In 2002, Pål-Ørjan Johansen, then a depressed psychology student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, ate magic mushrooms for the first time.
It was his first encounter with psychedelics, and according to him, it saved his life.
"It was an experience of biblical dimensions," said Johansen, now a clinical psychologist based in Oslo, Norway. The shrooms—also known as psilocybin—helped him confront his painful past in a way that no other experience had, psychotherapy included, he said.
Today Johansen and his wife, neuroscientist Teri Krebs, are prominent psychedelics researchers and advocates. They believe drugs such as psychedelics and MDMA (ecstasy) have the potential to heal and transform people's lives for the better. Now, they're working to expand access to quality-controlled psilocybin and MDMA around the world.
To support their vision, the pair have turned to crowdfunding. They are running an Indiegogo campaign to fund the large-scale production of medical-grade psilocybin and MDMA through a non-profit they co-founded, called EmmaSofia (Emma, a nickname for MDMA, meaning "universal" and Sofia meaning "wisdom").
Altogether, Krebs and Johansen are looking to raise $1 million. Once they reach $300,000, they will start the process of manufacturing psilocybin. Another $300,000 will allow them to produce MDMA. The remaining $400,000 will support their efforts to decriminalize and reduce harm around MDMA and psychedelic use.
The United Nations classifies MDMA and psilocybin as Schedule I substances, meaning the drugs can only be used for pre-approved scientific and medical purposes. To legally manufacture the drugs, Krebs and Johansen have teamed up with a lab in Oslo that has the licensing to produce MDMA and psilocybin. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, they are not releasing the lab's name.
Teri Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen want to protect the human rights of MDMA and psychedelic users. They believe that people should have the right to privately use the drugs however they choose.
Once the manufacturing process is up and going, EmmaSofia will sell high-quality, "reasonably priced" psilocybin and MDMA to authorized parties, said Johansen.
EmmaSofia also plans to distribute free psilocybin and MDMA to Indiegogo donors based on how much money they gave. In order to receive the drugs, however, donors would have to secure legal permission from their home country—a process that, realistically, will probably only be feasible for a limited number of people.
Krebs and Johansen point out that physicians in the United States can apply for permission from the Food and Drug Administration to prescribe patients experimental and unapproved drugs through a legal pathway called expanded access, or compassionate use.
According to Krebs and Johansen, potential medical uses for psilocybin include treating cluster headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety related to terminal illness, while MDMA might help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, couples psychotherapy, and Parkinson's disease.
EmmaSofia plans to distribute free psilocybin and MDMA to Indiegogo donors based on how much money they gave
Other experts, however, are skeptical that the FDA will readily grant permission through expanded access. In the United States, MDMA and psilocybin are currently only licensed for use within a small handful of clinical research studies, said Ben Sessa, a psychiatrist and psychedelics researcher based in England.
Sessa fully supports EmmaSofia's efforts, and he himself is fighting to get MDMA taken off the United Kingdom's list of Schedule I drugs. But for now, aside from those clinical trials, Sessa doesn't think people should get their hopes up. "If any clinician dared to prescribe the substances they would be immediately arrested for possession of a Schedule I drug," he told Motherboard.
Johansen and Krebs are currently campaigning to remove MDMA and psychedelics from the United Nations's list of controlled substances. Next April, they will participate in a special session on drugs held by the UN General Assembly.
For Johansen, the work is both universal and deeply personal. MDMA and psychedelics have helped him work through his own emotional hardships. At age 13, he lost three grandparents and his older brother, all in the span of a year. His parents were divorced. More often than not his family was in financial straits. For years, Johansen coped with his traumatic past by abusing alcohol, a tendency that ran in his family.
"With alcohol, you drink and you drink, but you are not really reaching what you want to reach. You are just sort of dampening your problems," he said. "Psychedelics brought me to the place I wanted to be, in an absolute sense."
After his first experience with psilocybin, Johansen took shrooms every Sunday morning for a year. During that time, he stopped abusing alcohol, came to terms with a lot of past pain and shame, and started taking better care of himself.
Krebs believes that criminalizing MDMA and psychedelics has done more harm than good. "It's similar to denying people legal access to condoms in order to prevent sexually transmitted disease," she said.
In addition to depriving people of potential therapeutic benefits, said Krebs, outlawing MDMA and psychedelics has created a black market of potentially unsafe homemade products. "Prohibition hasn't worked," she told Motherboard. "People just started manufacturing MDMA in their basements."
Some experts do not share Krebs's and Johansens's enthusiasm for total, unrestricted access to MDMA and psychedelics. There's no question that these drugs can help people examine their lives and confront their fears, said John Rhead, a therapist from Maryland who has used psychedelics with patients in the past.
However, Rhead has also seen psychedelics have damaging impacts, like triggering feelings of suicide. "If you're going to go into very uncharted waters without support, you may encounter things you have no idea how to deal with," he said. As a result, Rhead believes any drug-assisted psychotherapy needs to be limited to supervised sessions.
Johansen and Krebs believe psychedelics are relatively safe, but policymakers have historically focused on worst case scenarios to back up prohibitionist stances. The couple points to multiple studies over the past decade that have ranked psychedelics as less harmful than alcohol. Their own recent research suggests that there is no link between psychedelic use and mental health problems or suicidal behavior.
Johansen took shrooms every Sunday morning for a year
EmmaSofia is not the first organization to take a crowdfunding approach to drug research and production. Last fall another non-profit called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies raised over $130,000 through Indiegogo to fund the largest-ever clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We predict FDA approval for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD by 2021," said Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of MAPS, in the campaign video.
Crowdfunding is a logical approach for producing MDMA and psychedelics because for-profit companies have no financial incentive to manufacture the drugs, according to Johansen. "The patents for MDMA and psilocybin expired a long time ago, and it's a high cost to start production," he said.
Johansen and Krebs are currently on their second Indiegogo campaign. With a month to go, they have already raised over $25,000. Their first campaign, which ended in April, generated over $20,000.
Beyond a source of seed money, crowdfunding provides a platform for EmmaSofia to raise awareness and demonstrate public support around psychedelics and MDMA.
Ultimately, Krebs and Johansen hope that people will be able to go to a store or pharmacy, buy MDMA or psychedelics, and use the drugs freely—whether for cultural activities, spiritual development, or simply for fun and play. To them, it's a matter of personal choice.
"We don't see why people should justify use of MDMA or psychedelics any more than people who do yoga, meditate, enjoy a walk in the woods, or any other activity that they find enriching," said Johansen. "The EmmaSofia project is really about ensuring human rights for people who find it worthwhile to use these drugs."
Update: This article has been updated with photo credits and to clarify that Ben Sessa supports Krebs and Johansen's campaign.