Report: Big political giver boosted stake in psychedelic drug treatment research implicitly endorsed by Cameron, then funded anti-Beshear ads

Kentucky Health News

Around the time Attorney General Daniel Cameron implicitly endorsed using 5 percent of the state’s opioid settlements to fund research to win federal approval of a psychedelic drug for addiction treatment, a firm owned by a major national political contributor increased its investment in such research and gave Cameron a political boost, Roger Sollenberger of the Daily Beast reports.

Jeff Yass of Philadelphia increased his investment in the second quarter of the year, and on June 8, he “gave $3 million to a super PAC that has recently pumped out at least $1.2 million worth of ads backing Cameron’s candidacy, according to Federal Election Commission filings,” Sollenberger reports. “That donation has accounted for roughly 98 percent of the group’s total reported fundraising this year.” Cameron is the Republican nominee for governor; the ads attacked Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who has criticized the plan to fund research into ibogaine, a psychedelic.
The contribution came nine days after Bryan Hubbard, a Cameron aide who heads the state Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission, proposed that the commssion put $42 million into research that would show the usefulness of ibogaine and help it win approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Cameron appeared at the May 31 event where Hubbard issued his call, saying, “Something has to change. Obviously, we need to continue to fund the work that has been ongoing in Kentucky. We also need to explore a new approach. We have to imagine new possibilities. We have to invest in programs and potential solutions for tomorrow.”

Also at the event was Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and a former Democratic attorney general and congressman. He applauded the proposal, and later endorsed it, citing the low success rate of drug treatment and recovery. Ibogaine has been reported to relieve withdrawal symptoms, but poses risks to the heart and is legal only in Mexico and New Zealand.

At a public hearing held by the commission in July, all the witnesses testified for the idea, including executives at two firms getting the investment from Yass. Sollenberger’s story did not mention any attempt to reach Yass for comment.
Hubbard “declined to answer questions on the record,” Sollenberger reports. “After an off-the-record phone call, Hubbard texted The Daily Beast the email address of Brett Waters, the head of a nonprofit that has been closely involved in the ibogaine project from the beginning. Waters is co-founder and executive director of Reason for Hope, a group whose CEO—a former Sen. Mitch McConnell appointee—joined Hubbard and Cameron at the May 31 press conference.
“The group has no corporate backers, Waters said. He also called Hubbard an ‘incredibly positive figure’ in this process, one who ensured that ‘diverse voices’ contributed to the discussion, including indigenous voices.” He said of Hubbard, “He is genuine in his desire to help people break free of substance use disorder, and this is a brave proposal.”

Cameron’s office “provided a 264-word statement expressing confidence in the commission and promoting the Kentucky Opioid Symposium,” Sollenberger reports. “It did not address almost any of the detailed information and questions we provided as the focus of this article. The office did not respond when offered the chance to follow up.”

However, the statement said the work on the synposium “required that certain agenda items be pushed until the commission’s November meeting.” Sollenberger writes that he asked “why the vote on the grant was pushed back to Nov. 15—a week after the election, and more than a month after the symposium.”

Yass, the nation’s fourth-largest political megadonor, “stands to profit massively from ibogaine, especially in the long run,” Sollenberger writes. “Yass’s investment firm, Susquehanna International Group, currently holds around $5 million in ground-floor stakes with four biopharmaceutical firms focused on developing psychedelic addiction treatments. More than $4 million of it lies with two entities leading the charge on ibogaine, according to SIG’s August filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

SIG’s total investment portfolio is $491 billion, Sollenberger reports: “If treatments like ibogaine gain traction with the public—and more importantly, with regulators—that niche market, and those holdings, will explode. As The Daily Beast previously reported, the entire purpose of the Kentucky program is to help ibogaine receive federal approval as a ‘breakthrough therapy,’ which would ‘accelerate the regulatory pathway for legal status nationwide.'”

