Health

With Promise of Legalization, Psychedelic Companies Joust Over Future Profits

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But like many longtime researchers, Robert Jesse, who helped start the psilocybin research division at Johns Hopkins University over two decades ago, sees potential pitfalls. To him, psychedelics are spiritual tools that belong to all of humanity, not just those wealthy enough to afford a $5,000 psychedelic retreat.

“While I’m not a conventionally religious person, my early experiences with psychedelics changed my worldview in religious ways,” said Mr. Jesse, who in 2005 filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a religious group that was seeking to import the natural hallucinogenic ayahuasca for its ceremonies. The court ruled unanimously in the group’s favor.

Mr. Jesse said corporatization threatens to take the psychedelic field in potentially troubling directions. The surge of money is luring away talented scientists from research at academic institutions. The promise of hefty returns for investors, he and other experts have said, has also led to a decline in the philanthropic largess that has sustained psychedelic research in recent years.

But it’s the flood of patent filings that most worries Mr. Jesse, given the time and the millions of dollars it can take to fight a patent claim, even one that a court eventually dismisses as meritless. “It’s a scorched-earth approach, in that a company can generate intellectual property that scares others from entering the field,” he said.

Mr. Goldsmith, the Compass executive, looks visibly pained when he hears such criticisms. In a video interview, he spoke about why he and his wife started the company: their frustration over the failure of existing drugs to treat their college-age son when he was struggling with depression. “Do we try to change the system, or do we try to help those people in an imperfect system?” Mr. Goldsmith asked. “We chose the latter.”

The company’s patent strategy, Mr. Goldsmith said, has been instrumental in coaxing more than $400 million from investors, among them the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Compass is headquartered in London, though its stock trades on the Nasdaq.

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