Interview with Jeanne Fontana, Founder and CEO of TREAT California

Learn about Jeanne Fontana's impactful citizen-driven ballot initiative for mental health empowerment: TREAT California.
Citizen-Driven Ballot Initiative. Image is Jeanne Fontana's face in a repeated concentric circle patten.
Author: Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
October 31, 2023(Updated: November 9, 2023)

On November 2, 2023, TREAT California published a press release that stated it was withdrawing from its 2024 ballot initiative efforts, ending its signature-gathering process and redirecting its focus to TREAT Humanity. The press release stated this pivot is due to recent polling results: 45% do not support establishing a state government agency to deliver new therapies using psychedelics and 60% oppose state funding for these therapies. TREAT California is urging its supporters to focus their efforts on TREAT Humanity, a non-profit organization “committed to furthering treatments, research, education, access, and therapies to treat mental health and optimize wellbeing.”

Please note: This interview with Jeanne Fontana was conducted in September 2023 prior to TREAT California’s November press release.

TREAT California is a citizen-driven ballot initiative that will provide $5B in funding for research and affordable access to mental health treatments using psychedelic medicines and other novel therapeutics. TREAT stands for Treatments, Research, Education, Access, and Therapies.

We had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Jeannie Fontana, MD PhD, Founder and CEO of TREAT California. She talked about how her background in changing federal legislation, campaigning experience and building the largest funding agency in the world for STEM cell research served as the foundation and the creation of the TREAT roadmap in her current role.

She authentically and vulnerably shares her transformational experiences with psychedelics and how they gave her a deep sense of compassion for herself, others and the planet. 

Jeannie is a force of inspiration and empowerment. Read on to learn her story and the profound leadership and powerful impact she has on the world of psychedelics.

The Creation of The TREAT Initiative California Roadmap

Jeannie has worked in medical research and patient care for 40 years and trained as an MD and PhD. But her story begins with her mother’s ALS diagnosis.

“When I finished all my training, my mother was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I realized that I could use my skills, as well as the many opportunities that have been presented to me in my life to help those struggling with ALS. It was driven, of course, to find a therapy that could help my mother, recognizing that by helping my mother, I’d be helping tens of thousands of patients who had ALS.”

Involvement in Stem Cell Drug Discovery

Jeannie became frustrated with the billions of dollars that were spent on ALS treatment models that were limiting. At the time, human embryonic stem cells had just been discovered in the late 1990s. So she became involved with stem cell drug discovery at a renowned medical research institute in San Diego.

“I was frustrated with the billions of dollars that were spent curing mice, not just in ALS, but in cancers and other things like that. The models that we have are limiting. Stem cells were a new way to create a new model to help find disease-modifying compounds.” 

Her First Success in Changing Federal Legislation: “It made me feel like my voice matters.”

She simultaneously was involved in changing federal legislation on ALS, with the ALS Association. This was her first taste of what it takes to change legislation at the federal level. 

“I was quite impressed that we were able to get our first bill passed in an overwhelming bipartisan fashion. It empowered me. It made me feel like my voice matters. One voice matters. When you come together with a group of people and you have a reasonable ask, things can actually change within the system. That was empowering for me because it changed the lives of tens of thousands of ALS patients instead of just treating, you know, one, two, five at a time.” 

Her Work in Creating a Funding Agency for Stem Cell Research

She went back to her research department to talk about the federal government. However, the political leadership at the time had a moratorium on funding for embryonic stem cell research. Jeannie was thinking, 

We were just developing this. To think that the funding was taken away for political reasons was just baffling.”

However, at the same time, there was an influential figure in California whose son was struggling with juvenile diabetes. He was told by Standford scientists that stem cells could be developed into a treatment for juvenile diabetes. Because the funding was not happening by the federal government, this force of nature launched a citizen-driven ballot initiative. 

What is a Citizen-Driven Ballot Initiative?

A citizen-driven ballot initiative is a path that citizens can take where they demand the government provide a service. 

“We oftentimes do this with our elected officials. Well, if we’re not happy with some things, we can have other ways of changing legislation on state levels. That’s a citizen-driven ballot initiative.”

Her Campaign Experience: “I did not think it would pass, honestly.”

This force of nature launched a campaign called Prop 71 (stem cell initiative back in the early 2000s). Jeannie participated in getting research monies for embryonic stem cell drug discovery. She learned a great deal during this experience. 

“I learned when that campaign, what it’s like to campaign and educate the public and educate lawmakers to support our efforts, which was to pass this proposition, which would create a funding agency for embryonic stem cell research.”

