A Q&A with Sheva Pekar
A long-time advocate of policy reform in both cannabis and psychedelics, Sheva Pekar was one of the driving forces behind Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin in 2019. Today, her consultancy firm PsyCann Advisors works with businesses around the country to navigate the varying legal landscapes of these emerging markets.
Pekar recently shared her some of her experiences working with psychedelic businesses in Oregon, the rollout of Prop 122 in Colorado, and where she sees the biggest opportunities for entrepreneurs in the years ahead.
Let’s start with Oregon, where you’re consulting with new psychedelics-related businesses. What do you think of the rollout? I know It’s very early days, but how do you feel it’s going?
First of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to be working in this space. This is such an exciting time. The fact that we’re now able to launch the first legal psychedelics businesses is amazing. How’s it going so far? I’d say slow, but definitely steady. There’s a lot of interest and there are a lot of people who are moving through the process. Some of the slowness in Oregon is stemming from businesses having trouble finding the proper real estate, the difficulty getting local approvals, and of course each of the four license types (manufacturer, service center, testing lab, facilitator) have all these extra steps you need to take. So there’s just a lot of processing right now. Numerous people have applied for work permits, and there are many facilitators in training right now. People are excited to do the work, but the actual businesses they intend to work for will take more time to get set up. Which is all to be expected given Oregon is the first state to go through this process. I think they’re handling it very well overall.
What kinds of clients are you working with there?
Right now, we’re working with a manufacturer who wants to grow mushrooms and produce edibles for service centers. They’re facing the kinds of real estate and local zoning challenges I mentioned, but we’re helping them work through it. We’re talking to a few other new businesses, as well. I actually appreciate how Oregon established separate license types for the different kinds of businesses. I like their idea of specialization. It allows these businesses to really focus on being specialists and helps create a wider supply chain. Colorado will have one license to covers everything. But I think Oregon’s way has advantages.
More than half of Oregon’s counties opted out of the measure. What impact, if any, did that have on your clients’ business plans?
There was obviously an expectation that certain counties and municipalities would opt-out, but it turned out to be a pretty high percentage. It does cut back on the footprint for possible locations and markets you can be in. But, as I mentioned, even in the locations where it’s now legal, new businesses are having all kinds of real estate issues. Not only do you need to find a spot that has the right zoning, you also need a letter of approval from the landlord of the property to operate a psilocybin-related business. You need a ton of documentation, which takes time to acquire.
In the long run, I think the opt-out problem will resolve itself. The places that opted-out might consider changing their tune if they understand the value these medicines have for their communities. Some towns say, “Absolutely no, never,” and some say, “We want to see what the first movers are doing.” This happens in cannabis all the time. The Round Two people first want to see what the Round One people do. Are these service centers going to boost local tourism? Is there going to be a lot of tax revenue for the municipality? Are these centers going to attract riffraff? So I imagine that over time there will be more towns opting back in. That’s a lot of the work I want to help with. Keep in mind this is a brand-new idea for most people. Legal psychedelics? People have never seen this before. There’s a new part of people’s brains that need to open to this.
You mentioned one similarity to the cannabis industry. For businesses looking to get involved in psychedelics, how else do the two compare?
Well, if you go to a big cannabis trade show like MJBizCon, the majority of the attendees and exhibitors are related in some form to the cultivation side of the industry. That’s because in cannabis a lot of effort is put into cultivation. It’s just not going to be the same in psychedelics. Where cannabis really invites big business and big profit motives, I think the regulated psychedelics industry is going to attract a lot more people who just want to help people and make a living doing it. I mean, who’s really thinking of a 100-acre property to grow psilocybin? That would be foolish. Because of the power of this substance and the small amounts you need of it — not to mention how infrequently most people consume it — the demand for mushrooms as a crop is never going to come close to cannabis. So instead of cultivation, I think the biggest business focus in psychedelics is going to be on the facilitators. A lot of therapists are going to consider adding psilocybin treatments to their work. And some will want to build a safe space where their clients can consume psychedelics. That’s why I think this industry is going to attract more small-business, mission-minded people who really believe in helping others. And that’s what I think makes it such an exciting time. It’s a whole new model.
Let’s move to Colorado, your home base. Prop 122 went further than Oregon’s measure by legalizing adult use and possession of psilocybin, as well as rolling out the legalization of other psychedelics like iboga, mescaline, and DMT. Do you see this as a positive policy evolution that other states might adopt?
Yes absolutely. I love how the visionaries created the Colorado bill. It really makes sense to me. Oregon put all psilocybin use at a licensed center with a licensed facilitator, which is appealing to those who want access to psychedelic medicines in an environment that feels consistent, safe, regulated and accountable, like a doctor’s office. But in Colorado, Prop 122 not only appeals to those people by creating service centers, you also appeal to the ones who want to consume psilocybin at home, or in the woods, or with their friends, or their parents, or their children.
I mean, here’s the reality: Aside from participants in drug trials, anyone who’s ever experienced a psychedelic experienced it in a personal way, whether at home or in nature or with friends. I would believe and hope that most of those people had a good experience. Yes, some have bad experiences, which is why we have the regulated model to have accountability for both the quality of the facilitator and the quality of the product. That’s why I’m a big believer in both the decrim and regulation models. You need both. You need to be able to serve medicine circles and churches. You need to allow psilocybin ceremonies. There are many, many healing models. We need to let people do it in a way that feels most comfortable for them.
How did PsyCann come together? Were you mostly “Cann”-focused in the beginning, and now moving more into “Psy”?
I love that. Yes, we’ve been working with cannabis clients since 2014. The “Psy” part goes back to the Denver’s decriminalization of psychedelics in 2019. I was definitely at the ground floor of that, helped launch the bill and campaign for signatures. But I’ve also been a psychonaut for 25 years. I’m a long-time advocate for both microdosing and for high-level dosing. So although my business has been more in the cannabis space over the last decade because of the opportunities there, the “Psy” part is in my blood. It moves through my veins. I like to say that cannabis is my sandbox, and psychedelics is my purpose.
We have a really amazing team at PsyCann, and I see a huge opportunity for us to help grandmother in this new industry in Colorado. If applications are open in September 2024, that means people have about 18 months to really get their stuff together. Find the money and find the property, those are always the first two steps in both cannabis and psychedelics. And during this time, my hope is that my business will transition from cannabis to psychedelics. I also hope to take the lessons we learned from cannabis and apply them to psychedelics, especially regarding equity and accessibility. Women and BIPOC communities are the first that come to mind. We have a real opportunity to do better this time. We need to focus and learn how to build a much higher-quality, higher-integrity psychedelics industry.