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The big controversy – psychedelics: dangerous drugs or life improving medicine

Link to the Episode

Anshu Bahanda:  This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. And we have someone who is an authority on psychedelics today. His name is Sa’ad Shah. He’s the co-founder and managing partner of Noetic Fund, a venture capital firm that seeks to invest in emerging and early stage psychedelic based wellness, therapeutic and pharmaceutical companies around the world. It’s the largest venture capital firm in this space and he has been studying this space for 20 years now. He started with Esoteric Philosophies, then he went on to quantum physics, then he started exploring consciousness and he came upon psychedelics. 

Sa’ad, what is wellness to you?

Sa’ad Shah: Wellness is something that is really holistic, coming from all parts of the body. We typically think of it as something that’s good for our system physiologically, but it’s very much more of a mind-body thing with a spiritual component to it. So it’s the coming together of those three elements in a way where what matters equally in terms of the food and the nutrition that one takes in, is the mindset that one has and how one approaches the issues that they’re facing with their emotional intelligence, their attitude to life, and their vision. That also just ensures that you have what it takes to kind of keep your mind at bay from all the issues that we’re facing on a daily basis. So it’s holistic, and that’s what it means to heal—to be whole.

AB: Now Sa’ad, tell us what exactly are psychedelics?

SS: Psychedelics are substances that have a lot of history in terms of many of the botanicals, but they’re also synthetic substances that essentially alter the state of our mind. They alter our perception. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, despite what we’ve been told. But ultimately, the way in which these substances interact with our serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin receptors and other neurons as neurotransmitters enables us to look at issues and things that we’re dealing with from a very different perspective, which can have profound implications for our mental health and our well-being. That can come from botanical substances such as mescaline, ayahuasca, or psilocybin, which is also known as magic mushrooms. But there are also synthetic components like LSD that are quite well known in the ecosystem for bringing about or inducing that mindset. So psychedelics in themselves means mind manifesting.

AB: What have psychedelics typically been used for that you know of and tell us sort of key situations in which you’ve seen them help individuals. 

SS: There is tons of history about the use of psychedelics going back thousands of years. Right? I mean, the Rig Vedas themselves talked about the soma you have in the epic of Gilgamesh, the first written context in western civilization. On the Sumerian tablets is a story of Kim Gilgamesh and about the thorny plant that grows underwater and provides you with eternal life. Soma purported to do the same thing. So when you take a look at the hieroglyphics in Egypt and the carvings in Carnac and elsewhere, the blue lotus flower comes up a great deal, and that has a very strong psychedelic component to it. Right? The mimosa plant—I mean, there’s enough there to suggest that these substances played a very critical role amongst many cultures and civilizations in the past. I think what’s more important is the use of psychedelics as a known substance in modern history. And if you go back into the past, there was a tonne of research done. I mean, the first real research around this was done at the turn of the 20th century, back in 1893 or 1894, by Healer and synthesizing masculine, which was typically what that was used for at that point in time. There were a lot of psychiatric studies that were done, especially by individuals like Stan Groff, to try and understand the components and makings of the mind, how we think, how we approach issues, and so on. In the turn from being something that was more studied as a therapy to becoming known as the love drug, it became an instrument for many that were free thinkers. And Timothy Leary from Harvard had a big role to play in that, and that’s what derailed the process with Nixon, because Nixon wanted support for the war; he had all these happy people running around saying no war, more love, and that was going against the foreign policy that Nixon had. So he put all these substances on the schedule and abuse list, and then they were banned. Pharma companies played a big role prior to the 70s, but when this got out into the open, into the public domain, and was freely available, it wasn’t illegal at that time; it was going against a certain paradigm and a certain mindset that the US had. So they put all these substances on the schedule, which are useless. And they also managed to convince a lot of other countries that these were bad. And technically, in order for it to be bad, they had to make a case at the time, which was not made, that these are physiologically addictive, which they are not, that they have very high toxicity levels, and we know that they have amongst the lowest toxicity levels, and that they’re very harmful to you. And we know that that’s not the case. So right now there’s an about-turn and all of that because research came forward in the 90s in a profound way and has been growing ever since that these molecules, although they’re very powerful, have a profound impact on the makeup of our mood and our mind and the way that the receptors work and can actually not only be a treatment but actually be a cure for treatment-resistant depression. Treatment-resistant depression means there is no treatment for that form of depression, for major depressive disorder, for PTSD, or for anxiety. And so right now, the focus in large parts is on mental health. We’re not even looking at the anecdotal evidence that we have and other evidence to suggest that there are linkages to autoimmune disorders, inflammation, oncology, and other areas of our wellness and wellbeing that have yet to be fully investigated and researched. So the implications of how this can be game-changing are pretty profound. The science is overwhelming. You cannot argue with that. But there are a lot of unanswered questions that have yet to be answered. 