Jeannie shared that she didn’t honestly think it would pass. At the time, human embryonic stem cells were just discovered. They were launching this initiative on the promise of the potential of what stem cells could bring to society’s health. 

The lawmakers would tell her, “Wow, this is really interesting but we can’t pay our teachers and we can’t pay our merchant responders. Why should we spend money on this promise?” 

She didn’t know how to respond. However, it didn’t matter.

“What I learned was that the citizens of California approved our proposition. We became the first of its kind in the country and the largest in the world. We’re a $3 billion funding agency.” 

Becoming a Board of Trustees member of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)

Jeannie then became a board member of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The institute was charged with expediting bench-to-bedside research. This is normally about a 15-year process from basic research to a therapy that a patient can have. 

She shared her learnings during this experience:

“I had hands-on experience with what it takes to build a funding agency. We brought together stakeholders and key opinion leaders from all over the country and the world to develop the sort of next-level funding agency.” 

Overcoming Controversy – Building The Biggest Funding Agency Worldwide for STEM Cell Research: “We had people saying we were killing babies.”

At the time, studying human embryonic stem cells was controversial. Jeannie shared that every meeting was in the public domain. They had the press and people accusing them of killing babies. 

By the end of 15 years, the $3 billion ran out. Here were their medical accomplishments:

  • Two FDA-approved therapeutics
  • Nine breakthrough fast-track therapeutics 
  • 60 compounds in the pipeline that were deserving of funding for clinical trials

In addition to bringing therapeutics to patients, funding that came out of CIRM (California Institute of Regenerative Medicine) created:

  • 55,000 new jobs in California
  • 80-plus thousand new jobs in the United States
  • Over $10 billion of extra revenue to the state of California 
  • At least 50 new companies in California focused on regenerative medicine

Jeannie wanted to emphasize that CIRM is a state agency and is run by a citizens’ oversight committee. The funding comes from the sale of general obligation bonds – taxes do not go up directly. The interest is amortized over decades.

In 2020, Jeannie and the board went back to the voters and qualified for the ballot. The citizens of California approved the work that they were doing there by a yes vote. This granted them an additional $5.5 billion. 

“The agency that I was a part of created the largest of the kind in the world. It still is. And we built the infrastructure for the regenerative medicine space. 

Let me be clear again because this was very new [similar to the psychedelic space]. It was the first of this kind in the country. It was the biggest funding agency in the world for STEM cell research, and hardly anybody knows about it; unless you’re a STEM cell scientist, nobody knows about it.” 

How Jeannie Came Into the Psychedelic World: “I had a negative bias against psychedelics.”

Jeannie came into the psychedelic world as a non-user. She had a negative bias against psychedelics and grew up in a conservative household. She was raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s during Reagan’s campaigns: “Dare to Say No” and “War Against Drugs”. The societal campaign influenced Jeannie in a way it intended:

“It scared me to death. I grew up looking at some of my friends who were into drugs and the counterculture and they were very different. For me, who has always been driven, I looked at them and they really didn’t amount to much. 

I was like, these drugs are really bad for you. Look, they’re just becoming fried and they don’t do anything. I had that perception.”

First Time Learning About Michael Pollan

Then it was through losing a bet to a friend that Jeannie’s views on psychedelics began to change. Her friend told her about a 2014 study at Johns Hopkins. It was about the impact of psychedelics on the existential crisis of death and dying. 

Jeannie didn’t believe it. But then she read “The Trip Treatment” and it was the first time she learned about Michael Pollan.

She started digging and learned about MAPS and read Michael Pollan’s book. But it was merely out of curiosity and interest.

The Pandemic Hits: Jeannie’s Time of Learning and Reflection

Then the pandemic hit. Jeannie found herself reflecting on what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it in life. She had always been involved in paradigm-shifting projects. 

“I found myself being excited about what I was learning about psychedelics. I am a person who does due diligence because I really have to have my brain engaged, my heart, body, mind, and soul before I jump into a project. I read about 1500 research articles and every book that’s ever been written about psychedelics and watched all the videos because I had all this time.” 

She was intrigued by the positive data but wondered why there wasn’t sufficient funding for psychedelic research.

Changing Her Beliefs and Bias on Psychedelics

She was reading and learning a lot about psychedelics. Even so, she couldn’t even say the word out loud to her family and friends because of her personal bias. 

