Part one in a series on the convergence of crypto technologies and psychedelics
About a year ago, Joel’s life was a mess. He was overweight. He suffered frequent bouts of depression. And he could never shake what he described as an all-pervasive anxiety, which he had carried with him most of his life.
“That anxious feeling was always there,” Joel said as we walked along a charming commercial thoroughfare in Tulum, Mexico. “I thought it was just me and I’d just have to live with it. It affected all my decisions, you know, my entire self-concept.”
But a little over a year ago, something changed.
“I’ve lost over a hundred pounds,” said Joel. “Now I work out. I travel. My career is going great… I’m a new person.”
When I asked him about his radical transformation, he attributed it to one thing.
“Psychedelics,” he said smiling. His eyes betrayed arcane knowledge. “There’s no way I could have found the resolve to do what I did without them.”
It had all started at a conference. Joel had gone with some friends to an afterparty and those friends encouraged him to try the psychedelic compound MDMA, known also by the street name “Molly.” He figured at the very least it would be an escape.
“For a little while I discovered what it felt like experience no anxiety,” he said. “It was such a relief. And that feeling of life without the anxiety lasted for days.”
But Joel is no club kid. He’s a thirty-six year old professional working in the Washington, D.C. policy arena. So I asked him how he felt about breaking the law.
“I mean, it saved my life. There are just and unjust laws.”
I probed a bit more, asking whether he could have just take conventional anti-anxiety medication.
“You mean the ones that risk addition? Look, it’s not just relief from anxiety … I saw that it’s possible to love myself, that I am worth investing in. And I could see that especially through the people around me, too. I realized I had a community of support.”
After his MDMA experience, Joel started doing some research. He learned not only that studies show promise for the use of MDMA in treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but that other psychedelic therapies were showing promise for depression, too.
Psilocybin, the primary compound in magic mushrooms, found effective for treating depression and assisting addiction recovery. Ibrogaine, a plant medicine found in sub-saharan Africa, has been helping people kick heroine addictions.
Joel started experimenting with psilocybin tinctures, the anesthetic ketamine, and LSD. He noticed dramatic changes in his mental health, which allowed him to start improving his physical health.
“I began to see that I could adopt a positive frame of thinking — and I could do it at will.”
But the big breakthrough came when he tried DMT.
“So there’s this common experience among people who try it [DMT]. It’s the experience of meeting beings. And I did. For me, it was also a moment where I could actually sense the control — to feel the power of letting go. It went from a message from these beings to ‘let go’ to being a faculty I possessed. It was like a gift.”
It was at that moment, in the midst of his DMT experience, Joel realized that he suddenly had a kind of agency over his mental life. He describes being able to “manifest good things.”
After this journey, Joel says he has been able, day by day, to remove the shackles.
Psychedelic Therapy and ICOs
At the inaugural conference in Tulum, Mexico called “Cryptopsychedelic” I overheard a group of excited blockchain token investors discussing a couple of startups that would soon be able to mix traditional psychotherapies with psychedelic medicines.
“All of these should be tokenizing,” said one investor. “I’d get in just because I think this is so promising.”
ICO or no, the long-term promise of these startups depends on a couple of things.
First, a non-profit group called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is working on stage-three clinical trials for the use of MDMA in the treatment of PTSD and depression. The preliminary results are nothing short of startling. 68 percent of patients recover fully from PTSD after clinically-guided MDMA therapies. Patients include Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans.
MAPS has a long way — plus millions of dollars — to go before the FDA will recognize the safety and efficacy of MDMA in this context. So, startup clinics will have to wait for these results before MDMA can be taken off the Schedule 1 for controlled substances.
Second, apart from a dubious array of pharmacologies currently indicated for use in treating depression (e.g. SSRIs), these new clinics will have to depend on the off-label use of ketamine (a dissociative) for a time, that is, until MDMA and psilocybin come online.
But ketamine is a good place to start.
“Currently approved medications for depression all have about the same, very limited efficacy,” said UCSD psychiatrist, David Feifel, speaking to the British medical journal The Lancet: “A large percentage of patients with depression do not get an adequate level of relief from these antidepressants even when they have tried several different ones….”
Ketamine is believed to work by blocking N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the brain, which interact with the neurotransmitter glutamate.
Despite having their hands tied by a number of regulatory strictures, psychiatrists are confident that more and more psychedelic medicines will come online, following in the wake of what appears to be a deregulation wave in marijuana laws at the state level.
But marijuana is one thing. Is the public ready to accept compounds that have been stigmatized for years by prosecutors of the Drug War?
Ordinary Americans might be desperate enough to consider support for liberalizing psychedelic therapies, considering that the opioid epidemic is affecting those self-same Americans the most. Nearly 64,000 people died in 2016 of opiate overdoses. Legally prescribed pain medications directly or indirectly caused a majority of these deaths. And they show no signs of stopping.
When one considers that most psychedelics have no addictive properties whatever, it raises questions about why psychedelics should be banned while opioids like oxycontin should be legal. But when one considers that banned compounds like psilocybin and Ibrogaine are actually effective treatments for opioid addiction, the contradictions really start to surface.
Most of us are horrified by daily doses of news about the loss of life due to opioids, which now kill more people than cancer per annum. And yet the stigmatization of psychedelics persists. Most people continue to labor under the idea that these substances are only sought for recreational use. Most Americans have a collective picture of bacchanalian hippies, dancing in the mud, losing their grip on reality.
The nexus between the Nixonian Drug War and the pharma-captured FDA looks more and more apparent each day as psychedelic cures are kept away from those who need them most. Maybe it’s time to drop our taboos. If we do, scores of thousands of lives could be saved each year, as people open their minds to psychedelic therapies.
When it comes to the use of psychedelic compounds, more and more people like Joel are self-medicating. The first thing one might assume when one hears the neologism “cryptopsychedelic” is that people are buying illegal substances off the dark web. And it’s most certainly true they are.
But the term cryptopsychedelic is about more than just a transaction, or even a means of raising capital for psychedelic therapy startups. It’s the convergence of two movements rooted in the promise of two kinds of technology: One is devoted to decentralization and the distributed ledger technologies that make decentralization possible (e.g. blockchain); the other is devoted to sound mental health and spiritual enlightenment of the kind made possible by certain psychedelic compounds.
As we’ll see in a future installment, the convergence of these two movements has profound implications beyond just treating people for depression and addiction. It can be a means of reorienting humanity for good. Please stay tuned.
(Disclosure: One of the founders of the Cryptopsychedelic conference is on the Social Evolution board of trustees.)
(Update: Here is Part Two in the series.)
Max Borders is executive director of Social Evolution. Support Social Evolution here.