Ethnobotany, Natural Health Products, and Cognitive Sovereignty in Psychedelics
Our mission here at Truffle Report is always to widen the discourse around psychedelics. Too often, coverage of this fascinating field of ours is limited to drug culture, or, more recently, stock tips, leaving the depths of fascinating legal, scientific, and cultural facets unexplored. With business still in mind, these are subjects that deserve our full attention. Dr. Ivan Casselman, Chief Psychedelic Officer of Havn Life Sciences, agrees. “I think the general public is thirsty for this sort of information,” he tells me, at the start of our talk.
In this latest installment of Truffle Talks, I had the chance to catch up with Dr. Casselman, and chat with him about Havn Life’s current strategy, his unusual and excellent job title, and his outlook on the future of psychedelics. We started with a bit of his background, fields of work and study, and his transition from the cannabis industry.
Background and Ethnobotany
“I have a Ph.D. in plant science, which I got in Australia, and all of my previous graduate and postgraduate work was done in psychedelic medicine,” he tells me. “I studied a plant called Salvia divinorum for both my masters and my Ph.D., but even prior to my academic work I’d been leaning into psychedelics.” Dr. Casselman mentions that his first undergrad was in anthropology, adding, “my real passion is ethnobotany, really looking into how people use plants.”
“It was around 2015 that I started focusing on the legal cannabis industry, primarily on advising executive-level teams on their scientific and business development strategies. I also did a little side-work doing formulations. Cannabis has always been an interest of mine, but in the last few years we’ve really seen the psychedelic conversation mature, and because I have an academic background, and can see the potential for psychedelics to help a lot of people, I really want to contribute to that and get this important medicine out there. When all of this came together, I started having conversations with some of the founders of Havn Life in December. Then in January, we formalized the process. We understood the market, and charted a course to differentiate ourselves and maximize our impact. We officially became a public company a few weeks ago,” Dr. Casselman says.
Casselman as Chief Psychedelic Officer of Havn Life
As others have remarked before me, Chief Psychedelic Officer is a pretty unprecedented job title. That may not be the case for long. I asked Dr. Casselman a bit about what exactly his role means in terms of the day-to-day at Havn Life, and for their overall strategy. “We’re one of the first psychedelic companies out there,” says Casselman, “so having someone identified in the C-suite as a psychedelics expert was considered advantageous. Before going public, my day-to-day at Havn Life was everything,” he says, having a little laugh with me. “Business development, licensing strategy, investor calls in the early days. We’ve been casting a wide net, trying to tease out that collaborative potential. It’s a small industry, but if we all pile in and help each other out, we have a better chance of accelerating this industry and making it all happen.”
“Going forward, my role is really going to be growing, extracting, and formulating psilocybin-containing medicine for researchers, then ultimately for patients when those regulations are in place. Broad strokes; we have a societal conversation, a regulatory and government conversation, then scientific, and then a medical conversation. We’ve got a great team with lots of different expertise. A lot of us come from the cannabis industry, we understand the mistakes that were made, and we’re applying those lessons,” Dr. Casselman tells Truffle.
Psychedelics as Natural Health Products
As our conversation was picking up speed, I used the phrase ‘drug development pipeline’ in reference to Havn Life’s attempt to develop medical psilocybin. Dr. Casselman corrected me. “As far as that goes, we aren’t taking a pharmaceutical approach. We’ve determined that the usage patterns, traditional and current, of psychedelic mushrooms, really align well with the natural health product approach. Our focus is really to develop a quality-controlled, standardized medicine containing psilocybin, for patients and researchers.”
PTSD and Unlocking Human Performance
It was a good segue. A quick glance at Havn Life’s website copy tells the visitor that they’ve made their initial focus on treating PTSD and trauma disorders with microdoses of psilocybin. “There’s a huge problem treating that particular indication, and a clear need for us to help there,” says Dr. Casselman. “It’s one of those things where you have to be open, but we’ve picked some high-level indications to start with, things we know that mushrooms can help. Microdosing has the real potential to allow people to have the benefits of psychedelics without the other effects of taking larger threshold doses; sitters and all that kind of stuff. There’s a growing body of research, still a lot more work to be done, but we’re really seeing that that’s going to be a potential therapy route in the future.”
I moved on to another of Havn Life’s stated philosophies, ‘Unlocking Human Performance.’ I wanted to ask Dr. Casselman what exactly it meant to him. It’s the sort of question I’ve raised before with other thought leaders in psychedelics. The answer is always a little different. “If you view mental health as a spectrum, you have people on that spectrum who have depression, PTSD, anxiety, and psychedelics have the potential to bring them up to a baseline level. For people who are already there, how can we use psychedelics to help them thrive? To maximize their potential, to really elevate them in whatever way they choose,” he tells me.