AB: You had said something about them being mind changing. So tell me, are they mind altering or are they mind enhancing?

SS: They’re both. Okay, so when you take a look at the way the mind functions, it’s on a spectrum. Even look at mental health illnesses, right? It’s a spectrum. So on one end of the spectrum, you’ve got very serious cases like treatment-resistant depression, major depressive disorder, anxiety, and PTSD. On the other hand, you’ve got more cognitive impairment, right? Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and ADHD. What we know for a fact is that these molecules are incredibly efficacious in the way that they interact with the 5-HT2 a serotonin receptor, which is what brings about the hallucinations, but is also an important component in our mood. We also know that these molecules cause neurogenesis—the birth of new cells. We know that they play a vital role in neuroplasticity by forming more neural networks. Those areas are very important when it comes to cognitive impairment and mind enhancement. On the other end of the spectrum, we know that they also play a very efficacious role in bringing depression down and essentially allowing you to face your problem without having a lot of angst. The big problem that we all face is that we all have some trauma issue that we’re dealing with, and we’re in a small room, and there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, and that doesn’t allow you to move around. But if you reduce the size of that 800-pound gorilla to the size of a mini-me now, that problem is gone. You can look at it, go around it, deal with it, and go. That’s not an issue. I can deal with that, and that’s what psychedelics allow you to do. So I think that the spectrum is quite wide, but they are both mind-enhancing. They can be, and they can be mind-altering for good reasons and for good purposes.

AB: Given what you’ve just said, that they can be mind altering and mind enhancing and the fact that you’ve said that they’re not addictive and not toxic and can’t harm you, what is your view on them being used recreationally?

SS: These are very powerful molecules. There are certain ailments that we know about, for example, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, where you have to be very, very careful when taking these molecules. The dosage matters, and everybody’s an individual; they’re very distinct individuals, and their body makeup is very distinct. So giving 2 grams of psilocybin to one individual may be a hero’s dose, whereas somebody else may only require half a gram, and that’s a hero’s dose for them. These are the questions that we still have yet to answer: what is the right dosage for the right individual? We also know now, and I’m sure that because of our genetic profile and makeup, there are some of us that are predisposed to certain psychedelics and will react better to them as opposed to others. So there’s a real element of personalization that takes place. And there is nothing more personalized in medicine that I know of than psychedelics, because you can give 30,000 people the exact same dosage of the exact same molecule. At the exact same time, they’ll have 30,000 different experiences. Making these recreationally available without the public having the right knowledge and information about how to approach psychedelics and what to do to prepare to get there, the therapy that they need before and after the integration, is probably the most important aspect of this. It’s not just taking a pill and solving all your problems; it’s highlighting the problem, but you still have to deal with it. For that reason, without enough public information, it becomes dangerous to say, “Yeah, let’s make it available to everybody and let everybody do what they want without that knowledge.” Right? It depends on what medications you’re taking, what antidepressants you’re on, what your issues and situation are, your genetic profile and makeup, your setting, and your intentions. Is there a way for you to integrate all this, all of that matter?

AB: I’m so glad you said that because the one thing that I say a lot to the younger generation because they ask questions about this is this stuff is so powerful, you don’t meddle with this, you don’t realize how powerful it is. And you’ve just put it very beautifully, sort of explained why we shouldn’t meddle with it. So thank you for that. But there’s also a lot of talk about bad trips which have been unpleasant for people. So what is your view on that and why does that happen?

SS: There are some of us who will say that a bad trip is a good trip. I want to be very careful when I say, in particular, about what psychedelics are doing to the mind: manifesting. They are going into the subconscious, where we tuck away a lot of things, and they’re highlighting things for us—things that we don’t want to bring up, we don’t want to think about, we don’t want to go back to because they were traumatic or what not. And they’re bringing it to the forefront and saying, “Listen, again, if you approach this the right way, you need to deal with this, and if you don’t deal with it the right way, it’s going to bother you for the rest of your life and it’s going to cause more and more issues, right?” And that’s a very important component because, as I will argue, one of the things that psychedelics do is— have the potential to change your past. You can actually change your past. And what I mean by that is that if you change your relationship to an event that happened in the past, you have changed your past attitude, your approach, and your reaction to something that happened in the past. If that takes place, right? If that change in mindset takes place, you’re actually able to change the relationship you have with that event in the past. And as such, you’ve changed the past. It’s very important to understand, in terms of therapy, what the promise of psychedelics can actually bring about. Again, I think that bringing something that’s in the subconscious to the forefront is a critical component of this, which is why it needs to be handled very delicately because you are going into areas of the mind and the subconscious that, if not dealt with appropriately, can cause big issues. And that’s why there’s still a lot of work going on in areas like schizophrenia, psychosis, and bipolar disorder, where you have to be very careful about which molecules you’re on.

