The Psychedelic Renaissance in 2020

We look back at some of the pivotal moments for psychedelics in 2020, a year of tremendous growth for psychedelic research, advocacy, and capital markets. We end by looking ahead to how the psychedelics space may continue to develop in 2021, which is poised to be another exciting and productive year.

It has been a tumultuous year for the world at large, with COVID-19 necessitating sweeping changes to ways of life across nearly every geography and domain. Against this challenging backdrop, psychedelic medicine has gained a great deal of traction in 2020. Research and development—including clinical trials—has continued to gain momentum and maturity, while public opinion, regulatory bodies, and mainstream media outlets all appear to be increasingly amenable to the prospect of psychedelic medicines and therapies.

Contextualising the Renaissance

When we talk about a Psychedelic Renaissance, the renaissance element is particularly useful. Of course, it means revival or renewed interest in something. As such, it reminds us that the current uptick of interest in psychedelics is not novel: psychedelics have been used (in a multitude of contexts, and for a multitude of purposes) and understood (again, in a multitude of ways) for hundreds and thousands of years. We were reminded of this fact by a number of works published this year that are of a more anthropological, even archaeological bent. One significant contribution to this field of study is Brian C. Muraresku’s New York Times Bestseller The Immortality Key, published in September.

As interest increasingly coalesces around psychedelics once again, it is important to remember that much of the current research and development activity is based upon significant amounts of work that was forced underground when Nixon declared the War on Drugs. This work, suppressed for a half-century, is now beginning to re-emerge; and what an impressive re-emergence, or renaissance, it has been…

Mapping the Renaissance in 2020

This year, particularly the latter half, has been characterised by a vast quantity of outputs regarding psychedelics: from research papers right through to mainstream media pieces. This reminds us that the renaissance is not simply some passive increase in ‘interest’—or consciousness—surrounding psychedelics, but that this interest is matched with tangible contributions from individuals and organisations from a variety of fields. 

World-leading institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Imperial College London have dedicated entire Centres and Institutes to the study of psychedelics and their potential therapeutic applications, and their researchers continued to publish articles in authoritative journals throughout the year. Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, a leading light in psychedelic research who heads up Imperial’s centre, celebrated his 100th publication in December.

This year we saw some psychedelic research projects receive funding from state bodies. In Germany, for example, the Government approved a psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression study, and provided millions of Euros of funding to boot. We also saw University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine receive nearly $27m in funding from DARPA to develop psychiatric medicines. As clinical trials of psychedelics for the treatment of mental health indications mature, we might expect to see further involvement from governments and state bodies across the world. This maturity is well underway, with the first of MAPS’ Phase 3 MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD trials hailed a success by the non-profit in December.

Psychedelics companies have also driven innovation in the space via sponsoring and conducting research and development. One proxy of this activity is the increasing number of patent applications filed in the United States in relation to psychedelics: from novel molecules right through to drug delivery methods. According to our Psilocybin Patent Filings Tracker, over 20 psilocybin-related patent applications were filed in the U.S. this year. Some companies choose to keep their patent filings secretive, and as such we should expect the actual number to be higher.

The mounting safety and efficacy data emerging from labs and clinical trial sites across the world has piqued the interest of regulators such as the FDA and Health Canada. Just one example is the move made by Health Canada in August, when four palliative Canadians became the first to legally receive psilocybin-assisted therapy in Canada since the 1970s, with many more receiving such therapy since this landmark decision.

Individuals and communities have come out in support of psychedelic medicine in 2020, as evidenced by the success of Oregon’s Measure 109 and Washington, D.C.’s Initiative 81 in November. D.C.’s Initiative 81 was a true landslide victory, with 76% of voters in support. This growing public approval was surely buoyed by mainstream media coverage of psychedelics from outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, and Netflix.

Local governments have also taken action to decriminalise naturally-occurring psychedelics, often by unanimous City Council votes. In January, Santa Cruz became the third city in the United States to do so, with the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, following suit in September. Yet more cities and states appear poised to forward similar initiatives in 2021, seeking to respond to a public appetite for drug policy reform that was revealed during the US elections.

