Psychedelic Culture Has Entered the NFT Space
Is it worth the trip?
This past March, the crypto faithful gathered at Wisdome LA, an LA-based visionary art production space during one of the many afterparties for the NFT LA conference. There the NFT project Psychedelics Anonymous (PA) exhibited the first in its line of branded accessories, a snakeskin mask with gold chrome tusks, and displayed physical art they would later auction off for charity.
The project's showcasing and socializing had a soundtrack too, provided by the EDM DJ/producers Steve Aoki and Timmy Trumpet, a PA NFT holder. Outside of the PA pleasure dome, another NFT project, SACRΞD GARDΞN, amassed a list of collectors for their upcoming sale of entheogenic plant image tokens,
It's a snapshot of how psychedelic culture is emerging in the burgeoning NFT collectibles space. It also captured a moment in time before the US Terra stablecoin/Luna crash precipitated a larger cryptocurrency downturn — and a reckoning for many projects in the space.
Start at the beginning: What's an NFT?
For the uninitiated, NFT tokens are unique records of ownership of a virtual (sometimes physical) asset, indelibly recorded onto a blockchain, of which there are several, from the original Bitcoin blockchain to newer ones such as Ethereum, Solana and Terra. Unlike Bitcoin, newer blockchains have the capacity to store and execute "smart contracts" — bits of code which can allow for ownership of a specific virtual item to be transferred upon a blockchain using that blockchain's affiliated currency.
In 2021, NFTs stood for individual works of art, such as "Everydays — The First 5000 Days," a jpeg image by digital artist Beeple which sold at Sotheby's for $69 million. These sorts of "1:1" sales still occur; in fact, Beeple himself alongside Alex Grey, Refik Anadol, David Choe (of the infamous Facebook mural) and Mad Dog Jones have donated original digital art NFTs to "Cartography of the Mind," a Christie's auction of psychedelic art to be held online from June 21st to the 28th. The proceeds will benefit MAPS.
However, ever since the technology's early days, NFT creators have also sold "collectible" image series which are often variations on a theme, such as a dog, a robot or a monkey. After altering the properties of each image algorithmically — give these 50 kitties pink or red skin and make the background paisley or matte brown, for example — and hyping up the release of the collection on Twitter, the collection is released, or minted, often on the the NFT marketplace Open Sea platform.
Successful mints can often run into the millions of dollars and attract celebrity collectors. The most successful of these may be the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), a series of too-cool-for-school cartoon apes which counts Paris Hilton, Jimmy Fallon and Gwyneth Paltrow as members. This has led to equal parts opportunity and chaos. While BAYC's owner Yuga Labs has raised $320 million to create the virtual metaverse project Otherside, BAYC and its members have been the target of several devastating hacks and breaches; a recent phishing scam perpetrated on of their Discord server stole about $360,000 in NFTs from unsuspecting BAYC members. Scams, hacks and self-dealing in the unregulated space of NFTs are rampant, and even a high-ranking ex-employee of the popular Open Sea has been implicated in one of them.
Psychedelics enter the NFT world
Given the Cambrian explosion of collectibles borne of the success of projects like BAYC, CryptoPunks and World of Women, it was inevitable that psychedelics would enter the mix. Perhaps the most visible of the emerging psychedelic-themed projects is Psychedelics Anonymous. Its founder, Lewis "Voltura" Gale, is a voluble, no-nonsense marketing professional based in Sydney, Australia. Gale began his journey as a collector of other NFTs, most notably getting in on the ground floor with BAYC. From there, Gale began to break down how the market worked.
"My entire career has been built on benefiting large corporations, helping clients achieve goals and build strategy to acquire new customers. As NFTs thrived, it was apparent you could build out a community through a Web3 mechanism at scale quite quickly, and group a specific number of people around a specific topic," says Gale, referring to a possible future iteration of the internet built using blockchain technology.
Gale was drawn towards psychedelics in large part due to his own mental health struggles. Inspired by glowing testimonies of his friends who used psilocybin therapeutically, Gale's team fleshed out a concept of a secret society of featureless, mannequin-like humanoids. These humanoids comprise the initial 9,595 images in PA's flagship "Genesis Collection," ownership of which "grants holders the highest levels of PA membership," according to the project's Open Sea page. The PA catchphrase, "We are the night," and a cryptic prose-poem on the project site hints at an extended mythology behind the series that Gale has revealed in dribs and drabs on the project's official Twitter account and Discord server.
Gale aims to use PA as a vehicle for supporting companies in the emerging field of psychedelic-assisted therapy. "We are more than a collection of NFTs," reads PA's Open Sea page. "We are harnessing the transformative power of nature by supporting advancements in mental health."
