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Psychedelics Could Become Extractive Capitalism—Unless We Hold Stakeholders Accountable

Reciprocity with Indigenous stewards of plant medicine is one way to start.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Published on
Updated September 15, 2022

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, famously spoke about “The Tragedy of The Horizon.” Our investment timelines are too short to understand that a warmer, more unstable planet threatens plants, animals, fungi, and humans. This is not only a moral tragedy but also shakes our long-term financial stability. 

There’s a corollary: Our investment strategies are often too close to us in cultural space. Psychedelic investors like me have an opportunity unique in our lifetimes: to create new spaces for deep, lasting healing of mind, soul, and society. 

As psychedelic firms skyrocket in market cap, quick cashouts are extracting billions of dollars in value—with no benefit to society. We’re blind to the risks that our businesses might be slighting cultures beyond our horizon—and missing opportunities to instead collaborate with them and learn from each other.

As I’ll address in this article, strong profit margins give us a chance to go beyond enriching ourselves. Particularly, we can give back to Indigenous tribes beyond our horizons, those who pioneered psychedelic medicines like iboga, ayahuasca, and mescaline. Their ancient practices provide model frameworks of set, setting, integration, and spirituality that help optimize the psychedelic experience. Reciprocity is a natural and moral law. 

Among the shamans of the Peruvian Andes, they have a word, “ayni,” translated as “sacred reciprocity.” Ayni is not about scorekeeping, but about keeping track. Ayni says we should partner. Give without knowing how we’ll benefit. Psychedelic companies should practice “ayni.” If we take without giving, ayni teaches, we hurt ourselves and can become sick. If we find balance, we can become healthy. 

I’ve questioned the incentives of those investing in the psychedelic space, weighing attention paid to Indigenous reciprocity, vis-à-vis financial motivations to make a quick exit. These exits are ultimately extractive, and raise the cost of treatments, rendering them inaccessible to those already struggling under a system that perpetuates unjust paradigms of class, race, and privilege. In the latter case, healing becomes an unfortunate afterthought, despite the message of a company’s PR. 

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If healing—both individual and collective—is truly the goal, then might I suggest starting with a specific guidepost: the international treaties already set up that require partnership with Indigenous tribes.

Read: Ibogaine and Iboga: Traditional Use, Conservation, and Ethical Considerations

Iboga & Ibogaine: Healing the American Opioid Crisis, but Damaging to African Tribes

Let’s start with the Nagoya Protocol. Signed in 2010 in Japan, Nagoya is an extension of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which protects the world’s plants and animals. Nagoya safeguards the world’s genetic resources and the livelihoods of the people who discovered them. With Nagoya, governments establish protections and value the contributions of the people who have been husbanding plants and animals, whether for psychedelics or agriculture. 

Each country sets up their own rules for Nagoya implementation. Broadly, the parties from the two countries reach “mutually agreed terms, including the benefits they might share. Such benefits might be monetary or non-monetary, such as capacity building or information.” Ideally, a partnership develops as Westerners negotiate with the tribes on what feels fair and equitable. 

For example: pharma company HG&H developed an antidepressant, Zembrin, from a plant known to the San of Southern Africa. Following Nagoya, HG&H entered into a formal agreement to share benefits from the drug with a San nonprofit. 

I’ve been a participant in the psychedelic ecosystem for over a decade. I’ve worked with iboga ceremonially, and it changed my life by significantly reducing my anxiety. I and my company, RampRate, have supported addiction and health sciences, done analysis and growth strategies, and are now investing in the psychedelic industry. From what I’ve observed, psychedelic companies by and large ignore the Nagoya Protocol. 

Most European and Asian countries have signed on to Nagoya. The United States and Canada haven’t. It’s past time for that to change. Psychedelic investors in North America should tell our representatives to sign Nagoya and commit to its enforcement. European companies are subject to Nagoya.  

The spirit of Nagoya means that any company developing ayahuasca needs to partner with tribes in the Amazon, such as the Shipibo. Companies working on mescaline need to partner with Native Americans of the Southwest. Those developing iboga-based medicines need to partner with the tribes of Gabon. 

Yet, of the seven biggest companies developing ibogaine as a medicine, from MindMed to Atai to Universal Ibogaine, none have publicly made any mention of following Nagoya, according to Dr. Joseph Barsuglia, a psychedelic researcher and psychologist who served as CEO of Crossroads Treatment Center in Mexico, which uses iboga, and who gave a recent presentation to the Los Angeles Medicinal Psychedelics Society. Westerners need Gabonese knowledge of iboga use, Barsuglia said. 

