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No three strung-together letters in the English language are more loaded than L-S-D. Say them out loud to elicit images of strung out hippies waving their hands around and making things out of flowers, or of an innocent youth’s mind snapping under the weight of acid. Or just really bad art.
Psychedelics have a brand problem, but early studies suggest drugs like LSD and MDMA could treat disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder. Operative word being could. Bad branding means bad funding, so while those preliminary studies are promising, they’re also relatively rare.
Which is why today an organization called Fundamental is launching a crowdfunding campaign to finance an ambitious series of studies—designed under the watchful eye of the FDA, mind you—into how psychedelics might treat a range of psychological disorders. So should you be inclined, you can kick in cash to fund what is shaping up to be a bold and bizarre new frontier in medical research.
Fundamental came from the brain of Rodrigo Niño, a real estate developer in New York who in 2011 was diagnosed with melanoma. Following two surgeries, Niño—understandably terrified of death—traveled to the Peruvian jungle to try ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic famed both for its violent upheaval of the human digestive system and its tendency to take users on intense spiritual journeys. (Not exactly the most data-driven beginning to a psychedelic science campaign, but there it is.)
“Right after my first session—my ceremony, they call it—I was completely off my fear of dying,” Niño says. “Completely gone, you know. And then I had to know if what had happened to me was placebo effect caused by the hallucinations, or if in fact I had been physiologically cured.”
Problem is, you can’t just call up the federal government and ask for some money, pretty please, to test a schedule 1 drug on people. And good luck getting pharmaceutical companies interested in natural drugs they can’t slap a patent on. “The issue is that [psychedelics] don’t make money, and because they don’t make money traditional capital sources have no interest in them,” says Niño. And so Niño founded Fundamental to take psychedelics research to the people.
It works like this: Anyone can donate money through the fund-raising website CrowdRise, specifying what kind of psychedelics research they want to fund. This money lands in a fund operated by a grantmaking organization called Charities Aid Foundation America that then vets which researchers it doles out the money to. Niño’s aiming for $2 million initially, with the possibility of additional campaigns in the future.
One of the first beneficiaries of the fund will be Amanda Feilding, a legendary figure in the psychedelics movement and, as it happens, a full-blown countess with the most proper British accent you ever did hear. The UN made a terrible mistake, she says, when in 1961 it passed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, essentially Just Say No to Drugs in treaty form. “What we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years,” Feilding says, “is provide governments and the UN with the scientific evidence so that they can amend or withdraw the conventions prohibiting these substances or lower them from schedule 1 to schedule 3 or 4 so that doctors can prescribe them and research can be done.” To do that, though, she’s relied on donations from individuals or grants from other institutions.
The money she receives through crowdfunding will go toward studying LSD microdosing, which you’ve no doubt heard of by now, with (deep breath) neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt at Imperial College London. In it, they’ll have subjects complete certain tasks while in an fMRI to image their brains. Everyone from Silicon Valley techies to creative-industry types love the idea that in low doses the drug could heighten alertness and creativity without the pesky hallucinations. Science will sort that out, but in a study published last year, Feilding and partners gave the world the first look at how LSD affects the brain (itself financed in part with crowdfunding). Meaning researchers are taking the first steps toward understanding how LSD and other psychedelics impact the mind.
Another beneficiary of the crowdfunded cash will be Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Over the last three decades, MAPS has raised some $40 million for research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. But it’s not enough—phase three of Doblin’s study into using MDMA to treat PTSD will set the group back $25 million ($10 million of which they’ve pulled in from two overachieving donors). And they’re not expecting much help from the government—though they did once get a $2.1 million grant from the state of Colorado to study PTSD with marijuana.
This isn’t MAPS’s first tango with crowdfunding, either. It has used Indiegogo to fund a psychedelic harm reduction program at Burning Man, and again for a study that tested MDMA on traumatized veterans. But those campaigns were asking for total commitments of tens of thousands of dollars, not millions.
With its cut of this new, larger round of crowdfunding, MAPS plans to bring sufferers into a clinic for three sessions of supervised dosing, after which the patient stays for the night. This is combined with 12 hour-and-a-half-long psychotherapy sessions. In a similar study published by the group in 2013, researchers found that doses of MDMA helped participants improve their PTSD symptoms long-term.
Contrary to what you might expect for a schedule 1 drug, the issues with MDMA research, Doblin says, aren’t regulation but funding and training therapists in a novel form of treatment. (To train for this, the FDA is allowing MAPS’s therapists to try MDMA themselves.) MDMA is widely available for research purposes, and indeed the stigma of psychedelics is fading. “What’s really changed over the last 10 years has been the willingness of major researchers at major institutions to get involved,” says Doblin. Psychedelics are no longer fringe—none other than Johns Hopkins is in on the game now. “So the real issues now are not regulatory.”
Money. They need money, because drugs are expensive and rigorous scientific studies are complicated, no matter what plane of reality you occupy.