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DoubleBlind's Shelby Hartman & Madison Margolin: Building a psychedelic media company
Welcome to Business Trip, a podcast about psychedelic entrepreneurship. We explore the business models and origin stories of the most promising companies in psychedelics. I'm your host, Greg Kubin. In episode one, I tried ketamine assisted therapy at Mindbloom and chatted with their founder about the growing popularity of using ketamine to treat anxiety and depression.
In episode two, I interview Shelby Hartman and Madison Margolin. The founders of DoubleBlind, a psychedelic magazine and media company founded in 2019. DoubleBlind has become one of my go-to resources to stay current on the latest psychedelic trends, research and education on the history of psychedelics.
Some articles that come to mind include, how psychedelics are reigniting Judaism, or what you should know about microdosing for anxiety. I see DoubleBlind as a visionary media company, as they take a stronger leadership role than many media companies have to, while trying to drive the cultural expansion of psychedelics. In this episode, we'll discuss ways DoubleBlind incorporates ethics and accessibility into their company DNA and how other companies in the space can follow suit.
The founders, Shelby and Madison are advocates who are working hard to de-stigmatize and educate us about plant medicines. And now to the episode. I would love to know like, what's, what's a day in the life of each of you look like? How do you spend your time?
Get up, do some acid, bike around, make some friends. I'm just kidding.
This is Shelby speaking.
Madison and my roles are really different. She's running our editorial operations. So she's the one who's, green-lighting the stories that go on our website, editing them, loading them onto the site. She reports also. I'm more the business operational side of things. So I manage everyone on the DoubleBlind team.
I am speaking to investors because we're about to embark on a seed round. I talk to potential brands who want to partner with us, whether it's that they want to sponsor one of our webinars or if they want to advertise in the print magazine. So for me, it's, it's a lot of setting goals and managing and creating decks and everything else that comes along with startup life.
And how about you Madison?
So I'm really a writer at heart. So I'm happiest when I'm, I'm in my zone and just editing article after article. A lot of it is also trying to coordinate with the writers and ideate stories. So that's, again, paying attention to stories that we feel like we really need to tell. Stories that are going to perform well on SEO. Stories that we know our audience are going to be particularly interested in. I try really. I'm very conscientious of is trying to incorporate an element of the spirit of what we're writing about and editing about into like our daily, you know, focus. So I, what I mean by that is trying to like incorporate mindfulness into like the work that I'm doing.
I'm also sometimes micro-dosing psilocybin when, when I'm working as well.
So I really liked DoubleBlind's articles because I feel like you guys are channeling the psychedelic zeitgeist. Some articles that come to mind include How to Trip in New York City and why 2020 is the year of psychedelics and threesomes.
Interesting. How do you decide what to report on for DoubleBlind?
There are two strategies to this. When we founded DoubleBlind, which started out as just a print magazine, we say we're using psychedelics as a jumping off point to talk about mental health, spirituality, social equity, environmental justice, and so forth.
So those are sort of our guiding principles and the overarching lens through which we're trying to approach our content. And then of course there's what our readers are responding to. We get to keep a pulse on that through social media, how they're interacting with our site, you know, who we're talking to at conferences or who we're interviewing and so forth.
So. You know, you, you pointed out a couple of articles, um, online. Yeah. Our readers specifically are really interested in psilocybin, which makes a lot of sense right now, because there is a movement to grow your own mushrooms. We actually just launched a course on that and Denver decriminalized, psilocybin, Oakland decriminalized all entheogenic naturally occurring entheogens.
So there's a focus on that.
There are three paths to expanding access to psychedelics in the United States, decriminalization, medicalization, and legalization. Let's review them. The first path is decriminalization, which is what Madison is referring to. Decriminalization means that an offense becomes the lowest priority for policing and prosecutions.
Possession is still a crime, but the local police and DA are told not to prioritize it. In 2019, Denver decriminalized psilocybin. And soon after that, Oakland and then Santa Cruz in California, decriminalized all entheogens. An entheogen is a chemical substance, typically of plant origin that produces a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes. Other entheogens, include plants like Iowasca and Peyote. By the way, DoubleBlind has a great article about entheogens, you can read in the show notes.
The second path to access is medicalization, which has a few flavors. You can go through the FDA's clinical trial process, or you can pursue a state ballot initiative to implement a system of medical psychedelic use, similar to how medical marijuana has been rolled out in many states. Oregon will be the first state to pursue this path in this coming election.
