Taking Psychedelics Into the Mainstream with Ronan Levy

By Seth Ferranti 11/24/19

The Fix talked to Levy about the brave new psychedelic frontier and what role his company, Field Trip Ventures, will play in advancing these substances for therapeutic modalities.

Portrait of Ronan Levy
Existing data suggests that psychedelics can be effective in treating addiction. 

Ronan Levy never used or experimented with drugs or alcohol while growing up. He even admits to being skeptical of the therapeutic applications for cannabis as he was getting into the industry in 2013. But Levy was open minded and felt that criminalizing consumption and production of cannabis (and other illicit substances that have low harm profiles) made little political or regulatory sense. He was excited to support the burgeoning cannabis industry and as the evidence for medical cannabis continued to build, Levy directly witnessed the profoundly positive impact his clinics were having on patients’ lives. His cautious optimism morphed into avid support for cannabis as medicine.

Based on the beneficial results he’d witnessed with cannabis, he started looking at psychedelics for therapeutic purposes. For Levy it was an easy leap to make. As he started investigating, he saw many similarities to cannabis in terms of potential for impact, low harm profile, and growing evidence-based support for therapeutic use. 

The Fix talked to Levy about this brave new frontier of psychedelics, the growing evidence base, barriers to further research and acceptance, and what role his company, Field Trip Ventures, will play in advancing therapeutic psychedelics. 

Why do you think psychedelics are the next cannabis? What type of growth do you see in the movement?

The parallels between psychedelics and cannabis are quite apparent. They have been marginalized and understudied for the last half century or so. There is strong (and growing) evidence to support their therapeutic use. They both have low harm profiles. And there is a growing grassroots support and participation from a large group of people already. Also, much like cannabis, despite the evidence that exists to support the therapeutic use of psychedelics, we expect that mainstream adoption by the medical profession may be slower than [with] conventional pharmaceuticals, and thus we see a unique opportunity to help build a new model of healthcare around psychedelics.

How do you see psychedelics being legalized? Or what route will their legalization take?

We see three avenues through which legal access to psychedelics will occur: 

(1) FDA/Health Canada approval through the clinical trials being conducted by COMPASS Pathways (synthetic psilocybin for treatment resistant depression); USONA (synthetic psilocybin for Major Depressive Disorder) and MAPS (MDMA for PTSD), which will result in a largely pharmaceutical model for psychedelics. I say largely pharmaceutical model because most of the studies require the use of the psychedelics in the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy so it’s not medicine as usual. 

(2) Ballot Initiatives such as the one slated to take place next year in Oregon which would create a regulatory framework similar to medical cannabis. If approved, it will permit legal production, distribution and consumption of plant-based psychedelics.

(3) Constitutional challenge in Canada. Not many people know this but access to cannabis for medical purposes was achieved in Canada through court challenge. The courts determined that denying people access to cannabis for medical purposes, in light of the scientific evidence in favor of its use as well as its low harm profile, was a violation of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which provides for “life, liberty and security of person”).

Do you see psychedelics as more spiritual, medicinal, or therapeutic?

Psychedelics can have application in all of these areas: spirituality, therapy, and medicine. But, from a legal, regulatory, and social perspective, I think starting with a purely medical approach to psychedelics is the best way to re-engage the dialogue around these molecules. As the evidence in favor of both their safety and therapeutic utility mounts, then a broader dialogue around opening up the use of psychedelics to a broader audience makes sense.

What are the myths or stigmas that need to be broken down?

I think the biggest myth around psychedelics is the perceived risk around using them for therapeutic purposes. As far as most drugs of abuse (which includes certain pharmaceutical drugs) go, the relative harm profile of psychedelics is quite low. Lower than cannabis in many respects, which many people generally regard as low risk. In the same regard, there are many urban legends around bad trips. The current scientific consensus seems to be that there is no such thing as a bad trip per se; rather, some trips are harder emotionally than others, but all offer hope and potential for emotional awareness, growth, and change. 

It wasn’t too long ago that psychedelics were legal; why do you think they were made illegal in the first place?

From what I understand, there were political motivations for criminalizing psychedelics and ending the research that was being pursued. We need to learn from the past to make sure history doesn’t repeat, but my belief is that if we maintain objectivity in pursuing science around psychedelics then we are destined to move beyond the legacy and mistakes of the past. 

Everyone has heard about using MDMA to treat PTSD, but in what other ways can psychedelics be used therapeutically?

There is evidence that suggests psychedelics can help treat and resolve depression, anxiety, end-of-life distress, addiction, and eating disorders. There is also evidence to suggest that psychedelics can help treat migraines and cluster headaches. Of course, there is also evidence to suggest that psychedelics can be used to improve quality of life and general well-being. Most of these claims require further study, but the evidence is very encouraging. 

