As European and American non-profit groups are turning towards crowdfunding to bankroll research into the medical application of psychoactive substances, one recent Norwegian campaign is aiming to dwarf all previous efforts.
Over the past year, the US non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has collected over $177,000 using multiple crowdfunding campaigns, and received $81,000 from a Reddit campaign. And British researcher David Nutt managed to collect over £40,000 within 24 hours in a crowdfunding campaign last week to make scans of a brain on LSD.
Now, Norwegian advocacy group EmmaSofia is campaigning to raise $1 million to synthesize psychedelics and MDMA for medical use, so that researchers worldwide will have easier access to them.
Typically, researchers have to not only acquire proper licensing for their own specific research, but also find and pay a company that is willing to, and licensed to, synthesize the drugs for them. By crowdfunding the synthesization of large amounts through an unnamed Norwegian company, EmmaSofia wants to normalize the production side of psychedelic research, and make the drugs available worldwide, for free.
"We have teamed up with a lab here in Norway which already has all the proper licensing," EmmaSofia's Teri Krebs, who runs EmmaSofia together with her husband and fellow researcher Pal-Orjan Johansen, told VICE News. "If a doctor gets the proper licensing, they will be able to order it through us."
Their plan is to use $300,000 to synthesize medical-grade psilocybin, another $300,000 towards medical MDMA, and the another $400,000 for advocacy efforts, like court cases and lobbying at the United Nations and World Health Organization.
"Eventually, we should be able to make kilos of MDMA and psilocybin," Krebs said.
Production of psilocybin and MDMA is legal under the UN Protocol on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, which allows for the use of Schedule 1 substances for medical and scientific research. Distribution would be the same as for other controlled substances.
"A licensed doctor anywhere in the world can then go to his or her pharmacy, and order it from us," Johansen explains. "Storage and shipping will be handled by a licensed company that delivers medicines to pharmacies. This infrastructure is already in place for all other medication that needs to be shipped abroad, and is possible if all parties are properly licensed."
The psilocybin and MDMA would be free of charge, paid for with funds from the IndieGoGo campaign. Johansen says the only costs are for shipping, and in certain countries there might be fees when ordering controlled substances. The researchers say that crowdfunding synthesization of drugs is needed, because of a key problem: there is little money to be made off of them.
Besides, treatments with psilocybin require only a few intakes, and they are not a money-maker for any company that wants to jump through legal hoops that are involved with synthesizing a controlled substance. The dosages are just too small.
That's why National Institute of Mental Health Director Dr. Thomas R. Insel says there must be alternatives ways to fund this research, as he told the New Yorker in an article about soothing anxiety of dying cancer patients with psychedelics.
"It would be very difficult to get a pharmaceutical company interested in developing this drug, since it cannot be patented," he said.
Governments could also jump in — Insel's Institute falls under the United States Department of Health and Human Services — but the director said he doesn't see that happening soon. "The NIMH is not opposed to work with psychedelics," he said. "But I doubt we would make a major investment."
Amanda Feilding of the British Beckley Foundation, which also promotes research into psychedelics, hails the initiative by EmmaSofia.
"It is an excellent idea," she told VICE News. "It's incredibly helpful to have a source of a medical-grade substance without having to go through great costs. When we wanted to do LSD research, the whole process took us almost two years. That is a terrible waste of time."
Erwin Krediet a board member of the Dutch OPEN Foundation, which promotes scientific research into psychedelics, told VICE News that he is "optimistic but cautious" about the campaign.
"I like their good intentions, but I wonder how realistic it is," he said. "I'd like to see a little bit more about how they think this will work out exactly. But if they manage to succeed, this will definitely make it easier for scientists to do research with psychedelics."
Brad Burge of MAPS says his organization is planning to set up a similar service, but that it will probably not be operational within the next few years.
"We are still working with the first kilo of MDMA that was first synthesized in 1985," he said, adding that the substance is still tested 99.9 percent pure after all these years, but that it's soon time for a new batch. "It was originally manufactured by Dr. David Nichols at Purdue University, and paid for by MAPS' predecessor non-profit, Earth Metabolic Design Labs, at a cost of $4/gram. It turns out that MDMA has a great shelf life."
Back then, it was much cheaper to produce it because there were less legal hurdles, he says. "Now we're talking something in the range of $$450,000 to produce a kilo, most of which would go to DEA licensing fees."
Krebs and Johansen work at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, and for 10 years have been researching the relationship between psychedelics and mental health issues. Their most recent study came out last week, in which they examined data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Their findings show no apparent connection between the use of psychedelics and mental health problems. Their report, which is published in the March issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology, suggests that public fears of being able to get "stuck in a trip" are not supported by science.
For their research, they used answers from more than 135,000 people who took part in the survey between 2008 and 2011. They tried to see if there was any connection between people who said they had coped with mental health issues in their life, and people who stated that they ever used psychedelics.
"There was no association between the two," Johansen tells VICE News. ¨We also looked at their income, for example, and that did have an influence. The lower their stated income was, the more often mental health issues became a factor. No such thing happened when we checked if they ever had used psychedelics." Krebs and Johansen also released similar results two years ago.
They were also able to reach the conclusion that the risk of suicide was lower among people who have ever used psychedelics in their lives. "Rather," their report states, "among people with childhood depression, those who had used psychedelics had lower likelihood of past year suicidal thoughts and plans." This conclusion is the same as an American study from January by the University of Alabama.
Tired of what Johansen and Krebs see as a misguided treatment of many of these substances, they have now crossed over into activism, but do not see a conflict of interest in this.
"It is our duty as scientists to speak up when we discover that laws and regulations do not correspond with scientific findings," Johansen said.
Their results, as stated in their report, enforce the viewpoint that there is no scientific reason for psychedelics to be illegal.
Brad Burge of MAPS says that research like this erodes the stigma around psychoactive substances, and therefore can help shrink the money issues, too.
"Non-profit support is increasing because we have all this research coming out," he said, "That is making people, organizations, institutions, and governments more willing to get on board with it."
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