🫠 Psychonaut POV

[6-min read] Q&A with Jeannie Fontana, Founder & CEO

Welcome to Tricycle Day. This Halloween, we’re skipping the tricks and going straight for the TREAT. (And no, we don’t mean candy flipping.) 🍭

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Jeannie Fontana cut her teeth in health policy advancing stem cell research. Now she’s running the same playbook for TREAT California, an ambitious ballot initiative that would provide $5 billion in funding for psychedelic medicine.

We spoke to Jeannie about how she’d spend the $5 billion, why a genuine public-private partnership is the best path forward, and what the future of psychedelic therapy looks like in a post-TREAT world.

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Jeannie Fontana Psychonaut POV
Can you share a bit about your personal journey? When did you discover psychedelics, and what led you to dive into advocacy?

I came into this field as a non-user of psychedelics with a bias against them. I was a product of the War on Drugs and ‘just-say-no’ generation. But my drive to make a difference in medical fields has always been a part of me. It's in my DNA to seek solutions, whether in medical discoveries, patient care, or policy changes.

After my mother was diagnosed with ALS, I began advocating for policy change and funding for ALS research. This work brought me back in touch with the VA, where I was exposed to MAPS' clinical trials and the potential of psychedelic-assisted therapy for PTSD in veterans. When the pandemic hit, it afforded me the time to dive deeper into research. As a neuroscientist, I'd witnessed the evolution of the field for over two decades, particularly in relation to neurodegenerative diseases. But rediscovering the strides made in neuroscience, particularly the impact of psychedelics on brain function and behavior, was exciting. I couldn’t ignore that people described these experiences as profoundly transformative.

Despite my initial hesitation, my curiosity eventually led me to experience the effects of psychedelics firsthand. And like many accounts I’d read, I came away with profound insights and a newfound sense of self-compassion. It became clear there was significant potential in integrating these medicines into therapy, not just for specific DSM-5 criteria, but also in areas like well-being and end-of-life care. That's how I immersed myself in this field.

What is TREAT California, and what are its goals?

TREAT California is a grassroots movement that aims to bring psychedelic therapies into the public sphere in a safe, responsible, and ethical manner. The passage of our ballot initiative on November 5, 2024 will create a $5 billion funding agency focused on the pillars of our acronym—Treatments, Research, Education, Access, and Therapies. Our work centers around three pivotal goals for psychedelic therapies: FDA approvals through large-scale clinical trials, cost effectiveness, and nationwide accessibility. The five TREAT divisions operate as ambitious moonshot projects, each overseen by a board member in a role akin to CEO.

Recognizing the shortage of certified therapists, we plan to educate and certify over 200,000 mental health care providers in psychedelic-assisted therapy. We're equally dedicated to shifting the public dialogue surrounding mental health, using a range of channels including social media, conferences, and educational programs.

Addressing the access aspect, we tackle the complex issue of reimbursement models, aiming for efficiency and cost-effectiveness. By building up evidence-based data, we hope to set a precedent for the federal government. Often the communities hardest hit by mental health struggles are the ones with the least access to care, and we intend to develop financial aid and other support programs to provide access to these citizens.

On the research front, our approach is twofold: initially, exploring the indications of different psychedelics, starting with non-patentable substances like ibogaine, DMT, mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD. Then, we’ll look into various therapy modalities, including group, ceremonial, and religious practices, tailored to individual biological profiles.

We’re also engaging the commercial industry for financial viability. We’ll form a genuine public-private partnership, supporting companies in developing derivatives of psychedelics. In return, the TREAT Institute—a state entity—will gain equity ownership, revolutionizing the traditional model. Licensing fees, a flat revenue tax, and a more equitable revenue-sharing arrangement will further democratize the process.

Beyond drug discovery, we recognize the vital role of wearable devices and apps in collecting patient data. This comprehensive bank of bioinformatics, open to global experts, holds immense potential for advancing therapeutic modalities and ultimately, improving patients' lives.

Why is this effort needed in light of California’s Senate Bill 58? Can you explain the key differences between the two campaigns?

[Editor’s note] This conversation took place before SB-58 was vetoed.