Do you think psychedelics can be used to treat addiction? In what ways?

As much as I may like my thoughts, opinions, and ideas, what I think about psychedelics and their ability to treat addiction is irrelevant. As a business, and personally, I rely on data to inform and make conclusions, rather than rely on my [own] conjecture. Fortunately, the data that does exist suggests that psychedelics can be effective in treating different forms of addiction. 

A lot of people see cannabis and psychedelics as mind expanding, what’s your opinion on that?

To me, anything that even temporarily changes your perspective or the lens through which you see the world is mind-expanding. Accordingly, many things are mind-expanding. Cannabis and psychedelics with their ability to shrink the ego are certainly mind expanding because they, by their nature, create an altered state of consciousness. But a good conversation, meditation, or time in nature can also be mind-expanding. 

What about the people doing time for psychedelics? What can the movement do for them?

As a society, we need to revisit the war on drugs and its legacy and impact on our communities. Intuitively, it seems fundamentally wrong that people are serving time in prison for supplying or using chemicals that are safe, natural, and seem to have great therapeutic potential. This conversation is already happening with respect to people who have been incarcerated or convicted of cannabis-related crimes. It seems only sensible that the same discourse should happen with people convicted of crimes pertaining to psychedelics when the laws start to change around them as well. 

That said, the laws around illicit drugs (as misguided as some might perceive them) are unambiguous about what is and is not permitted. People who violated those laws did so knowingly. Accordingly, the conversation should not and cannot be as simple as complete amnesty. We have to be careful not to undermine the rule of law in our society. The discourse needs to be thoughtful and nuanced and strike the right balance between undoing the harms of misguided laws, while not fundamentally undermining some of the basic tenets of our society. 

How does the recent mushroom decriminalization affect the movement?

Decriminalization is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it advances the dialogue around psychedelics and brings it into the mainstream, which should help demystify psychedelics and start to remove the stigma that surrounds them. On the negative side, decriminalization can be perceived as tacit approval for the production, sale, and use of psychedelics. Yet decriminalization does not provide for any regulations or guidance on how that should be conducted. It simply removes the prohibition. Without regulation, the risk of some catastrophic event or negative outcome that sets the entire movement back increases. 

While I think the experience of the 60s is unlikely to play out again, the last thing that anyone who’s interested in psychedelics needs is imprudence. The attitudinal shift around them is happening very quickly, and rapid shifts of this nature (particularly because it flies in the face of 50+ years of anti-drug propaganda) are prone to creating backlashes. We certainly don’t need to give any fodder to those who may be resistant to these changes by acting recklessly, and decriminalization increases the likelihood that someone will act recklessly. 

How can building the research on psychedelics be used to legitimize them?

Evidence-based research is inherently legitimizing. That is the power and nature of science. Numbers do not lie, and if the evidence supports the safety and efficacy of psychedelics, then there is no debate, no need to legitimize. The data does all that for us. That is why we are taking a very research-based approach to all the work we are doing. While we do not deny the potential and power of the spiritual aspects of psychedelics, those experiences are inherently subjective and thus make broad-based acceptance and consensus more challenging, at least without an objective evidence-based approach setting the groundwork. 

How important is John Hopkins launching the “Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research” to the movement?

The creation of The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research is a great step forward for the movement in two ways. Firstly, having such an esteemed academic institution pursue the science of psychedelics lends a great degree of credibility to the excitement that many of us feel towards the potential of psychedelics. Secondly, because the university is now well-funded, it will be able to advance the science much faster than before. Both are great outcomes. 

What role will Field Trip Ventures play in this movement?

Our mission at Field Trip is to heal the sick and better the well through psychedelic therapies. Our vision is to achieve this by advancing the science and understanding of psychedelic molecules, plants, and therapies. To achieve our vision, we are investing in a number of different areas that will support the advancement of psychedelics. First, we are in the process of constructing Field Trip Blue, the world’s first ever legal research and cultivation facility for psilocybin-producing mushrooms, in Jamaica. The facility is being built in conjunction with the University of the West Indies and has the support of the Jamaican government. 

The facility will focus on cultivation techniques, genetics, characterization and novel molecule identification (as we hypothesize that, much like with cannabis and all the cannabinoids that have been discovered recently, there are many more psychedelic tryptamines and alkaloids to be discovered in psilocybin-producing fungi.) Secondly, we are in the process of establishing a network of psychedelics-specialized medical clinics that will provide world class psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. The clinics will start with ketamine (which is legal) and then expand to include other psychedelics as laws and regulations permit. We are also actively looking at other drug development opportunities as well as clinical trials for the classic psychedelics. 

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.