“Often murdered for centuries for their practices, driving them deeper into the jungle, now all of a sudden the colonizers want their secrets, seek to commodify their plants, and cut them and their ecosystems out of the equation,” Dr. Barsuglia said. 

Gabon was the first country in the world to sign the Nagoya Protocol. European Ibogaine companies that fail to partner with Gabonese lineage holders run afoul of Nagoya. Yann Guignon, founder of Blessings of the Forest, an organization developing alternatives to the exploitation of iboga, said in an interview that the government of Gabon could someday charge ibogaine companies with biopiracy and intellectual property theft. “We know what they’ve done, and we will come for them soon,” Guignon said. 

In contrast to many ibogaine companies, Blessings of the Forest is an example of doing things right. They’re investing in community projects including permaculture, beekeeping, animal and fish farming, traditional crafts, music production and ecotourism—including iboga Bwiti initiation ceremonies, so Gabonese people can share this plant-based form of wealth and wellness with us Westerners. 

Following Nagoya would create ethical, sustainable psychedelic companies that build a bridge of reciprocity and respect. “The possibility is enormous if people actually truly care,” said David Nassim, co-director of Blessings of the Forest

History gives us a perfect example of where ignoring indigenous wisdom on medicine and neglecting to partner with folks beyond the horizon can lead us: tobacco. Natives smoked ceremoniously and occasionally, not more than once a month. They puffed to heal and connect with Nature. The Spanish had other ideas. Colonists bogarted the genetic resources of tobacco, churned out cigarettes by the billions, and gave nothing back to the tribes, which was cruel to the Indians and unhealthy for Westerners. We chucked the ceremony. We have no container, no set and setting. Instead of monthly peace pipes, we smoke like chimneys. Perhaps 100 million people have died from tobacco. My mom died of cancer. 

Let’s say the Spanish had encountered tobacco just this past decade. Nagoya would mandate mutual agreed terms between the Spanish and the Indians. The intellectual property for the genetics of Nicotiana rustica would be assigned to the Cree, Ojibwe, and others that bred and cultivated tobacco for millennia. Benefits from the tobacco industry would be fairly and equitably shared.

Companies might have had to adhere to the methods and traditions of ceremonial tobacco use—not sell packs in vending machines, which might have been more sustainable in the long-term for the companies. Big Tobacco might have avoided losing billions of dollars in lawsuits. And my mom might still be alive. 

Indigenous wisdom is incalculably valuable. Partnership beyond our horizons multiplies that value, and preserves the bodies and the souls of those involved.

Read: Tribes Should Have More Say in Psychedelic Movement

How paying the Indigenous healers who discovered psychedelic medicines helps our long-term viability

In psychedelics, a small handful of companies are following this path. These companies are worth noting. 

Journey Colab is one of at least two companies (the other is MindMed) developing synthetic mescaline into a pharmaceutical-grade medicine. 

Technically, Nagoya does not apply to North American companies, since America and Canada haven’t signed the treaty yet. The proposed Green New Deal would mandate American companies treat tribes more ethically under a legal framework called Free Prior and Informed Consent. Companies would need Indigenous consent for decisions that affect them and their territories. 

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Journey Colab is the only psychedelic drug company following the framework of Free Prior and Informed Consent. 

“We acknowledge the spiritual and cultural significance of mescaline,” said Sutton King, an Indigenous health advocate and head of impact at Journey, in an interview. “We (Indigenous folks) kept the traditions alive,” said King, who is Menominee and Oneida. “There have been so many ancestors who had to fight so we could practice our ceremonies. Reciprocity reflects respect for that struggle. Reciprocity is true kinship. We’re sharing the value created by our company with Indigenous peoples and other stakeholders.” 

Journey Colab has adopted an innovative legal structure to accomplish its reciprocity goals. Ten percent of the company’s founding equity was dedicated to the Journey Reciprocity Trust. A committee of trustees will decide how to deploy the proceeds of the trust. They may end up giving to organizations working to increase equitable access to mental healthcare, or on the ecological and cultural conservation of peyote. 

A handful of other psychedelic companies are practicing reciprocity. Vine Ventures pledged half its profits to psychedelic nonprofits. Panacea Plant Sciences pledged one-third of its equity to Indigenous groups. 

