The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Alexander Beiner. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Alexander Beiner. Alexander is a writer, facilitator and cultural commentator. He’s a co-founder of Rebel Wisdom and leads on Rebel Wisdoms’ written content and live experiences. He’s particularly focused on finding new ways of having in-person conversations around the most essential and challenging ideas. He is also one of the directors of Breaking Convention, Europe’s largest conference on psychedelic science and culture. His work on psychedelic culture has been published in the 2016 book neurotransmissions as well as in The Guardian. He also writes fiction and plays traditional Irish music. This is Alexanders’ second time on the show. He appeared back in current zero 19, where we had a chat around the idea of indigenous narcissism. Welcome back, Alexander.
Alexander: Great to be here, Jim. Thanks for having me again.
Jim: Yeah, it’s always good. I love so much of the work that you do. It’s just it’s great to see in the world. Today we’re going to chat mostly based on his recent essay Who’s in charge of Psilocybin. I mean, that’s quite of a concept to say who’s in charge of psilocybin. Before we dig into the core of the essay though, it might be useful for the audience to give us the state of play of psilocybin in the world today. So by inference I suspect you were writing about the situation in the UK, was that right? Or you talk it about more broadly.
Alexander: Well, the essay which I’ll go into in a minute was in response to a paper published by two psychedelic scientists in the UK. But the overall, larger themes I think are global and are playing out globally.
Jim: So just to be clear, I’d love to get a sense of what is the state of play with respect to legality, and of course, borderline, slightly illegal, but culturally kind of well manifested stuff with respect to Psilocybin. And before we get started, I will confess that I actually did Psilocybin twice back in my misspent youth and have long ranked it as the most enjoyable with the least side effects of any hallucinogen I ever tried, which is several of them.
Alexander: Well, that’s very interesting to hear. I was actually going to ask you about your psychedelic history at some point. So I’m glad we started there. So yeah, psilocybin is one of the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and psilocybin has possibly been having an influence on human culture and human development for as long as we’ve been human. There are theories out there that suggest that, but we don’t know, but certainly psilocybin mushrooms are native to many, many ecosystems and probably have a very, very long history of human use, sacramental use, in religious shamanic ceremonies. And then also counter-cultural use as personal growth tools. So psilocybin has been illegal in most countries since the Watson’s the war on drugs started in the early 70s and has over the last 15 years been shown to have potentially very powerful therapeutic effects on conditions like depression, anxiety, potentially eating disorders.
Alexander: And the list is broad and large. It’s almost like you can’t do the research fast enough to figure out what psilocybin might be effective for. One interesting and very, very important caveat is that when we’re talking about psychedelics being used to heal mental health conditions or to treat mental health conditions, we’re not really talking about just the psychedelic, it’s psychedelic assisted therapy. And anyone who’s had a psychedelic experience will know that there are three important things to remember famously set, setting and dose, right? So the set is how are you doing? How are you feeling? What’s your emotional and mental state. Setting is where you are, very, very important, so in a safe, relaxed environment will give you a very different experience to a tense environment that you don’t feel safe in. And then dose is how much you’ve taken.
Alexander: So Psilocybin is going through a change because the results from the studies that are coming out, two of which are in the two companies who have psilocybin for depression studies in phase three trials right now, there are many other studies going on. One famous one is one actually my wife worked on that was here in the UK, which was looking at psilocybin compared to escitalopram, which is a common SSRI antidepressant. Because actually the clinical trial process in the UK and different parts of Europe means that you have to compare it to what’s on the market, rather than just to a placebo in many cases. So increasingly we’re seeing results coming out of those studies that suggest that, that study, for example, showed that psilocybin was at least as effective as a escitalopram. And many studies have suggested that it could well be, with the right therapy and the right setting and the right process, a very effective way to heal mental health condition.
Jim: Yeah, and I’ve read some of the research, for instance, the famous Johns Hopkins work on end of life work with terminal cancer patients who had remarkable turnarounds in their attitudes about death and found release from their depression and really strong. And also some research on the other side of things about meaning and people who’ve taken it for other purposes, half the people said it was the most meaningful experience in their life. Right? And I guess we’ll get into this fork between therapeutic on one side and personal growth on the other.
Alexander: Yeah. It’s worth mentioning that this is, I think, worth mentioning really early on. Like you mentioned that people often rank psychedelics as one of the most meaningful experiences in their lives. There was a famous experiment in 1962 often called the Good Friday experiment where subjects were given psilocybin and many of them had mystical experiences. And there was a follow-up study 25 years later by Walter Punka and the results of that suggested that people were still ranking that far on a significant amount of people were still saying, “Yeah, if I look back at my life, that was a really defining moment. That was a very significant experience.” So they are different to other… Well, firstly they’re not psychiatric medicines yet. And that’s an interesting question of status and cultural positioning of what psychedelics are. But even if to some degree, we look at them as psychiatric medicines they’re not like other psychiatric medicines. The meaning-making and the sense of connectedness and the mystical experience is actually seen by most scientists in the field to be a core component of what makes people feel better about the world and their lives.