The third path is legalization, which allows for recreational use in addition to medical use. This would remove any government restrictions or penalties for use and tax businesses that manufacture or distribute the medicines.
This path is not expected to happen anytime soon in psychedelics. What makes this all a bit complicated is that if something is decriminalized, medicalized, or even legal at the local or state level, it can still be federally illegal. This is where things are at today with Cannabis.
Our readers also really respond well to stories about sex, you know, the psychedelics and threesomes.
We just had another story on whether MDMA ruins sober sex. So we really want to be able to balance both educating our readers. So being able to teach them about where we are culturally, scientifically, legislatively in psychedelics now, but also keeping them entertained and interested and approaching sort of risque topics in a thoughtful way that even if it's provocative.
So with DoubleBlind one thing I've seen so far is you seem to have multiple lines of business. You have the print magazine and the web content. You recently launched a course on how to grow mushrooms, which you're selling for $149, I think is the cost of the course. And then you also have the merch store, right? You're selling testing kits. You've got cool tie-dyed shirts. I like the innovative approach to a multipronged media company. How does it all play together?
The journalism and the storytelling will always be the foundation of what we're doing. And this is all coming from a place of, we want to help de-stigmatize plant medicines.
We want to help grow a community around plant medicines. And we want to provide people with the tools and education that they need to properly and safely embark on a journey with psychedelics, if that's what they want. And so like all these revenue streams, whether it's like the course or the things that we're selling in the eCommerce store are coming from that spirit. So the course is about empowering people to be able to grow their own medicine, which is even more pretient now given this crisis that we're in. The things that we're selling in our store, like the LSD and MDMA testing kits, which we're selling in partnership with DanceSafe are about harm reduction.
And they're about making sure that people are aware of what they're putting into their own bodies.
Harm reduction is a set of programs and policies intended to reduce the negative effects of drug use as well as drug laws and drug policies. The big idea is that if people are gonna use drugs, we better have initiatives in place to make use safer.
Initiatives range from providing access to drug testing kits at music festivals, to advocating for compassionate and judgment-free approaches to addiction, to repairing the harm of a racialized drug policies. A good parallel to harm reduction is sex education, which advocates for the use of condoms instead of abstinence.
So yeah, everything is just like sprouted from this place of we're giving people content which is illuminating the therapeutic potential of plant medicines. And we want to give them the tools to actually embark on that journey safely, should they want that.
Shelby, you had mentioned as part of your role, you know, dealing with potential partners, uh, would love to know what kind of brands are able to advertise with you or, or partner with you?
I would say psychedelic and cannabis companies. Also, there are some companies in the sort of wellness, mindfulness spaces who are really excited to align themselves with us now. Rainbow Mushrooms is a really beautiful medicinal mushroom tincture that's made in Canada and they sponsored our most recent course on how to grow mushrooms.
It's a logical fit for cannabis brands because cannabis is a plant medicine and cannabis has paved the pathway for us to have conversations about the medicinal potential of psychedelics at large. Also a lot of cannabis brands have limited advertising opportunities because there are so many restrictions around where cannabis brands can advertise.
And a lot of mainstream outlets aren't ready to take advertising in terms of other brands in the wellness and new age space. I think that whether they want to partner with us is a hundred percent dependent upon how the founders personally feel about psychedelics. Like some people, who have started brands in the wellness space are just psychedelic users themselves, and they want to support what we're doing, because they love what we're doing.
And they believe in it. And other brands either, don't have a personal relationship with psychedelics or they do, but they just are concerned because of the stigma still surrounding the space that it might be damaging to their brand to align themselves with us at this point, which is fine. Like we totally, we totally get it.
What we're trying to do with DoubleBlind is create a brand that, you know, isn't scary for brands that are not in this space to touch and to partner with in the way that we like have been intentional about our aesthetic and our design and our messaging, but folks who aren't ready, we get it. Like we're going to be here a while.
Yeah. I mean, how, how do you see it changing over time?
I mean, I think there's a mainstreaming process that's happening similar to how cannabis is now. You know, it's not such a risque topic anymore. Cannabis is a little bit of a gateway plant opening people up to the notion of more plant medicines and more psychedelics.
