, the long-term demonization and prohibition of cannabis gave way to dramatic decriminalization. Private capital flooded into the liberated field of opportunities and formed a legal market with many start-ups, in which venture capitalists, celebrities, major financial institutions, and the most ordinary companies that wanted to make some money started investing. There was a period of hype, financialization, and monstrous market bloat where they tried to cure everything, including cancer and coronavirus, with marijuana.
In America, marijuana has finally become part of the mainstream and has become a business as usual. In 2021, legal marijuana sales in the United States alone brought in a record $17.5 billion (illegal sales brought in more than $100 billion), as people began smoking more during lockdowns. The National Cannabis Industry Association expects the market to grow to $41 billion by 2026, comparable to the US craft beer market. American farmers now have the largest cannabis crops, with cannabis displacing even traditional crops in some states, like Maine.
The term “new psychedelic revolution” or “psychedelic renaissance” is used to describe similar processes with respect to psychedelics.
Already in the early 2000s, scientists predicted the return of psychedelics to science. This was facilitated by the softened stance of the FDA, which issues spot approvals for experiments using psychoactive substances every few years. So in the early 1990s, psychopharmacology researcher Rick Strassman unexpectedly received limited approval to study the hallucinogen DMT. Private longitudinal studies that managed to slip through the bureaucratic cracks proved the safety of human studies. In 2013, a book called The Psychedelic Renaissance, by British doctor Ben Sessa, was published with the tagline, “Can psychedelics do for psychiatry what the microscope did for biology and the telescope to astronomy?” In 2014, scientists asked for a complete lifting of the ban on psychoactive substance research. In 2021, the first state grant was awarded to study the effectiveness of psilocybin in treating tobacco addiction.
News of the emergence of a new market has got businesses excited. According to Business Insider, venture capitalists, including PayPal creator Peter Thiel and crypto investor Michael Novogratz, have invested a combined $139.8 million in psychedelics over several years. A beautifully illustrated infographic was released for investors in fall 2021 that clearly shows the current state of the market. Fortune writes:
Once a risky investment, the cannabis industry has established itself as one of the fastest-growing investment opportunities on the planet, with the sector outperforming the broader market already this year.
For the first time, we are seeing a similar trajectory emerge for the psychedelic industry. Smart capital is moving in to take advantage of the opportunity to invest in the next frontier.
Despite being an industry in its early stages, the potential for psychedelic health care is growing, with the market projected to reach $10.75 billion by 2027.
One market research agency goes further, increasing that figure to $69.7 billion.
Indeed, psychedelics represent a much larger market capacity than marijuana, as they are a whole class of different substances rather than a single entheogenic plant. The agency’s March 2021 report segments the psychedelic market by substances: the hallucinogens LSD and psilocybin (mushrooms), ibogaine (iboga root extract), the empathogen MDMA (part of ecstasy), the dissociatives ketamine and DMT. They are also earmarked for medical use, for everything from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to Alzheimer’s disease and alcoholism.
Depression offers a particular profit opportunity for psychedelic companies. According to the World Health Organization, depression affects 3.8 percent of humanity, and the two most common mental disorders, depression and anxiety, are responsible for $1 trillion in damage to the world economy. The market for antidepressants alone is $15.6 billion. Yet many of the existing remedies on the market work little better than placebos or don’t work at all.
This same report identifies four companies as key players in the market: Numinus Wellness (market capitalization $144 million); Mind Medicine Inc., or MindMed ($1.3 billion); COMPASS Pathways ($1.4 billion); and Johnson & Johnson ($428 billion). Two of the companies are based in Canada, because regulatory policy toward psychedelic research is much more lenient there.
Numinus Wellness is a Canadian company founded in 1964, making it the oldest on the psychedelic market. Its name comes from “numinous,” a term designating the intense, religious experience of a mysterious and terrifying divine presence. Numinus is the only company that has partner status with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Numinus develops psychotherapeutic practices using psychedelics, particularly the treatment of depression with ketamine, and is licensed to extract psilocybin from mushrooms as well as with the right to purchase MDMA, DMT, mescaline, and marijuana.
Mind Medicine is a Canadian firm founded in 2019 by entrepreneur Jamon A. Rahn, who encountered microdosing in Silicon Valley. MindMed went public in October 2020, becoming the first public company among the competitors in this market. MindMed is developing a drug for opioid addiction based on an 18-MC molecule derived from ibogaine as well as a technique for treating anxiety with LSD microdosing, and has received approval to test MDMA and DMT.
COMPASS Pathways is a British company founded in 2016 by Russian physician Ekaterina Malievskaya and her husband. Their son developed OCD and depression. A course of antidepressants didn’t help, so Malievskaya became interested in psilocybin. COMPASS patented a formula for synthetic psilocybin, COMP360, in tablets and a way to conduct a psilocybin therapy session to treat depression.
Then there’s the United States’ very own Johnson & Johnson, founded in 1886. This Big Pharma giant marked its presence on the psychedelic market in an original way. In 2019, J&J launched Spravato (Ketanest), a nasal spray whose main active ingredient is the ketamine isomer esketamine. The nasal spray is supposed to help with resistant depression and suicidal thoughts. Online, it costs $960 for three 28 milligram tubes.