As an entrepreneur in the space, I think that everyone in psychedelics should put aside 15 percent or more of their companies’ equity, profits, production, or funds toward partnering with Indigenous stewards of plant medicine. 

All psychedelic investors should recognize that if they don’t follow Nagoya or reciprocity with tribes, they are extracting value from the Indigenous tribes in a damaging way. This can cause, in the words of a recent paper on intellectual property in psychedelics, “intergenerational distress and suffering…that could actively perpetuate mental illness, while cutting them off from rightful benefits derived from their intangible cultural heritages.” 

I, for one, don’t want to repeat the patterns of the past. I want to break the chains of intergenerational, intercultural trauma. In business long-term, taking and exploiting is not as valuable as investing and building.

10 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Psychedelic Investments

One of the more forward-thinking ideas comes from Jesse H. Hudson, chief legal officer at Woven Science, which funds and builds psychedelic companies. Woven has dedicated 10 percent of its equity to a nonprofit, El Puente. El Puente’s policy paper says it plans to: take legal action against unsustainable harvesting of psychedelic plants; help indigenous tribes claim intellectual property protection over the names and brands of psychedelics and their rituals; and encourage psychedelics companies to share revenue with indigenous groups.  

Hudson says he is inspired by the North Star Ethics Pledge. Signers of the North Star Pledge promise to: study the ancient traditions of Indigenous plant medicine stewards; build trust; and create equality and justice. 

Creating an ethical industry will take more than just a few isolated companies such as Journey, Vine, Panacea, and Woven pledging they’ll do the right thing. Hudson tells me he wants companies to work together to create a set of concrete metrics for ethical behavior in psychedelics. Hudson mentions public benefit companies such as MAPS Public Benefit Corp (the for-profit arm of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), Maya Health (a psychedelic therapy tech platform), and Horizons (a media company that is the for-profit offshoot of the annual psychedelics conference). These companies produce internal reports every other year on how well they’re doing on their missions to benefit the public. Hudson says he would like to see those reports published. The reports would be reviewed and rated by an outside party and given a score. After a few years, companies would compete for the highest scores. 

What does it mean to be an ethical psychedelic company? Key performance indicators might be: compliance with the Nagoya Protocol; reciprocity with indigenous tribes; donations to nonprofits; diversity on their staffs; environmental responsibility for manufacturers; accessibility for patients, like having a sliding scale; client care, like whether clinical companies are taking care of trippers through preparation, screening, and integration. 

My firm, RampRate, has worked on solutions like this in other industries, especially focusing on carbon reduction.

“There is a difference between virtue signaling and real action,” Hudson said in an interview with DoubleBlind. “This is a way for real action, for people to create an ethical, self-regulated psychedelic industry.” 

Here are some questions psychedelic investors and companies should be asking themselves:

  1. Do you follow the Nagoya Protocol—in letter and in spirit? 
  2. Has everyone in your venture signed on to the North Star Ethics Pledge
  3. Do you include reciprocity in your business model? For example, working with the Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative or the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund?  
  4. Does your business model enhance democratized access and financial inclusion? 
  5. Does your business model allow individuals to receive the maximum benefit from experiences with the medicines, as opposed to doing the bare minimum, or creating dependency? 
  6. Do you evangelize a “magic pill” mentality, or do you offer ongoing support for patients during their healing journey? 
  7. Do your founders and therapists have direct personal experience with the medicines? 
  8. Have you built into your company forms of positive intention-setting, like becoming a B Corp or a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) with ethics at its core?
  9. Does your company allocate resources to nonprofits, including ones that support the broader psychedelic community? We suggest a minimum of 15 percent or more of top line revenue or production for impact initiatives. For funds, again, 15 percent or more of profits to these line items.
  10. Does your company support clemency and reparations for people now in jail for psychedelics?

Psychedelics have a unique ability to change our perspective on the world, ourselves, and our relationship to nature. Psychedelic companies, likewise, have a once-in-a-generation chance to shift our thinking on business ethics. 

Intentions matter in psychedelics. In psychedelic business, they matter just as much. This is not just an exciting opportunity, it may be increasingly necessary to operate in the psychedelic business space. Companies that don’t lookout for the little guy but extract value at the expense of the health of their clients and the community may not stick around very long. 

Our horizons are too near. Let’s broaden them.

About the Author

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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