Last year, during a fundraising session, the PA team met with Tania De Jong, founder of the psychedelic medicine company Mind Medicine Australia. Three days before PA's Genesis Collection went on sale, Psychedelics Anonymous announced it was giving $25,000 AU to Mind Medicine. Since then, the two have continued to work together; de Jong helped coordinate a Twitter Spaces interview in March that Gale conducted with Imperial College neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, which drew 1400 people. Shortly afterwards, PA tweeted it had donated another $25K AU to Mind Medicine. PA also solicited public submissions from its members on their Discord server on behalf of Mind Medicine in support of their application to amend Australia's Poison Standards for the medical use of psilocybin and MDMA in late May
Virtually all NFT collections launch with some percentage of their proceeds going towards a nonprofit. The alms component of NFTs often serves as a selling point in and of itself. The need to declare an alliance with a well-known initiative can be so great that such support is sometimes pledged before the project even bothers to alert the indicated benefactors, as the tweet exchange below between ShroomFrens and John Hopkins researcher Matt Johnson illustrates.
Academic organizations such as Johns Hopkins do not accept cryptocurrencies, which can make it difficult for NFT projects to work with them. But the number of psychedelic organizations that do continues to grow. MAPS, Erowid, and Mind Medicine Australia currently accept various cryptocurrencies. The crypto donation platform The Giving Block serves as a mediator between crypto donors and nonprofits as well.
While Gale hasn't scaled the heights of his Bored Ape pals — floor prices for Bored Apes start at 91 eth / $179,507 US — PA still boasts an enthusiastic crew of supporters, including celebrity collectors like NBA players Josh Hart and Darius Miller, NHL player Chase Pearson, digital marketing guru Gary "GaryVee" Vaynerchuk and YouTube celebrity "iJustine" Ezarik.
However, for something called Psychedelics Anonymous, it's notable that the project rarely touches on the topic of psychedelics. The reason why lies in the larger goals of Web3. Rather than corporations like Alphabet or Meta selling the data and labor its user base creates for free on their platforms, NFT project founders, like entrepreneurs in other web3 business models such as play-to-earn video games, claim that their collectors will reap social and financial rewards by being early adopters, and will materially benefit from holding and promoting their collectibles. In practice, this means psychedelics and their associated mental health applicationstake a back seat to NFT promotion.
The NFT space is rife with hoaxes
In his periodic addresses to the PA faithful on Twitter, Gale talks far more about the fault he finds with his peers' NFT projects (and, occasionally, his fondness for gin and tonics) than new developments in the psychedelic space. This carries over into conversations held among PA holders on PA's Discord server, which is chock full of warnings about the latest "rug pull" (NFT slang for a hoax or grift) roiling the NFT space, as well as discussions about the latest digital collectibles released in the wake of Genesis and "WAGMI" (We're All Gonna Make It) rhetoric anticipating the imminent success of their considerable early investment in PA.
Gale insists this is merely how the cookie crumbles in the NFT community. "It is unrealistic to expect a project with a mission regarding mental health and psychedelics to be the full focus 24/7," he says. "That would lead to a project failing in this Web3 space."
Failure may be a more likely outcome for most NFT projects than success. A 92% drop in NFT sales reported by the Wall Street Journal in early May served as prologue for the collapse of the Terra UST "stablecoin," a cryptocurrency which was supposed to track the dollar, and did until the middle of May, when it suddenly didn't. That crash led to a steep depreciation of floor prices for many NFT collections, including PA, which in April had a floor price of 2.35 ether, worth $6121.37, compared to $3800 in early June). Gale addressed these concerns in a May 25th Twitter Space, connecting the current depressed crypto market with larger financial downturns felt worldwide. However, he also noted continued heavy investments in the space from VC firms like Marc Andreesen's a16z, which has announced a $4.5 billion crypto fund, as reasons to stay interested long term in the space.
As Gale told PA holders in a May Twitter Space session, "It's the same when Tesla was having all that sort of bad reports of cars crashing into each other and accidents and batteries catching on fire. There's always a frictional point [in new technologies] where things don't seem that fantastic and then everyone [is] like, 'No, I don't like that anymore. I'm done.' Anything… that provides people with value outside of what we've seen before is always going to outlast whatever the cycle it is that we're in."