Witnesses from the two firms testified at the opioid commission’s public hearing in July, Sollenbergher notes: “The meeting agenda published by the OAAC only discloses the corporate background of one of them—Dr. Srinivas Rao, co-founder of German biopharmaceutical firm ATAI Life Sciences. The other person in the joint venture, Dr. Deborah Mash, was only identified as professor emerita at the University of Miami School of Medicine, not in her capacity as founder and CEO of DemeRx—where ATAI holds majority control, according to SEC filings. Kentucky Health News reported that affiliation, which was included in a press release about the hearing.

Mash’s ties were noted by commission member Sharon Walsh at the last meeting before she resigned from the commission. She told Hubbard, “So she’s going to come and talk to us about the development of this with it, you know, with the hope of getting money. There’s a clear conflict of interest from a person who has ownership of a company whose sole purpose is to get the drug to market. That’s why I’m asking for balance,” with contrary testimony.

“Two people familiar with the events told The Daily Beast that she stepped down in protest of funding ibogaine,” Sollenberger reports. Walsh told Kentucky Health News in July that she resigned because UK’s largest-ever grant, which she supervises, was extended for two years.

Sollenberger reports, “Yass has stakes in ATAI, which is heavily backed by another billionaire Republican megadonor, Peter Thiel. . . . ATAI also owns a considerable share of another one of Yass’ psychedelic investments, Compass Pathways. According to an SEC quarterly filing submitted in August, after ditching the stock entirely months earlier, Yass’ firm upped its ATAI investment significantly between April 1 and June 30. That filing also shows about $3.6 million in a company called Mind Medicine, which has been conducting ibogaine opioid abatement trials. All of these investments would stand to give SIG exponential returns if regulatory gatekeepers begin to clear the way for ibogaine development—and a partnership with a state government is a major step along that path.”

Sollenberger also reports on “Rex Elsass, an influential longtime GOP strategist and media buyer who has performed millions of dollars of work for Yass-aligned groups. Elsass’ son, Reid, died tragically of an overdose, and his family created a nonprofit called the REID Foundation dedicated to recovery efforts, including emergent therapies.” At the commission’s Sept. 15 hearing, “Elsass, an Ohio resident, spoke movingly at a public hearing in support of ibogaine, reportedly describing himself to the commissioners as ‘your neighbor next door’ without apparently disclosing his long and unavoidably political background.”

Sollenberger adds, “A former adviser at Elsass’ company, The Strategy Group, named Sally Hauser, now heads a group called the Kentucky Ibogaine Initiative, according to her LinkedIn. The nonprofit just registered with Kentucky this year. (Hauser’s position with the group disappeared from her LinkedIn page at some point after The Daily Beast sent out comment requests.)

“Elsass told The Daily Beast in a phone call that, to the best of his knowledge, he had never met Jeff [Yass] in person, and that he had been first tipped to Kentucky’s potential by the Etheridge Foundation, started by folk-rock LGBTQ icon Melissa Etheridge. He explained that his ibogaine advocacy—a ‘miracle medicine that needs to be researched’—is rooted in deep, personal loss and a desire to help mitigate tremendous future tragedy.”

Elsass told Sollenberger, “The solutions just weren’t there, and I was desperate for new methods to help my son. So we looked for other means, and as a result, he ended up in Peru” for an ibogaine treatment. “Plant medicines helped him and extended his life for several years, and left me with a mission.”

Sollenberger adds one more politician to the mix, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. He notes that Paul and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill to “make it easier for patients to access controlled substances for medical treatment, starting with psilocybin and MDMA. . . . Last October, the Louisville Courier Journal said Paul was Yass’s ‘favorite politician on the national scene.’ The relationship also runs deep, with Yass pouring more than $15 million into the Paul-aligned Protecting Freedom super PAC since 2017, according to Federal Election Commission data. Protecting Freedom also contracts with Elsass, with one of his entities as its top vendor in the 2022 cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.”
Previous Article
Next Article