Published on
December 2, 2020

Paul Austin | Founder, Third Wave

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Paul Austin

Paul Austin of Third Wave has been at the forefront of eradicating the stigma surrounding psychedelics.

Since Paul Austin, first founded Third Wave in 2015, he’s dedicated himself to changing the culture and conversation around psychedelics. Inspired by his own early experiences with LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, Paul’s personal mission is to help legitimize psychedelic substances through the lens of intentional and responsible use, ideally beginning at a microdose level.

Part social entrepreneur, part psychedelic advocate, Paul drew on his early entrepreneurial experience in online language learning education to launch two ventures in the psychedelic space: Third Wave and Synthesis.

Over the years, his work has been featured in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and WebMD. He’s also had the privilege to speak about the intersection of psychedelics, personal transformation, and professional success at several eminent conferences, including SXSW and The Next Web.

You've been an early leading voice on psychedelics; what first got you excited about psychedelics, and what did you find personally compelling about the idea of building a movement around them?

I grew up in West Michigan, a traditional, small-town, tight-knit community. From a young age, I had always been a bit of a rabble rouser, an independent thinker, doing as I pleased when I wanted, how I wanted. Despite that, I had a fairly sheltered upbringing, so I was taught (like many others) that drugs were harmful.

When I was 16, I tried cannabis for the first time and enjoyed it. Then, at the age of 19, I tried mushrooms and LSD. My first mushroom experience was enjoyable, but not profoundly impactful. But when I first did LSD, that was incredibly profound. During that summer, when I was 19 and 20, I ended up taking high doses of LSD, roughly 10 to 15 times. And essentially, the main takeaway from those early psychedelic experiences was a feeling of complete and total freedom, as so many of us feel. 

Coming back from those experiences, I chose to pursue a path that enabled me to embody this level of freedom in my everyday life. So, I moved abroad and lived in Turkey for a year, where I taught English and got into digital nomadism. Then I moved to Thailand and built my first online business. At that point in time, I started to microdose LSD.

In my early high-dose psychedelic experiences, I experienced a beautiful afterglow for a week or two after, where everything just felt a little bit more in flow. When I heard about microdosing, it was like: I wonder if this is a way to elongate the afterglow of the psychedelic experience? So I tried it, and it was incredibly beneficial. 

In 2015, there were a few other things happening that pointed towards psychedelic normalization: Tim Ferriss started publishing podcasts about psychedelics; cannabis had become legal in several more states, and institutions like Johns Hopkins, NYU, and Imperial College began publishing incredible research. 

As an up-and-coming entrepreneur, it felt right to start a platform around responsible psychedelic use, helping to educate people about optimal ways to work with these powerful medicines.

What I found personally compelling about the idea of building a movement around psychedelics was the recognition that we faced several crises. The mental health crisis, ecological crises, meaning in work crises—where so many people felt (and still feel) dissatisfied. I believed that psychedelics could facilitate a process that put people on a path of getting to know themselves better, of turning inwards, of listening, of letting go of external expectations and external conditioning. And I saw that that the psychedelic path, the contemplative path, could help people, one by one, overcome and integrate these crises so that humanity could evolve as a species.

You've been at the forefront of the microdosing movement. What new trend do you think is emerging in the world of psychedelics, and what impact do you see that having in the next decade? Both positive and negative.

Two relevant trends are emerging in the world of psychedelics that are immediately applicable.

I think the first is very individual and has to do with the healing process. In the past, mainstream psychiatry has perceived healing as biological. We address this neurotransmitter or that neurotransmitter through an SSRI or anxiety medication or whatever it is, and that’s supposed to “fix” our issues.

What we're learning now, however, is that many of these mental diseases are much more complicated. Although there are elements tied to biological issues, so much of it relates to psycho-spiritual problems. We’re starting to recognize that the mind and the body are not separate; they're integrated. To heal mental health disease, we need to look beyond the physical condition and heal illnesses of the soul and the spirit. 

So I think one thing psychedelics will do is turn medicine on its head. Instead of people feeling like the answer is outside of themselves in a pill or a doctor or a guru, psychedelics will help people recognize that the answer is always inwards.