The downward trading value, exacerbated recently by the freezing of customer accounts by Binance and Celsius, has created pressure for NFT communities to develop additional perks, or utilities in order to stay afloat. Gale has indicated several on PA's online roadmap. In periodic addresses to the PA flock held on Twitter Spaces, Gale has interchangeably defined PA as a "luxury-based Web3 brand," a crowdfunding apparatus for donating to mental health nonprofits as well as investing in a "series A-level psychedelic company," an accelerator for Web3 startups (which received over 250 applications), an upcoming play-to-earn game, a crypto coin (named Psy Coin, of course), and what Gale refers to as PA's "core product:": a mental health service for PA members and their families.
In an April Twitter Spaces session, Gale announced that this mental health service would launch, initially in May, as a "private coaching app" which will be available to other NFT communities. Later in June, Gale announced the coaching app would exit beta testing at the end of that month. These services will be paid for in Psy Coin, which would also be available in late June.
PA has already gained buy-in from a few psychedelic mental health professionals, such as Dr. Carlene MacMillan, vice president of clinical innovation for the psychedelic-assisted therapy software service Osmind. MacMillan owns a full set of PA NFTs and frequently guests on Twitter Spaces events hosted by PA community members to answer their mental health questions. As an NFT collector, she speaks highly of Gale's community strategy and says of the private coaching app, "I am confident Gale is thinking about this in a responsible way, asking the right questions and engaging with people who could make this vision a reality. I am particularly interested in seeing PA work with folks like myself to also build a network and directory of mental health professionals across multiple states and countries due to all the medico-legal barriers around licensing across state and country lines." On Twitter, Gale shared that he and his team are currently hashing out these details with a "leading medical consulting agency" in Sydney.
PA NFT owners, in turn, can take their own avatars and use them, royalty-free, for their own business endeavors. Collections like BAYC already possess marketing clout. In February, for instance, The Verge wrote a story about a Bored Ape owner who licensed his ape to California cannabis breeders the Backpack Boyz, who in turn put the ape on a package of weed they named "Crypto Gelato." To their amazement, they sold out of every package.
It's unclear, however, whether or not PA's license allows for avatars to end up on gray market products, such as a bar of mushroom chocolates or a blotter sheet. As the terms elucidate: "The license has some limitations, specifically on the use of our NFTs in connection with damaging behavior, for example hate crimes or racism, and we retain the underlying copyright to enable us to enforce this." Legal operations, such as ketamine clinics or Peruvian ayahuasca retreats have less to worry about in this regard, provided they don't alter the art.
Back to the GARDΞN
While Gale remains tight-lipped about much of PA's internal affairs, he's also shown transparency by fully revealing the identities of the project team members. This matters. Veteran NFT collectors can recall a time when all you knew about a founder's identity was their Twitter handle, which has enabled countless rug pulls by crooked scammers on the day their collections were supposed to mint.
Nonetheless, there are several legitimate reasons some NFT collectors and founders opt to stay anonymous. One is theft. Throughout the world, crypto developers and owners are targeted with cyberattacks and even physical theft. NFT project leader Psych, who co-founded the Solana NFT collection Psychedelic Sloth, has another reason. She cites her history as a domestic abuse and cyberstalking survivor to explain both her anonymity and her embrace of psychedelics. Through a couple in Tulum, Psych encountered the DMT-saturated bark of the tepezcohuite tree. "I saw [what], you could call demons or beings or creatures. They were taunting me. And it was a very sinister experience," she says. "But [in] seeing visual representations of my fears, and to feel how hypervigilant I was in protecting myself and not releasing… I actually felt way more peace than I had felt in a very long time."
This inner peace carried over into the Psychedelic Sloths collection, her first foray into NFTs. The sloths are represented in colorful, whimsical ways — smoking weed, meditating, clutching lollipops and devotional trinkets, and exuding a lazy, childlike zen.
"Especially in the crypto world, you think about how rapidly everything moves and just in our world in general, but [sloths] are just going at their own pace," explains Psych She has since abandoned Psychedelic Sloth, having migrated Sloth holders into her new project, Anarchists, which is on the beleaguered Terra blockchain for now, pending a community-wide move.
Despite its novelty, plant medicine veterans Flike former Drug Policy Alliance staffer and California cannabis industry vet Amanda Reiman also see potential in the NFT space. After leaving the cannabis distribution company Flow Cannabis Co., Reiman developed the startup Personal Plants, which sells cultivation tools and entheogenic plants, and then started the NFT project SACRΞD GARDΞN.
"I look at Personal Plants as my Web2 platform and SACRΞD GARDΞN as my Web3 platform. And they are definitely connected," explains Reiman. "The SACRΞD GARDΞN Web3 space is how do we [get people] to interact with these plants and marry it with an augmented virtual reality." The project began selling its ∆FLORA NFTs with an auction of an ayahuasca vine image in May (a prior image was transferred to the MAPS wallet in April). Those who purchase this and other NFTs in the collection will not only receive the art, but receive seeds and cuttings of the plants, as well as cultivation instructions. From there, Reiman plans to integrate community members into a larger metaverse which will include an AR version of the virtual Personal Plants Garden in Oakland, California, alongside a larger, immersive VR representation of the habitats where the plants originated. She dubs this larger project the Floraverse.