Jim: Yeah. Not surprising. Right? Those are very powerful experiences. So let’s get into this turf wars aspect of your essay. You start off with describing a recent paper that was written by some sort of classical doctor types.
Alexander: Yes. Yeah. So there was a, I called it the psychedelic turf wars because that is what I think we’re seeing going on right now in the space. And I think even if you’re not interested in psychedelics or psychedelic science or mental health treatment, it’s a fascinating thing to watch, because really it is, to use your terminology, Jim, it really is an example of a game B treatment method hitting game A dynamics. And by game B, I mean, a lot of people in the psychedelic space are hoping for an omni-win situation where people have wide access, where no single entity is in control of access or production. And what’s happening is that there’s a gold rush going on right now, basically, that’s a hugely important context. Huge investment is entering the space. And there is a huge amount of interest from venture capitalists and lots of small pharma companies popping up and slightly bigger pharma companies emerging on the space looking to bring these substances to market in some way.
Alexander: So the essay I wrote was in response to a paper by two psychiatrists, James Rucker, and Alan Young, and they work at King’s college and Maudsley. And interestingly, I know one of them not very well, but I know him somewhat, James Rucker. I was actually… I did the guide training at King’s college for a study that is upcoming, that got delayed due to COVID. And because it’s not a huge community in the UK also we’re connected in that way. So they wrote a paper which was… it was in the journal frontiers in psychiatry, and they were arguing that because Psilocybin hasn’t gone through the clinical trial process yet, it’s, in their words unwise. But they’re effectively arguing that people running legal retreat centers, for example, in the Netherlands where people are given psychedelic truffles in that case and have a very well held experience over a few days, they shouldn’t be doing that. Because we don’t know that psilocybin is safe in their view because it hasn’t gone through the clinical trial process.
Alexander: And that’s kind of the crux of their argument. And they kind of make some version of that argument a few times. The overall thrust of it was that the psychiatric profession are the most qualified to decide how psilocybin is used safely and how it enters the market. And that’s very specifically the clinical trial process is the gold standard of bringing a new drug to market. So now it gets a little bit nuanced because I would agree in many cases that the clinical trial process where you’ve stripped away as many variables as possible, and just hone in for a new drug. Sure. And I would prefer to take a new drug that had gone through a robust phase one, two and three. The issue is, or one of the issues, is that psilocybin is not a new drug. And psilocybin is also not just a drug.
Alexander: As I mentioned before, it’s a drug assisted therapy that’s being looked at. So why does that matter? Well, one of the reasons it matters is that we have tens of thousands of years of human use to look at, right? And safety, as well, a safety reports effectively of it’s very hard to overdose on Psilocybin. You could certainly have an adverse reaction psychologically. And it’s really important to note that one of the reasons psychedelics are so powerful is that there’re what Stanislav Grof, famous psychedelic researcher called nonspecific amplifiers. So whatever’s going on, turn it up to 11 or 11,000.
Jim: Yeah. Back in my day, back in the 70s, our rule of thumb was there was definitely some risk in the research in those days, seem to indicate about a 1% chance of being driven to a psychotic situation. And now I think later research has shown those were probably people that were headed in that direction anyway, but no one’s shores. But there are certainly some risk of amplifying tendencies towards the psychotic. At least that was the, shall we say, the folk wisdom on the college circuit 1974, 75.
Alexander: Yeah. Which was not far off. I mean, I have had, I wouldn’t say experiences that drove me towards psychosis, but certainly very traumatic experiences from psychedelics. And that’s a risk, it’s a bit like being a skydiver in some sense. I often have thought of using psychedelics for personal growth as a kind of extreme sport of the mind. So it has that risk.
Jim: No, actually I want to clarify the record. Skydiving is remarkably safe. It’s safer than most… You’d be amazed. The statistics are incredible. I think the one to compare it to is riding a motorcycle. Riding a motorcycle’s insanely fucking dangerous, and yet it’s so much fucking fun. And so people choose to drive motorcycles and yet if motorcycles had to go through clinical trials, they’d go no, no, no, no, no. The risk versus the benefit is not smart at all. So I want to be careful about slander skydivers, some of my friends are skydivers and they make that point that it’s actually, nobody ever dies in skydiving, or essentially zero.
Alexander: Well it’s a good point. I stand corrected on that. And interestingly there’s David Nutt is a professor here in the UK who’s quite a well-known name. He got fired from the government’s misuse of drugs advisory board. This is kind of how he made his name, at least in the… he was already successful in what he did, but more in the public consciousness. Because he said rightly that MDMA is safer than horse riding. And that was the thing that got him kicked out. But it is remarkably safe, and we can talk about MDMA perhaps later because MAPS organization a, not-for-profit in the US is just going through phase three and very close, really, to bringing MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve been reading that research and it looks very, very compelling. That MDMA is a really good therapy for PTSD. It actually makes some sense from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, which is where these memories get loaded with really powerful, negative valences. And if you can reaccess the memory and then rescore them essentially with positive valences then from what we know of cognitive neuroscience, it’s a very reasonable explanation for a mechanism by which PTSD could be probably permanently cured by one or two episodes of this kind of work.
