Please Don’t Ruin Mushrooms

With incremental legalization and promising research, the speculative opportunities for plant-based medicine are ratcheting up. But will real help be delivered by, and to, the communities who deserve it most?

At least we can agree on drugs. If I had to sum up how I felt in the wake of the 2020 Election in one sentence — well, okay, it’d probably be something closer to, “The next two months are going to feel like 20 years” — that’d be it. If you’re a fierce advocate for plant legalization, 2020 was your year. (To be clear: 2020’s been no one’s year, but, we gotta find W’s where we can get ‘em.)

Prior to November 3, some 28 U.S. states had some affirmative cannabis measures in place. Marijuana could be used recreationally in 10 states, and medically in 18. After November 3, you can bump those figures to 15 and 36, respectively. Just six states — Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina — remain fully-illegal for personal and medical consumption.

I mean … take a look at this current map of cannabis legalization status, y’all:

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Those Maine lobster rolls are going to taste so much more delicious after an edible, mannnnn. And the Sky in Montana is gonna be that much Bigger. And in South Dak — scratch that, nobody lives in South Dakota. South Dakota’s the Belarus of American states: cold, empty, and only known because it exists on maps and the news sometimes. But, if you wanted to go, you can now experience the majesty of America’s ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ high enough to properly enjoy it.

Indeed, it appears that even the most un-woke among us are waking up to plant legalization. THC — when regulated, distributed and consumed mindfully — is actually kinda entertaining and also mostly harmless. Leaf-based CBD’s a jack-of-all-trades yeoman compound, with wellness applications ranging from epilepsy to anxiety to muscle inflammation. The hemp outweighs the harm. From somewhere, Peter Tosh tips his cap.

And while legalization’s good, it’s thus far come at a steep price: The US is still fighting a “War on Drugs,” that fight’s unfair, and it’s waged primarily against BIPOC communities that can’t get in on the Green Rush. Indeed, it’s a bit hard to reconcile watching Hedge-Fund Hunter get fat off the Devil’s Lettuce as Carlos serves 20 for holding an eighth during a traffic stop. And if you think that’s an unfair dynamic, then you’re gonna really trip face when when we talk about what could happen — if we’re not careful — with mushrooms.

A Mushroom’s Moment

It’s a beautiful day in Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i — I’m mean, I’m not there, but I just know it is (I’ve been there before) — and I’m on a Zoom with Kalika Farmer and Pip Deely, cofounders of Delphi, a social impact venture capital firm based on the Big Island. We’re chatting about — you guessed it — mushrooms. Why? Because they work, sure … but also, because they’re an unlikely flashpoint for a host of very 2020 concerns.

For starters: The FDA granted Psilocybin, the “magic” in the magic mushrooms, “Breakthrough Therapy” designation in 2018 and 2019. The *ahem* mushrooming volumes of research on psilocybin suggest profound anxiety, depression and addiction treatment applications … with low addiction potential and minimal side-effects. In a year where mental health’s dropped off a cliff for many, including those who’ve never struggled in that department before, demand for novel therapies has rarely been higher. Psilocybin, along with synthetic psychedelics ketamine (a dissociative anesthetic) and MDMA (an empathogen), are leading the charge.

That charge also comes part-and-parcel with a host of capitalistic bugaboos including expensive regulatory hurdles, predatory investors looking to turn a skyscraping profit, and a likely lack of competition in the big pharma marketplace.

“The growth and commercialization of the psilocybin space and other psychedelics has been highly speculative,” says Deely, a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst and Delphi cofounder. “There’s been questionable amounts of integrity and substance behind it.”

That speculative potential could be the hidden driving push behind psilocybin’s rapid legalization. In June 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [disclosure: we’ve written for her] proposed restriction removal legislation on psilocybin research [it did not pass]. Also in 2019, Denver decriminalized it. In 2020, Oakland followed suit (along with concurrent decriminalization of ayahuasca and peyote).

On Election Day, Oregon passed medical psilocybin and state decriminalization by ballot referendum — becoming the first state to do so, and DC did the same. Nearly 100 other cities are kicking around the idea of plant-medicine or empathogen legalization. “We believe plant medicines are a part of the next wave of natural healing,” Farmer says. That next wave owes a considerable debt to its rich history among Polynesians, Afro-Caribbeans and Native Americans.

An Indigenous Legacy

“It’s important to us to have that dialogue with indigenous leaders and people who curate the medicine today, and are part of a lineage that go back thousands of years,” says Farmer. “The wisdom and medicine that comes from these places is often culturally appropriated and so we need to be sensitive to that.”

Delphi’s dual position: as venture capitalists aiming for a $50M fund that’s one-third psychedelics and also as spiritual social justice activists—both mentor at the Purple Maya Project, an incubator program for indigenous tech founders, Kalika Farmer’s an herbalist and founder of NEW/AGE, additionally— makes them acutely aware of ensuring the market rollout honors the voices, cultures and lands of people who’ve carried the torch in the plant medicine realm for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

We can’t start history of psychedelics in the ’60s in the Americas; that needs to stop. We [indigenous people] used this medicine before Jesus Christ walked this Earth.”