Finally, investors are increasingly looking to psychedelics as a fruitful and impactful opportunity, with substantial volumes of capital flowing into the space via both private financings and public listings. Shepherding drugs through clinical trials and regulatory review is time-consuming and costly, meaning large-scale investment is central to the viability of such work.

Relevance & Importance

Undergirding the Psychedelic Renaissance is a growing collective consciousness of the need to address the global mental health crisis, which has only become more entrenched during this challenging year. Despite the fact that 40% of American adults report struggling with a mental health or substance abuse disorder, there has been little innovation in mental health treatment. Antidepressants such as SSRIs have come to present a common, yet often insufficient, treatment pathway for many individuals.

This context of crisis makes the mounting efficacy and safety data emerging from labs across the world difficult to ignore: psychedelic medicines and therapies have the potential to make a significant contribution to our collective mental health. Beyond this primary focus on mental health, psychedelics may also offer treatments for other indications due to, for example, anti-inflammatory effects.

The Psychedelic Renaissance in 4 Metrics

In an attempt to present this Renaissance in more objective terms, the four graphs below each demonstrate increasing interest in—and activity related to—psychedelics. 

Psychedelics in 2020: Highlights

Join us in reviewing some of the most important developments in the psychedelic space over the past year. The cadence of the milestones below shows a clear gathering of pace toward the end of the year, with November and December by far the most eventful months. This timeline is by no means exhaustive, but rather intends to present a sample of key moments across the space.

January | Santa Cruz Votes to Decriminalise Psychedelics

The year opened with the Californian City voting unanimously to make the personal possession of psychedelics including ayahuasca and psilocybin a low priority for law enforcement, effectively decriminalising them. As such, Santa Cruz became the third city in the United States to take such action, after Denver (CO) and Oakland (CA).

Santa Cruz Decrim
MindMed Logo colour

March 3 | MindMed Goes Public

Toronto-based MindMed listed on the NEO exchange on 3rd March 2020, making it the first psychedelics company to go public.

March 20 | DOSED Documentary Released in U.S.

Filmmaker Tyler Chandler’s documentary, DOSED, hit screens in March 2020. The film follows an individual named Adrianne as she seeks to use psychedelic medicines such as psilocybin and iboga in an attempt to overcome her depression, anxiety, and opioid addiction. While the documentary is inherently anecdotal, it brought the promise of psychedelic medicine to a broader audience.
Dosed Film
Have A Good Trip Netflix

May 11 | Netflix Releases Have a Good Trip

Netflix put psychedelics in front of millions of viewers via their star-studded documentary titled Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics. Celebrities such as Carrie Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, and Sting recounted their experiences with psychedelics.

August | MAPS Raises $30m for MDMA Trials

In August, MAPS announced the closing of their Capstone Challenge Fundraising Campaign, having successfully raised $30 million. The raise was backed by large donations from individuals including the influential author and podcaster Tim Ferriss. The contributions will be used to fund final Phase 3 research toward the potential FDA approval of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as treatment for PTSD.

MAPS Capstone challenge
TheraPsil Exemption

August 4 | Four Palliative Canadians Approved for Psilocybin Therapy

Thanks to campaigning by TheraPsil, 4 palliative Canadians became the first to receive legal medical exemptions for psilocybin in Canada since the 1970s. The decision came from Minister Hajdu after over 100 days of waiting. One applicant, Laurie Brooks, responded to the news: “I hope this is just the beginning and that soon all Canadians will be able to access psilocybin, for therapeutic use, to help with the pain they are experiencing.”

September 18 | COMPASS Pathways IPO

In August, COMPASS Pathways filed for an IPO on the Nasdaq. In September, the company began trading and became the first billion-dollar psychedelics company shortly thereafter.
Compass Pathways logo colour
City of Ann Arbor Decrim

September 22 | Ann Arbor, Michigan, Decriminalises Psychedelics

Ann Arbor became the 4th city in the United States to decriminalise naturally-occurring psychedelics. The City Council vote was unanimous, and prevents the spending of City funds on activities related to the criminalisation of entheogenic plants.

