With the help of former Tesla (TSLA) director and Valor Equity Partners founder Antonio Gracias, Harvard University is getting back into psychedelics. Earlier this week, the university announced its creation of the interdisciplinary Study of Psychedelics in Society and Culture, courtesy of a $16 million donation from the Gracias Family Foundation.
“Harvard is uniquely poised to become the most exciting place to debate, discuss and innovate in this area,” said Robin Kelsey, the school’s dean of art and humanities, in a statement. Harvard now joins a growing roster of educational institutions reentering the arena of psychedelic studies, which in recent years has become a promising space for innovative treatments of disorders like PTSD, depression and anxiety. While universities across the U.S. were once a hub of psychedelic studies in the 1950s and 1960s, societal backlash against the drugs led to a halt in research. But with the aid of prominent donors, the field is slowly returning to academia.
The gift from Gracias, who was a director at Tesla from 2007 to 2021 and helped take the company public, will establish an endowed professorship, university-wide research support and training initiatives for emerging leaders. It will also support psychedelic-focused programs at the Center for the Study of World Religions and fellowships of “Psychedelics, Transcendence, and Consciousness Studies” based between Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley.
The new area of study will take a humanistic angle, held across the Faculty of Art and Sciences, Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School, with research and discussions focusing on psychedelics in law, policy, ethics, religion and spirituality. “Harvard is the ideal place to explore the topic of psychedelics from new angles and to craft a framework for their legal, safe and appropriate impact on society,” said Gracias in a statement.
More than 60 years ago, Harvard was home to one of the most publicized psychedelic experiments in academic history when psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert launched the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Their series of experiments involved administering psychedelics to undergraduate students and attracted backlash, with the university eventually cutting ties with both researchers. The tide didn’t just turn at Harvard—public opinion against drugs like LSD and “magic mushrooms” became less progressive, with the former made illegal in the U.S. in 1968. As of 1970, the Controlled Substances Act has classified psychedelics as having no accepted medical use.
Who are the donors backing psychedelic studies at universities?
Due to its controversial nature, federal funding for the study of psychedelic drugs remains limited today. The field is instead largely supported by philanthropists interested in the therapeutic uses of psychedelics. In recent years, support from prominent donors has led to the establishment of centers and initiatives focused on psychedelics research at various universities.
In 2019, a $17 million donation from a consortium of philanthropists launched the first research center of its kind in the U.S. Located at Johns Hopkins, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research focuses primarily on therapeutic studies. It was made possible by funding from billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen and his wife Alexandra, investor Craig Nerenberg, TOMS shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg and tech investor Tim Ferriss, who are covering its first five years of operational expenses.
Two years later, Ferriss supported a psychedelic-focused initiative launched by Harvard’s Petrie-Flom Center with a donation from his Saisei Foundation. And the investor has given more than $800,000 to the Center for the Science of Psychedelics at Berkeley, which opened in 2020 with an initial $1.25 million in funding from an anonymous donor.
Berkeley’s research center is also supported by a nearly $1 million grant from Cohen, whose foundation has made more than $60 million worth of commitments toward the field of psychedelic research. Grantees of the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation include the University of California, San Diego, which in 2021 received $1.3 million to fund a clinical trial investigating psilocybin-assisted therapy on phantom limb pain.
Even New York University (NYU) has benefited from private donors involved in psychedelics. After raising $10 million in donations from the likes of pharmaceutical company MindMed and Carey Turnbull, leader of the nonprofit Heffter Research Institute, the school opened the Center for Psychedelic Medicine at its NYU Langone Medical Center in 2021.“The infrastructure, support and training opportunities under the auspices of this new center will springboard our psychedelic research efforts to new heights,” said Charles Marmar, chairman of NYU Langone’s psychiatry department, in a statement at the time. “We are very excited about what the future holds.”