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Why We Need Psychedelic Ethics

December 9, 2020

Responsible-Use Applies As Much to Business As It Does to Molecules

The venerable psychiatrist and psychonaut, Stanislav Graf famously wrote: “Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy."

There is another scientific analogy that demonstrates the promise and also the peril of psychedelic medicine: the discovery of penicillin. The use of antibiotics has fundamentally enhanced human safety, longevity, and wellbeing. Yet through overprescription, we are breeding new generations of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Unforeseen consequences are a feature of breakthrough technologies, but with psychedelics, some of the troubles ahead can be avoided if we have the will to act as a community. These medicines have a unique ability to alleviate mental suffering, but if they are thoughtlessly woven into a system and worldview which is itself responsible for alienation and mental illness, not only will we have squandered one of humanity's most potent transformational technologies just at the moment we need it most, we will create more inequality and human suffering. 

Psychedelics must be used responsibly and with proper caution. This applies to the business of psychedelics as much as the molecules themselves. This is why the psychedelic medicine movement needs to prioritize a strong ethical stance, now and moving forward.

The Need for Ethics

Like many passionate advocates of entheogens, my commitment to these compounds stems from my own healing journey. Over the past decade, I’ve had the honor and privilege to sit in many different plant medicine ceremonies. These experiences not only alleviated symptoms I once considered a permanent mental health disorder, they also showed me how we are all connected and that our healing is interlinked. This led to changes in how I relate to my family, my community, and to the planet. I have observed in myself and others that this trajectory of initial awakening, followed by personal healing and a commitment to service is a common theme of the psychedelic path. However, the further these medicines are removed from the worldview of their traditional context, the more we risk losing the enormous gifts our ailing world most desperately needs. 

As Dr. Charles Flores writes in his excellent essay No Ghosts and No Machine:

“This is the much deeper concern that indigenous people and in many cases people of color have: that psychedelic commercialization is actually a confrontation between two completely different visions of the world. One of those visions - the dualistic, the one that extracts and commodifies, a view from which we have received many short-term benefits - is destroying the world.” 

The collision between these visions is well underway. The Psychedelic Renaissance is occurring in a capitalist system during an epidemic of mental health disorders. The injection of psychedelics into this system will involve many of its functions, including for-profit companies and venture capital. However, like composting, we can use the disintegrating structures of our global system to alchemize its transformation.

I believe that our best defense against psychedelics being carelessly folded into an extractive system is to create and nurture what Stealing Fire author Jamie Wheal calls “an attractor coalition” where it becomes more advantageous to be part of a group with ethical commitments than to not. The existing global psychedelic community - a wide ranging group of Indigenous wisdom keepers, drug reform and harm reduction warriors, academics and researchers, and passionate psychonauts - is forming the backbone of this coalition. Its DNA is made up of the ethical codes that organizations are implementing.

Finding my North Star in the Psychedelic Movement

My personal introduction to the global psychedelic community came as a journalist and Creative Director for the online guide to the world’s best festivals, Fest300. I was on assignment at a festival in Costa Rica with the Zendo Project, an initiative under the umbrella of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies that offers peer support for people having difficult or challenging psychedelic experiences at festivals. My time as a Zendo sitter and my subsequent article, I Did Psychedelic First Aid at a Festival in Costa Rica, led to many important friendships in the world of harm reduction and psychedelic research. After many Zendo shifts and healing ceremonies later (including an initiation with Iboga with the Bwiti people in Gabon, I was ready to offer my community-building skills to the psychedelic movement.

To have the most personal impact, I wanted to find a position with an ethically aligned company that really understood what was at stake. I wasn’t just looking for an organization with similar values, I wanted a seat at the table to help craft a transparent, accountable ethics policy and to learn in the process. After interviewing with a few companies in this space I finally found the organization that aligned with my values and also offered me the opportunity to help craft a  company policy that would support the integrity of the psychedelic movement. A new generation of companies have the unique opportunity to establish psychedelics in the mainstream in a way that will not only contribute to the healing of individuals, but to society itself. This is also why I personally chose to work for Maya and to play the role of anchor between the company’s business goals and its social commitments.

Introducing Maya’s Ethics Covenant

We are proud to unveil an industry-leading Ethics Covenant in the psychedelic space. From our CEO and co-founder David Champion’s foreword:

“The burgeoning psychedelic field brings particular ethical considerations from social justice and inclusion to data use and privacy. [Maya is] committed to being a community leader in both the equal access to psychedelic medicine and the ethical flow of data. We are grateful for the opportunity to identify and operationalize our ethical commitments into every aspect of our company. 
At Maya, we know that psychedelic medicine has the power to shift the paradigm of mental healthcare on a global scale. However, the pioneers in psychedelic medicine don’t have an easy way to demonstrate the clinical benefits of their work. Maya is a software platform designed to help psychedelic practitioners manage, measure, and illustrate health outcomes, so they can optimize services, scale safely, and help advance psychedelic healthcare.
While we know that the Maya platform will play a key role in generating essential insights into psychedelic healthcare practices, we also acknowledge that this role comes with great responsibility. We take our role as the ethical stewards of the flow of data between patients, clients, practitioners and researchers very seriously. [Our] ethical positions will serve as the foundation for everything that we do and everything we stand for. We’re humbled at the collective knowledge of the psychedelic community and grateful for the opportunity to continue working on these values as our field evolves.”

