The peyote cactus is central to many of the rituals of the indigenous Huichol tribe of Mexico. The bright colors and dreamy symbols of their yarn paintings are said to be inspired by the hallucinations experienced by ingesting the mescaline-rich plant in shamanic rituals.
“They do these beautiful creations with beads, paint and sculpture. [By taking] peyote they say they communicate with the gods for the design. I respect that,” says Mauricio Sulaimán, the Mexican-born president of the World Boxing Council [WBC].
It’s a statement that may help explain the WBC’s recent and, some may argue, unlikely partnership with Wesana Health, the Chicago-based biotech company that is developing psychedelic medicine for the treatment of repetitive traumatic brain injury.
For a governing body whose own Clean Boxing Program demands random drug testing of all of its fighters even the slightest association with a substance still classed as an illegal narcotic by the US government is quite a move. For Sulaimán though, the decision was simple.
“We have so little knowledge of what’s in the brain, so you have to be open to find ways to make boxing and sports safer [and] what can be used to cure,” he says.
The word “cure” is Sulaimán’s optimistic shorthand for the development of any treatment for the brain injuries that have blighted boxing for its long and bruising history. And for a man who has spent his life in the company of those putting their head in harm’s way, the experience of such mental degradation was all too familiar.
“Tommy Hearns struggles with his speech these days. I spent many, many intimate moments with Muhammad Ali, but the memory that sticks out is Raúl ‘El Raton’ Macías,” Suleimán says, of the man considered by many as Mexico’s first boxing idol.
“We were at the dinner for our induction into the Boxing Hall of Fame. And in the middle of eating, he stood up and he said: ‘I’m going home now. I’m going to walk home.’ You know, he lived in Mexico City and we were in New York.”
It was his personal experience around those with brain trauma that made the story of Wesana Health’s CEO Daniel Carcillo all the more compelling to Suleimán.
Carcillo was known as the Car Bomb during his time as an NHL player, so tough was he on the ice. But a career that saw him win two Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks also delivered countless concussions and subconcussions. So much so that in 2015, at the age of 30, he retired with symptoms including slurred speech, headaches, memory loss, extreme light sensitivity, depression and suicidal ideation. Things only got worse after his skates were put to one side.
“I just couldn’t control or understand what was happening to me,” Carcillo says.
Three weeks into planning how to take his own life he decided to try psilocybin, the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms, for the first time. Under supervision he took a high dosage that allowed him to confront the trauma in his life.
From the brink of suicide, Carcillo says he is now symptom free, the life-changing nature of his psychedelic treatment providing inspiration for the business he co-founded last year. By taking advantage of new laws in some states of America that have legalized psychedelics for medicinal use, Wesana hope to develop a prescription drug that could help treat degenerative brain conditions suffered by athletes.
There are caveats, of course. After all, Carcillo has good reason to talk up his own story of recovery, especially given the recent flotation of Wesana on the Canadian stock exchange. And with a theoretical product which, at best, is years away from entering the marketplace, what’s to say his good health isn’t down to a placebo effect which the WBC has cynically jumped on to…