The Difference Between Cannabis and Psychedelics
Looking at Havn Life’s current staff roster, I recognized a few names that came over from the board of Aphria Inc., a Canadian cannabis company. Given Dr. Casselman’s background, I asked about his start in cannabis, and, and how that played a role in Havn Life’s creation.
“I got my start in cannabis doing formulations. Drinks and vapes, things of that nature. My consulting work in cannabis was largely executive advising. I worked with several companies in Canada, some in the United States, and Australia as well. A lot of that was just getting them from zero to a place where they could start applying for licensing, going to banks for loans, or to the public for funding. I started because, with my background and knowledge of plants, I was able to advise on the scientific side, but it turns out there were other fundamental problems in the business development side to solve. I ended up getting sort of a trial-by-fire course in business administration. I learned how businesses are run, how they’re set up, how to strategize for the future, and got very interested in those mechanisms,” Dr. Casselman shared.
The Need for Psychedelic Clinics in a Collaborative Environment/Small Sandbox
At this point, I mentioned to Dr. Casselman a point raised in a previous Truffle Talks interview, with Dr. George Greer of the Heffter Research Institute. Dr. Greer had voiced his belief that the major challenge facing psychedelics would be the creation of clinics, and the training of enough therapists to administer them and treat patients. I asked Dr. Casselman for his take on how these therapeutic practices might end up coming into being.
“The clinic as a service model is definitely predominant in the industry at the moment. Nonprofits, for-profits, and public companies are all focusing on that, and that’s great. At the end of the day, there will have to be trained practitioners and a modality for patients to get that medicine. We chose very early on not to go down that path, mostly because that for a very small industry it’s already a very crowded segment. That said, I fully support as many clinics and practitioners opening as possible, because those inevitably become Havn Life’s customers. As far as how the regulatory dust will settle in Canada, there are definitely some competing hypotheses. Right now, the dominant theory is that psilocybin will end up, through a constitutional mechanism, being one of the substances that Canadians have a right to use as medicine. We have these in place already for cannabis, and they could easily be translated.”
At this point, I mentioned Truffle’s recent interview with Thomas Hartle on his Section 56 exemption, and experience with psilocybin therapy. Dr. Casselman responded “that’s a really interesting part of the conversation, and our development. There aren’t many patients who have been granted that exemption. It’s a great short-term mechanism to get patients the medicine they need, and Health Canada seems committed to doing so in a pretty timely fashion, but I don’t feel it’s sustainable. It looks fine when there are less than one hundred patients, but we may soon get to the point where thousands need, and are requesting, this medicine in Canada. I suspect that at some point it will be a political decision, it will trigger a constitutional mechanism. The federal government will likely have to act.”
“The prevailing approach will likely be one of the government saying that patients have to go to a licensed therapist at a registered location, and that’s a good approach, but at the end of the day, I think that we need to get this medicine to patients in the most efficient way possible by whatever mechanism we can. We’re very open to collaborating with researchers and practitioners through whatever regulatory or legal framework ends up existing, and we know we’ll have to pivot and adapt going forward,” Dr. Casselman added.
Dr. Casselman on Cognitive Sovereignty and the First Wave of Psychedelic Medicine
As we began to wind down, I asked Dr. Casselman what he thinks the first wave of psychedelic medicine might look like. He answers with a fair question. “What do I think it will look like, or what do I want it to look like?” I tell him I’d be happy to hear both, with some comparisons for good measure.
“I truly believe in cognitive sovereignty,” he tells me, clarifying that he thinks he’s heard the term somewhere, but can’t place it. “That is to say, that individuals given the right education and access to safe compounds are more than able to sort out their own usage patterns. That said, we’ve had decades of War on Drugs propaganda, and the conversation is still very fear-based. Canadians are also very good at forming regulatory frameworks, and I don’t think the government is just going to snap their fingers one day and say ‘as long as it’s made by a lab, go for it.’ How do I think it will actually play out? I guess my hypothesis is that within three to five years we’ll see a framework, either through a political decision or a mechanism forcing change, but we’ll be able to access psilocybin in ways very similar to how we now access cannabis. Patients will be able to access natural health products directly, and when they have it in their hands maybe it’s a microdose and they do it on their own, or maybe they do it under the care of a practitioner, and it’ll be up to them to do what they want with it, just like cannabis.”
Public Markets and Parting Thoughts
As our interview wound down, I asked Dr. Casselman if he had anything else he wanted to say about his work at Havn Life before we left things. He answered with some commentary on Havn Life’s decision to go public. “One of the common questions we get asked is why we chose the public markets route. Ultimately, we chose that route because innovation is very expensive, and this was the fastest route we could take to get this medicine out.”
Havn Life is far from alone. Before signing off, Dr. Casselman again expressed his view that psychedelics is a small industry with many new and active players, and that more good could be done through collaboration than competition. Whether that philosophy is shared by other emerging psychedelics companies, and Dr. Casselman’s prediction of psychedelics paralleling the cannabis industry’s medical access trajectory come true, remains to be seen.