Medical and therapeutic use of psychedelics has come a long way from the 1960s, when LSD, mescaline, MDMT, and others first entered widespread use — and official condemnation. Over the last decade, thanks in part to acknowledgement of psychedelics’ benefits in treating various disorders (including, famously, treatment of veterans suffering PTSD), these drugs have shed the pall of illegality — and are now projected to become a multi-billion-dollar industry in the next five years.
One leading business school, led by its students, is picking up on the opportunity the space provides. In early March, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management hosted the inaugural Business of Psychedelic Therapies conference, co-organized by Kellogg Class of 2023 MBA Keyaira Lock Adewunmi. The conference included 10 guest speakers, including leading scientists, clinicians, entrepreneurs, and first-mover investors. Hundreds of Kellogg students registered.
“This conference helped to break down not only the contextual history of how plant medicine and psychedelics came to be, but also how we think about commercialization from an equity lens,” Lock tells Poets&Quants.
RECLAIMING CULTURAL BIRTHRIGHTS IN PSYCHEDELICS
How times change. The U.S. government outlawed LSD and psilocybin in 1966; now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy; some states, like Oregon and Colorado, have decriminalized it completely. The Netflix documentary How To Change Your Mind, based on the book by bestselling author Michael Pollan which explores the history and use of psychedelics, has attracted millions of viewers. Venture capital has taken notice, and some of the nation’s top VC firms have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in psychedelic startups over the span of just a few years. Biotech giants are increasingly looking to enter the space, and by 2027, psychedelics are projected to be a $10B industry.
Despite the rapid growth in commercial potential, problems attached to psychedelic use persist beyond lingering social stigma. For Keyaira Lock, the biggest — which she is dedicated to overcoming — is underrepresentation and colonization of plant medicine. According to a 2018 study, “despite renewed interest in studying the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of psychological disorders, the enrollment of racially diverse participants and the unique presentation of psychopathology in this population has not been a focus of this potentially ground-breaking area of research.” The study published by BMC found that under 10% of BIPOC communities have been included in psychedelic research since 1993, as psychedelic use continues to be most commonly associated with “white hippie culture” rather than the Indigenous communities from which these plant medicine psychedelics derived.
“The injustice of our underrepresentation in psychedelics is that Indigenous communities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America have actually been the ones stewarding these plant medicine psychedelics and their sacred healing practices for thousands of years,” explains Lock. “Their Indigenous plant medicine wisdom is the very reason the West has been able to capitalize on psychedelics’ healing benefits. We must right these wrongs by doing whatever we can to make sure these communities and their cultural descendants are included, honored, and valued.”
A NEW MEDIA BUSINESS AIMED AT ADDRESSING INEQUITY IN PSYCHEDELICS
Poets&Quants readers met Lock in our recent article featuring student experiences at Kellogg as part of the Black community. Previous to Kellogg, she worked at Twitter for five years in brand strategy, where she led their global Cultural Strategy Initiative to help brands connect with marginalized communities.
Now, Lock is on a mission to address inequity in the psychedelic space through her soon-to-be-launched media business, Spice & Sage. Lock describes Spice & Sage as a “psychedelic media brand” that connects people to plant medicine education, experiences, and empowerment resources that help them get back to who they truly are.
“While we welcome everyone, we intentionally cater our offerings to Black and Brown audiences – who we believe are the cultural descendants of indigenous plant medicine wisdom,” she shares.
Through culturally informed storytelling on social media, Lock says, the company will help to destigmatize psychedelic use and increase representation for marginalized communities that allows them to learn, explore, and prosper with psychedelics.
‘I CAN HAVE THE KIND OF IMPACT THAT WOULD MAKE MY ANCESTORS PROUD’
Lock’s journey with psychedelic medicine began in 2020. For years she had struggled with anxiety, which the pandemic exacerbated to debilitating levels. After researching the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, she joined a private, two-day retreat in Mexico — and discovered a whole new path for her life and career.
“I realized with empathetic understanding that my anxiety was rooted in a lack of self-trust and self-love,” she says.
Lock’s anxiety had subsided significantly. She was inspired to get into the psychedelic space, but soon realized how little representation existed across the industry. Becoming a Zell Fellow in the second year of her MBA in fall 2022, she was offered $15K to help support some of Spice & Sage’s startup costs to bring plant medicine to a broader, more diverse audience. Since then, she’s built a student team of four.
“I developed Spice & Sage in alignment with my cultural equity and customer intimacy values,” she shares, “which has empowered me to move into this white, male-dominated space in a way that I can proudly have the impact that would make my ancestors proud.”
PSYCHEDELIC INEQUITY: STIGMA & UNDERREPRESENTATION
Not only are Indigenous and other communities of color underrepresented in the psychedelic industry, but psychedelics themselves are also still stigmatized — the U.S. “War on Drugs” never completely ended, and its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities continues. Through Spice & Sage, Lock wants to destigmatize psychedelic use for these marginalized communities by amplifying BIPOC voices and narratives, helping them to “reclaim their cultural birthright in plant medicine.”
What will that look like in practice? Lock says she wants to offer experiences like community dinners, networking nights, retreats, and conferences centered around Black and Brown folks in the industry. She also plans on helping people connect with culturally informed psychedelic therapists and practitioners who can safely guide them to treatment.
As Lock prepares to graduate this spring, she is certain that Indigenous reciprocity is the key to decolonizing the psychedelic ecosystem.
“The way I’m healed is when I see my family and community being healed,” she says. “That elevates the collective healing to really push our society and humanity forward.”
Spice & Sage is slated to launch this April. Until then, watch for updates on Lock’s LinkedIn page.