Big Money Is Taking Over MDMA-Assisted Therapy

Nonprofit MAPS promised to bring therapeutic MDMA to market on the back of philanthropic donations. But then it morphed into a for-profit concern — and with FDA approval looming, Big Pharma is trying to get in on the act.

Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) president Rick Doblin speaks at the Concordia Annual Summit on September 18, 2023, in New York City. (John Lamparski / Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

It was 1986, at the height of the war on drugs, when a young lobbyist, psychonaut, and MDMA evangelist, Rick Doblin, founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in San Jose, California. The organization was created with the intention of making a legal, not-for-profit medicine of MDMA, which had been controversially banned the year before to “avoid imminent hazard to the public safety.”

It was a lofty, perhaps even revolutionary, ambition: bring a drug that sparks empathic feelings of love and openness to the mainstream, even as it was being attacked by the authorities. (An archived Department of Justice webpage lists trumped-up risks of taking the “hug drug,” including “involuntary teeth clenching,” hyperthermia, and kidney failure.) Fast forward to 2024, and MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients is on the brink of approval in the United States and could be green-lighted in August. Official blessing for further medical conditions will surely beckon. Perhaps MDMA — a precursor to an antihemorrhagic created in 1914 whose psychedelic effects were discovered in 1976 before rave culture took it global — may even be legalized for recreational purposes one day.

But the dazzling, even miraculous, achievement has come with an eleventh-hour cost of compromise.

Philanthropic Endeavor

To fund its efforts to bring MDMA therapy to market, MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) — MAPS’ pharma subsidiary, which bifurcated in 2014 but did not accept investment in return for equity and could not secure the $70 million required to move forward — has morphed into the for-profit Lykos Therapeutics. Its first Series A funding round was oversubscribed and brought in the desired $100 million, not far off from the $140 million the nonprofit MAPS raised in donations in thirty-seven years.

“MAPS PBC was running out of runway rapidly and getting close to being in a position where they wouldn’t have the funding to get across the finish line — which after decades of work seemed almost incomprehensible,” Graham Pechenik, a patent attorney and founder of Calyx Law, which specializes in psychedelics intellectual property, tells Jacobin. “They had the choice of either running out of money and waiting for a rescue, or taking money on their own terms by working with Helena Special Investments and getting funded by more conscious capitalists.”

The move nonetheless inspired jokes — often indistinguishable from broadsides. “The golden beacon of hope that was once a noncorporate psychedelic leader has definitively folded into a business-as-usual pharmaceutical conglomerate driven by shareholder capitalism,” comedian Dennis Walker riffed. “The roots have become the suits.” In one meme posted by the newsletter Tricycle Day, two wolves face each other. One says, “one raises money by asking for philanthropic donations,” while its counterpart replies, “the other raises money by promising shareholder returns.”

The author Jules Evans posted on Twitter/X: “Most of the private shareholders in Lykos are the same people who gave philanthropic funding to MAPS, so [it] doesn’t look like they’re outraged at the failure of the not-for-profit mission. They’re not anti-capitalists or even left wing, they’re mainly Silicon Valley VCs [venture capitalists].” Even one small-time donor, who gave about $10,000 to MAPS PBC, told me he was unconcerned. “They’ve done great work and anything they do to advance their cause should be celebrated,” he said. “I gave with charitable intent and got my tax dedication for it. I’m glad they got the money rather than the IRS.”

FDA Approval

In the notoriously rigid pharmaceutical system, it was always unlikely that a new drug without a research base could be taken through the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) to market by a nonprofit with an “anti-patent” strategy. Still, they almost did it. (The average cost is about $1 billion, but it has been done for as little as $314 million). “We’re a victim of our own success,” Doblin told the Associated Press this month, alluding to how there are now many other options for prospective pro-psychedelics donors to invest their money. Previously, donations to MAPS (its donors include GOP supporter Rebekah Mercer, and the hedge fund manager and New York Mets owner Steven Cohen’s foundation) were the only game in town.

“It’s heartbreaking because I had hoped to go the whole way with philanthropy, but I was unable to raise the mega-millions to do that,” added Doblin. For decades, he and his colleagues were told that their dream was “outrageously unattainable,” according to MAPS’s director of communications Betty Aldworth. She told DoubleBlind last week that she could “count on one hand the number of drugs that are available that were brought to market by a nonprofit. . . . We had a beautiful vision that didn’t exactly come to fruition in the way that we imagined it.” Speaking to Jacobin, Aldworth says that any reformer should hope to experience an improving landscape that requires shifts in strategy. “As we respond to external forces, we have held our mission — to develop medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana — at the center of our work and will continue to do so,” she says.

