Equal parts entrepreneurial and collaborative, Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, Executive Vice President: Public Affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility of Psyence, has been called “one of the most trusted" voices working in wellness today. Chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Psychedelics & Healing Initiative, her background is rooted at the intersection of plant remedies, regenerative agriculture, public health, and mental wellness.
What first got you excited about psychedelics and their therapeutic potential?
My mother hired Timothy Leary for a research project, but she came to believe he did far more harm than good. So my initial approach to psychedelics was one of skepticism. Fast forward to a new generation, and the therapeutic potential of psychedelics became apparent to me while studying the history of mind-body medicine for two semesters with Professor Anne Harrington, during a post-graduate non-degree year at Harvard. Harrington is the author of The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine and the Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness. What became clear to me during this time was that psychedelics were no mere cultural phenomenon. It is a field that could and should be approached with evidence-based rigor.
Most recently in my work leading public policy for the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine, global experts on population-wide trauma healing, my focus was on health justice. Is there an epidemiological equation between demographically-driven health disparities, reduced life expectancy, and the diseases of despair?
Is there a connection between America’s shocking decrease in life expectancy among our poorest citizens and the lack of mental health solutions? Could psychedelic medicine have a national, indeed a global benefit? The research suggests the answer is yes.
So when I was recruited to join Psyence (a process that included travelling from Washington, DC, to a very snowy Toronto in January of 2020) I felt there was only one answer to their offer: yes.
How would you describe Psyence Group's approach to the psychedelic space?
At Psyence we care about science, integrity, patient care, and nature. Our team is pioneering the cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms and developing proprietary nature-derived compounds. Our enduring psychedelic work at Psyence expands consciousness, heals, and it also nurtures community.
How we do business is just as important as where we do business. You cannot manufacture natural psilocybin. That’s why we grow it instead.
It's why our psilocybin cultivation facility is built to the internationally recognized ISO:22000:2018 standards as audited by the British Standards Institute (BSI).
At Psyence we never forget we owe a debt to the mycelial network, those slender filaments, sometimes invisible to the eye, that connect mushrooms and fungi underground and throughout the world. In an era when we continue to grapple with Covid-related isolation, mushrooms offer a connection to the natural world, forging community and healing. That resonates.
It's why we have a shared IP agreement with the people of Jamaica through the Jamaican government’s Scientific Research Council, focussed on R&D (Psilocybin is not illegal in Jamaica). Our board chair and co-founder, Jody Aufrichtig has called this approach "conscious capitalism". The medicinal synergies of the whole foraged psilocybin mushroom have yet to be explored, and this library of knowledge is being written now, in the field, by Psyence in this collaboration with Jamaica's Scientific Research Council.
Psyence is a global company. In Southern Africa we hold a federal license to cultivate psilocybin, our R &D team is based in Canada, we're also in the U.K., Jamaica, and South Africa, and have a presence in Australia and the United States.
Yet, we are rooted in the local communal values where we do business. What these cultures all share in common is a long tradition of mutual aid and collaboration in times of hardship. Especially now, as we strive for evidence-based healing in a world marked indelibly by covid, our team, led by physician-scientist Dr. Neil Maresky, remains unified by the shared search to affirm timeless truths.
This is a CEO who brings bio-pharmaceutical leadership experience at AstraZeneca, Bayer, and Wyeth. Dr. Maresky has forged a global team united by the work itself: building a drug development company researching innovative nature-based psychedelic medicine to support mental health and mental wellness during a time when the need for global healing has never been greater.
In addition to being Executive Vice President at Psyence Group, you are chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Psychedelics & Healing Initiative. Can you share more about what this initiative is and how it helps further the mission of Psyence?
Sa’ad Shah, co-founder of the Noetic Fund, recently observed on Anne Philippi’s New Health Club podcast that the psychedelic industry is still small – between $8 billion and $11 billion in total market cap, including the private companies that raised capital.
In contrast, the wellness industry is vastly larger -- $4.4 trillion globally, according to the WSJ. So, in the spirit of growing the psychedelic landscape, this is the right time to build coalition.
As all of us who work in psychedelics are aware, we spend a significant amount of time speaking with one another, perhaps at times preaching to the choir. And that is important in any movement’s early days. But if we are to grow into a financially sustainable industry, collaboration with the wider global wellness ecosystem becomes increasingly essential.
To borrow the language of psychedelia, the intention of the GWI’s Psychedelics & Healing Initiative is to serve as “the container” to build consensus and nurture a collaborative approach to leadership in a new field that holds the possibility of bringing relief and healing to many and serving the public good. As Sa'ad Shah says, that "the growth potential is immense. But the social-impact potential, that's phenomenal."
For many of us, that line from Delmore Schwartz, "in dreams begin responsibilities" are words to live by. So, among the initiative’s first tasks will be to join those in our field who are already looking at ethics and standards. A safer and more inclusive community benefits Psyence, strengthens psychedelic medicine, and elevates the standard of care.
Psyence was highlighted as the first psychedelic company to present at the Global Wellness Summit. Tell us about that.
The summit is an annual gathering that has welcomed the Dalai Lama and others. It brings together researchers, journalists, academics, NGOs, organizations such as the World Bank, governments, businesses, medical institutions, and doctors. Leadership in public health, complementary and alternative medicine is also included.
Fun fact: the global pharmaceutical market is valued by the German data company Statista at $1.23 trillion. In comparison, as I noted, the Global Wellness Economy is valued at $4.4 trillion. That includes the following sectors: Mental Wellness ($131 billion); Traditional & Complementary Medicine ($413 billion); Public Health, Prevention & Personalized Medicine ($375 billion).
