Cannabis, sex tech and psychedelics startups deserve more than stigma

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Cannabis, sex tech and psychedelics are often lumped together under the “vice” category — a characterization that prevents many VCs from investing in these spaces. But does that make sense? Let’s explore. — Anna

It’s (not) a sin

Isn’t cannabis actually similar to coffee, wine and spirits? That’s the argument Emily Paxhia made on a Twitter Space hosted by TechCrunch+ earlier this week to discuss our latest U.S. cannabis investor survey.

A managing director at cannabis-focused hedge fund Poseidon Asset Management, Paxhia argued that marijuana-derived products have a lot more to do with wellness than with the “sin” category they often fall under.

“Sin clause” and “vice clause” are terms that venture capitalists use to refer to their inability to invest in certain business categories, from porn and gambling to alcohol and tobacco. When I explored fundraising strategies for sex tech startups earlier this year, I found out that this veto typically comes from the fund’s limited partners, or LPs.

It is understandable why investors wouldn’t want to put their money in certain types of businesses, let alone be known for doing so. But there’s a fine line between moral stances and stigma.

“I don’t identify with the word ‘vice’ at all,” Andrea Barrica told me. Barrica is the founder of O.School, which she describes as a media platform for sexual wellness. “Wellness” is a popular term in both the sex tech and cannabis industries — because it makes them more palatable, sure, but also because it truly reflects the impact that entrepreneurs are hoping to have.

It is worth keeping in mind that cannabis isn’t just about providing a recreational high. In Europe, we heard from investors, it is medical cannabis that has most of the momentum. It is the perspective of health benefits that drives many entrepreneurs, who deserve better than cheap laughs.

Similarly, a deep dive into psychedelics taught me that this is about much more than drugs and fun. With investors sometimes getting into this space after personal journeys with depression or burnout, and founders hoping to make a dent on the global mental health crisis, easy jokes quickly feel out of place.

Missing out

The vice clause applies only to certain types of investors, which is also problematic. The fund that is handling your pension might pass on cannabis investments, but many family offices aren’t. This means that returns from these potentially lucrative bets will be concentrated in the hands of the already-wealthy.

Some fund managers are also investing as individuals, Paxhia said — and it’s them who will get the upside. Meanwhile, fiduciaries are missing out on the returns and the impact they could have, for arbitrary reasons. After all, what’s legal is not always moral, and vice versa.

The most glaring paradox is that the tobacco, nicotine and alcohol industries are actually keeping close tabs on cannabis and whether consumption might shift. Would the shift be a net negative for society? Perhaps not. As for psychedelics, there’s research ongoing to use nonhallucinogenic derivatives to treat opioid addiction. With overdose deaths involving fentanyl and methamphetamine surging in the U.S., is this vice? I don’t think so. Do you?