Cost of Psilocybin
How much should psilocybin cost — per gram and per dose?
With the renewed interest in psilocybin, some have questioned whether commercial involvement will impede access to the drug by driving up the cost of psilocybin. See e.g. Chacruna (Advocating for “Cooperation over Competition”).
In March of 2018, Olivia Goldhill published an article titled “Scientists who want to study psychedelic mushrooms have to pay $7,000 per gram.” Quartz, March 24, 2018. Ms. Goldhill explained that academic scientists at Johns Hopkins pay between $7,000 and $10,000 per gram of psilocybin. Although $7,000-$10,000 appears to be on the low end, Ms. Hill’s overarching point is that “it’s expensive for scientists to buy psychedelics.” Id.
For purposes of comparison, Ms. Goldhill notes that psilocybin costs about $750 per gram based on the street price of magic mushrooms. Id. (“Though it varies, 5,000 mg of dried mushrooms roughly equals 66 mg of psilocybin.”)
First, comparing the price of pure psilocybin to the price of acquiring psilocybin from magic mushrooms may be inappropriate. In many cases, providing a purified version of something found in nature requires considerable effort.
Second, $7,000 – $10,000 per gram appears to be at the low end of the current price range for synthetic psilocybin.
Third, most of the cost of psilocybin appears to be unrelated to the resources required to provide the drug.
Pure Psilocybin is Different from Magic Mushrooms.
Pure psilocybin is different from magic mushrooms. Aside from the fact that mushrooms comprise multiple active molecules, using them as a psilocybin source requires extraction and purification of that target molecule. Arguably, purifying a single molecule requires some effort.
In many contexts, access to a pure chemical may be worth paying a higher price. For example, most scientists prefer using known amounts of known reagents in their experiments because it makes it easier to draw valid conclusions from the resulting data. Many physicians also contend that working with known amounts of known drugs improves their ability to diagnose and treat patients.
Advantages of Synthetic Psilocybin
According to Ekaterina Malievskaia of COMPASS Pathways, extracting psilocybin from naturally occurring mushrooms creates “an unnecessary layer of complexity.” Id. Ms. Malievskaia also contends that longstanding processes for synthesizing psilocybin are inadequate for large-scale production. Accordingly, COMPASS pathways developed a new (patented) method for making synthetic psilocybin. See Psilocybin Patents at Compass Pathways.
Using their improved method of making psilocybin, COMPASS Pathways made 250 grams of synthetic psilocybin. Those 250 grams were used to make capsules containing either 1 mg or 5 mg of the psilocybin. Compass said their capsules cost £20 [about $25] each, but conceded that “this only reflects a portion of the total cost paid by academics.” See Quartz, above.
$25 for a 1 mg capsule = $25,000 per gram
$25 for a 5 mg capsule = $5,000 per gram
Psilocybin Analogs for Cost Comparison
Although the mainstream media uses the word “psilocybin” to represent “the active molecule” in magic mushrooms, psilocybin is actually one of several prodrugs of psilocin. Psilocybin is metabolized into psilocin, which is a potent serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) agonist, providing the clinical effects attributed to the psilocybin and/or magic mushrooms. See Psilocin is the Active Ingredient in Magic Mushrooms.
In addition to psilocybin, there are many other prodrugs of psilocin. For example, O-Acetylpsilocin (aka 4-acetoxy-DMT, psilacetin, and 4-AcO-DMT) is a commercially available prodrug of psilocybin. Accordingly, it provides a convenient means for estimating how a consumer could go about making a product that is equivalent to synthetic psilocybin. (Note: equivalent to synthetic psilocybin NOT equivalent to magic mushrooms, which contain multiple active molecules that work together to create the so-called “Entourage Effect.“)
When purchased in relatively small quantities (25 grams), O-Acetylpsilocin costs about $60 per gram from chemical supply shops. Using the above 1 mg and 5 mg doses as a reference point, substituting O-Acetylpsilocin for the currently available synthetic psilocybin would appear to result in lower costs:
$0.06 for a 1 mg capsule of O-Acetylpsilocin = $60 per gram
$0.30 for a 5 mg capsule of O-Acetylpsilocin = $60 per gram
Obviously, the above numbers fail to account for the economies of scale. Making large (kilogram scale) batches of psilocybin (or O-Acetylpsilocin) should drive costs down considerably. Nevertheless, even before accounting for volume discounts, 250 grams of O-Acetylpsilocin could be purchased today for about $15,000.
Conclusion – Plenty of Room for Reducing Psilocybin Costs
As discussed above, the present market price for pure synthetic psilocybin appears to be considerably higher than the cost of making the drug. The price of magic mushrooms demonstrates one less expensive alternative for acquiring impure psilocybin. But that comparison fails to account for the costs associated with purifying an isolating a single molecule.
The price of pure O-Acetylpsilocin provides a good reference point for what pure psilocybin should cost. Both O-Acetylpsilocin and psilocybin are prodrugs of psilocin, meaning that they are two different means to the same end result.
Absent some advantage of one over the other, one would expect the prices of O-Acetylpsilocin and psilocybin to be similar.
If psilocybin were found to have some advantage over O-Acetylpsilocin, a chemist would recognize that O-Acetylpsilocin could be easily converted into psilocybin by removal of the acetate group from O-Acetylpsilocin and subsequent conversion to the phosphate ester, i.e., psilocybin. Accordingly, even if psilocybin were both (a) expensive and (b) particularly desirable, O-Acetylpsilocin could be used as an inexpensive precursor for making pure psilocybin.
In any case, the current prices of pure psilocybin appear to be orders of magnitude higher than what is justified based on the cost to produce those (or equivalent) molecules. This disparity is traditionally resolved by competition in the marketplace. Accordingly, access to psilocybin would benefit from exactly the competition that groups like Chacruna seek to avoid.