As a life science biotechnology company with a focus on developing proprietary natural psilocybin medication for healing, these are the communities where we feel we share a common purpose. These strategic alliances are also important to our Psyence growth strategy and revenue model.
You recently hosted a Keynote Conversation at the Global Wellness Summit with Rick Doblin from MAPS. What resonated with you from this discussion and how does it support the healing potential of psychedelics?
Rick Doblin is a psychedelic icon, an American Living Treasure. Video of our in-person conversation lives in full on the Global Wellness Summit website, but here are three of Dr. Doblin’s illuminating insights on the future, on self-care, and on his own journey, too.
The first was a prediction:
“There will be spas all over the place where people will go for a massage, for meditation, and for psychedelic experiences.”
The second, also a prediction:
“We think maybe by 2025, the federal government will do what they did with prohibition of alcohol. They'll say they're out of prohibiting it, and it will be up to the states."
And so it's very important, I think, that this idea of self-care and preventative medicine [will be addressed by the psychedelic community]. I think this idea of self-care and preventative medicine, it makes a lot of sense. The sooner you work with people, the more you do this kind of healing, [and provide] preventative medicine, the cheaper it is, and the less people suffer.”
The third, a look back:
“Psychedelics have been used for thousands of years. I mean, it's not a surprise that people still find them valuable. So I knew that the substances worked, particularly when combined with therapy, but it was really in 1972 when I was 18 years old when I devoted my—decided to devote my life to psychedelics, to becoming a psychedelic therapist, to bring back psychedelic research, and to become—to go through my own psychedelic therapy as well…Rita Marley has an album. The title of it is called "Who Feels It Knows It." And so I just felt that we needed to really bring back psychedelics.”
What potential do you see psychedelics having on alleviating the suffering for Palliative and Survivorship Care patients?
Exponential potential. Palliative Care is a Psyence area of focus, and we are initiating a clinical trial in the UK using natural psilocybin with oncology patients. Here’s why.
Some 36% of medications on the WHO Essential Medicines List for Palliative Care are for mental health. Sadly, we now know, thanks to an NIMH-supported project, that the magnitude of symptom reduction between the SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) legacy medications versus a placebo is “not clinically significant.”
In contrast, when we look at psychedelic therapies, the 2016 NYU study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology reveals that a single dose of psilocybin can relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression in 80% of cancer patients.
Palliative Care need not wait until end-of-life. Many mistake Palliative Care for hospice, which is limited to end-of-life care, and when that happens, patient Survivorship can be an overlooked element. It shouldn’t be. Palliative Care includes Survivorship Care for the patient at any point in a life-limiting disease progression. Some 40% of cancer survivors live longer than ten years, yet more than half of those cancer survivors report anxiety or depression. That’s why Psyence supports access to psychedelic-supported palliative solutions for both the tough diagnosis and the difficult prognosis at any point in disease progression.
When JAMA publishes research that suggests that mental health treatment changes outcomes for patients with cancer, as it did in 2020, then our work developing palliative pharmaceuticals has both a practical as well as a moral focus.
Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider’s Endwell’s “End in Mind” convening is especially inspiring to the Psyence team. The session with Jerry Rosenbaum, the psychiatrist who heads the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital resonated deeply with all of us at Psyence. Especially his observations that the prolonged grief disorder diagnosis (recently added to the DSM-5) could one day be appropriate not just for bereaved family members, but for the patients themselves as they learn to live with a tough diagnosis. These are the kinds of conversations that shift the culture and change the narrative.
What is the most common misconception you hear about psychedelics?
First, where I hear it. Within our own psychedelic community – how to manage perceived “stigma”. Yet, the far greater challenge is how to better manage expectations. I often think of the words of Hanifa Nayo Washington, co-founder of the nonprofit harm reduction organization, the Fireside Project, “public information is super important around what psychedelics are, and also what they are not.”
It’s why our focus on psilocybin R+D at Psyence is to achieve safety and predictability as we work to provide an exemplary standard of care.
Psychedelics are not a panacea. Instead, they are a starting point.
It’s not the trip. It’s the journey.
And it's a journey that we in the psychedelic community are on together.
What do you see the pathway being for psychedelics to becoming medically accepted and accessible?
That is up to those of us working in the field right now. Can we sidestep hype and deliver on the promise psychedelics? Will our medicines reach the market with strong guard-rails, an intelligent and scalable approach to equity and access, and a commitment to mental wellness through nurturing community?
Christopher Kodderman in Zurich, founder of the International Therapeutic Rescheduling Initiative (ITPRI), a campaign to remove psilocybin from the 1971 United Nations treaty that declared it a risk to public health with no medical benefit, is also breaking important new ground by looking at how compliance and regulatory reform at the highest levels may achieve global impact.
In Canada, I keenly appreciate that Therapsil, founded by Dr. Bruce Tobin and led by CEO Spencer Hawkswell, takes an interdisciplinary approach, helping Canadians in medical need access legal, psilocybin-assisted medical care, and also advocating for systemic change and developing a training and continuing education program for health care providers.
We all still have a lot to learn from Dr. Doblin’s nonpartisan platform agnostic approach which pollinates support across the policy spectrum. He is a reminder that in building an economically viable psychedelic industry, we hold in our hands the historic opportunity to build a psychedelic culture – an approach to healing that's more collaborative, reciprocal, just, and accessible, not just for some, but for all.