Crowdfunding Psychedelics

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NYU researchers are studying psilocybin’s use in treating depression and alcoholism


  • Psilocybe semilanceata, aka magic mushrooms and liberty caps. Researchers at New York University would like to explore the ability of psilocybin to treat alcoholism. Photo: Patrick Ullrich, via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center are turning to the public to support clinical research on the use of psychedelic drugs for treating anxiety, depression and addiction.

Fundamental, a crowdsourcing campaign based in New York, recently began efforts to fund ongoing studies at the forefront of psychedelic medicine, including two at NYU Langone. The campaign has raised over $18,000 of its $500,000 goal since it launched on May 9.

One of the NYU studies, led by Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, aims to explore the use of psilocybin — the psychedelic compound found in so-called “magic” mushrooms — in treating alcoholism. Bogenschutz hopes to build on an earlier study he conducted, which found that alcoholic patients consumed alcohol less frequently and in lesser quantities after a 12-week course of therapy accompanied by two psilocybin sessions. The follow-up study is underway at NYU and partially funded; Fundamental aims to deliver the remaining funding required to complete the study.

Though the research is promising, funding studies through conventional avenues has proven difficult. Most medication development research is funded by the pharmaceutical industry or the federal government, primarily through the National Institutes of Health.

Pharmaceutical companies have shied away from funding studies exploring drugs like psilocybin and LSD because securing exclusive marketing rights for the drugs would likely prove elusive. Additionally, research suggests that patients treated with psychedelics may experience long-term benefits after only a handful of treatments. “It’s hard to see how you would make money off of a drug that people only have to take a couple of times,” Bogenschutz said.

The NIH often plays a role in funding research of potential value that, for lack of profit motive or other reasons, is not pursued by the private market — an umbrella that studies like those at NYU would seem to fit comfortably under, were it not for most psychedelic drugs’ Schedule I status under federal law. By definition, Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and lack evidence of safety when used under medical supervision. NIH has been reluctant to commit public funds to researching substances that are scheduled and, in some circles, remain controversial due to lingering cultural stigma dating to the Wild West days of psychedelic use in the 1960s.

“The fact of the matter is that classic hallucinogens like psilocybin are not addictive,” Bogenschutz said. He added that psychedelics are not without dangers and can be abused, but that such risks are mitigated in the controlled settings in which clinical studies are performed.

Due to these roadblocks, researchers exploring potential clinical applications for psychedelic drugs have had to turn to alternative sources like non-profits and private donors to support their work.

These barriers to traditional funding sources prompted Rodrigo Niño to launch Fundamental. As the CEO of the Prodigy Network, a real estate development firm based in the Financial District, Niño raises money from the public to fund commercial real estate ventures. Niño was inspired to apply the crowdfunding model to funding psychedelic research after a cancer scare, during which he discovered the benefits of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew that is a traditional medicine used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon, in easing his anxiety.

“This crowdfunding campaign is not only about raising funds, but it’s also in many ways about raising awareness, and I think that’s the big difference between this funding campaign and others,” said Ismail Ali, a policy fellow with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit organization that is sponsoring one of the studies Fundamental will support. “The Fundamental project is really geared toward the public, which is really cool because it not only involves the public in supporting this amazing, innovative research, but it also gets a lot of information out which otherwise might have been contained within our networks.”

“I think it’s brilliant to see a way to go outside of those usual structures and go directly to people who have an interest in this work and have some means to contribute,” Bogenschutz said.

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