AB: So Sa’ad, give us some examples where you have come across people who’ve been helped by psychedelics when other medicines haven’t worked.

SS: One of the partners that we’ve worked with is an individual who went to a great undergrad school, then went and worked at McKinsey, and then went to do his MBA at Harvard. But this individual was dealing with cluster headaches that were so severe that he was on very serious medications like Prednisone and other medications and had to be off work for weeks. This individual was told to take a microdose of Psilocybin. He had to go to the right place and go through the right process. He had a microdose, then a macrodose under the right sort of guidance, and he hasn’t had a cluster headache in over two years. I’m not suggesting to your audience that anybody who’s dealing with migraines and cluster headaches to please go out there and have Psilocybin. No, because again, like I said, the dosage, your genetic profile, your makeup, ensuring that you are at the right place, where you’ve got the right guidance with somebody that’s a psychedelic assistant therapist that can help in the equation, there’s a lot to factor in, but we have already seen that psychedelics have played a profound role in addiction. Addiction to opioids, addiction to alcohol, addiction to tobacco— how can something that has the potential to be addictive fight addiction? It doesn’t make sense. So we know that these substances do not have any physiologically addictive properties. There are certain cases of certain molecules that, if you take ketamine, for example, which is a horse tranquiliser, then anesthetic, that’s been legal for 50 years: if you take copious amounts of that on a very regular basis, you can become physiologically addicted to it. That means if you don’t get it, your body will have withdrawal symptoms. Right? But going back to your original question about addiction, we have seen it with treatment-resistant depression and major depressive disorders. We have seen it as a cure for anxiety and PTSD. Right now, the research that is very compelling is mostly around mental health disorders. So we’re seeing it mostly with treatment-resistant depression, major depressive disorder, anxiety, and PTSD.

AB: So tell me, if all this research is happening and if it is as amazing as the research says it is, why is it still illegal in so many countries?

SS: The research is now coming to the forefront. We have about 100 different compounds and molecules that are in clinical trials. They’re in human testing. There are about 50 of them alone, I think, in the FDA between Phase One and Phase Three. So for the FDA, for the Food and Drug Administration, to approve this, it has to go through distinct trials. Number one, is it toxic? And then you go into testing for efficacy, and then you need to test it for scale. Can this be administered to many people? And what’s the outcome there? And that process is expensive, and it can take a long time globally in the various FDA-related entities around the world. We have a lot of human testing that’s currently going on. They’re currently in phased trials. And so the US Tends to lead the pact with that. So right now we have a substance called MDMA, which is known as the ‘love drug,’ that is in Phase 3. It’s the final set of trials.

AB: Is MDMA psychedelic?

SS: Technically, it is not, but it is put in the bucket of psychedelics because you can depend on the dosage, again, on an individual, but it can lead to an altered state of consciousness in a profound way. But unlike typical psychedelics like DMT or psilocybin, which are more dissociative, which means they take you away from any semblance of knowing who and what you are, your ego is also called the ego death. MDMA is very much the opposite of that. It brings you very much into the moment. You are very much there, right? You are aware of everything that’s going on, and you’re very sensitive to everything that’s going on, but you are very much in the moment, as opposed to dissociative, which is clumped in with psychedelics because it is shown to have low toxicity levels and have an impact on mental health, in particular PTSD and anxiety. And now they’re doing studies with addiction as well that clearly show that they’re highly efficacious. Once that gets through phase three trials, you’ve got another 24, 26 right behind it in phase two that are going to raise their hand and say, “Excuse me, you let MDMA go through. We have low toxicity and very high efficacy; there are no physiologically addictive properties to what we bring to the table. So we should also get through.” And I think that’s when you will start to see real buy-in from the public. Right now, the only psychedelic that is out there is a version of ketamine by J&J. It’s a nasal spray that is being used for depression. You also have a lot of ketamine clinics in the US, Canada, and the UK where folks go to get help with their ailments, in particular depression. And there have been some great results with regards to that. But there’s a whole slew of these other molecules that are in the pipeline and will come out soon, and that’s what’s going to change the public’s perception.