Alexander: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And also MDMA was used underground in marriage counseling as well, especially in the 80s, that was one of the main uses people were using it for. So it works in terms of processing and reframing your own trauma. It also works in terms of having an empathetic connection to others. So there’s huge amount of potential for it.
Jim: And we should remind the audience that MDMA is also known via the street names of ecstasy and Molly. Right?
Jim: So used extensively as a party drug, it came around a little too late for my party at bay. So it’s one of the few drugs I’ve never done. And it’s also one I can’t do currently because of a cardiac condition. I asked my cardiologist [inaudible 00:14:43] psychedelics are still okay. Not that I’ve done any in the last 40 years, but I’m at least considering it. And he said, LSD is fine and Psilocybin but don’t even think about MDMA. It’s particularly counter-indicated for the kind of heart arrhythmia that I used to have, which has currently been eliminated, but I don’t want it to come back.
Alexander: Yeah, yeah. It will raise your heart rate. I’m sure he’s a wise man.
Jim: But what’s quite interesting he said LSD, that’s fine. Right? No problem. But anyway, just to put the context, MBA has a very extensive 80s and 90s, I guess, currently to this day you got street use as ecstasy and molly.
Alexander: Yeah. So, yes. Okay. So picking up on the essay and I’m kind of keen to unpack why this particular turf war for within a particular community, I think, it speaks to something much, much greater going on in the culture. But my response in the essay to the article put out by these two psychiatrists was effectively about, well, a few different things, one of which is that the clinical trial process while important, especially for new drugs, is also riddled with its own issues. There’s obviously we… I know you’ve covered it on the podcast before, the replication crisis, particularly in psychology, but also in drug development in general.
Jim: Biomedicine, it’s probably worse than it is in psychology.
Alexander: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And this kind of intersects, right, both of them. So there’s that issue. There’s also the issue that my friend, Dr. Rosalind Watts, who was the clinical lead on that Imperial trial I was mentioning before. She made some very good points, which I included in the essay, which were that just the nature of the clinical trial process, where it’s very, very strictly defined. You’re trying stripping out all the variables is difficult for psychedelics because of the way they work and because of the nature of the therapy and the nature of… Well, she didn’t mention this, but I would add the sheer number of variables that you’re looking at. And the fact that they’re amplifiers, those variables psychologically get amplified, but I’ll plant a flag in that and maybe come back to it. Practically one of the things she mentioned is that the clinical trial process tends to a follow up with people who’ve taken the drug in the trial six weeks later. Psychedelics have what’s called an afterglow period, which actually my wife has published on in terms of ayahuaska’s afterglow period. Because that’s a period where you feel a lift in mood, and also it’s arguably, we’re not entirely sure yet, a time where you have greater neuro-plasticity to potentially make changes in your life, in your perception. It would be potentially, this is what my wife argued in her paper, a great time for therapeutic intervention.
Alexander: So that lasts anywhere from sort of a month to two months. It depends who you ask, but the clinical trials, they follow up with people in six weeks. And at that point, people are still feeling better, that depression might be in a kind of remission, but if you follow up with them in 12 weeks or three or four months later, very often there’s a dip again? And so the results get skewed towards making it look like psychedelics are these wander drugs, which in some ways they are, but in some ways they aren’t. So the other piece of information I included in it around that was from Robin Carhart-Harris, who is a well-known name in psychedelics as well, was leading the team at Imperial, is a neuroscientist. He was actually just in Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world. Recently he argued that we should be supplementing what we’re learning in clinical trials from what’s happening in real life, in retreat centers, et cetera. Because of the nature of the trial and because it’s not a real world conditions. So those are two kind of, let’s say perhaps, scientific arguments. But then I also pointed out that what we’re seeing is kind of an epistemological turf war. And the question really boils down to, who decides who gets access, and who decides who’s sick and who has the hierarchy of diagnosis and treatment?
Alexander: And the medical profession in our culture has that. And rightly so in many areas, however, the difficulty with their argument is that they were arguing that no one should be using it in retreat centers until we know it’s safe. And there’s a lot of problems with that because it ignores the thousands of years of use. They do address some of these issues in the paper so it’s a little bit more nuanced. I encourage people to read their paper on the essay to get a full spectrum of it.
Jim: And by the way, we’ll put a link to that paper up on the episode page so people can get access to it.