I also think the gradual decriminalization, and potential legalization, of psychedelics will help end the war on drugs. We've already seen this with cannabis. Now we're seeing it with the decriminalization of plant medicines both in several US states and globally. These major changes underscore a growing recognition of the futility of the so-called war on drugs, whose primary legacy seems to be the disproportionate targeting of Black Americans for drug-related arrests.

What do you think is the most important thing to understand about the future of psychedelics?

That psychedelics will help humanity fully step into the information age, into the mycelial age, into the era of decentralization. What we’re witnessing right now is the death of industrialization, which has been in a slow state of decline since the 1960s. 

The second wave of psychedelics was the first kick in the ass for industrialization. Now, we’re witnessing many of the final tethers of industrialization fall away amid the rise of cryptocurrency, automation, AI, digital nomadism, etc. 

Psychedelics will help make the concept of decentralization mainstream. 

For investors, this is a key point because many of the for-profit plays in the psychedelic space rely on a model of business rooted in industrialization, as represented by an over-reliance on FDA approval for the legitimization of psychedelics. Keep in mind, the FDA is also a remnant of the industrial system, and will, in due time, evolve into something much more decentralized.  

All of this to say that the mid to long-term path towards psychedelic acceptance will not be medicalization. Instead, psychedelic normalization will be largely supported by the decriminalization of plant medicines and the widespread use of practices like microdosing. 

How do you feel about all of the recent hype media tension and investment interests coming into the psychedelic space?

Right now, much of the investment in the psychedelic space is latching onto the industrial infrastructure, like the FDA, that’s been around for hundreds of years. All of that investment will help create an infrastructure that will make psychedelics much more accessible in the next three to five years. As a result, psychedelics will continue to gain mainstream acceptance.

On the whole, that makes media attention and investment interest very positive because it will help build a massive infrastructure supporting the widespread use of psychedelic medicine—in clinics, in ceremonies, and at retreats.

There is a downside, though, because all this attention may lead people to perceive psychedelics as a silver bullet. What we're noticing is, yes, they offer cures for a period of time, but underlying symptoms can recur without effective integration. The medicines themselves don’t do the work for you. They open the door for healing, but it’s up to you to do the work to effect lasting change.

The other downside to the massive growth of interest in psychedelics is potential tail risk. When you have a thousand people doing psychedelics and one person has a bad trip, it's not a big deal. But if you have 100 million people doing psychedelics and 1,000 people have bad trips, it could potentially be an issue. 

This is why we at Third Wave have focused so much on microdosing, because microdosing can help mitigate the tail risk of the psychedelic movement. If people start with low doses, go slow, and build a relationship with the substance, we mitigate much of the tail risk that may arise as millions of people start to work with psychedelic substances.

How do I feel about the recent legalization of psilocybin in Oregon?

Excellent news. It will act like a bulwark for creating infrastructure to support psychedelic normalization. It does a fantastic job of balancing medical needs, professional therapeutic guidelines, and accessibility for people who can't afford treatment that costs five figures. 

If Oregon does this well, it will help to pave the way for other states to legalize psilocybin. Places like California, New York, Washington, and Colorado may be able to adopt these same principles, creating a path for legalization on a state-by-state basis, well before the FDA approval in 2024. 

Rather than relying on the centralized, industrialized FDA model, we’re better off amplifying decentralized models, like what's happening in Oregon and Oakland. 

For starters, consider the challenges psychedelics will need to overcome from an investment perspective: you can't patent nature and, even if you try, there are non-profits in the space that will make the synthesis publicly available. COMPASS Pathways found this out the hard way in their patent stand-off with USONA.

The unicorn investment mentality does not make sense in the psychedelic space. It’s cancerous because it focuses on making something grow as quickly and as fast as possible. Psychedelics will teach investors that ideal investments mature at an organic and sustainable rate by balancing profit with social welfare.

Are you actively investing in the space?

I have equity in four companies in the psychedelic space, but have not invested any personal capital.

Who is someone doing important work in the world of psychedelics?

Dylan Beynon from Mindbloom. He's a phenomenal operator and great dude. What he's doing with Mindbloom is super exciting and will set a standard for the future of psychedelic medicine.