From Gordon Wasson to Compass Pathways: Exploiting Sacred Knowledge for Commercial Gain

Corporations will own all of your relationships one day, including your psychedelic experience.

Photo of Aminita Muscaria by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

It’s not really that hard to guess what was going through the head of venture capitalist and Paypal founder Peter Thiel who is worth $2.2 billion, when Compass Pathways, a company in which he’s heavily invested, filed a patent application for psychedelic therapy — not for the drug itself, psilocybin is in the public domain and can’t be patented. It intends to own via patent the way in which a guide interacts with a subject during a psychedelic session. Compass Pathways, which began life as a not-for-profit, is now a publicly-traded psychedelic mental health company with questionable intentions.1 Compass Pathways is trying to build a patent application around ‘delivery’ of psilocybin so that an infringement claim could be made based on how a psychedelic therapist provides psychological support.

Patent attorney Graham Pechenik tweeted how patent claims could eventually cover how “therapist provides psychological support,” “the therapist uses guided imagery and/or breathing exercises,” “the therapist provides reassuring physical contact,” “the therapist holds the hand, arm, or shoulder,” “the therapist does not initiate conversation.”

Besides his first great investment success, Paypal, Thiel was an early investor in Facebook, the wildly lucrative company which sells nothing and owns nothing other than your interactions with friends, family, business associates, people you never met, and of course all the private data you’ve either signed away or allowed them to steal.

Thiel uses his skill set and his companies to leverage intangibles. He skims the cream from transactions of others. An exploiting voyeur, of sorts, he harvests profit by making himself the middleman between you and persons you interact with. His businesses insert themselves into everyday interactions. In Paypal, he created a middleman to exploit exchanges between online buyers and sellers. In AirBnb, in which he also has a substantial investment, he profits off the rooms and houses other people rent out. He doesn’t need to own any property at all to make money from renting out yours. Owners shoulder all liability, and upkeep costs. He invests nothing.

 So far, Thiel’s lucrative intrusions have existed in the online sphere. Nothing personal.

Now, though, through psychedelic medicine he intends to get his hands on your spiritual journey. He’s going for the jugular.

Thiel has moved from monetizing online transactions to monetizing intimate, human interactions in a psychedelic treatment space. Insodoing, he joins a long line of wealthy Anglo Saxon males who have profited from violating a sacred trust: the spiritual experience mediated by a substance derived from a mushroom which indigenous peoples have used for millenia to access the divine.

To understand the dimensions of Compass Pathway’s violation of the psychedelic experience, it’s necessary to go back to the origin story of psilocybin in Western medicine, which starts with an amateur mycologist couple, American banker Robert Gordon Wasson and his wife, pediatrician and amateur ethnomycologist Valentina Pavlovna and their meeting with Mazatec curandera or healer María Sabina in the town of Huautla de Jiménez, Mexico, in 1955.

In her monograph, “Lost Saints: Desacralization, Spiritual Abuse and Magic Mushrooms” religious scholar Anna Lutkajtis writes:

Wasson convinced Sabina to allow him to participate in a velada[healing ceremony], making him one of the first Westerners to ever intentionally eat the sacred mushrooms. Awestruck by the resultant ecstatic mystical experience, Wasson claimed “the mushroom holds the key to a mystical union with God.” Wasson published his experience with the mushroom in both Mushrooms, Russia and History, an expensive limited edition volume aimed at private collectors and universities, and the popular weekly magazine Life. The Life article, sensationally titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions” was published on May 13, 1957 and read by an audience of millions.

Although the Life Magazine article gave Sabina the pseudonym “Eva Mendez” and concealed the location of her village, Sabina’s true identity and home became public knowledge in no time. What followed was an enormous influx of North American thrill seekers, resulting in a cultural and spiritual degradation:

Used to seeing psychedelics as drugs not deities, commodities not conscious entities, many expected to be able to buy and consume mushrooms as and when they desired, irrespective of local sensibilities. They certainly did not want to be bound to the curandero-led velada, or to the archaic mores and strictures of an animist peasant culture. One American hippy visitor was recorded as saying: “Look, man. You can go for that curandero shit if you like but it’s not my bag. I don’t need an old hag mumbling in Mazatecan to turn me on. I don’t dig this Indian doctor jazz. I turn myself on. It’s not my culture. You just score the mushrooms ... we’ll do the rest.2

Western mushroom seekers treated residents as though they were either invisible or in the way, or like slaves, ordering them about. They refused to adhere to traditional protocols regarding how and when mushrooms were consumed, and blatantly violated religious and cultural taboos by eating mushrooms during the day, combining them with alcohol, and engaging in sex while under their influence.