Alexander: Yeah. And so to kind of boil it down, what I find really interesting about this is that as psychedelics enter the mainstream, they’re entering it through the model that traditionally drugs enter it through. What that means is that they’re now prey to the same market dynamics that make bringing a drug to market worthwhile if you’re a company. And in order for it to be worthwhile, you have to usually, unless you’re a not-for-profit, patented it. And the big drama in the psychedelic world over the last six months in particular has been around this big patent grab that’s going on. And one of the main companies is Compass Pathways, who’s come under a lot of fire for this. They’re the biggest psychedelic pharma company, they went public last year, had an IPO and valued at over a billion dollars and are in phase three with their version of psilocybin, which I’ll talk about in a moment. So they’ve synthesized, they have a unique synthesis method for psilocybin, and they’ve patented that synthesis method that’s contentious as well. But what they’ve also done is put out hugely, what many see, myself included, is very over-broad patents. And they got in trouble for their patenting. One of their patenting documents was attempting to patent a therapist putting their hand on the shoulder of a patient. [crosstalk 00:20:46].
Jim: Beat their with a fucking flounder, right? That’s just ridiculous. These patent grabbers are pissing me off. Before we go onto that, this is really important stuff. Could you update us on the distinction between synthesized Psilocybin and naturally grown Psilocybin, I mean, it’s easy enough to grow. And in fact, I remember the last time I was in Amsterdam, they actually sold mushrooms and plastic trays at convenience stores and where I live in rural Virginia, if you have any capital in your pastures, and if you’re lucky enough after a day or two, after a thunderstorm, you go out and harvest them out of your field. So what’s the current state of play between the chemically synthesized psilocybin versus the natural psilocybin from the mushroom.
Alexander: So, yeah. So it’s an important point. So they are the same psilocybin, right? It’s the same molecule. There are probably other molecules that play in a naturally grown mushroom that we don’t fully understand yet. But really the active ingredient is psilocybin, which could then get converted to psilocin when it’s in your body. So when you synthesize psilocybin, you’re effectively you’re synthesizing that same molecule that you would find in the mushroom in the field. Often I’ve, and this is anecdotal entirely, I’ve heard people say that it is a slightly different experience experientially, there are qualitative differences, but they’re not, I would say in my opinion, they’re not so major that it would be a major issue of, oh, should we be treating people with field mushrooms or grown mushrooms in a lab? The problem with it is that you can’t do clinical trials with regular mushrooms because you can’t get the dose right.
Alexander: You can’t guarantee that everyone had the same dose, so you need to synthesize it in some way so that you can guarantee that. So it makes sense to synthesize it. The issue is that if you’re a pharma company like Compass Pathways, and you want to get investment, the amount of investment that you’re looking for, you ideally want to do what pharma companies do and have some kind of monopoly. So that you’re the ones with Psilocybin especially for this particular indication. Now what they’ve done is they’ve synthesized psilocybin in such a way that they’ve created what’s called a polymorph of psilocybin. The polymorph is a unique crystalline structure of a molecule, to my knowledge at room temperature though, I’m sure some chemists would know whether it stays at different temperatures. But so imagine you have this little vile of polymorphous psilocybin, and let’s say I make some Psilocybin somewhere, right?
Alexander: If you’re looking at these two bits of Psilocybin you have no idea which of them is a unique polymorph because you need very, very advanced equipment and real experts to know this stuff in polymorph chemistry, which is pretty complex, to put it under a very complicated X-ray machine and go, okay, that’s that structure. It’s like you get a kind of radiograph style report. Obviously I’m not a scientists but…
Jim: X-ray crystallography is what…
Alexander: That’s exactly it. Yeah exactly. And so you can patent the polymorph, it’s been done before. Some people find it quite contentious because it’s not actually a different form of the molecule, but as soon as you eat it, it just becomes psilocybin. That same Psilocybin that’s in the mushroom in the field. But they got the patent, there were many, many more patents they applied for and various people within the field who thought this was a patent grab, at their own expense had patent lawyers and experts. And disputed the patents and almost all of the patents except for the one, we’re thrown out. So now Compass have a patent for a polymorph, but linked to that and potentially arguably, this is where it gets really hazy in patent law. Some people say, well, their patent applications aren’t just linked to their unique version of psilocybin, but they’re trying to patent psilocybin for all these different conditions. Because they basically… One of the patents is effectively like, one person I spoke to who said it was like they read the entire DSM, which is the list of different psychological disorders and just threw the entire DSM into a patent application. And it does read like that and they even have applications in there for patenting psilocybin for known mental health disorders, like cognitive enhancement and so…
Jim: Well, that would only apply to their polymorph. Right? They can’t patent the naturally occurring chemical?
Alexander: You can’t path a naturally occurring chemical, and this is something that is… I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on. Some people say this just applies to their polymorph, but others say, depending on how a patent office would read that, you could never grant them the patent for psilocybin. But they might get away at some point with getting the patent for psilocybin for eating disorders, for example, right? And the difficulty with patenting is that when you apply for a patent, goes to the patent office, the person or people who are looking at it are not experts in psychedelic science. So there’s a few people have now in response to that, one person called David Casimir and some colleagues created a open source patent library called porta Sophia. Where you can search for any psychedelic patent and go, “Oh wait, hang on. Someone’s already talked about MDMA for alcohol misuse disorder or alcohol use disorder, so that can’t be patented. But patent officers don’t necessarily know that, it’s their job to research it, but if you have…
Jim: Of course you can challenge it based on prior art, right? And…
Alexander: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
Jim: And I’ve been involved in a couple of patent troll wars in the tech field and it was always fun to bust those motherfuckers, right?