AB: But Sa’ad, in the Netherlands— weren’t there Psilocybin clinics?

SS: Every country has different jurisdictions, right? In some countries, these are already legal, and they’re legal to be used in a certain context. So, yeah, you’ve got psilocybin clinics; you’ve even got ayahuasca retreats in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has always been sort of at the forefront of some of these movements. So, yeah, it depends on the jurisdiction that you’re in. But I’m specifically speaking of the US and the UK, where a lot of eyes around the globe are on what the FDA will do in terms of approving these molecules, how they’ll be introduced to the marketplace, and how they’ll be commercialized. What’s the best delivery mechanism for it? You may have a molecule approved, but how do we administer it? Do you take it intravenously? Intramuscular? Do you vape it? Do you stick a tube up your nose? All that matters is that it’s going to impact how you deliver this, right? Those questions have not yet been answered. So this is a long game. Anshu, we’re very much at the beginning stages of this. There’s a long way to go. But the one thing that we know for sure is that science is very compelling. They work.

AB: Then tell us about what you’re saying: science is very compelling. Tell us about some of the trials that are being done and some of the research which has been done in this area.

SS: Yale, Harvard—there are a lot of very well-known, established academic institutions as well as a few pharmaceutical companies. So it’s not that pharma hasn’t played a role here. There’s a lot of work going on, and what’s exciting is that it’s moved from first-generation drug development and drug discovery to second-generation drug development and drug discovery. What is happening is that psychedelics, in the way that they interact with the receptors, are allowing us to learn a great deal about the way that our minds and brains function. That’s important because now what we’re able to do as a result is that the first generation was really about focusing on the simple molecules, taking a look at psilocybin, psilocin, and LSD and what they can do. The second generation allows us now to go beyond that and actually find a way to target receptors without touching any of the other receptors, which means that you can actually forgo the receptor that brings about a hallucinogenic experience and skip that altogether. Ultimately, the third generation we’re really looking forward to is the coming together of technology, which includes certain wearables that allow you to actually gauge what’s happening during the course of having a psychedelic experience without having to go through an MRI machine. 

AB: Wow. Oh my God, that’s mind blowing. Amazing. So, do you have any advice for the people listening in?

SS: So I would encourage everybody to follow the science, try and understand it more and more, see if it may be an area that you want to look at for a particular ailment that you are facing or somebody that’s close to you or a loved one, but do your research. We’re still a ways away from this being legal in certain jurisdictions, like the US, the UK, and Canada more broadly, but that time is not that far away, and it’s coming out. And for me, I often say that the Holy Grail for me, in this sort of ecosystem environment, we talk about the fact that we’re going to go today for a reset to take place because we’re going to visit a clinic or a retreat, and that’s perfectly normal for us to do. It’s just the same thing as going to a dental hygienist for your dental hygiene. You’re going to a clinic or a retreat for mental hygiene, and that’s good.

AB: Are you aware of any studies which can help with treatment of autism?

SS: Yes, the studies on autism are starting to take place. There are a few organizations that are looking at the connection between certain psychedelics and autism, but it is very much in its early stages. Even autism is unsure of such a wide spectrum. It’s a very broad spectrum, but yes, there are certainly studies going on both in the UK and the US that are compelling.

AB: Aren’t the altered states temporary? So how do they permanently help with a cure?

SS: When you’re in an altered state of consciousness and you’re faced with the issues, or you’re forced to face the issues, you have a different perspective on them and are able to sit with them for a while. Even though you come out of that altered state of consciousness, it has had a profound impact on your relationship with that particular trauma or issue. The idea is not to be in an altered state of consciousness all the time. Some of us would say, “Wow, that’d be amazing. But that’s not the idea. The idea is to take you into a realm of perception that allows you to face your issues in a certain way. And then once that is over and you come out of it, you have to make sense of and integrate what it is that you just experienced. And that integration is not easy because a lot of things happen in terms of symbols. There are things that you see and perceive that your imagination does not have the vocabulary to be able to explain properly. But you do have an essence of what you just went through. And that essence is a sense that is just as effective as sight, sound, taste, or smell. And you know that through that essence, you were able to look at a problem in a certain way that made you feel a lot more comfortable about it.