So, you know, especially what we're doing is we joke that we don't put any fractals on the site or on our social media. And the idea is that we want our aestethic to be really digestible to an audience that is curious about psychedelics, but isn't necessarily really deep in the space. Like we've said, we're not trying to evangelize to, you know, the anti-drug square and we're not trying to talk to the super veteran tripper though, I'm sure both are inlcuded in our audience, but I see that, you know, with people like Michael Pollan, um, How to Change Your Mind, or Ayelet Waldman's A Really Good Day. And as more mainstream media covers the psychedelic Renaissance, both in regard to the FDA approved clinical research, looking at MDMA and psilocybin the main compound in magic mushrooms for PTSD and depression and so forth. That's changing the way people are regarding these substances as medicines, rather than as these quote unquote drugs that are going to make you lose your mind, which was sort of the demonizing narrative. That was a reaction to what was going on in the sixties.
Uh, would love to talk for a little bit about the other companies in the psychedelic field, particularly the, for profit companies, right?
You got clinics, you have sort of pharmaceutical companies, you have retreats and it's part of the impetus of why I'm doing this podcast is to kind of catalog and, and learn and kind of open source the learnings of all of these different businesses. There are some companies that are growing, let's call it piece by piece and really just doing it slow and steady.
And there are other companies that are trying to go really fast and kind of take the venture approach. How do you guys think about the two approaches and what role do you and or Double Blind play in shaping how this whole industry and field progresses?
You are touching on probably the most controversial topic in the psychedelic field right now, other than whether the best way to overturn prohibition is decriminalization or legalization on a federal level, through the FDA. There's obviously a lot of opinions in the psychedelic space about these venture backed for-profit companies that are trying to get psilocybin and, or synthetic derivatives of psychedelics to market for various indications. DoubleBlind is a for-profit company.
We fully intend to become licensed as, as a B Corp. And we'll only take money from people who we know understand and value our mission.
A certified B corporation receives a certification that your business meets high standards of social and environmental performance. You are legally required to consider the impact of your company decisions with just about everything your business touches, including your workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. Some of the most prominent B corporations include companies like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry's.
We never got into this to get super rich, but we're a for-profit company because we thought that we needed investors or we wanted to have the option rather to have investors who could help us scale.
You know, so for us to say we're anti for-profit would be hypocritical. I will say though, that equity and access to psychedelic medicine is a core part of our mission. And so I don't take a stance on whether people should or shouldn't be for profit. I take a stance on how you're structuring your business to ensure that the most number of people possible can get access to psychedelic medicines they need to heal them and to ensure that the development of psychedelic medicine is always taken into account that psychedelics can be used in a variety of legitimate ways, meaning, spiritually and or recreationally that nobody should be criminalized for the possession of psychedelics and a business model that includes some form of reciprocity for indigenous communities who have a long history of using psychedelic medicine and preserving the knowledge around them.
So for me, it's not about for-profit versus nonprofit. It's about what are your values and what is your intention? I think it is really, um, interesting just to know that MAPS has been around since the 1980s, and that they're only just now getting into the final phase of FDA approved studies to get MDMA to market.
Whereas Compass, which a lot of people have criticized for being a, for profit company came on under the scene less than a decade ago and already is being fast tracked by the FDA to get psilocybin for treatment resistant depression on the market. So certainly we're seeing that if our number one priority is overturning prohibition, that having capital is going to expedite that process. Whether Compass is going to ensure that people of all creeds have access to their medicine is another question.
It's a question that a lot of people are concerned about in asking.
Let me break this down for you. All eyes are on MAPS and Compass Pathways. Since they're on track to be two of the first organizations to receive FDA approval for psychedelic therapies, they've both been granted breakthrough therapy designation by the FDA, which expedites the development and review of their clinical trials.
Breakthrough therapy designation is only given when preliminary clinical evidence indicates that a drug or therapy may demonstrate a significant improvement for a serious condition over available therapies. MAPS, which stands for the Multi-Disciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies is a nonprofit that has been researching psychedelic therapy since 1986. They're developing a protocol to treat post traumatic stress disorder with MDMA psychotherapy. And it raised over $80 million in donations to fund their research trials. While they've had to rely on donations throughout their 35 year history, MAPS plans to commercialize their therapy through a public benefit corporation subsidiary, which will reinvest profits back to their nonprofit.
Compass Pathways is developing a protocol for psilocybin assisted therapy for treatment resistant depression. Compass Pathways is a for-profit company founded in 2016 and has raised over $100 million. So in conclusion, in 35 years, as a nonprofit MAPS has raised $80 million. In five years as a for profit company, Compass Pathways has raised over $100 million.
Yeah, you're saying like the accessibility issue and the sense that it just may not be offered to all the people that actually need it, or what do you, what do you mean by that exactly?