October 22 | Numinus Harvests Legal Flush of Psilocybe Mushrooms in Canada

Numinus became the first public company to harvest a legal flush of Psilocybe mushrooms in Canada. Speaking to Psilocybin Alpha, CEO Payton Nyquvest said: “This significant milestone brings us one step closer to a safe, standard natural extraction for use in clinical trials and the Special Access Programme once approved.”

Numinus Bioscience first Psilocybe cubensis harvest
Karolinska Instituet

October | Sweden Launches Psilocybin for Depression Clinical Trial

The Swedish Medical Products Agency and Ethical Review Authority approved the first clinical trial investigating psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for depression in the European nation, which will be conducted at the Karolinska Institute and funded by the Osmond Foundation and Norrsken Foundation. Due to the fact that the Osmond Foundation adheres to Open Science protocols, we should expect to see a great deal of transparency around methodology and results.

November 3 | Psychedelics Decriminalised, Psilocybin Legalised, in D.C. and OR

Drug decriminalisation bills, and a psilocybin legalisation measure, were big winners on election night in the United States. Specifically, Measure 109 in Oregon mandates the creation of the Oregon Psilocybin Services Program over a two-year developmental period after which the production, administering and sale of psilocybin mushrooms in licenced facilities will be legal.

Initiative 81 in Washington, D.C. saw entheogenic plants and fungus decriminalised by an overwhelming majority. This results in the effective decriminalisation of non-commercial distribution, possession and use of psychedelics such as psilocybin and ibogaine by ordering police to treat them as the lowest law enforcement priorities.

OR DC Psychedelics
Psilocybin Depression Study

November 4 | Study Finds 2 Sessions with Psilocybin Significantly Improves Depression

A randomised open-label study (n=24) found that 2 sessions with psilocybin significantly improved depression scores for those with major depressive disorder (Davis et al.).

November 17 | First Non-Palliative Canadian Granted Access To Psilocybin Therapy

In mid-November, we helped break the news of a significant milestone for psychedelic therapy: the first non-palliative Canadian had received psilocybin-assisted therapy legally, under a Section 56 exemption. This decision marked a broadening in the criteria for those Canadians successfully granted Section 56 exemptions.

Mannheim University

November 19 | German Government Approves & Funds Psilocybin for Depression Study

The German Government approved a Phase 2b study on psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression and is providing millions of Euros to the psychedelic research project. Lead investigator Dr. Gerhard Gründer described the approval as “a milestone for German psychiatry, from which I expect not only impulses for treatment research, but also insights into the nature of mental illness and the foundations of consciousness.”

November 23 | ATAI Raises $125m in Series C Round

In late November ATAI Life Sciences announced the closing of a Series C Financing, having raised $125 million. Prominent investor Peter Thiel led the round, investing $12 million via his venture firm Thiel Capital.

This represents the largest private raise for a psychedelics company to date. Over $210 million has now been invested in the company, which is set to go public next spring with an expected valuation of $1-2bn. COMPASS Pathways is among ATAI’s portfolio.

ATAI Life Sciences Logo
New Jersey State Legislature

November | Psilocybin Added to N.J. Marijuana Decriminalisation Bill

In New Jersey, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a bill to decriminalise marijuana. Notably, “an unidentified senator added an amendment to the bill” to extend its coverage to psilocybin.

December 8 | 17 Canadian Healthcare Professionals Approved to Use Psilocybin for Professional Training

In another significant success won by TheraPsil, 17 healthcare professionals in Canada were approved to possess and use psilocybin for professional training. The professionals include general practitioners, nurses, psychologists, and social workers.

TheraPsil Logo
Small Pharma Logo

December 10 | UK Regulators Approve World’s First DMT for Depression Clinical Trial

In early December, Small Pharma received regulatory approval for a clinical trial to explore DMT for depression, which it claims is the world’s first patient clinical trial of the psychedelic. The company believes that DMT can offer a shorter psychedelic therapy session, given that it “delivers a psychedelic experience in 20 minutes,” according to CEO Peter Rand.

