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From the Archives Back to the Clinic: How Historians of Psychedelics are Protecting the Public Domai

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Chris Elcock, an award-wining independent scholar working on the history of LSD and psychedelics

There was a time when LSD and other vision-inducing psychedelic drugs were associated with the American counter-culture and for conservative observers with license and dissent. Amid the psychedelic hues of light-shows, magic buses, and tie-dye shirts, the medical history of these substances was relegated to a footnote of the 1960s, a decade that symbolized cultural change rather than experimental psychiatry. For better or worse, LSD had spilled out of the clinics and what seemed to have mattered most was that it had landed in the hands of Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead.

While these stories have been told endlessly in popular books and documentaries, historians of psychedelic psychiatry have meticulously examined the way medical doctors initially looked to gain new knowledge into mental illness by inducing a temporary and controlled form of psychosis with mescaline and LSD, and how they subsequently used these substances to treat alcoholism and to help terminal cancer patients to serenely come to terms with death. In 1962, however, fundamental changes in the implementation of clinical trials, which laid critical emphasis on objective measurements and scientific reproducibility, greatly frustrated the research teams working in the field, to a point where psychedelic science had come to a near standstill by the early 1970s.

Despite these early setbacks, research in psychedelics has particularly boomed in the last decade as national and international laws regarding the therapeutic use of psilocybin and other psychedelics have begun to change. In this new regulatory environment, drug companies and investors have rushed to file patents for new psychedelic drug uses and technologies in hopes of monopolizing—and monetizing—the next blockbuster treatment.

In response to this knowledge grab, a recent collaboration between historians and legal experts sponsored by the Usona Institute, a non-profit psilocybin research organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, relies on historical and archival research to protect the public domain. Usona has established a new open-access online repository called Porta Sophia—the doorway to wisdom—that documents extant therapeutic techniques that have used psychedelics as adjuncts. This easily accessible project seeks to ensure that new patent filings are truly innovative.

Porta Sophia Glowing Orb

Graphic from the web page of Usona Institute’s Porta Sophia, Psychedelic Prior Art Library. Image Courtesy of Porta Sophia.

The modern era of psychedelic research began in the 1990s during the Decade of the Brain when investigators drew a line with the past and resumed the promising work that had begun in the postwar era. Certainly, the popularization of the neurosciences in the 1990s was a crucial factor that added incentive to study the effects of psychoactive drugs on the human mind. And more recently, psychopharmacology has come under increasing scrutiny to develop ground-breaking drugs to tackle global conditions like depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychedelics might just be the solution.

Currently, clinical trials are underway in many parts of the world, while psilocybin-assisted treatment is already legal in the Netherlands and will soon be in the state of Oregon. Half a century after the Sixties, it is telling that the best-know figure of the psychedelic renaissance is Rick Doblin, the sober and softly-spoken president of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. Gone, it seems, are controversial celebrities like Leary and Ken Kesey.

As more and more research teams set up protocols to investigate the therapeutic effects of these drugs, histories of psychedelic science are growing somewhat exponentially, and they are gradually shifting away from the United States and Canada, with studies on LSD-assisted conversion therapies in postwar France and on investigations into drug-induced psychosis in communist Czechoslovakia.

Usona Institute Logo

Usona Institute logo. Image courtesy of Usona Institute.

Needless to say, these are exciting times for historians working in the field. In many ways, the contemporary enthusiasm surrounding psychedelic substances and their quick adoption by the multi-billion dollar drug industry is enough to justify historical investigations into the psychedelic past. In this favorable context, a group of individuals and organizations active in the psychedelic field—including Usona Institute—have added an extra incentive for uncovering the history of psychedelics: protecting knowledge in the public domain.

The Porta Sophia database is designed to help researchers and patent-examiners access information about psychedelic therapeutics and former patents. The overarching goal of Porta Sophia is to protect the public domain—or, in patent terms, “prior art”—by enabling patent examiners to do their jobs more effectively. As Porta Sophia’s website explains:

“Due to historical and cultural aspects of psychedelics, prior art can be difficult or inconvenient to find. Porta Sophia identifies prior art most pertinent to patent reviewers wherever it may exist in common and uncommon spaces. This includes traditional sources (scientific literature, published patents) and domestic and foreign archives highlighting foundational work done decades ago. Porta Sophia is generating new tools to identify prior art from millions of blog posts contained in various online forums.”

If ineligible content is incorrectly awarded a patent, these “bad patents” result in massive losses of time, money, and intellectual resources, and they can have negative impacts on the therapeutic landscape and on future patients.

Porta’s Sophia’s goals are achieved through a unique collaboration between historians and legal experts. Historians conducting researched about psychedelics collect potentially relevant sources, and legal experts identify the references that might be most useful for examiners and their patent evaluations. To accelerate these efforts, Porta Sophia welcomes “community submissions” from the public. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, these important efforts are supported entirely by public donations and in-kind contributions.

In the broad field of psychedelic science, the continued disclosure of the historical past may have far-ranging consequences. Indeed, there is a growing schism among practitioners. On one hand, some research groups argue that psychedelic medicine is too important to be developed in a for-profit model that would hinder access to those who need it most.

On the other hand, some researchers point to the astronomical costs of clinical trials that require investors—who naturally want to reap the benefits of their investments. UK-based Compass Pathways has been singled-out for their attempts to patent “holding a hand,” “playing soft music,” and “displaying flowers” as part of their therapeutic treatment model. It is not hard to see how such overly broad patents could inhibit treatment and hurt other ventures by legally forbidding them to use such techniques or requiring them to pay royalties.

In this way, Porta Sophia’s prior art database is helping to prevent such patent land-grabs by making the public domain more accessible to everyone. And for once, the daunting “so what?” question historians routinely face can be answered by pointing to the compelling real-world impact these investigations into the past are likely to have.

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