Alexander: Yeah. And this is why all matters in terms of… and this is what I’ve learned covering this story for awhile is that even if those patents… even if most of the patents get thrown out what it does, and this is where the game theory comes in, this is where the real game aid dynamics come into it. If you have the most money and you have first mover advantage, you can just apply for a bajillion patents and even if most of them aren’t going to be approved. If I want to start my own psilocybin therapy company, and I go for funding, one of the first things the funders are going to ask me is, “Well, okay. We think you’re going to need at least a million dollars a year on patent disputes.”
Jim: Yeah. Because the old IBM strategy in the early computer industry of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Jim: [crosstalk 00:27:11] it’s the big boys use against the little boys and that’s a pure game A motherfucker strategy, right? And people like that should be taken out and shot. And frankly, I will tell you this one time in my business career someone tried to pull that on me and I literally turned to them and he said, basically, “I’ve got a lot more money than you have and even though you are legally correct, I’ll tie you up your socks for years.” I looked him in the eye and said, “For $5,000, I can have you killed.” And he backed right off.
Jim: Because I believe that to be one of the most immoral game A motherfucker plays, when you’re in the wrong and use the law to harass people just because you can.
Alexander: Yes. Exactly. And the counter argument from companies doing this in a psychedelic space has traditionally been, “Well, this is the way it’s done. This is the only way to do it. This is the only way to raise that much money.” And it’s not, it’s not the only way, there’s a lot of examples of that.
Jim: It may be the only way to have a billion dollar market cap, maybe someone shouldn’t have a million dollar market cap around something you can grow in your cattle pasture, right? Or you can grow your greenhouse really easily, you’ve got your greenhouse, but in your closet. Right? And this is again, money on money return as the inner engine of game A, I mean, it manifests itself on these set of game theoretical plays, which are just corrupted shit. Right?
Alexander: Yeah and this is the part of the topic that I love, I just think it’s so interesting and it’s playing out live. There’s a kind of embedded logic in that game A strategy, right? And I had a live debate a few weeks ago with Lars Wilde who’s one of the co-founders and the president of Compass Pathways. And so it was a chance to actually ask him some of these questions directly, and one of the things I found most interesting in it was that, I realized that the inherent logic of continuous growth that is required for this model to work, because I thought, “Okay. Well, once you guys have, let’s say everything worked out in the way they want it to and they have protection over psilocybin for depression treatment and some other indications. Eventually, if you want to keep growing, you then have to find other uses for the drug.” And the problem with psychedelics is there’s a massive ethical problem, but it also starts to change the culture of psychedelics, because it now starts, now you’re incentivized to go, “Oh, crap. There aren’t enough depressed people.” Or “We only have a… we can only get some of the depressed people.”
Alexander: Well, maybe who else could do? And well, maybe we don’t need people who are depressed, maybe we should just be telling people to take psychedelics anyway. Maybe we can have an ad campaign that goes, “You know what? LSD, once a week keeps the doctor away.” And then you start seeing billboards and then the entire market, the market captures it and that is playing with fire, seriously playing with fire, especially with psychedelics.
Jim: Indeed. And then on the flip side of that though, I would again, use another game B lens, which is the distinction between rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods. The game A gain is to try to turn things that are very low cost to produce into very high cost things, think about the IP around music, for instance. Or patenting of drugs that cost a penny a pill to make and sell for $1,000 a pill or even $10 a pill. And one of the really offensive ideas around people trying to lock up psilocybin than with IP is turning it from what’s essentially non-rivalrous, very inexpensive to produce, right? I think those little trays of mushrooms in Amsterdam are seven bucks or something like that, you can be damn sure that if Compass gets away with patenting it, it ain’t going to be $7. Right? And so that’s a fundamental problem as well.
Alexander: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s a really good point. I have a little quote here from Kerry Turnbull. So Kerry Turnbull has been in this psychedelic space for a long time, and he’s created a charity called Freedom To Operate specifically to challenge this kind of patent grabbing that’s going on. And he said, “Patents that attempt to appropriate pre-existing knowledge, from the public commons, then sell it back as a novel invention is a misuse of the patent system.” So that’s the dirty game at play. Right? And I think it’s interesting to look at what patenting is for and is to protect you on the risk of the amount of investment you need to bring a new drug to market.
Jim: And for that it’s legit, right? [crosstalk 00:31:31].
Alexander: Yeah. Exactly.