“A lot has changed since 1986,” Josh Hardman, editor of platform Psychedelic Alpha, tells Jacobin. MAPS has been advised by the likes of Victoria Hale and other leaders in the small field of nonprofit drug and medical device development — a field that unfortunately only has a few successes to point to thus far. “Perhaps, in hindsight, [there] was some naivety, or overoptimism, that they could do it with MDMA, which is obviously way more complex than the average drug that needs to be developed. I really don’t think Rick meant any malice or wrongdoing, but I can see why some people are pissed off.”

One could easily riff here on whether Doblin and his colleagues were disconnected from the brutal reality of modern-day business because they were tripping too often (and he did reveal to Joe Rogan that he and some of them would smoke cannabis while finalizing scientific papers). But it is seemingly this far out überidealism that caused him to found MAPS, and for many to flock to the cause — some thirteen thousand people attended the organization’s conference last year. Naturally, when enough people campaign for something, it can lead it to happen.

Why Donate When I Could Invest?

However, the failure of the original bellicose, countercultural wave of psychedelia — at least in part because the establishment felt threatened — was always instructive. “The people doing this research now want to be mainstream,” Doblin told Boston Magazine. “During the ’60s, the researchers also wanted that, but the cultural use was all about tearing down the system.”

This time around, something else has catapulted “the love drug” to the brink of approval. This crucial factor — thanks to two advanced-stage MDMA-assisted therapy trials for PTSD, designed, funded, and operated by MAPS — is the data that suggest it could be a cure for the condition.

This evidence is a trojan horse for a class of drugs long dismissed variously as dangerous, useless, and madness inducing (ironically, not unlike alcohol). “We’ve shifted attitudes at the regulatory agencies, we’ve changed public opinion, which has permitted now the rise of the for-profit companies,” Doblin said in 2021, noting how the FDA no longer blocks research with psychedelics, and that the research has led to “fundamental shifts” in understanding how to treat devastating mental health conditions.

And lo, now that MAPS and a few others have done the hard work — and approval appears inevitable with swathes of the public onboard with the so-called shroom boom — money is circling. January saw the second-highest amount of investment into psychedelics in a single month to date, and there is reported interest from the venture capital arm of one of Abu Dhabi’s richest sovereign investors and from Singapore’s $300 billion fund, Temasek.

“There’s a lot of biotech investors and big pharmaceutical companies sitting on the sidelines,” a cofounder of a psychedelics venture capital fund told the Financial Times this month. “They want to see what the commercial rollout looks like.” Another investor from Helena, which led the Lykos funding round, said, “You don’t have to be a tie-dye wearing investor to think of the psychedelic space as interesting,” Though, even to be associated with psychedelics, for years one did have to be prepared to be dismissed as a hippy loon.

Whether the new arrivals on the scene will also pursue the open science, public benefit, anti-patent approach long held sacrosanct by MAPS (despite claims of its subsidiary inching towards adopting classic for-profit tactics in recent years) is a question that has mostly already been answered. But, as MAPS has found, at least in today’s late-capitalist epoch, funding is more easily gathered when investors get something more in return than satisfaction in helping transform the West’s pitiful mental healthcare system. “A lot of former philanthropists told me, ‘Why would I donate when I can invest?’” says Hardman.

Clearly, MDMA pills will be big business. Along with other psychedelics such as psilocybin, they could feasibly oust the antidepressants that many millions take daily. Lykos is set to enjoy five years of exclusively providing MDMA-assisted therapy that could bring in as much as $35 million in profits, from treatments that — if the US $16,000 price tag in Australia is anything to go by — look destined only for the deep-pocketed until insurance schemes offer coverage.

Meanwhile, MAPS will turn its attention to opening the floodgates for ibogaine, an extract of an African psychedelic that can interrupt drug withdrawal symptoms. MAPS, which raised eyebrows recently when it considered investing some of its donations into the for-profit company Numinus Wellness in order to make gains, hopes to raise over $80 million over four years to secure FDA approval. “We propose to do so in a truly open science manner,” Doblin said in a letter last month, “without seeking patents, and with the intention of immediately making the drug generic.”

Whether the economic realities of fundraising in the decade MAPS is calling “the psychedelic ’20s” will come to bite again, they will never know if they don’t take the trip. When you take MDMA, Doblin said back in 1985, “You move into the universal heartbeat of shared humanity.”