Why I Wanted To Build A Psychedelic Company
Psychedelics are going through a major cultural shift. This mainstream re-emergence largely centres around their potential to heal those who are afflicted with various mental health conditions like PTSD, depression and anxiety. This is tremendously exciting and it’s clear that psychedelics have so much potential to mitigate suffering. What’s also clear is that there’s a lot more to these substances than fixing disorders. They can (and historically have been) used for the betterment of the well, for transformation, elevation and creating profound life changing experiences.
On the back of this incredible societal shift, we’re building a company dedicated to access. We believe in the right to cognitive liberty and everyone, sick or well, should be able to use psychedelics and other ethnobotanicals without fighting the law. That’s the future we’re working towards every day at Gwella, and my journey started with my own experiences with psychedelics.
Through the looking Glass
In the early 2000s, psilocybin (magic) mushrooms and other entheogens were (briefly) legal in the UK, so I had the opportunity to try them for the first time at the age of 17. We’d walk into a store and buy them in small containers of around 5 grams, which in hindsight was a significant (and slightly irresponsible) dose for beginners, producing trips of 7–8 hours. A heroic dose, as McKenna coined it. I remember my first experience vividly. Around the hour mark, I felt a rush of euphoria, and a frantic urge to share my experience with others right then and there. I thought, “the people need to know!”, as if I was the first intrepid explorer to discover the sensation. My trips always had ups and downs; plenty of unpleasant moments/sensations to match the pleasant, but always valuable in hindsight.
I became a bit of a psychonaut, using Erowid as my guide. I tried everything from Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds, Salvia and MDMA. The latter, in particular, opened me up to states of mind that I could never have imagined; sublime feelings of empathy, and a full awareness devoid of any insecurity, fear, and self-consciousness.
These experiences kicked off a lifelong fascination with the transformational potential of psychedelics, and were in part why I became a libertarian on drugs and a staunch advocate for cognitive liberty from an early age.
Psychedelics have always been a part of the human story
After my own experiences, I spent years reading up on the cultural, historical and scientific literature around these substances. For millennia, people have used psychedelics for all sorts of purposes. A growing body of evidence suggests the ancient Greeks drank the kykeon in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Ancient Indians used soma in the Vedic tradition. Indigenous cultures in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil use ayahuasca to this day. All over the world, various societies and groups have used plant medicines to access visionary states. Unfortunately in the west, when Christianity took hold, this all went underground.
That is, until 1957, when Gordon Wasson (vice president of JP Morgan and amateur mycologist) travelled to Oaxaca and (re-)discovered the magic mushroom. Wasson’s expose on the topic was featured on the front page of Life magazine, and these substances, psychedelics, started to re-enter and re-emerge in Western consciousness.
The 1960s was a time of monumental cultural change, and LSD and psychedelic experimentation was everywhere. In many people’s eyes, it got a bit out of hand. This awakening was often linked to the hippie anti-war rhetoric, and turned into protests — and the American government wasn’t at all comfortable with this.
Richard Nixon kicked off the War on Drugs in 1971, shutting down all research, and making these substances completely illegal and inaccessible across the board. The War on Drugs has been a disaster, and continues to affect society today. Drugs of all kinds were seen as something for criminals, hippies, and those who contribute nothing to society. But now, we’re finally seeing that perception shift, and the laws with it.
The psychedelics industry today
The War on Drugs is starting to draw to a close (although the effects on racism, the justice system, and societal perception will likely continue for decades). As part of this zeitgeist shift, psychedelics are re-emerging in the mainstream and undergoing an exciting renaissance.
In 2006, after several years of research, academics from Johns Hopkins University published a landmark paper titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance”. Their research consisted of a double-blind study evaluating “the acute and longer-term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin relative to a comparison compound.” They found that psilocybin can result in meaningful and spiritually significant experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical encounters.
Since this major scientific foray into the potential of psychedelics, there’s been a continuous growth of academic and medical interest in these substances. Studies indicate that MDMA can treat depression, ketamine has potential for PTSD, amongst many others. And at the same time, cannabis has been legalized in many countries.
At last, substances that institutions like the US government deemed either useless or dangerous are now coming into our consciousness as legitimate. The academics who were once snickered at are now being interviewed by the New York Times and sitting on corporate boards of billion dollar companies. Society at large is realizing that psychedelics can be useful, healing, and potentially extremely profitable.
At the same time, the world is going through a mental health crisis: the number of people prescribed antidepressants increases every year, but rates of diagnosis aren’t decreasing. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that psychedelics are just as effective as SSRIs for treating depression. This is just one area of potential, and offers new hope for people suffering from a range of treatment-resistant conditions. For further reading on all the incredible research, check out this piece by Rosalind McAlpine, which is a fantastic primer.