Jim: For about the 10 years, a 20 year patent, and you just need about 10 years to get through the FDA process, at least in United States. And so 10 years to harvest your intellectual property and then it goes into the common public domain of humanity, that seems like a worthwhile thing. But of course they play these games, little minor modifications, and then they Repatent [inaudible 00:31:52] fortunately you don’t have to do that often. The other one that’s available as a generic for a hundredth the price, but the real sick one is to take something that shouldn’t have been patent that nobody invented and trying to capture it with that.
Alexander: Yeah. And it’s kind of an astonishing thing to witness and it’s not just happening with Compass Pathways, there’s also other patent applications flying around. And the thing is you don’t get to see them for 18 months as a public, so it’s almost like a slow moving boulder coming up behind us. And as it’s cresting, we’re like, “Oh my God, oh my God. Look at that.” And then there’s a whole… It’s interesting because there is a fairly game B response happening of people creating, for example, IP Coleman’s a kind of shared commons of IP ownership that can act as a response to… There’s a cooperative ecosystem.
Jim: For instance, publicizing the public domain synthesis methods for psilocybin as an example?
Alexander: Yeah. And that’s something that Usona, with not-for-profit, which is Compass’s main competitor, they have a commitment to open science. So, they’re open sourcing that and they have their not-for-profit model as well. And so there’s lots of different options and there’s MAPS, so we mentioned before the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. They’ve been a not-for-profit for 30 years and Lars at Compass, his response was, “Well, it’s too slow.” And my response to that is, “Well, do you want to do it fast or do you want to do it right?” Because the incentives you go into when you go into the traditional pharma model with psychedelics, I think are not only unethical, but I don’t think they’re going to work. I don’t think they’re going to work and I think that because of that, it means that the field is possibly overvalued and in a bubble, which I’ve heard a lot of people, I’m not a financial expert, but a lot of people I’ve spoken to have that sense, something similar happened with the cannabis market as well.
Alexander: And a lot of the investors in psychedelics have come over from big cannabis as well, looking for a new investment. So there’s a lot of complexity at play in the space and at the same time, we have this potentially revolutionary mental health treatment that also is a potential outside of the realm of mental health. And this is where my interest really lies, psychedelics have the potential to be cultural change agents if used correctly.
Jim: Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s make a careful distinction between the medical use and the personal growth use or what did we used to call it? Psychonauts.
Alexander: Psychonauts. Yeah, yeah.
Jim: We called ourselves psychonauts, we are out to explore our inner space with these little molecules. Right?
Alexander: Yeah. Absolutely, and that’s a really important distinction to make. And so I’ve been involved in this since I was like 18, I’ve been absolutely committed and fascinated to this space and to the potential of psychedelics for cultural change. And for creating the open-minded, integral, nuanced thinking that I think we need right now, something we talk about in Rebel Wisdom all the time. I actually have a model of psychedelic sense-making, which I’ve been developing, which uses a lot of the tools, the psychological tools that you learn in psychedelic therapy. Whether you’re receiving or giving it, or holding a space for someone and applying them to sense-making. Things like in and through, or accepting complexity rather than trying to make meaning too quickly. So there’s a lot of cognitive tools and values that the psychedelic experience brings up that can be applied directly to making sense of the world we live in.
Alexander: So it has a lot to offer in that sense. And we saw, I suppose, in the late 60s, early 70s and slightly before that, the power that psychedelics can have in transforming cultural values, of course, it wasn’t just psychedelics, they are amplifiers. There was already a lot of cultural threads moving towards being against the Vietnam war, towards looking at other ways of knowing from the east, different models, responding to the kind of rigidity of the 1950s culture. So I’m curious and hopeful that psychedelic, if they are embedded in it kind of sensible culture, was of course the setting that you do it in is everything. And so if you tell people psychedelics are about some new age crap, and they’re going to all be like rainbow people from the fifth dimension, that’s the experience people will generally have. If you have a different narrative around it, that these are medical things for sick people, that’s often the experience people will have as well.
Alexander: And this is a point Eric Davis, we’ve had on Rebel Wisdom a few times, he makes really, really well. It’s the narrative you tell around changes the experience people have with them. And that is quite unique, and maybe it’s true with other things as well, but it’s particularly unique with psychedelics. And so the battle for narrative control over what they are, mainly are they medicines? Are they counter-cultural tools? Are they indigenous healing tools? Are they for fun? Whatever it might be, the narrative warfare is having an effect on the experience people have. So there’s a feedback mechanism going on and I think that is often missed in the mainstream because everyone’s just so focused on, “Oh, look at these great study results.”
Jim: No, I mean that’s a very good point and my response to that would be, there doesn’t have to be just one narrative and there shouldn’t be, right? These things may well be useful for specific controlled medical usage and, oh, by the way, something I forgot to mention, I was going to bring up earlier. When we talk about clinical trials, there’s actually two thresholds for clinical trials, one is safety, but the other is efficacy, right? Which is, is it actually effective for the condition? And that’s really the reason for the double-blind gold standard study, you can get the safety by just giving it out to people in a park, right? But you can’t get the efficacy that way, so the real reason to do the gold standard double-blind clinical trial is to see, does it actually work as claimed for the condition defined? Right?
