A couple of years back, Jim Parker’s son recommended he listen to a podcast that touched on psychedelics. It piqued his interest, and Mr. Parker started reading academic research on psychedelics and mental health. He even attended a conference on the topic to learn more. His son and niece benefited from psychedelics, Mr. Parker said, but it is difficult to access treatment in Canada and there is a dearth of research. Now, Mr. Parker, a natural gas trader, has committed $3-million to fund the Parker Psychedelic Research Chair at the University of Calgary, which the institution believes is a first in Canada. It will examine the effectiveness of ketamine, MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction. The Globe and Mail spoke with Mr. Parker about why he is funding this research and the private treatment clinic he expects to open in Calgary in the coming weeks.
How did you leap from natural gas trader to sponsoring psychedelic research?
I was looking for something meaningful and I became aware of the research in psychedelics. I’ve always had an interest in psychology, consciousness, mental health, addiction and depression. I became convinced by the data that this has the potential to transform our approach to bettering mental health. And not a small step change, but a paradigm shift. There’s a shortage of capital to make it happen. It’s going to have to come from private donors.
I think it’s an area that is going to have a huge impact on our society. … Research is key because research is going to help us determine how you maximize the efficacy and safety.
What prompted you to read the academic studies on psychedelics?
My son had an experience with psychedelics and it was an accident. It was just in a dorm room with his friends. He had some epiphanies, realizations. It was transformational for him in a really positive way. When I saw him, right off the bat I could see a difference. He was happier, he was friendlier. I asked him what had happened, and that’s what really triggered my interest.
When you contacted the university about funding research, what was the reaction?
I think that the university was pretty excited about the research that they were doing at the time in other areas.
So, they were skeptical?
Yes. They are scientists – that’s their role, to be skeptical. They need to be skeptical, and that’s why we do the research trying to determine if it really works and how.
For a lot of people, it’s so new. It just took some time. I said: “This is what I want to do. You are on board?”
It’s important to get the scientists involved, because it’s the scientific community, the practitioners, that are going to need to make treatments available to people. Then we’ve got to get the data in front of them.
And then how does this fit in with the private treatment clinic you’re opening?
I created the clinic for two reasons: First, to provide the right setting for research – we will be gifting the space for research to the university. It will be designed in a way that promotes the effective psychedelic-related research, clinical research, with patients. Second, we’ve got other people like my niece who need effective treatment right away. And so will be offering the ketamine-assisted therapy right away.
You’re essentially funding university research in hopes it provides evidence that supports your private clinic. How do you balance that conflict?
That’s a fair question. I can see how that could be a perception problem. We start by not accepting any money from the university for the research space.
My goal here is to maximize the impact of these treatments across society. And I see that there are two pieces to that: The research doesn’t help anybody if the treatments aren’t made available. We need to research and we need clinics. We need new clinics right now, not in five years. So that’s why I’ve done both.
You won’t ever see me filing for a patent. And I don’t actually see a lot of money in this long term because you can’t patent – well, you shouldn’t patent – mushrooms. Ketamine is off-label or generic. There’s no money in ketamine for anybody. There’s no money in mushrooms because you can grow them in the dark and there’s no cost for the feed.
How does this fit in with Canada’s drug laws?
Ketamine is legal – has been for years – as an anesthetic. The others aren’t, of course. Researchers can get approval from Health Canada to use psilocybin and MDMA.
Have you used any of these yourself? How did it go?
I thought that I should try, obviously, for me to learn. So I did try them in December. It was an experience that is consistent with what I’ve read in literature.
This interview was edited and condensed for space and clarity.
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