The legal psychedelics industry: capitalism on drugs

Capitalism is tripping over itself to get people tripping on legal psychedelics.

An optical illusion made from 100 dollar banknotes.
[Getty Images]

On April 19, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel hosted the inaugural Benzinga Psychedelics Capital Conference, advertised as “bringing together leaders of the BIGGEST publicly-traded Psychedelics companies with investors from across North America”. General admission was $697, plus a $26.86 fee. Attendees were promised a “chance to be in the room with the leaders who will take the Psychedelics industry to the next level”.

Indeed, capitalism is already tripping over itself to get people tripping on legal psychedelics. The estimated market opportunity of which is orbiting somewhere in the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to conference keynote speaker Kevin O’Leary of “Shark Tank” reality television fame. The industry comprises an array of products beyond LSD, including psilocybin – the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms – as well as mescaline, MDMA, and the hallucinogen DMT, found in Amazonian ayahuasca.

Psychedelics are still illegal under United States federal law, in keeping with the longtime US “war on drugs” that has so handily served elite corporate interests and militarisation schemes abroad and at home – and that has historically criminalised, inter alia, Black Americans and protesters against the Vietnam War. But just as criminalisation is profitable for the powers that be, legalisation can also bear fruit. And as venture capitalists, investors, Silicon Valley tech bros, and Big Pharma players currently race to pound down the doors of perception into the realm of decriminalised psychedelics, capitalism’s latest hallucination is poised to become reality.

To this end, the Visual Capitalist website offers a convenient “Visual Guide to Investing in Psychedelics”, charting such matters as psychedelics capital flows, the global psychedelics drug market forecast, and research and development and clinical trials by various companies aiming to use psychedelics to treat disorders like anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Entrepreneurs are no doubt correct in detecting a gargantuan market in the US and elsewhere for effective mental health treatments, but it is no less than mind-bending to argue that the very capitalist system that is responsible for generating vast alienation and mental strife should now be in the business of rectifying the situation with the same profit-over-people approach.

After all, the globalised US brand of capitalism is predicated on egregious socioeconomic inequality and the tyranny of the rich – hardly an arrangement that discourages depression and anxiety. Poverty and other societal ailments are cast as a failure of the individual rather than of the system of racist patriarchy, which only permits the “success” of a privileged minority.

To be sure, this is not to rain on the whole psychedelics parade – which potentially promises significant relief for a lot of humans (or at least the ones that can afford treatment). A recent Washington Post dispatch by Maryland oncologist Manish Agrawal, for example, praises the evidence that psychedelics can “reduce death-anxiety that many cancer patients experience”. Psychedelics are also nothing new; in her in-depth March 2022 report for The Nation, titled “The Brave New World of Legalised Psychedelics Is Already Here”, Zoe Cormier notes that, “before we got our hands on them, Indigenous cultures used psychedelics for thousands of years as ritual sacraments”.

Now, however, the soulless rush to extract individual profit by distorting, commodifying, and patenting these “ancient compounds” is depression-inducing enough in itself – before we even get into the details.

Among the ground covered by Cormier: the bankrupt or nonoperational Canadian mining companies that have spontaneously converted themselves into psychedelic outfits, thanks to the fact that the companies’ continued “exist[ence] as a legal entity … allows for instant access to the stock market and the ability to raise abundant funds without the scrutiny that an IPO would bring”.

For instance, Vancouver psychedelics company Numinus Wellness Inc was spawned via a reverse takeover of Rojo Resources Ltd, a mineral exploration firm. In April, Numinus Wellness announced the acquisition of Novamind Inc – the world’s first major psychedelics merger.

And yet North American mining companies are not the only entities that have seemingly decided to branch out from toxic earthly operations to the conquest of, you know, consciousness itself. Right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir – the firm that helped the US National Security Agency to “spy on the whole world”, as The Intercept put it – has invested heavily in ATAI Life Sciences, a self-defined “clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company aiming to transform the treatment of mental health disorders”.

ATAI was co-founded by billionaire Christian Angermayer, who swears that tripping on mushrooms enabled him to “finally” understand the super-sketchy cryptocurrency Bitcoin – a moment of enlightenment that apparently propelled his billions to the next level. In November 2021, ATAI increased its shares in Compass Pathways, which markets itself as a pioneer in psilocybin therapy for mental illness and is also fiercely invested in by Thiel.

This is the same Thiel, of course, who has prompted such headlines as “Peter Thiel Wants To Inject Himself With Young People’s Blood”, a 2016 Vanity Fair report that also quoted the capital addict’s views on death: “You can accept it, you can deny it, or you can fight it.” Thiel himself has committed to being “deep-frozen” in the event that he eventually perishes – a die-hard capitalist approach that sees death as the ultimate defeat.

Meanwhile, newly minted Twitter owner Elon Musk, CEO of rocket company SpaceX and self-appointed “Technoking” of electric vehicle firm Tesla, has also intermittently weighed in on the “benefits of psychedelics”. Last year, he was asked by the chairman of Field Trip Health – a psychedelic therapy company created, as Cormier explains, through a lucrative reverse takeover of Newton Energy Corporation, a Canadian oil and gas company – to expound on the “role” of psychedelics in “addressing some of the more destructive tendencies of humanity”.

This, obviously, is one hell of a question to pose to a megalomaniac intent on destroying not only this planet but others, too – thereby effecting a perennial bad trip for humanity. And as human “tendencies” remain destructive, and the ruling class remains psyched, it is all pretty far from far out.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.