The psychedelic gold rush: marketing the future of mental healthcare to the masses

The psychedelic industry could revolutionize mental healthcare. Compounds like MDMA and psilocybin are rapidly being pushed through clinical trials and have already been embraced by numerous cities and states across the US. With the psychedelics gold rush upon us, experts are warning about the need for marketers to prioritize sober education over intoxicating profit.

After more than half a century of propaganda-fueled demonization, psychedelics are slowly but surely being embraced by the mainstream. Now, profiteers are rushing in, eager to capitalize on a burgeoning market which could be valued at more than $10bn by 2027. There are some who worry that the drive for profit, coupled with irresponsible marketing practices, could eclipse safety measures – with potentially disastrous consequences, according to experts.

There’s a growing sense that the future of mental healthcare belongs to psychedelics – and investors and entrepreneurs have been seizing the moment. Billionaires like Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies), Steven Cohen (a hedge fund manager and owner of the New York Mets), and Bob Parsons (founder of GoDaddy.com) have invested in psychedelic start-ups which stand to make a fortune when psychedelics become legally available. Psychedelics have also become a media darling. “The psychedelic revolution is coming,” The New York Times declared in a May 2021 headline. “Psychiatry may never be the same.”

As they continue on the long road to FDA approval, many have begun to wonder what legal psychedelic-assisted therapy might look like. It isn’t clear how a pharmaceutical company, for example, can expect to make a profit off a drug like psilocybin, which has been shown in some cases to provide months of psychological relief, sometimes after just a single dose. What is clear is that demand is likely to be high, especially in the wake of the pandemic’s emotional turmoil.

To get a sense of what commodified psychedelic-assisted therapy might look like, one need only look at what’s already happening with ketamine. After the FDA approved esketamine (a derivative of ketamine) for treatment-resistant depression in 2019, ketamine has rapidly been shedding its sketchy reputation as ‘special K’ to become a multimillion-dollar industry, with posh ketamine clinics popping up in some major cities. The marketing materials of such clinics are chalk-full of breathless accounts of how ketamine has “saved my life,” alongside stock images of happy-looking, healthy young people, like those you might spot in a Coca-Cola ad.

While not technically a psychedelic (it’s a dissociative anesthetic), ketamine is often grouped together with the so-called ‘classic psychedelics’ – a category that includes LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT. It’s also generally agreed that, like psychedelics, ketamine should be administered under the guidance of a therapist. Most ketamine clinics are careful to adhere to that model. But some have downplayed – or even completely done away with – the role of the therapist in order to get ketamine into the hands of more customers.

With FDA approval on the horizon, investors and entrepreneurs are ready to pounce

All of the classic psychedelics remain classified as schedule 1 substances by the Drug Enforcement Agency, meaning they have no established medical value and a high potential for abuse. But clinical trials have been disproving those long-held beliefs, and some cities and states have changed their laws accordingly. In 2019, Oakland, Calif. became the first city in the country to decriminalize psychedelics. Just over a year later, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin. Even Texas – a state not exactly known for its liberal drug policies – legalized psilocybin research in 2021 with the goal of treating PTSD among its veteran population. (Rick Perry was among those who publicly voiced support for the legislation.) MDMA and psilocybin-assisted therapy trials have been advancing rapidly, and both treatments could receive FDA-approval within the next year or two.

With such a huge potential market just over the horizon, some companies have already begun to develop their strategies for selling psychedelics to the masses. Brad Burge, founder of Integration Communications, a PR company representing companies in the psychedelic space, says that in order to avoid disaster, economic enthusiasm must be tempered with sober education about psychedelics, their benefits and risks, and the proper setting in which they ought to be used. “We need to continue to destigmatize and talk about the beneficial potential of these substances [along with] the importance of education and accountability with therapists,” Burge says. “But also there’s this psychedelic gold rush, and you’re getting these psychedelic business conferences and herds of investors flooding in and looking to see if maybe this is going to be a nice way to make a quick buck. And in the process of that, with investor dollars, or private funding, or whatever it is, they’re promoting this message of psychedelics [as] this miracle treatment ... and unfortunately, [they’re] the loudest ones, because they have the biggest budgets.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that the healthcare industry and private sector have gotten carried away by the promise and potential profit of an exciting new class of drugs. The introduction of SSRIs in the 1980s was hailed as a revolution for mental health. Which of course it was; untold numbers of lives have been saved. But it wasn’t until much later that we discovered that drugs such as Prozac are a double-edged sword, with some nasty and potentially life-threatening side effects.

