Article: Psychedelic Intellectual Property

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Psychedelics are set to revolutionize mental health treatment.  In addition to transforming the lives of the individuals who take them, this psychedelic renaissance is forecast to create a multi-billion dollar industry.  A psychedelic gold-rush is currently underway, with pharmaceutical start-ups competing for the rights to profit from these ancient medicines.  How can someone make money from a naturally occurring substance?  Can a company patent psychedelics themselves?  There are many important questions that need answers when considering psychedelic intellectual property.


Intellectual property refers to the ownership of something that has been created by a human mind.  There are many types of intellectual property, for example patents, trademarks, and copyrights.  They can cover an idea, a design or any other non-material creation.  Their legal role is to make clear who has the right to profit from its use, in a way that can be enforced through the legal system.  If you use intellectual property that belongs to someone else without their permission the legal system can be used to stop you from using it.

How Can A Psychedelic Startup Make Money?

A huge amount of money is flowing into the area of psychedelics.  With these being largely ancient and naturally occurring substances, how can a company manage to profit from them?  Multiple steps are involved in manufacturing and distributing a drug through the medical system.  Pharmaceutical companies can profit by producing a substance using specific patented methods that only they are allowed to use.

They can also engage in drug development, attempting to create new compounds with modified properties, such as shorter acting psychedelics that could be used in one hour therapy sessions, for example.  There are also companies that focus on the delivery side, such as clinics, but the big money is to be found in being the company that gets to manufacture and sell the substances themselves.

Can A Company Patent Natural Substances?

In 1981, a man named Loren Miller came back from the amazon with a sample of the ayahuasca vine.  He filed a patent for this plant, dubbing it “Da Vine”.  The patent was granted, making him the only person who could grow this plant in the US.  Indigenous communities fought back against this patent with legal wins followed by losses until the patent expired in 2003.  The ayahuasca patent was possible as individuals are allowed to patent specific types of plant. This is how it’s possible for companies to profit from breeding specific types of apple, for example.  What if someone were to file a patent not for a plant, but for a naturally occurring chemical?

Patenting Psilocybin

In 2019, the pharmaceutical startup Compass Pathways was granted a patent for psilocybin.  For many, this created a fear that they might be able to prevent people from consuming psychedelic mushrooms through legal action.  Fortunately, it is not possible to patent an already-existing naturally occurring compound.  What was patented was a particular form of psilocybin that isn’t naturally occurring and a method for synthesising this compound in the lab.  So, if you’re consuming psilocybin mushrooms in a place where they are legal, you need not fear that you’re infringing on the legal claims of any psychedelic companies.

Patenting Psychedelic Psychotherapy

In 2020, the same company filed a controversial patent for the basic elements of psychedelics psychotherapy.  This included the use of soft furnishings and holding hands with the therapist.  At this stage the patent has only been submitted, we’ll have to wait several years to find out if it is granted.  Patents have also been filed for the right to treat specific disorders with psychedelics.  Compass, for example, has filed a patent to treat anorexia with psilocybin.

The challenge to getting such a patent granted is to demonstrate that such a treatment is non-obvious and novel in some way.  This can be done by adding specific elements to the treatment approach.  Another approach is to file as many patent claims as possible and to see what sticks.  Compass has filed for the right to treat a large number of disorders, including pyromania and skin-picking disorder.  Time will tell if any of these patent claims are granted.

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