SB-58 is rooted in the very real need of citizens for accessible mental health solutions. Decriminalization is an essential step; it's unjust to punish individuals for using substances classified under Schedule 1. But TREAT takes the next step and offers a beacon of hope, by providing a framework for their safe, responsible, and therapeutic application.

The promise of psychedelic-assisted therapy is monumental, especially in addressing the entrenched challenges within mental health care. Its potential impact on issues like homelessness and substance use disorders can’t be overstated. By tackling the root problems, we can empower individuals to regain control over their lives.

But education will be essential to this effort. These medicines are immensely powerful and demand careful supervision. And having witnessed their transformative potential firsthand, I understand the desperate need for funding, particularly considering their Schedule 1 status and non-patentable nature.

Reflecting on my past engagement in stem cell research, Prop 71 in California marked a turning point by setting a new standard for citizen-driven initiatives. It paved the way for a monumental $8.5 billion agency dedicated to advancing stem cell science. This remarkable success story, though largely unknown, sets the stage for the TREAT Initiative. The allocated $5 billion is just a starting point.

The TREAT Initiative is our Version 2.0, an evolution building upon past triumphs, while also integrating vital lessons from our journey. I'm eager to witness what Version 3.0 will bring, as we continue to grow, adapt, and refine our approach to mental health care. The path forward is illuminated, and the TREAT Initiative is poised to play a transformative role in the lives of countless people.

Before you started TREAT, you were a pioneer in stem-cell research. What lessons did you take from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and how are you applying them to TREAT?

The main bone of contention we faced was the notion of a conflict of interest. At CIRM, we had a 29-member board, which has since grown to 35. Among them were a handful of members from universities, which received substantial funding. These academic representatives were barred from voting, but even so there was a perception of conflict. So, with TREAT, we've avoided that situation altogether. The TREAT Institute board will consist of seven experts who aren't tied to the UC system or any academic institutions, which should help ease any concerns. We also grappled with the size of the board. Wrangling 29 members turned out to be a logistical puzzle. So, this time it’s a more manageable size, making decision-making much more efficient.

We're putting a heavy emphasis on transparency. That means sharing both the good and the bad from our trials and initiatives. All our meetings, past and future, will be wide open for anyone to attend. Everyone will be encouraged to contribute. We want to make sure that what we're doing is clear and understandable for everyone involved. We're aiming for a modern approach to how we communicate, using social media and a dedicated communications team.

Above all, we're about accountability. We get it. People are wary of government spending, especially with a proposed $5 billion investment in California's mental health. So, we're holding ourselves to the highest standards of transparency and efficiency. If we make mistakes—and we know we might—we're going to own up to them and lay out exactly how we're going to fix things. It's a level of realness and accountability that I believe people are yearning to see from our leaders.

How do you envision the future of mental health care evolving if TREAT California is successful in providing the $5 billion in funding for psychedelic medicine?

I'm thrilled about the transformative vision I see for revolutionizing mental health care delivery in California. We've got to look at the bigger picture and consider individuals within their broader environments. It's not enough to remove someone from a toxic situation for a single journey and then place them right back in it. While this isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, we have to start by understanding individuals within their unique contexts.

We're moving away from the old paradigm of relying on a pill for a lifetime. Instead, we're introducing a therapy that empowers individuals to take charge of their own healing. We need to frame life circumstances as factors that people face, rather than things that dictate their destiny. Our society often falls short in supporting this shift away from a victimhood mentality, which ultimately hinders individual growth.

Within the framework of psychedelic-assisted therapy, it’s my view that we need to empower individuals to recognize their agency in responding to life's challenges. This perspective is shared with deep respect and compassion because I acknowledge the profound darkness many face. We have to reframe how we support one another.

Once the voters of California pass our ballot initiative, I foresee the initial implementation starting with first responders, the military and veterans, and underserved communities. From there, we’ll expand and reach even more human beings facing real struggles. Given the soaring costs of healthcare, even addressing 10% of those who don't respond to conventional therapies would yield immense benefits for our society. I believe we’ll help many more than that.

Want to support Jeannie’s mission?

Sign the TREAT petition, and help the campaign gather more signatures by donating or sharing this newsletter.

UNTIL NEXT TIME

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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