This spray is, however, exceptional. There are more than fifty companies operating on the psychedelic market, two-thirds of them public, but they have never brought a single full-fledged product to market. The main obstacle is regulatory restrictions. The closest to the finish line is MDMA, which is now undergoing the third and final phase of clinical trials. In the event of a positive outcome, the Western world will have a new cure for post-traumatic stress disorder.
This business interest in psychoactive substances is not just some random whim of the markets. Rather, it is deeply rooted in history and the very origins of capital.
Spice Must Flow
At the heart of the world market system is the trade in arms, slaves, and drugs, argued anthropologist David Graeber. In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber wrote:
The last refers mostly to soft drugs, of course, like coffee, tea, and the sugar to put in them, and tobacco, but distilled liquor first appears at this stage of human history as well, and as we all know, Europeans had no compunctions about aggressively marketing opium in China as a way of finally putting an end to the need to export bullion.
In this sense, the creation of a legal market for psychedelics is a realization of a deep-rooted need of capital, which has historically gravitated toward this particular commodity. Like spices, drugs are conveniently transported and packaged, and with low production costs, both the size of the market and profitability are gigantic.
The return of psychedelics to the legal market in the twenty-first century can easily be explained through the mechanism of “recuperation” identified by the Situationists in the 1960s: capitalism appropriates protest ideas and turns them into commodities. And if hippies took LSD to revolt against the system, now workers are driven to microdose to work better for the system — to create and perform, to come up with a product that allows you to become a business owner and move into the class of successful people. Like Steve Jobs, who took acid in the 1970s and then founded Apple, today boasting a market capitalization of $2.47 trillion.
These days, Silicon Valley residents in search of inspiration take drugs at Burning Man in the Nevada desert, drink ayahuasca in the jungle, and listen to the most popular podcast in the world, Joe Rogan’s show about psychedelics. It was at Rogan’s house that the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, smoked a joint and Mike Tyson was stoned on psilocybe. These trends have even reached Russia in the form of the fly agaric trend and TV star Victoria Bonya, who talked about her experience using DMT on her Instagram.
Where are these Atlases, captains of industry, bold visionaries leading humanity? Obviously, psychiatry alone will not satiate business in general.
In his 2019 book The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, historian and global drug policy expert David Courtright articulated the concept of limbic capitalism. It is a technologically advanced but socially backward business system in which global industries encourage overconsumption and create addiction. As the author told Vox,
Limbic capitalism is just my shorthand for global industries that basically encourage excessive consumption and even addiction. In fact, you could make that even stronger and say not only do they encourage it but now they’ve reached the point where they’re actually designing it.
The limbic area of the brain deals with pleasure, motivation, long-term memory, and other functions crucial to survival.
“You couldn’t live without your limbic system and you couldn’t reproduce without it, and that’s why it has evolved. And yet that same system is now susceptible to hijacking by corporate interests in a way that actually works against your long-term survival prospects,” Courtright stressed.
Concerns about the exploitation of psychedelics by business are so great that Rick Doblin, the founder and director of MAPS — the most respected research organization in the field of psychoactive substances — had to publicly defend COMPASS Pathways and the interests of business itself. As he put it:
The other concern you have with for-profit development is this sort of critique of capitalism, that it’s all about profit maximization and that it doesn’t take into account human needs — it’s all about making money. I think that’s not the case. From all that I know about Compass and what they’re trying to do, I think they have both financial and humanitarian motives. . . . So I think we’re in a terrific situation . . . I think we all have to give each other the benefit of the doubt and just watch what people do and watch what happens.
It would thus seem that it was “bad” businessmen who traded in slaves, guns, and drugs, rather than a common market logic that drove them to do it. There are good businessmen who invent smartphones and launch spaceships, right? So how do you make sure that the psychedelic industry will be run by good businessmen and not by bad ones? Rick Doblin has good reason to stick to this position, however: MAPS, founded in 1986, exists solely on donations from businesses, and if he began to question the ethics of psychedelic companies, it’s easy to imagine what would happen to investment in his organization.
But let’s help Doblin and imagine what would happen if the “bad” businessmen were suddenly at the helm of the psychedelic revolution — remembering that there is no crime capital would not commit for the sake of 300 percent profits.
With the emergence of a legal market for psychedelics, capital will invade human consciousness to a depth unimaginable even to the evilest geniuses at Facebook, seeking to link the production of dopamine in the consumer’s brain to the number of push notifications. The proximity of the psychedelic industry to Silicon Valley tech giants — and the influx of capital from there — would make this penetration so rapid that the next decade would forever go down in history as the “psychedelic twenties.”
Psychedelics will rediscover the very essence of capital as self-growing value. The infernal idea of infinite growth will transcend even the boundaries of material reality, colonizing the space on the other side of the door of perception. Already in 2016, the DMTx program was launched, training teams of volunteer psychonauts to map hyperspace and encounter its intelligent alien inhabitants, extraterrestrial entities, spirits, or machine elves. This is real scientific research being conducted right now.
For thousands of years, psychedelics have filled the gap between Adam’s finger and the finger of the creator god in Michelangelo’s fresco. Psychedelic capitalism will turn the finger of the first man into the forefinger of Midas — with a well-known end.