PalaMon 16 December 2019
I was taken aback when I saw it. A beautiful message, prescient, wrapped in an elegant design. Psychedelia corporatized, commoditized, trivialized.
Then I chatted with a friend about it, and my friend was like, "Nah, man, it's not a big problem."
The story is about Learie (get it?), an entrepreneur who starts a psychedelic clinic business called Gaia Health.
Learie starts Gaia Health for the right reasons – the world is pain; psychedelics helped her see this and come to terms with it; they can do the same for others. Psychedelics can help the world heal.
Gaia Heath rides the wave of the psychedelic renaissance. The plans get more ambitious, the capital raises bigger, the product more tech-enabled, the competition fiercer. Learie finds herself selling a mental health commodity, little different from her competitors except that her pricing is a bit higher and her hiring policy slightly more rigorous.
Eventually, Learie is forced out. A suit is brought in to run the show. Learie looks around, not recognizing the world she helped usher in.
The essay leaves us with a call to action: what will you do now to help realize the world you want want to see? (Subtext: what will you do now to work against the corporatization of psychedelics?)
But I think another question should come before that: what's so bad about the corporatization of psychedelics?
The world Learie helps build is a dark one – impersonal psychedelic clinics staffed by former nursing home employees, 5-MeO-DMT nasal spray muscled to center stage because a 5-MeO trip only lasts a few minutes (think of the unit economics!), marginalized communities pushed further to the margin as big pharma moves into the space.
- Learie builds a successful psychedelic business and walks away with $52 million from its exit
- People seeking mental health treatment have access to psychedelic therapy, and this therapy is genuinely helpful
- People who used to work as nursing home attendants now have the option to work as psychedelic facilitators
- Using psychedelics becomes a more normal part of our culture
- Big pharma takes psychedelic therapy seriously and works to professionalize it
- More money flows into psychedelic research
- Overdrawn psychedelic resources (e.g. peyote cacti, banisteriopsis caapi vines, Sonoran Desert toads) get some relief as synthetic alternatives come online
The essay hints at marginalized groups like refugees being worse off, but it's not clear how or why that happens.
Learie's world is definitely imperfect, but it's plausibly a real improvement over the present state of affairs.
I think the main thing that's sad about Learie's world is that basically everyone misses the point.
Psychedelics have the potential to be transformative. I don't mean that in some vague, New Agey sort of way. I mean that psychedelic experiences can literally change how you think about your life, your story, and the world you live in.
Transformative potential like this is powerful, and it's not guaranteed to go in a positive way (though interestingly it tends to skew positive). This is a huge topic and I won't dive into it here. For now, I just want to observe that what generates a lot of interest in psychedelics is not the thought that psychedelic therapy will be somewhat better than the current standard of care, but that psychedelics could be radically transformative (see the Griffiths quote at end of Michael Pollan's New Yorker essay).
The same dynamic is at play for contemplative practices like meditation. People who get really enthusiastic about meditation tend to be excited about its transformative potential (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This doesn't mesh neatly with how corporate business models work, so we end up with palliative presentations like Headspace.
(To be clear, I think things like Headspace are good & helpful to lots of people. The world where Headspace exists is better than the world where it doesn't, ceteris paribus. Yet alongside that, there's a melancholy that arises from seeing a potentially transformative thing being handled as a palliative.)
This dynamic arises in straitlaced domains too. In 1930, Keynes predicted that by 2030 most people would be living lives of leisure. And though we have gotten much wealthier over that span, most people don't spend most of their time on leisure presently, and it's very unlikely that this will change by 2030.
The interesting question here is "Why not?"
- Given how much surplus we have, why don't most people spend most of their time on leisure? (Sure, you can say that it's a distribution problem, but that only pushes the question back a level – why is there a distribution problem?)
- Why don't the most popular meditation apps talk about the transformative potential of that practice?
- Why are social-impact VCs seeking 10x returns? ("They need to pay back their LPs" – okay, fine, but why are the LPs seeking outsized returns? What do they need that money for, specifically?)
These are foundational questions (echoes of Moloch), and I don't yet have intelligible answers.
This sense of loss, this feeling of missing out on massive upside, is what's troubling about Learie's world. But it's also a troubling thing about our world!
I appreciate We Will Call It Pala for painting a specific vision of a suboptimal psychedelic future. It would be sad for us to collectively miss the point as we bring psychedelics more into our culture. But I think an imperfect rollout would still be a good thing.