Curing the hangover from the ‘War on Drugs’

If psychedelics are really to benefit people individually and the culture as a whole, experts say, the companies that are seeking to cash in on their market potential must be careful to balance their economic motives with clear, transparent, research-driven information. “There needs to be a rebranding of psychedelics from the conventional hallucinogenic and experimental substances to being associated with [the] clinically-proven and scientific evidence that they're demonstrating right now,” says Kripa Krishnan, senior analytical consultant with Informa Pharma Intelligence, a data analysis firm that’s focused on the pharmaceutical and medtech industries. “And that rebranding requires a lot of marketing and advertising efforts ... you need to continuously invest in education [and] in basically spreading awareness. You’re not just marketing a product, you’re marketing a concept. You’re marketing an entire paradigm shift.”

Education will be key not only to ensure the safety of eager consumers, but also to help change the minds of those who still view psychedelics as the scourge of the youth, the drugs that will fry your brain, scramble your chromosomes, or convince you that you’re able to fly just long enough for you to jump off a building to your death. Though their numbers are almost certainly dwindling, there are plenty of people out there who still think that way, their perception of psychedelics colored by a long and well-funded propaganda campaign, sponsored by the US government.

“In many ways we are still living in the shadow of the 1970s [and the] ‘War on Drugs,’ which painted all drugs, and especially psychedelics, with the same broad brush,” says Drew Gomez, head of brand and product marketing at Mindbloom, a company that provides ketamine-assisted therapy. “This sensationalized reputation has often overshadowed the scientific research of the last 50 years, which has shown, time and time again, how safe and effective some of these psychedelic medicines can be to manage and address mental health disorders.”

The proper response to propaganda is never more propaganda. It’s counterproductive and dishonest, many experts would argue, to portray psychedelics as pure sunshine and rainbows. “These drugs are not panaceas,” Burge says. Indeed, though their therapeutic benefits look promising, researchers are also quick to point out that psychedelics can trigger psychotic episodes in those with certain neurological predispositions. They can also be harmful if they’re taken in the wrong context – namely, without the guidance of a trained therapist by your side. One of the big concerns is that breathless marketing from the private sector, coupled with glowing coverage in the press, will lead droves of desperate people to buy MDMA or psilocybin off the street and take their treatment into their own hands. Needless to say, that would not be a good thing for the industry.

The dangers of prioritizing profit over people

Given the current momentum, it seems highly likely that we’re headed for a future in which some psychedelic-assisted therapies will be legally available, and in which some companies will make enormous sums of money off the new market. The dynamics of capitalism could inexorably push some companies to get a leg up on the competition by – to use an old trope – prioritizing profit over people. In other words, putting time-consuming and expensive safety measures on the backburner in order to ‘treat’ more customers, of which, in this age of anxiety, they’re almost certainly going to have plenty.

Ask almost any medical professional working in the field today, and they’re likely to carefully underscore the fact that it’s not necessarily the compounds themselves that affect positive behavior change; it’s their effects combined with the careful guidance of a trained therapist (or two), who sits with the patient during the session and helps them try to make some productive sense of everything afterward.

“What needs to be really reinforced in the public sphere is that what's being evaluated by the FDA is not MDMA or psilocybin per se, it's MDMA-assisted therapy [and] psilocybin-assisted therapy,” says Dr Casey Paleos, a psychiatrist and the co-founder of Mindbloom. “That’s a very, very important distinction, because these drugs are like any really powerful tool – you can use a scalpel to save somebody’s life in surgery, or you could stab somebody to death with it. The tool itself has to be handled with a level of training and expertise and knowledge around how to keep a person safe through the process, [and] that shouldn’t just be treated trivially.”

Marketers will have an important role to play in the shaping of our culture’s future relationship with psychedelics, according to experts. On the one hand, they could feed the capitalist machine – thereby increasing the likelihood of disaster not only for their customers but also for the entire industry – by downplaying safety measures, stifling the cautionary voices of researchers, and portraying these powerful compounds as magical cure-alls. On the other hand, they could choose to emphasize safety, give physicians a voice, and make it crystal clear to their customers that psychedelics are not for everyone and they should only be used in carefully circumscribed settings.

For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.