It’s all very exciting. There are so many new psychedelic-based treatment options and medical applications that will help to mitigate suffering. And that’s really just the thin end of the wedge; these substances can do so much more than fix disorders. People didn’t go to Eleusis to fix a cluster headache. They went to gain new insights into the nature of mind and consciousness, and to discover and reconnect with something bigger — something sacred and transcendental. They went to transform.
The betterment of the well
Psychedelics can be used for more than treating the sick; ‘healthy’ people can also gain so much from them. Whether that’s through occasional marco-dosing or regular micro-dosing. Psychedelics can be used to feel connected to others, examine our own psyches, get more creative, and grow as individuals. Of course, that’s well known in the culture, and the scientific literature.
MAPS recently received a grant of appeal where for the first time people considered “healthy” would be legally able to use psychedelic medicines. This could open the door to a future where they can be legally used for couples therapy, individual personal growth sessions, and rites of passage.
Although the science is still out on the efficacy, micro-dosing is already practiced by a vast number of people around the world as a kind of nootropic regimen; to enhance mood, focus, creativity and general wellness. According to this study, 1in 5 young people in London microdosed throughout lockdown. I’m convinced we’ll see a future where these products are sold OTC by brands in a vast array of research backed formulation stacks. And I think that future is coming faster than most anticipate.
As the psychedelic industry began to (re-)emerge, I noticed very few companies were talking about this end of the spectrum— biotech and drug development for treatment of specific disorders is the dominant narrative and where most of the capital has been deployed. That’s largely because the path to market is a bit more opaque outside of the drug development and clinical framework. The same was true in the cannabis industry. Medicalization is a solid first step to regulatory acceptance and cultural normalization. You have to prove a substance has medical potential/utility before regulators are comfortable with it.
Edge case medical exemptions for usage come first, followed by ever increasing liberalization and access. As a society we suffer from a kind of puritanical hangover; generally we’re okay with drugs that fix but less so with drugs that create, or are *clutches pearls* simply fun to use.
This was a big driving force in creating Gwella: to build a company that focuses on what we call the ‘plus six’, not the ‘minus six’. A company that helps people access these experiences to elevate, improve and optimize, not just fix and cure. And access these things not in 3 or 5 years time, as they become available via the medical framework, but today. We’re dedicated to providing the products, tools, and resources to enable responsible and intentional usage now.
There were a key reasons I wanted to work on this mission…
1. It’s our right
In my opinion, psychedelics don’t need to be proven to be effective medicine for us to have safe access to it. It’s almost besides the point; we all have a right to alter our own consciousness. Cognitive liberty is our birthright.
2. The world would be a better place if more people had access to these experiences
I truly believe that the world would be a better place if more people had the means to access psychedelics and have these experiences. Think about some of the big issues we struggle with as a society today. Millions, if not billions of people, struggle with feelings of alienation, isolation, despair and disconnection. This often manifests as feelings of anger, deep social divides, and even violence. In the political space, where the rise of polarisation and tribalism has led many of us to become increasingly concerned about the breakdown of common ground and the ability for societies to feel a shared sense of identity and purpose.
Psychedelics have the potential for re-establishing and creating deep connections both between people, and between humans and the ecosystems they inhabit. Psychedelics can help us appreciate life, nature, and feel interconnected with the universe. They can enhance “biophilia”, a term popularized by the biologist E.O. Wilson in the 1980s, referring to “our human tendency to seek connection to nature and appreciate other forms of life”. These feelings have been described again and again in experience reports, research surveys, academic studies, and accounts of early psychedelic experiences.
I think these substances can be a healing catalyst for our communities, our planet, and ourselves. And I think normalizing and encouraging psychedelics has the potential to help us get closer to eudaimonia — a Greek word that relates to human flourishing, wellbeing, and a state of blessedness. It’s likely that society as a whole would be less ego-driven, better connected, and more compassionate and empathetic.
They are obviously by no means a panacea to all of our problems. In the case of depression for example, we need to consider the economic, cultural, and epistemic forces that are converging to make people depressed.There is no quick fix here, psychedelics or otherwise. Meaningful social connections, community spaces, nature, job security, profundity are all needed for us to be healthy in body and mind.
But when psychedelics were prohibited in many countries, years of research into their potential came to a sudden halt. It makes us wonder: what would it be like if we felt a deeper connection to each other, to nature, to our fellow sentient beings in the animal kingdom, and the earth itself?
Would the ecological literacy of our species have developed differently had these tools been safeguarded rather than outlawed? What might have been lost? It’s just so exciting to think about what the potential is of integrating them back into our society.