They brought no money and were lazy, dirty; they begged for food and sought only drugs and sexual pleasure. Worse still, their lack of respect desacralized the little saints [colloquial for psylocybin mushrooms], destroying their power.3

The North Americans’ defilement of the culture was tantamount to spiritual abuse. In 1968 the municipal president asked the government to remove the outsiders.

There is to this day controversy about the harm done by Wasson and his coercion of María Sabina into allowing him participate in a velada.

Inti García Flores, a Mazatec from Huautla and researcher of Mazatec culture asserts Wasson’s filming and recording of the velada was done without Sabina’s consent (The Psychedologist  2018). Pavlovna and Wasson defended their decision to publicly disseminate the photographs by stating:

We are doing as the Senora [María Sabina] asked us, showing these photographs only in those circles where we feel sure that she would be pleased to have them shown. In order that she might not be disturbed by the importunities of commercially-minded strangers, we have withheld the name of the village where she lives, and we have changed the names of the characters in our narrative.4

María Sabina experienced Wasson’s dispersal of her knowledge and cultural heritage differently.

Sabina states: ‘It’s true that before Wasson nobody spoke so openly about the children [the mushrooms]. No Mazatec revealed what he knew about this matter.’5

The Western encounter with the mushrooms and the arrival of mushroom tourists to Huautla had many damaging consequences for Sabina: she was harassed by the authorities, falsely accused of selling cannabis, and her house was burned down.

By exposing the details of the healing practice to the general public, the mushrooms and the velada were desacralized.

While Wasson was feted in North America and in Europe for his ‘discovery’ of the mushrooms, Sabina never received anything other than a footnote. She was never compensated financially, and she died in poverty.

In a piece written for the New York Times in 1970, Wasson admitted his role in the desecration of the Mazatec healer, writing: “I, Gordon Wasson, am held responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia. ‘The little mushrooms won’t work anymore. There is no helping it’. I fear she spoke the truth, exemplifying her sabiduría [wisdom].”

Wasson’s belated crocodile tears changed nothing. Five decades on, Thiel and Compass Pathways have taken his original cultural degradations to an all-new level: the weapons-grade monetization of a cultural sacrament.

Dr Charles Grob6 who was one of the researchers seduced into consulting with Compass Pathways when they were still a not-for-profit, allegedly working on psychedelics for the common good, was outraged when he was told by a colleague of their most recent maneuvering and the attempt to patent the psychedelic experience:

“These guys are making money off the backs of all the people who have done this work for years...” said Dr Grob. “Now psychedelics are cool. They’re jumping the gun in a greedy, avaricious way. Researchers have done all this work on psychedelics, going back to the 1950s, and even further. Worse, they’re making money off the backs of remote indigenous people who have kept these mysteries of the forest and of nature alive.”

I see the Compass Pathways maneuver this way: first guys like Wasson and Thiel came for the mushrooms; then they came for the ceremony; now they’re coming for your spiritual journey. They’re going to profit from your transcendence. As thousands of people of all ages, races and backgrounds will attest to, these experiences are sacred. I’d say: be alarmed. Be very alarmed.

1

Compass made a highly suspect transition from a charity to a for-profit company, among other things; more about the commercialization of psychedelics in a future newsletter.

2

Lutkajtis, A. (2020). Lost Saints: Desacralization, Spiritual Abuse and Magic Mushrooms. Fieldwork in Religion, 14(2), 118–139. https://doi.org/10.1558/firn.40554

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Dr Grob carried out the first modern clinical trial with psilocybin, administering the drug to 12 terminally ill cancer patients experiencing existential distress and anxiety.