– Lisa M. Macias Red Bear, Injustice, Intersectional Trauma, and Psychedelics, 2017

Indigenous cultures’ shamanic and ritualistic use of psychoactive plants draws ancient roots from dozens of cultures on at least four continents: Africa (e.g., Bwiti), South America (e.g., Inca), North America (e.g., Aztec), and Oceania (e.g., Hawai’i), among others. Psychedelic research in the Western sense dates back, in earnest, to about a single lifetime ago, earning peak countercultural relevance during the 1960s and ‘70s.

An examination published by the Journal of Psychedelic Studies attributes a lack of Indigenous voice inclusion of during initial research, and the subsequent countercultural movement, to racial segregation, indigenous demonization, and a the persisting values of a White-dominant culture.

“The hippie movement itself was at odds with the ‘exoticism’ it idolized, claiming to embrace the spiritualism afforded by psychedelics, while simultaneously reifying racial stereotypes and existing power structures,” the authors observe. “This approach not only ignores the roots and contribution of indigenous practices, but also precludes the inclusion of people of color in its ideals and advances the Western value of individualism over the collective good.”

Any widespread adoption of plant-based healing without preservation and elevation of its traditional practitioners and values is erasure. Furthermore, Western-style agriculture has the frightening potential to harm the environment and lands held sacred by indigenous peoples. Fueled by the financial interests of a wealthy White-dominant capital class, the forthcoming psilocybin boom — the Mush Rush—could follow cannabis down the same inequitable roads of whitewashing, wealth concentration and Westernization.

A Restorative Rollout

Delphi’s already been approached by progressive top-tier backers—both old money and new — but maintain staunch independence in controlling the go-to-market plan. Deely says, “To build the psychedelic dream team within business and politics and healthcare, we need to build this ourselves.” What does that “dream team” look like? It includes, notably, women.

“We are very conscious to include the voices of women,” says Farmer. “We think a lot about this. Nearly all the practitioners who bring indigenous wisdom or perspective are women. The medicine was always carried by women.”

Their approach also includes addressing the political climate to give more space to women and indigenous voices — whether that’s on boards, at the advisor level, or in elected office. Driving change is far more likely to be successful at the institutional level, rather than merely attempting to steer Family Office money towards equity and inclusion.

Farmer recalls, “We were very inspired by Dame Helena Morrissey. She was the first woman CEO of a major investment firm in the UK. Later, she has created an organization focused on bringing more women onto corporate boards across wall street. Her vision has been getting orgs to pledge 30% women on boards. We’d like to see something like that happen with psychedelics.”

In addition to top-down changes, cultivating practices in “community-based participatory research … having non-academic, non-scientific, non-clinician members of a community serve as advisors to researchers, clinicians, and physicians (Greenhalgh, Jackson, Shaw, & Janamian, 2016)” remains paramount. “These roles can range from being included on institutional review boards, to participant recruitment, and to clinical trial management (Ross et al., 2016).”

Diversity goes hand-in-glove with environmental preservation; the Indigenous elders’ connection to traditional medicine and the adjacent spiritual realm also means a deep connection with Earth itself. Investments in regenerative agroforestry, while garnering greater support in the venture space, must be further ramped up to preserve the Earth, equitably and for all.

We’re approaching a golden age of mushroom technology. Beyond psychedelics, mushrooms also contain numerous adaptogens that can substitute for things like animal proteins, or contribute to functional and physical wellbeing. That’s true not just for humans, but for the natural world itself and in attempting to solve for pollutants.

As a replacement for environmentally corrosive Styrofoam, mushroom-based packaging’s made inroads in the past decade. [Disclosure: We worked on messaging mushroom packaging initiatives at the cited source.] There’s also growing research spearheaded by Yale University suggesting the potential for fungi as a remediator for dealing with ocean plastics and oil spills.

Mushrooms are the “vehicle of the future, [they’re] more sustainable and speaks to the needs of the next generation,” says Farmer. “We, as the human race, want to relieve our suffering and get better. Mushrooms are the future of natural healing.”

From psilocybin to adaptogens found in some the over 125 strains of mushrooms currently on Delphi’s R&D hit-list, the potential for individual health and healing remains promising. However, if mindfully harvested, studied and distributed, the greater good — promoting justice, protecting our environment, preserving Indigenous culture — might hold indirect keys to crafting a healthier, more sustainable future.

Mushrooms may indeed be the pathway to peaceful, productive coexistence, but we’ll likely only have one chance to get it right, before it gets Goop’d and Big Pharma’d to death. Will predatory capitalists ruin mushrooms? Will appropriation and westernization of Indigenous cultures continue to plague and exoticize psychedelic therapy? Will we continue to talk out of both sides of our mouth — demonizing and jailing users of color, while disseminating “newly discovered healing secrets” under the guise of “white” wellness— about psilocybin? Still, plenty of — pun intended — tripwires remain.

If we can’t agree on elevating and honoring the people and places that allowed us all to reap the rewards, and distributing those rewards equitably, then we don’t really agree on drugs, or on what the words “health,” “wellness” and “healing” really mean. I’d like to think we do.

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Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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