The Psychedelic House of Davos, a satellite event happening in conjunction with the World Economic Forum, was a ‘genius strategy’ to build credibility, say experts
The World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland – where the financial and political elite gather to more or less decide the fate of the world – looked a little different this year.
For the first time since the cold war, Russia was blacklisted from the event, its typically lavish party house replaced with a gruesome multimedia exhibit on the promenade titled Russian War Crimes. Due to Covid concerns – which has kept the event out of commission for the last two years – the forum was held in the spring instead of the typical January, so world leaders were cheated out of their ski breaks in the Swiss Alps.
And to the surprise of many, psychedelic drugs were one of the hottest topics of discussion on the streets of Davos.
Like the Russian War Crimes exhibit, the Psychedelic House of Davos was one of several satellite events happening in conjunction with the World Economic Forum (though not directly associated with it). As with every year, each building along the promenade of downtown Davos hosted different countries – including India, Poland and Ukraine – businesses such as the Wall Street Journal, and industries like blockchain and cryptocurrency, which put on weeklong parties with speakers, panelists and networking mixers, all designed to seduce world leaders into supporting their agenda.
“We spark curiosity with the neon sign out front,” said Maria Velcova, one of the organizers of Psychedelic House of Davos. “Once people get curious and brave enough to come down here, they realize that this isn’t some underground electronic dance party. They find themselves meeting world-renowned scientists, clinicians, policymakers, people from for-profit and non-profit sectors, and experts from leading academic institutions.”
While psychedelic treatments for mental health problems have garnered wild enthusiasm from the media and parts of the scientific community, news of this booming new industry’s presence at Davos this year was a bit too surreal for some to handle.
After a headline on Bloomberg news declared “Forget Burning Man, Psychedelic Shamans Are Heading To Davos”, late-night comedian Stephen Colbert quipped in his opening monologue, “Oh good, just what billionaires need: a looser grip on reality.”
Colbert was specifically referring to event speaker and “shamanic investing” expert Silvia Benito, whom Bloomberg described as having “deep expertise in ayahuasca and experience managing family investments”.
“Hopefully at the same time,” said Colbert. “‘We split your investments between high yield stocks, medium yield bonds and the sense-memory of your wronged ancestors, who will appear to you as a wolf with your father’s voice. Now walk with me into the fire, where we will itemize your deductions.’”
While the weeklong event did feature plenty of “woo-woo” fodder for late-night comedians, such as sound healing ceremonies, psychedelic breathwork and immersive art installations designed to “stimulate immersive hepatic reprogramming”, the Psychedelic House of Davos was dominated by a sober catalog of lectures and panels.
Science, investment and ethics made up the bulk of topics discussed, while the audience included an eclectic range of burner psychonauts, big pharma investors and humanitarians from around the globe concerned about the escalating mental health crisis.
“I am a firm believer that psychedelics have the ability to unlock novel approaches to disorders notoriously difficult to treat, like PTSD, alcoholism, opioid addiction and pain,” said Kevin McKenzie, co-founder of Carvin Medicines, a Swiss drug company entering the psychedelic drug market. “Hosting this in Davos at the same location as WEF is a genius strategy – it brings fresh eyes and bright minds to psychedelic drug development, which builds credibility for these medicines.”
It’s difficult to identify any one moment that inspired the sudden recent popularity of psychedelic drug therapy – after all, the treatment seemed poised for breakthrough in the 1950s. But many point to author Michael Pollan’s massively popular 2019 book How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.
That same year, Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin created a domino effect of legislative reforms across the US, leading Oregon to decriminalize all drugs in 2020. Just last week Senators Cory Booker and Brian Schatz sent a letter to the NIH and FDA requesting they identify regulatory roadblocks keeping psychedelic research from moving forward.
And earlier this year, the health minister of Australia approved $15m in funding to research whether MDMA can be an effective tool in treating PTSD and alcoholism.
Often the world of psychedelic science finds itself in a catch-22 triangle of needing more research before politicians will change drug laws, yet needing more funding to do the necessary research, while investors need the laws to change before they will risk funding the research. Still, a handful of recent developments have kept this momentum alive.
Last year the UK psychedelic company Compass Pathways completed the first randomized, double-blind trial of psilocybin for the treatment of depression, given to 233 patients across Europe and North America. Those treatments were administered by trained therapists, while MindBio Therapeutics just completed phase one of their research around LSD microdose therapy, which, for the first time, allowed participants to self-administer the drug at home.
“It’s all changed very quickly and dramatically when it comes to the business interest in psychedelics,” said chemist and documentarian Hamilton Morris, after his presentation at the Psychedelic House of Davos. “And that’s led to increased interest from the public and academia, and increased pressure for government funding of psychedelic research. Until recently there’s been virtually no funding for this kind of research, either government or commercial.”
Funding is still relatively scarce – it costs about $2.6bn to bring a single drug to market – but the marriage of high finance and the science of highs is beginning to seem inevitable.
Billionaires like Peter Thiel (PayPal), Bob Parsons (GoDaddy) and dozens of others have already invested heavily in psychedelic companies. In 2021 alone, 45 different investments led to a $595m windfall into the psychedelic medicine industry, leading Elon Musk to flirt with the trend when tweeting last month: “I’ve talked to many more people who were helped by psychedelics & ketamine than SSRIs & amphetamines.”
A Vice News journalist, Shayla Love, was somewhat of a wet blanket at the Psychedelic House of Davos – which at times felt like a pep rally for the industry – by bringing attention to concerns around unethical business practices, overpromising the efficacy of psychedelic treatments and instances of sexual abuse against patients while under the influence of drugs in clinical trials.
“Psychedelics in the last two or three years, particularly since Michael Pollan’s book came out, have had extremely positive coverage,” she said during a panel discussion. “And unfortunately a lot of the people who write about psychedelic studies may not have a background in science, and present too simplistic a conclusion on this research. I’m not working in opposition to anyone, but I do report on these issues as they arise and as I see them. I think the coverage has been overwhelmingly positive and there’s room for more nuanced approaches.”
By the end of the week, Hamilton Morris said the Psychedelic House of Davos felt more or less like any of the other dozens of psychedelic business and science conferences popping up all over the world these days.
While he’s a little burnt out on them and wants to get back to his chemistry lab, he admits coming here due to “some degree of morbid curiosity, because I never thought I’d see something like this at Davos. It has a reputation for being the international epicenter of avarice and business, things that seem superficially antithetical to the world of psychedelics.”