The article In Defence of Psychedelic Capitalism was originally published on Microdose.
In certain psychedelic circles, it’s in vogue to criticize and dismiss any elements of the psychedelic renaissance that intersect with capitalism.
For example, common are articles with titles such as Psychedelics Have Huge Potential – But Financial Interests Could Corrupt Them; some even take the argument to moral extremes, such as Is the psychedelic industrial complex evil?
Not problematic. Not, are there any potential externalities that must be mitigated? But, eviiiiillll!
Now, I want to be clear, there are some difficulties that must be managed when combining traditional medicines such as DMT or psilocybin with the profit motive — such as ensuring respect and reciprocity with indigenous communities who use this medicine, and ensuring that the patent system is not abused.
I’ll touch on these topics towards the end of the article, but first I want to discuss and criticize what I see as the crux of the anti-“corporadelic” argument, and then even sing some praises for it — which can be done while keeping in mind its shortcomings.
Psychedelic Capitalism — a necessary “evil” (for now)?
So, starting with the “keep your money out of my psychedelics” line of thinking, often the problem critics have has less to do with the intersection of capitalism and psychedelics, but rather with capitalism itself.
They have a fundamental problem with people making money off of medicines that, in the case of some psychedelics at least, have existed for millennia. They see these drugs as sacred, and that any combination of these and profit, as is inevitable in a capitalist system that uses them as medicines, is grotesque.
Now, I am not qualified to make a value judgment on whether capitalism is the best possible socio-economic system that humans can come up with. Personally, I am a big fan of the welfare-state capitalism found in countries such as Denmark and Finland — these countries are not “socialist” as some would claim — but I could be wrong. But regardless of whether or not I — or others — like the system under which the developed world exists, the fact remains that we do in fact currently live in this system.
Given this reality, the only way to ensure that promising treatments such as psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression, or MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD, reach the millions that need help as soon as possible, is through the capitalist system.
And even if we accept the premise that some specific socialist system would deliver better outcomes in the research and development of both classical and next-generation psychedelics — the process of moving to that system, even if we elected the people who would institute it today, would still take at least a decade.
In the meantime, should we just put on pause all research being conducted by for-profit companies? This would encompass the vast majority of clinical trials currently underway studying the effectiveness of psychedelics as medicines.
This, in the name of keeping the profit motive out of psychedelics, would mean asking the millions of people suffering, who need help as soon as possible, to wait until we have manufactured a better system for our society to receive a chance at relief.
That, in my mind, is not an acceptable option. Clinical trials — usually funded by for-profit companies — have almost universally shown that psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD and MDMA can help people with mental health conditions who can’t be helped by traditional treatments.
For those who truly believe a completely different, much-improved system is possible in the medium term, and who also are fascinated with psychedelics, the correct answer, it seems, is not to hate the companies conducting this research and hope they fail. Rather, it is better to cheer on the amazing research they are funding, while simultaneously fighting for a better socio-economic system. If the latter goal is achieved, psychedelic medicine, like the rest of the economy, could be moved to the new paradigm.
Despite its flaws, psychedelic capitalism does have benefits
Now, all of that being said, our current capitalist system — which to be clear has LOTS of serious flaws that need to be ameliorated — does bring many benefits to the study of psychedelics.
Far and away the largest is that it allows private companies — and even individual citizens — to invest in psychedelic research. In 2021, over $1.5 billion was invested in psychedelic research and related psychedelic industries. A significant number that can’t be dismissed. Even though many of these companies will fail, the research will remain. And that will help save lives.
Plus, with dozens of different institutions all fighting to either find or develop the best psychedelic for each medical issue, the competition inherent in our capitalist drug development system will help us not only find a medicine that works, but one which works better than others — and ones that work better than others in specific circumstances.
There is a reason that 93.5% of new medicines come from the classically capitalist countries of the USA, Japan, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, France, the rest of the EU, Canada and Australia. Even massive countries like China and India — which do have great manufacturing capabilities to produce medicine — are actually inventing very few new medicines.
Now all of that being said, this does not mean that the mixing of monetary gain and psychedelic research does not present problems or areas where advocates should push back on for-profit companies.
I already mentioned indigenous issues and unfair patents. On the first, we must ensure that any native groups that have traditions of using psychedelics such as ayahuasca and peyote have their rights to use said medicines. These peoples also have generations of experience with psychedelic journeys, and should be given a prominent voice in the discussion surrounding the use of hallucinogens.
On patents, watchdogs have a role to play in ensuring that medicines and practices that have existed in the underground for decades (or longer) are not patented. In any system, those with power will seek to use it to ensure that they are given an unfair advantage. In economics, this is called “rent-seeking behavior.” While we do have systems in place to try to stop this, in the world of psychedelics, where practices and drugs have existed illegally, there is a large role for watchdogs to keep companies honest.
But by far the largest problem in the American capitalist medical system is not in drug discovery and research, but rather in the provision of medical services. For the many uninsured or underinsured, receiving any medical treatment can be a financially ruinous event. When psychedelic medicines are legalized in the USA, they likewise will be very expensive.
The USA needs to follow the lead of virtually every other advanced capitalist country, and either create a universal health care system — such as in the UK — or create a public option — like in Germany. This would essentially mean the government pays for the medical needs of anyone who needs it, while the drug development process remains the same.
To summarize, personally, I do believe that the current capitalist system has aided the development of psychedelic medicines greatly. Under a system that does not prize competition and private investment, it would be hard to achieve the same scale of research that we have seen in only the last couple of years. That, of course, does not mean that there are no negative side effects, which we must attempt to mitigate.
But even if there was a system acceptable to the majority of our population, which would achieve equal or better results than we are currently seeing, we can’t wait for said system to be implemented before we invest in and study psychedelics. These are promising medicines that people need now, not in a hypothetical future.