Jim: And so it’s important to pull those two things apart, you can get the safety other ways. But so in the medical direction for efficacy, does it actually work and at what rate to solve PTSD or depression or whatever and the other things it has is one direction. But, say the broader narrative, you can have other narratives that it’s for fun. Right? And I still remember a peak experience of my life was doing a light dose of acids calculated to be about 75 micrograms and went out skiing with a buddy of mine who was a professional skier, professional ski acrobat. And I was a not very gifted amateur skier, but that day I was as good as he was, the crazy ass shit we did coming down this big ass mountain in Idaho, I had never skied like that before couldn’t even imagine I could ski like that. Right? And yet I was just totally in the groove in this light dose of acid for about four hours and the next morning I could barely walk, even though I was only a young 22 year old bucket in pretty good physical shape in those days.
Jim: But I just pushed myself way beyond what I could even imagine doing under this four hour long flow state that I could only attribute to this mild dose of acid. And so far, that’s perfectly legit use in my book.
Alexander: That’s fantastic. Oh, Jim, I have this picture of the 70s ski suit and the just acrobatics.
Jim: Long hair flying acrobat.
Alexander: Long hair, back flips. That’s awesome.
Jim: I didn’t try the acrobatics, but I did mogul bounce at really high speed and… Man, I literally… I mean, it was an order of magnitude, better skiing I’ve ever done before or since. And that was the days when I went skiing three days a week, so I was fairly good. So fun’s okay.
Jim: And in our game B nomenclature, we talk about psycho technologies, right? Which is that we’re trying to become greater sovereign humans. Right? And there are various ways to that. Right? And some people believe that psychedelics are part of that and if we think about them that way is, okay so the experience for me, the biggest takeaway I ever had from psychedelics when I’ve used them in the Psychonauts sense, was to realize how relatively small human culture is on the scale of things and how malleable. As I’ve told people, my business relation, how did a unqualified asshole like yourself be so successful? And I said, “Well, when I was about 22 years, 21 years old, I realized that the world was more like butter than it was like steel. And that I felt just perfectly within my rights to modify whatever I thought I could modify by some level of force.” And it turns out in the business world, if you take that view, it’s surprising how malleable the world is.
Jim: And I would actually say that insight came directly from my very first heavy psychedelic experience, probably 250 micrograms plus or minus, wasn’t quite the ego death when I did later was just shy of an ego death experience. But a really deep trip where I could just see human culture as this relatively modest apparatus I can almost see its moving parts. And I realized, “Well, if it’s got moving parts, you can move the moving parts around.” And so, again, I would put those in the psycho technology’s perspective. Once you’ve had that experience, you never see the world the same again it’s an interesting little point. I got to note some of the other baby boomer tech dudes, the guys that ran the other tech companies and such, and every single one of them had done psychedelic.
Alexander: Yes. That’s very interesting.
Jim: And I’m sure it’s not a coincidence.
Alexander: Yeah. Absolutely. And that was beautifully expressed. I love that the malleability of the world and the provisionality of many of our systems is something that I think certainly has been a huge gift that I’ve gotten from psychedelics. And I think that’s where it’s counter-cultural potential lies, right?
Alexander: It’s transformational potentially. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah, once you realize this shit did not actually come down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets, it’s stuff that humans invented. And to degree it’s no longer working for us, we can reinvent it.
Jim: That is such an amazingly liberating point of view and it’s in some sense, the first step to being a game B player.
Alexander: Yeah. And this was actually the thrust of my argument in my debate with the Compass co-founder was, the patent grabbing kills innovation in this space. Firstly, it means that we can’t, play, we’re in a kind of rigid defensive mode, I think it has the risk of killing innovation. And the other thing is that, as a community, we can do better because these… and I think that’s where the energy is in the whole psychedelic community responding to these patent grabs. Is that the patent system misusing the patent system and cheating an existing system, there’s no more sort of embedded stagnant way of doing things then playing the game to tie it up. That just feels like the opposite of looking at the world, and looking at these substances and going, “How do we create a really multidisciplinary, fluid ecosystem,” like you said before, I totally agree with this, where everything has its place.
Alexander: The clinical medical model, I think is very important for people who are vulnerable or suffering from something like long-term depression. They shouldn’t be going to a retreat in the Amazon, they should be going to a retreat anywhere else because that can’t care for them well. And unusually most retreat centers or the ones that are worth their salt, screen people out with certain conditions for that reason. So there’s plenty of space in the ecosystem for people to play and what I’ve started thinking about, and I think it applies beyond psychedelics is, in a game B ecosystem, how do you have a healthy immune response to a game A entity coming into it? Say an invasive species like eucalyptus, you have this beautiful forest and everything is in a dynamic flow and then some asshole comes and plants some eucalyptus in it.