In Canada, for example, Anshu, it has already been approved for a distinct number of individuals that are suffering from terminal illness and know that they’re going to die. The government of Canada allowed them to have an experience with psilocybin to bring their anxiety levels down. And it had a profound impact on them, whereas before they just didn’t know how to deal with the anxiety. Now they’re a lot more comfortable with it. They’re much more at peace with it. They’re more grounded with it because they were able to see or sense something that was subjective to them, but it was profound enough for them to get their anxieties to go away.

AB: How does one participate in a trial with an experienced psychedelic practitioner?

SS: You can take a look at the various trials going on and apply to see if you would be accepted as somebody for that trial. It’s not like there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of those roles around, right? So there’s one thing to participate in at trial; other than that, there are legally established ketamine clinics that one can go to, but those only offer one thing: ketamine. And just for everybody’s information, ketamine is synthetic. It is known as an anesthetic. Right? And it was used as a horse tranquiliser before that. It can be a very strong dissociative, which means that you have to be prepared that it will cut you off from any semblance of who and what you are, which is your ego, which for some people is a very, very scary thought. Just be careful with what you choose. But right now, ketamine is the only thing that’s offered on the menu in most places. You can go to jurisdictions like Peru, Brazil, and Belize, where you can legally go and have an experience, be that with Ayahuasca or with Psilocybin, or with a few other modalities. But again, do your homework on this. Just because it’s legal somewhere doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you. Understand that there is a whole process to prepare in advance, which includes your diet, your mental wellbeing, ensuring that it’s the right setting for you, that you’re in the right frame of mind, which is the set, and then having the ability to integrate afterwards with the right folks. There are just too many bad experiences that people have had. And what I mean by bad experiences is that I’m sure I’m talking about people who have gone to have an experience in the right jurisdiction. It’s all legal. But then the shaman decides to kick them in the stomach. This is not a walk in the park. Psychedelics are not like, “Oh, I’ve got to go, and it’s going to be a great experience.” No, for most people, it’s a very taxing experience. Some of them have a lot of purging that takes place, right? So this is not something that typically calls you back again and again to say, “Hey, come back, and we’ll have another party.” No, this is not a party.

AB: Is a therapist keen to integrate this into them? Because it’s quite unorthodox as of now. 

SS: There’s a paradigm shift. There is what they call a Psychedelic Renaissance movement that’s currently taking place, and this is going to grow. What we are in short supply of are psychedelic-assisted therapists. And it’s because there is a short supply of sessions, protocols, or curriculums out there that would allow you to be trained in the right way, and then the question comes in: “Fine, you’re trained as a therapist, but how can you administer any of these to patients if you yourself haven’t had an experience with them?” It’s illegal, right? So it’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing. But rest assured that there are protocols underway. You have a lot of courses and curriculum that are coming up through different establishments and different academic institutions that are offering these courses, curriculums, and training programmes.

AB: Okay, how do they help with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder as it can trigger the hallucination attack.

SS: It’s very tricky. However, if we make a lot of traction by taking the hallucinogenic component out of the equation, which is that we don’t intersect with that one particular receptor or those receptors, then this becomes something doable. That’s the one area that we’re doing a lot more research on to figure out, and it’ll take some time. But I think taking the hallucinogenic component out of the equation will be critical for that particular ailment.

AB: What are the best startup brands, names in the space that we should watch out for? And what are the ones that you’ve invested in and why?

SS: For us, this is a passion project. It’s because myself and my partners have been following this for well over 20 years, studying ethnobotany, pharmacology, science, the cultural aspects, and the history we’re all in, because we believe in this space in a big way. A year and a half ago, when we launched our fund, there were maybe 18 to 20 companies in the private space that were looking for funding that we’d even look at. Now, they’re well over 600. The landscape has changed. I would say that the crown jewels in this industry are still private companies. Okay? There are a few public companies in the space that are ones to watch out for, but the vast majority of them to really pay attention to are in the private space. And so if you have access to some of those private deals, you know what’s going on in the private space. Look at it. I would be very careful, though, because this is a bit of the Wild West. You have a lot of companies that are standing up that don’t have the right backgrounds, don’t have the right intellectual property secured, and don’t have the right teams or understand the clinical trial processes to have aerial input on how they’ll develop. So I think that it’s a caveat emptor— buyer beware, but there are certainly several incredibly compelling companies that are doing some profound things with drug development and drug discovery, that have the right teams from the right backgrounds, and that will be game-changing.

AB: Wonderful. That was such an incredible chat. Thank you so much Sa’ad. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you leading your best life.