December 12 | Canada to Consider Allowing Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy under Special Access Program Amendment

In a historic move, Health Canada announced plans to restore access to restricted drugs—including psychedelics such as MDMA and psilocybin—through the Special Access Program. It is clear that Patty Hajdu’s Health Canada is acting progressively when it comes to case-by-case Section 56 exemption requests. Now, it appears the department is seeking to apply a similar case-by-case method of appraisal to the Special Access Program.
MAPS MDMA Phase 3 Success

December 17 | MAPS Declares Phase 3 MDMA Study a Success

Rick Doblin announced that MAPS’ Phase 3 Trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is positive and statistically significant, thus successful. MAPS will now aim to complete a second Phase 3 study, plus other safety studies, and hopes to have MDMA-assisted psychotherapy approved by the FDA and on the market in the first half of 2023.

December 20 | CNN's Lisa Ling Explores Psychedelics

The popular CNN documentary series This is Life with Lisa Ling aired an episode on ‘psychedelic healing’ in late December. Ling explored the medical uses of psychedelics and examined how “for some the hallucinogenic toolbox might hold the key to a healthier future.”

This is Life Lisa Ling

Looking Ahead: Psychedelics in 2021

The Psychedelic Renaissance shows no signs of slowing as we enter a new year. 2021 will offer further milestones and events that should serve to catalyse the psychedelic space. We share a few expectations below…

There are plenty of catalysts on the horizon as we enter a new year, including clinical trial readouts from COMPASS Pathways’ Phase 2b psilocybin-for-depression study and ATAI Life Sciences’ expected IPO. We should also see MAPS continue to make progress in their Phase 3 investigations into MDMA-for-PTSD, which appear promising thus far. Should the clinical data from these trials continue to indicate the safety and efficacy of psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA, it is likely to continue to propel interest and activity in the broader space.

We also expect to see access to psychedelics, notably psilocybin, continue to expand via progressive moves from local governments (urged by grassroots campaigns) and national regulatory bodies such as Health Canada. The combination of bottom-up grassroots advocacy and top-down regulatory amendments may generate a reinforcing cycle that gradually expands access to psychedelics in both a geographical sense, but also in terms of access criteria. We may even see a national legal framework for psilocybin emerge in Canada next year. It is likely that local decriminalisation and legalisation measures in the United States will follow a similar timeline as marijuana, with states such as California next in line for such measures. We anticipate a continuation of the current trend whereby some psychedelics companies publicly state their ambitions to enter these regionally-legalised markets (e.g., Field Trip in the case of Oregon), while others intend to steer clear of entering state markets so long as psychedelics remain federally illegal (e.g., MindMed in the case of Oregon).

We expect that mainstream media will increasingly cover developments from the psychedelic space. This coverage of psychedelics will increasingly contribute to conversations regarding the mental health crisis, which we expect to remain a salient issue given the ongoing impact of COVID-19. Societies across the world have been forced to confront shortcomings in mental health provision, which should catalyse efforts to discover and deliver alternative treatments.

Technology and digital therapeutics should play an increasing role in the work of psychedelics companies, from augmenting drug discovery by employing AI, right through to empowering end-users of psychedelic therapies and medicines by providing actionable insights through the use of wearables.

From a financial point of view, we expect money will continue entering the space in large sums, with ATAI’s expected IPO representing an important date in the psychedelics financial calendar for 2021. We may also see greater M&A activity in the space next year, and interest from the more conventional pharma industry is likely to increase. We also expect some companies in the space to continue seeking out shorter-term revenue streams. Clinics and wellness centres offering ketamine treatment programs are likely to continue to be a dominant trend, along with consumer packaged goods such as nutraceuticals.

We anticipate the pace of press releases and announcements from psychedelics companies to continue increasing, particularly in relation to intellectual property (e.g., patent filings) and research and development (including clinical trials). As with any nascent sector, there will also be a great deal of noise that threatens to obscure the underlying value in any given company or project.

These are just a handful of ways that the psychedelics space may continue to mature as we enter 2021. The one thing we can be sure of is that Psilocybin Alpha will continue to provide tools, resources, and analysis to help you understand this emerging space as it rapidly develops.

Stay Informed in 2021

We can only expect the rate of change and development in the psychedelic space to continue accelerating in 2021. Stay informed via our various platforms and channels…

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