"Our real motive is that people are able to go through the Amazon and see ayahuasca growing in its native habitat as a way to not only make people more aware of these plants but have a more conscious relationship with them," says Reiman. In addition, she also does educational outreach for cannabis and psychedelic brands interested in exploring the Web3 space, such as the monthly seminar on Web3 and Crypto she teaches for Women Employed in Cannabis.
Running at cross-currents with SACRΞD GARDΞN and Psychedelic Sloth's embrace of plant medicine is crypto's significant environmental impact. Currently, a single Ethereum transaction requires the equivalent energy of an average US household's nine-day consumption, in kilowatt hours.
In May, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin confirmed plans to "merge" Ethereum into a more energy-efficient "proof-of-stake" model in August, a move that's been years in the making.
For now, Reiman addresses these environmental challenges by purchasing credits using Offsetra, which calculates the carbon cost of projects such as ∆FLORA, along with contributing 10% of initial sales to "organizations that support entheogen plant and indigenous community conservation," according to ∆FLORA's roadmap. "Any project that really wants to have conservation as part of their messaging should look at how to offset the impact," Reiman says.
The bigger picture
Not only do individual NFT works of psychedelic art attempt to connect with Web3 and clinical research, in the case of Paul Seli, Assistant Professor at Duke University and Principal investigator of its Mind at Large Lab, they overlap.
In addition to Seli's scientific work with psychedelics, both as a board member of the University of Toronto's Center for Psychedelic Research and co-founder of Duke's brand-new Center for Integrated Psychedelic Science, he is also an oil painter who had a following of over 13,000 people on Instagram before his current work in NFTs. Through a mutual acquaintance, Seli connected with Dmitry Buterin, Vitalik's father, and Buterin recommended he explore the form. "From what I understand from Dmitry, a lot of people who are into NFTs also are into psychedelics. So it just seemed like a natural fit," Seli says
Seli launched his current digital auction, The Mind at Large, a collection of oil paintings, gifs and AI-generated images, on OpenSea, in April.. Not surprisingly, many of the initial NFTs offered depicted a royal flush of magic mushrooms before being removed. Seli describes the collection as "a way to promote not only my artwork, but also to get people who are interested in psychedelics research to chat with me, ask questions, and maybe even see if we can get some participants from different Discord communities who wanted to participate in the studies [Duke is] doing."
Seli admits he's still on a learning curve with NFTs — as of now, he hasn't sold anything yet. But Seli's roadmap suggests a greater longterm desire to co-create with a community. Future collections will riff off of ideas or requests made by his NFT holders. Seli likens it to the work he's done as an artist at Burning Man. "I set up a painting station and then have random people come by and ask them for suggestions on stuff," he says. "It's really a collaborative piece with the community. So this is just a way to do that in the digital world."
The current NFT downturn has triggered schadenfreude amongst detractors who have long dismissed the space as "a casino for nerds" and "a story about a potential future outcome, whose value is based entirely on public perception." Research by Chainalysis found that only a small percentage of well-connected and sophisticated investors strike it rich. And as PA's own Terms of Sale warn, "NFTs may experience or may have extreme price volatility, including being worthless in the future."
Their appeal may have something to do with the shared desire to forge an identity and seek out community. "We are very social creatures and like to find our tribe as well as to collect things that reflect status and identity," asserts MacMillan. "We also like things that are novel and intermittently reinforcing (think slot machines but also games like poker). So like it or not, NFTs hold a strong appeal and people figuring out who they want to be in the metaverse are not going anywhere anytime soon."
For Reiman, the value of NFTs lies in intention. "Like the early cannabis industry, some people came to make money and get out (grabbers), and some came to build. The grabbers had no interest in what the cannabis landscape would look like 20 years from now. They wanted to take advantage of a gray market where the rules were not quite yet created, let alone enforced. The builders saw cannabis as a catalyst for change, and invested time with the hopes of seeing returns in social justice and social capital. The NFT space is really no different," says Reiman.
"We see NFT and blockchain technology as tools. To unite around a stigmatized activity like growing psychedelic plants, new tools must be used to educate, offer and raise awareness…. It's going to be a while before there is a solid roadmap to success for those in this space from both a project and investment point of view. [So we will] be nimble, and focus on what is going to happen next, not what is happening now."