For the Public Benefit

While interviewing with different psychedelic companies, my friend Liana Sananda Gillooly sent me a story called We Will Call It Pala, published by the Auryn Project, a non-profit she co-founded that is also behind the North Star Psychedelic Ethics Pledge. Liana is a guiding light in psychedelic ethics and has been my personal sounding board in finding the right organization to work with. Liana and I did a podcast together about psychedelic ethics.

We Will Call It Pala is a cautionary tale about how best intentions in the nascent field of psychedelic medicine could lead to unwanted outcomes. The story centers on the quixotic dreams of protagonist Learie as she guides her venture-backed startup Gaia Health through the challenges of competition in the world of capitalism and psychedelics. I found many of the companies I was in talks with at the time lacking in their commitment to ethical considerations. So what made Maya different?

The first issue that comes up in Pala is whether using a venture-backed model is wise in the psychedelic healthcare space. At Maya, we believe the nonprofit model is less effective as creating industry leading software requires a significant capital raise in the millions, which can take years or decades to raise through philanthropy. Instead, impact investment capital allows us to scale ethical social benefit, which is why Maya is structured as a Public Benefit Corporation. Tying public benefit to our charter and shareholder bylaws allows us to accomplish as much good as is possible. It makes our impact commitments clear and ensures our investors are aligned behind them. We Will Call It Pala also speaks to the issue of investor pressure. Our investors have already signed on to supporting the benevolent mission of our business and know that the bottom line isn’t our bottom line. To take things a step further, we have required all seed investors to sign our Investor Covenant, to maintain the integrity of the company even as we scale.

Supporting Clinics and Forging Cooperation

At Maya, we are designing a software platform to help psychedelic practitioners manage their practices, measure progress, and illustrate health outcomes. No matter what context practitioners work in, they need insights and technology to optimize services, scale safely, and help advance psychedelic healthcare. We Will Call It Pala paints a picture where local psychedelic medicine clinics struggle to compete with large conglomerates. With Maya’s software, independent clinics and practitioners will have the tools they need to support and legitimize their unique offerings in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

As far as competition in our own sector of the movement is concerned, at Maya, we wish to change business as usual by pursuing cooperation and creativity in the market. This is why we have created a Coopetition Covenant with our closest competitor, Osmind.

Above all, our goal at Maya is to remain in conversation with the psychedelic community and continue to evolve through our personal relationships, our Psychedelic Therapy Podcast, and our Council of Guides. We are signatories of the North Star Psychedelic Ethics pledge, a set of commitment that took many weeks to weave into our business model itself.

Wise Stewardship of Data

One of the biggest concerns with organizations such as Maya is around how we use data. Maya intends to create the largest psychedelic data set that will be used to further research and provide transparency regarding ethical standards of care, best practices, and legitimizing a new model for mental healthcare. 

We believe that aggregating data for psychedelic therapies can and will positively affect healthcare, research, and policy. As evident in the tech world today, we recognize that data can also be used illegitimately, both consciously and unconsciously, in ways that would harm the patients and the psychedelic movement itself. Our position is not whether data aggregation within psychedelic healthcare should happen (someone will do it), but rather, WHO and HOW they will utilize it. We intend to be that ethical actor in the space with our focus on serving patients and practitioners across the globe. Therefore we have developed a robust and industry-leading data and privacy policy in collaboration with Vicente Sederberg, a sophisticated law firm at the frontier of drug policy reform.

Giving Back

Those who need psychedelic healing most are typically those with least access to resources. One of the biggest issues of concern in psychedelics is around equal access to treatment. If these potent medicines are only available to those with the most resources, the wealthy will continue to thrive, while the economically disadvantaged continue to suffer. These medicines remind us that we are all one, and it is only right that we provide the opportunity for everyone to benefit. 

Following the example of organizations like Sage Institute, supporting equal access to these medicines is the foremost cause we have chosen to put our weight behind as a company. As organizations and individual practitioners adopt the Maya software and we become the default software platform for the industry, we will have the leverage to support sliding scale access programs and subsidization through our grant programs, in an effort to provide access to Maya for everyone who can benefit.

My Wish for the Psychedelic Movement

These are just some of the ways we are building robust ethical considerations into our business. This is an evolving process so if you have ideas or feedback, I would love to hear from you.

My wish for our movement is that we bring psychedelic principles into business itself and use these powerful medicines to create “the more beautiful world we know is possible”, to quote Charles Eistenstein. Organizations, including Maya, will learn along the way. However, if we hold each other accountable and continue to iterate together, the psychedelic movement itself will grow and evolve, bringing business itself on a long and strange trip to help us all to heal.

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