Alexander: And then five years later [inaudible 00:44:30] or bamboo, and it’s spreading everywhere. And that’s the question, that’s the exciting question as well is what does it look like to start having these antibodies pop up and being like, “Ah ah, not that, we’re not doing that, we’re going to do it this way? And that’s a interesting thing to watch play out.
Jim: Yeah. I’m happy to hear they didn’t get on an area that I follow real close anymore, that there are these not-for-profits in these IP pools that are essentially… sounds like they were there prior, but they also can act as an immune system against people trying to overly stifle the game through game A motherfucker tactics. Right?
Alexander: Exactly. Yeah, absolutely. And it is heartening to see, and I think there’s more to be done. And this for me comes to that crux of it is, can a game B approach be robust and flexible enough to beat the game A pressures on it?
Jim: That is the question of the hour, right?
Alexander: Yes it is.
Jim: We claim that we can, but we haven’t proved it yet. So game B players out there, why don’t one of you go start a generic pharmaceutical company, actually it turns out you don’t actually have to do the manufacturing yourself, plenty of people in India are happy to do that. And do it around the public domain version of psilocybin and so that there is a low cost uncontestably public domain and yeah I guess the other assholes will harass you. But as a generic company, there’s very interesting protections actually in the law, which are worth learning about. And put that flag in the ground. Right? And so that there will be a low cost efficacious form of psilocybin available for these other uses.
Alexander: Absolutely. Yes, please. And let us know if you do that, we’ll be there yeah.
Jim: And we’ll get the word out.
Alexander: We’ll get the word out for sure. Yeah. And what else is interesting that I’ve noticed in being part of this whole dynamic in this space is that, very often it comes down to the individual. If they’re going to make a game B or a game A decision, and I’ve seen it, I’ve seen researchers and clinicians sort of wrestling with, “Oh man, should I appear at this conference that this weird pharma company is putting on? Or should I take this money to do my study because it’s coming from X, Y, or Z.” And so they’re facing the pressures, the real life pressures of make a decision out of your sense of integrity and lose money and perhaps lose status, or say yes and well either feel a calling to have dissonance or try and work within the system. But it’s a real naughty question, and I’m since fascinated by how much it comes down to someone’s individual decision of yes or no. Like, well, what are my values?
Jim: That’s really interesting. And of course, there’s also the interesting, what I call game B play, which is to cynically play the game A fool’s, right? Which is take their money, but don’t sign anything that’s binding. And we’re quite explicit in game B that it’s okay to parasitize game A, right? And that in fact some of the winning strategies are to play game A’s weaknesses against themselves, but on the other hand it requires some real knowledge and skill do that. So like say you’re a research, yeah, I’ll take money from the game A motherfuckers, but I don’t give them any rights.
Alexander: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: It’s got to be real smart and careful how you do that.
Jim: So, anyway, we’re getting actually up to the hour here and let’s exit on… let’s go for our field here. What do you see as some of the interesting ways that psilocybin could get out into the world outside of the medical model? And what might be cool about that? What might be great about that?
Alexander: Yeah, I mean, there’s so many options, there’s so many options. I mean, one thing is around creativity and innovation, there’s been some studies done at LSD with that, but as we know, psilocybin unlocks a huge amount of creativity for and a lot of people. And I’d be really fascinated to see what it looks like for there to be a contained process where you use it intentionally to solve some problems as a group, that would be fascinating. Look, because one of the aspects of the psychedelic experience, like you mentioned before is, it has a, as John [inaudible 00:48:43] would call it, this allows us to zoom out. And that the original sharmonic image of becoming a bird and having a global overview is such a big part of it. So could we do that with systems? Could we all come together and look at a particular system?
Alexander: Let’s take the education system, for example. Get all the knowledge, spend a few days, get the knowledge and then go, “Okay, let’s take this little psilocybin and let’s have a process and let’s see what comes out of it.”
Jim: That would be fucking cool.
Alexander: That’d be great. Right? Yeah. And there’s so many potentials for that.
Jim: Oh, in my pet theory is, monetary theory, you get a bunch of monetary experts and do it. But yes, I love that, that’s a great idea, it’s like a delicate assisted sense-making or systems creation.
Alexander: Exactly, exactly. And so, that’s something I find particularly exciting, the potential for that. And then of course, just the general potential that so many people have found in their lives of giving us clarity, giving us a sense of connection. Actually Rosalind Watts, who I mentioned earlier, she has a model of psychedelics as connecting agents, which I think is very useful, they help connect us to ourselves, to our environment, to each other. And so that general sense of connectivity is I think, essential in a fragmented and polarized culture as well. So, that’s another aspect of it that I think is key for our collective intelligence.
Jim: Very cool. Well, I think we’ll wrap it up right there. This has been a really interesting discussion and as I said at the beginning. We felt free to wander far field from the essay, but we also, I thought, hit the essay pretty good. So thank you Alexander, it’s been a great conversation.
Alexander: Thanks, Jim, pleasure as always.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.