Can Psychedelics Avoid the Mistakes of the Cannabis Industry?

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Growers, purveyors, activists and fans of mushrooms (magic and otherwise) convened on April 23-24 in Los Angeles for the California Psychedelic Conference. Presented by Oakland Hyphae, this freewheeling gathering featured a vendor marketplace, cultivation workshops, a juice bar offering shots of lion’s mane and reishi extract, and panels tackling every topic from policy, cultivation and entrepreneurship to motherhood and community organizing. (Full disclosure: Author has donated to and done consulting for Oakland Hyphae causes.)

Call it hippie nonsense, but it truly feels like we were on the precipice of a new way of being. Among the general themes of countercultural goodwill, warmth and conviviality, one clear concern ran through nearly every conversation and panel: How can psychedelics avoid ending up like cannabis?

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In California (the world’s largest legal cannabis market), small cannabis businesses and legacy growers are going extinct. Plummeting wholesale prices, shortsighted regulations and wildly excessive taxes are crippling the very craft growers who built the California cannabis industry, while large-scale corporate cannabis operations wait vulture-like in the wings. Even post-“legalization,” we’re still arresting and incarcerating people (and disproportionately people of color) for cannabis crimes. Is it any wonder that the psychedelic community wants to avoid this fate?

There’s a great deal of skepticism in the psychedelics space, for good reason. Psychedelic researcher Reggie Harris, the founder of Oakland Hyphae, has talked about moving at the speed of trust in this brave new world — which is decidedly not the speed of capitalism. At one of the best-attended panels of the conference, “The Future Of Business And Psychedelics,” audience members and panelists alike debated whether this movement can actually go mainstream without exploitation. (I talked about this ongoing argument in a previous post, “Can Psychedelics and Capitalism Co-Exist?”)

For some in the community, it’s a hard no. Yet plenty of the people I spoke to were eager to start their own businesses and formulate their own products. Panelists pointed out that cultivating quality mushrooms of all kinds is hard work, requiring immense investments of time and experience — shouldn’t these folks be able to profit from their work? Others warn that commodifying psychedelics and adopting a medicalized model could deny access to people. Many fear legalization could boomerang the way it has in cannabis, extinguishing legacy cultivators.

One positive: Public opinion is shifting on psychedelics, with decriminalization statutes passed not only in blue-state capitols and liberal college towns but in places like Oklahoma and New Hampshire. The Oklahoma measure, for example, authorizes research institutions to obtain psilocybin to study its potential efficacy for PTSD, depression, anxiety and addiction.

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But who will these university researchers obtain psilocybin from? Psilocybin is still categorized as a federally illegal Schedule 1 drug. In a piece on cannabis equity in America from The USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, Deborah Dillon, businesswoman and cannabis researcher at Chicago State University, explained as cannabis has proven in state after state, “There is no path from legacy to legality. There is no direct path. In fact, historically, as soon as a state legalizes, the arrest rate of people of color goes up.”

Critics argue cannabis legalization has only meant “legal” for those who can afford expensive cannabis business licenses, patients who can pay for medical cards or consumers who can afford weed that’s taxed at 50 percent of its wholesale price. Will “legal” psilocybin only be available through a doctor’s prescription? Will “legal” mushroom cultivators need to pay a flat tax and excise tax, in addition to cultivation, manufacturing, processing, distribution and retail taxes, in order to get on the good side of the law—and then see their businesses crushed by that tax burden?

By its very nature, the legal model includes regulation, law enforcement, criminal action and punishment. No one in this grassroots community wants psychedelics to go down that road. This is why many advocates and leaders in the space are seeking decriminalization, which “means that people who grow, gather or give away mushrooms won’t be prosecuted.”

As far as equity is concerned, the mess that legal cannabis has made of it has many in the psychedelics community certain that, if left up to government regulators, psychedelics will become just another trendy investment opportunity for wealthy white men, shutting out longtime cultivators and professionals of color. At the panel “A Table of our Own,” an all-Black panel made it clear that they had no time for regulatory tokenism or “inclusion” in a future psychedelic industry, focusing instead on the need to build their own space.

The future is shaping up to be a David vs. Goliath battle. But what if mushrooms and psychedelics presented a way to do commerce differently? What if we figured out ways to compensate people fairly for their work and ideas without exploiting them? What if we created carve-outs for caregivers to cultivate their own mushrooms, so home cultivation stayed legal? It’s powerful to imagine what an equitable landscape for psychedelics might look like.

Amid headlines about the coming psychedelic Gold Rush and the corporate race to patent and own psychedelic medicine, this passionate grassroots movement is preparing to hold its own in the face of massive odds. Their mindset is inspiring me and others to fight for a more conscious way to do business. Like any principled revolution, the choice to fight, even if it means losing, versus not fighting, is no choice at all.

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