How to Bridge the ‘Huge Knowledge Gap’ Between Those Inside the Psychedelics Bubble and Those Outside

Taylor West served as chief of staff for New Approach, a PAC that campaigned for Oregon’s Measure 109 and Colorado’s Prop 122, both successful ballot initiatives that made psychedelic therapies legal in those states. A veteran in drug policy reform with more than two decades of experience in project leadership and strategic communications, she has also worked for the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative and the National Cannabis Industry Association.

West recently shared some of her experiences working on those high-profile campaigns, her viewpoints on the state of the psychedelics industry, and new psychedelics-related projects she’s taking on through her consulting firm, Heart + Mind Partners.




How did you get involved with New Approach?

I often tell people I ‘backed into’ the work of psychedelics, at least compared to many who initially came into the field thanks to deeply personal experiences. What I mean by that is I originally got introduced to the psychedelic field not as a personal mission but as a policy challenge – a ground-breaking, full-of-potential idea to help people that was going to require a lot of political and practical expertise to bring into reality. That kind of work is what I’ve spent a lot of my career doing.

For many years I worked in electoral campaigns and the D.C. political scene, but eventually I got burnt out and wanted separation from it. I had begun dating my now-husband, who was living in Colorado, and the time was right to join him there at the end of 2012. In 2013, I got connected with the National Cannabis Industry Association. It was a really exciting time. My first official day on the job was January 1, 2014, the first day of legal adult-use sales in Colorado. I felt so fortunate to land in that place at that time – sort of like jumping on a surfboard right as the wave is rising. And the people working in the industry in that very early stage were just awesome. Everybody in cannabis at that point was a little bit unique, taking risks, putting themselves on the line, and having the courage to start businesses. It was very different from the D.C. political work, and I really enjoyed it.

In early 2020, after starting my consulting work, I began working with New Approach – initially on cannabis ballot initiatives, helping with fundraising and making industry connections. But in the spring of 2020, New Approach also got involved with the Oregon ballot initiative for psilocybin therapy. The founder of New Approach, Graham Boyd, also founded the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, and so I started working for both organizations and helping as an advisor on the Oregon campaign. After the success in Oregon, we began to build relationships with the advocacy community here in Colorado, and out of those relationships, the Colorado campaign was born.

What’s been beautiful and unexpected since I started working in this field is how the personal element of the work – inevitable in a space where so many are making themselves open and vulnerable in the service of others – has woven its way into my own life. So, although I ‘backed into’ it through my professional focus, it has become mission-driven work that I truly love.


How did campaign strategies differ between psychedelics and cannabis initiatives?

Your campaign strategy is always guided by public opinion. You test different messaging and see what people really think about these substances. What are their concerns? How do we alleviate them? With cannabis, people already had pretty well-formed opinions, and if they didn’t use it themselves, they certainly knew people who did. So our campaigns were more about the actual policy we were proposing, specifics on decriminalization and regulated adult-use. With psychedelics, what we learned from the in-depth polling we did in Oregon and Colorado is that most people know very little about psychedelics. You might think a huge chunk of the population holds super negative connotations or stereotypes about psychedelics, because of the counterculture history or the media or whatever. But that’s not the case for the large majority of people we surveyed. Also most people have never used psychedelics and don’t know anyone who has. So that’s really your starting place.


Do you see this lack of public knowledge as more of a strength or a weakness?

It’s really both. It’s a strength in the sense that you’re not fighting against deeply held negative convictions in the way that we often were with cannabis. You don’t have to spend as much time trying to ‘unwire’ the negativity. But it’s also certainly a weakness in that it only takes a couple of negative stories in the media to really damage public opinion. There’s a huge opportunity because the relatively blank slate means people are more open to learning about psychedelic therapy, and you can meet them where they are. But it’s a lot easier for negative stories to get amplified in a big way.

Even with people who are more aware of psychedelics, there are often huge misunderstandings. I’ll give you an example: I was talking with someone who does quite a bit of public speaking about psychedelics, and I asked him what kinds of questions he gets asked the most. He said the most remarkable misunderstanding many people, including many very educated people, have about psychedelic therapy is that all this research and these remarkable results related to depression and PTSD are about microdosing. They don’t understand that we’re talking about full-dose psychedelic sessions with a licensed therapeutic facilitator at a healing center. Instead, there’s this perception that psychedelic therapy is just another pill you take every morning or a supplement you add to your coffee. There’s just a huge knowledge gap between people inside the psychedelic bubble and those outside it.


What did you find was the most effective messaging?

It’s best to start with something that pretty much everyone can agree on, which is that we are dealing with a mental health crisis in this country and around the world. Most people also agree that we don’t have great solutions. The current treatment options — talk therapy, SSRIs, etc. — work for some, but not everyone. So you introduce people to the idea that there is actually a significant amount of research at very credible institutions that show that psychedelic compounds have the potential to be a very beneficial new tool in mental health treatment. Not as a panacea – you can actually lose people that way – but as a promising option that people deserve the chance to access safely. The “safely” part is important. The average person may be open to creating legal access to these compounds, especially for people in need, but they also want to know that there will be reasonable guardrails in place. It’s a critical part of both how the policy gets designed and how it gets messaged.

We’ve also found that it helps to explain the idea that psychedelics and psychedelic therapy can help your brain break out of damaging thought patterns. Sometimes it can seem too good to be true that these therapies can help with conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to PTSD to obsessive-compulsive disorder to eating disorders. But if you explain the underlying idea that all these conditions involve being stuck in harmful mental cycles — which psychedelics, especially alongside therapy, can help reset — then it starts to make more sense.


With the passage of Prop 122, what are some of the new projects are you working on?

One project I’m really excited about is working with the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics to develop an ongoing opinion research program, tracking public perceptions and understanding about psychedelics. As I mentioned earlier, this is an area of research that is highly needed across every area of the field, from policy reform to public education to business development. We just don’t have a clear understanding right now about what the general public believes and knows about psychedelics and how that is changing (or not) in the face of all these new developments.

The project is dependent on philanthropic funding, but assuming we are able to identify that support, the cornerstone of the program will be an annual national survey with a set of questions that stay the same from year to year, so we can track change over time. When we compared our survey results between Oregon in 2020 and Colorado in 2022, we could begin to see changes in public opinion in just two years, due to tons of news stories and all the drug trial successes. But that’s just two states. We need this on a national level. Developments in psychedelics are piling up rapidly. If we’re not tracking public opinion, it’s going to be really hard for the field to understand and respond to what people believe and where they’re getting their information.


Given your insights into public opinion in Oregon and Colorado, what advice would you give to someone looking to open a business related to psychedelics?

Well, I’m certainly more of a policy campaigner than a business consultant and more of a pragmatist than a visionary. But, to me, it seems like it will be an uphill battle for psychedelics-related businesses to be hugely profitable. So my first piece of advice is: Don’t come to psychedelics thinking it will be a license to print money. There are definitely business models that will work. But if you’re solely driven by quick-turn profit motive or a growth-at-all-costs mindset, I would look elsewhere.

It might sound a little corny, but this really is about helping people. There is a massive amount of potential here to give people tools that they don’t currently have, tools that can change their lives. It’s not a panacea, it’s not for everybody, but there is some very real and profound potential here. If you’re coming into this space with the goal of helping people by building on that potential, then this is a great space for you.