Right. That's what I mean. I mean, when you look at, for example, the first, I don't know if you really consider it a psychedelic medicine, but the first kind of medicine with psychedelic properties to be legalized by the FDA was SPRAVATO, which is, it's the, that's the brand name for Esketamine. It's a component of ketamine that was legalized for depression. It's a nasal spray. And I can't remember exactly how much it costs to have it
800, 800 something dollars.
It's absurd. It's really absurd. And when you compare how much it costs to how much generic ketamine costs for depression. Um, we could also look to Epidiolex as an example of the gross profit incentives that pharmaceutical companies have. Epidiolex is the first cannabis based medication to be approved by the FDA.
It's a CBD medication for epilepsy. And it's produced by GW Pharmaceuticals based out of the UK. And it's also like grossly expensive compared to how much generic CBD costs at recreational and medical dispensaries in the United States. I'm not saying don't profit. I'm saying don't grossly profit to the point that people who need access to these medicines don't have them.
So. In terms of sacred reciprocity, uh, would love to dive into how, what the mechanics of that would actually look like. So I understand on the surface, the idea of giving back to the indigenous people that have been, you know, cultivating and using plant medicines for hundreds of years. What does it actually look like from a mechanical standpoint?
It looks like if you're participating in a psychedelic ceremony, going to a retreat center that includes indigenous healers. It looks like giving a percentage of your profits to indigenous communities and nonprofits that are lifting up indigenous communities. It looks like always ensuring that indigenous voices are represented at conferences. It looks like not de-legitimizing indigenous knowledge and saying that, you know, only a certain type of data or a certain, you know, like DoubleBlind randomized clinical trials are the only way legitimate way of showing that a plant has medicinal value.
I mean, we have a sacred reciprocity donation feature on our website. So when people check out of our store, it, it basically explains the concept of sacred reciprocity to them. And we give people the opportunity to donate if they can afford it. So I think it's just really thinking, like from a high level perspective about how to make sure that whoever you're supporting, whoever your customers are, understand the concept of sacred reciprocity and are given ample opportunity to participate in a program like that, if they want to.
Did you, either of you have an ambition of becoming a founder and starting your own thing, or did it, the opportunity kind of just present itself along your path?
I always wanted to start a media company. Always. And about five years ago, I helped launch a media company called Prime Mind, which was essentially trying to be like a high brow literary magazine for millennials. Um, but the founders decided that they wanted to move on to other things and I considered taking it over. But it just didn't feel like good timing. I felt like I had more to learn. And so I went on to do a lot of different kinds of things in many different kinds of newsrooms.
And I saw all the different ways in which people who cared deeply about journalism and want to create sustainable business models for funding, meaningful content, were trying to do it. And so I felt like, you know, by the time that I had the idea for Double Blind, I was really, I was really ready because I was aware of the different ways that people have tried to do it and failed.
And the ways people have tried to do it and succeeded and seeing kind of like the implications for all these business models on the storytelling itself.
What advice do you have for someone who's thinking about starting a psychedelic company?
I think it's really important to understand the spirit of the medicine.
It doesn't mean you have to be taking psychedelics all the time or that you have to have tried every psychedelic under the sun, but I think it's really important to understand what the principles and the ethos of the medicine is to inform, you know, the, the company's own values and morality.
Psychedelics are infinitely complex, and they're not something that can just be profited from. Like, that's the thing that we're finding out. Like, it's just so funny because you take someone and you put them like the sterile clinical trial environment on a couch with two licensed therapists and you say, okay, we're going to do this.
That's what the FDA protocols and the, this and the, that, and whatever. And then they see God, you know what I mean? Like you literally can't take, you literally can't take like the spirit or the culture out of these medicines.
Don't try and learn what they're all about. Like on the deepest level, empirically.
I'm grateful that there are voices like Shelby and Madison that humanize this field. They make an effort to bring in diverse voices and hold the industry accountable. If you want to check out their latest articles and courses go to DoubleBlindMag.com. I just received issue three of DoubleBlind's magazine in the mail.
And my finger is truly on the pulse, at the intersection of psychedelics and culture. This is Business Trip, a podcast about psychedelic entrepreneurship. If you liked this episode, you can help us out by subscribing to the podcast and leaving us a comment at BusinessTrip.fm. We've got more episodes coming out soon, and if you're building an exciting company in psychedelics, send me an firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm your host, Greg Kubin. Business Trip is created by me and Matias Serebrinsky. Editorial production and engineering came from Jonathan Davis. And our theme music is by Dorian Love.
And you say, okay, we're going to do
the FDA protocols
and the, this and the, that, and whatever.
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