3. Concerns about corporate capture
A world where psychedelics are controlled by a few big pharmaceutical companies and administered solely by gatekeepers in a hyper-medicalized framework is to be avoided at all costs. We wanted to build a company that advocates for access, cognitive liberty, and a multidisciplinary approach to usage as decriminalization and legalization rolls out.
It’s so early in the psychedelic renaissance, and yet we’re already seeing sweeping patent applications, high prices, and legal actions that may limit people from being able to afford the treatments they should have access to. It’s a lucrative space, and some companies are seeking to control and own as many aspects of psychedelic medicine as they can.
In his article “Psychedelics At A Crossroads: We Need Constructive Not Extractive Capital”, activist and spokesperson David Bronner urges us to work towards an ethical psychedelics industry. “Increasingly,” Bronner says, “we are seeing the effects of the negative externalities of this industry — a massive carbon footprint, harm and disruption to the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, and the proliferation of racial inequity and injustice, to name a few.”
You only have to look at the cannabis industry to see how things could go sideways. Those who built the industry did not really benefit from its legalization. Or, their benefits certainly didn’t come close to those of the political insiders, capital markets executives and speculators who were involved.
4. A “hyper-medicalized” approach could lead to less access not more
Hyper-medicalized = medicalized to the point of exclusion of all other modalities.
And let me be clear; I deeply admire the important work that the majority of companies in this space are focusing on through clinical psychedelic applications. But there are some dangers in putting all eggs in the medicalization basket.
The danger is that we end up with a “right way” to use psychedelics, which is dominated (and monetized) by a few interests. Frameworks developed for “proper use” would demarcate what counts as “abuse” and enable those with newly sanctioned access to psychedelics to condemn “illicit” use (i.e. use outside of their control).
These new gatekeepers may disregard or even hinder, rather than help, decriminalization and legalization efforts. The truth is that corporations that want to turn them into drug products to be sold by pharmaceutical companies actually have an economic interest in limiting democratization of psychedelics.
Atai admits non-profits like MAPS and Usona, who give away their therapy protocols and psilocybin recipes for free, could cut into their profits. They note..
“we may also face competition from 501(c)(3) non-profit medical research organizations, including the Usona Institute and MAPS [which] may be willing to provide products at cost or for free which could significantly disrupt the potential market for our products.”
We need to ensure regulators (and the public) engage more deeply with an open-ended plurality of safe ways of using psychedelics. What is often overlooked in these discussions is how psychedelics are already powerful tools for many — used by millions of people responsibly around the world in a variety of contexts. In fact, many of the CEOS in the space claim psychedelics changed their lives and helped them heal. What does that mean? They were able to access and safely use these substances in a non-medical setting to produce powerful life changing results. All I’m saying is let’s keep that ladder down and the door open.
Where Gwella fits in
I’m excited about the emerging psychedelics industry, but I do foresee some potential issues; the sole focus on medicalization, abuse of power, IP land grabs, and lack of accessibility.
We created Gwella with the goal of improving access and helping people re-contextualize and re-affirm psychedelics not just as drugs to fix, but as a tool to create. If used responsibly, psychedelics can facilitate healing, creativity, presence, awareness, and interconnectedness.
At Gwella, we take our values of community, nature, and responsible stewardship to heart. This means:
1. Open access
Above all else, we want to increase access. Approaches that seek to stifle competition or create winner-take-all outcomes are antithetical to realizing the transformational potential of psychedelics and mushrooms as a whole.
We firmly believe psychedelics should not be dominated by a few large pharma players and we work every day to avoid such a future.
3. Cognitive liberty
On a profound existential level, the self-direction coming from our mind, our awareness, our consciousness is what makes us human. We believe interference with our right to our own awareness constitutes a violation of our humanity.
Countless lives have been irreversibly disrupted by the War on Drugs and its targeted criminalization. We work to foster a safe space for people to explore their relationship with psychedelics, free from judgement and persecution.
5. Historical Acknowledgement
We value ancient, Indigenous and activist stewardship. We aim to honour and celebrate the efforts of those who have carried the torch before us.
With the shifting societal perception of drugs, we can create a unique, multidisciplinary, and groundbreaking model of transformation. To get there, there needs to be a mix of private, for-profit, and not-for-profit psychedelic companies. There also needs to be a mix of access points, such as clinics, OTC products, guides and retreats, to suit all needs.
We need to make sure the industry is inclusive, accessible, and is conscious of the stewardship by various cultures and many activists who are now in jail because of their early work in this field. In the wake of their courage we all swim.
Im grateful to be on this journey at Gwella with such an amazing team, partners and investors. It will take a lot, but one day, I hope to see total acceptance, so people will have the opportunity to explore psychedelics without having to fight the law (or monopolistic gatekeepers) to do it.