“I had a bias that it was like this sort of hippie-dippy spiritual metaphysical stuff. I didn’t understand that at all but I was intrigued by these science papers coming from our top academic institutions where they were in my language.” 

The most intriguing part for Jeannie was reading personal accounts and learning about the life-changing and introspective experiences of patients. 

Jeannie’s Personal Experience with Psychedelics: “There is something significant here!”

Jeannie became interested in trying psychedelics herself. 

“I’m going to want to break the law. I had to leave the country. I did and my own personal experiences with it were amazing. What I learned from it immediately was that there is potential here. There is something significant here. So then things started to crystallize for me.” 

Bringing Together Jeannie’s Experiences and the World of Psychedelics: “What is really needed in this space is funding!”

At first, Jeannie thought she was going to research psychedelics, neurogenesis and plasticity because she had worked on neurodegenerative disease. Then, she thought she could help develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s or clinics and retreat centers as she had done in the past. 

Finding Her Purpose in the Psychedelic Space

Then it became very clear to her what she needed to do. 

“What is really needed in this space is funding. All these trials were funded by philanthropists. That was great, but they’re starving. Everybody here is coming from scarcity and begging and pleading, “I need more! Please, sir!” like Oliver Twist.” 

She went to the federal government first to find out what the political climate was but they weren’t ready. She didn’t have enough inroads there to find that path, whereas she did in California. 

She knew it was her purpose to take her previous experiences with CIRM into the psychedelic world. She needed to create a citizen-driven ballot initiative for a funding agency.

The Birth of TREAT California

TREAT is a citizen-driven ballot initiative to create a $5 billion funding agency in the state of California. 

“We will have an oversight board. There will be seven members. We’re not elected officials. We’re not politicians. We are experts in our fields with no conflicts of interest.” 

Jeannie shared that oftentimes, the board consisted of chancellors and the deans of major academic institutions. These institutions were receiving money from the research fund. She understood and agreed that they should receive money because they were the top academic researchers. However, by doing so, Jeannie explained that it can create an appearance of a conflict of interest. 

TREAT Funding Agency Will Be Based on Milestones: “We will run it like a for-profit company, efficient, lean and mean.”

However, Jeannie emphasized that TREAT will not be doing that. She explained that this funding agency will based on milestones and has a fiduciary responsibility to money.

“I believe that this is not creating a funding agency just to spend money. It has to be based on milestones. The first thing we need to do is fund larger-scale clinical trials to determine safety and efficacy. We believe these medicines to be safe. We believe they work.”

They will work with the FDA. She explained that if a side effect comes up that is deemed insurmountable, they will stop funding.

“So this is not just because we have the money we’re going to find ways to spend it. This is goal-oriented. We run it like a for-profit company, efficient, lean and mean.”

Instead of being valued for the price per share, the agency will be valued on a trifecta of the following:

  • Prove Patient Outcomes: Does it work? Does it work better than current treatments? Do we have data to support it?
  • Cost-Effectiveness: They will have a division dedicated to tracking healthcare economics and these diseases under the mental health umbrella.
  • Accessibility: They will have to make it accessible to all who want it, including the underserved communities and first responders.

Jeannie wanted to clarify that she does not think psychedelics are the panacea.

“I do not think they are the cure-all. I do not think they are appropriate for every person. We are introducing the concept of risk stratification to the world. There are some people who will also help with our research to determine which therapeutic paradigm will be best for you.”

Jeannie as a Female Leader for TREAT: “I’m not driven by money or politics.”

Jeannie wanted to highlight the impact she has stepping into this role as a female leader.

“As a female leader, I am not driven by money or politics. I am driven to help millions. This is inclusivity. It’s like a mother who loves all of her children. Not just the one. I am calling on people to come to this project who want to help solve the problems. And solving the problems is helping the millions and millions, starting with Californians who are suffering in their mental health.”

Why California and Why Now?

Jeannie talked about how she believes society is ready to change its perception of psychedelics. 

“I have been so impressed with the dramatic increase in the national approval rating for research on psychedelics. In 2017, about 30% of the country supported research in psychedelics. And the Berkeley poll last month reported that 78% of Americans now support research on psychedelics.”

She explained why California is the right place to start this paradigm shift.

“California is a progressive citizenry. We are known to be leaders in the world on certain issues. And I think this provides yet another opportunity for Californians to step up and lead this effort.”

Emphasis on the E in TREAT: Education

Jeannie spoke about the E in TREAT which is education. 

Healthcare Provider Training 

They will be training and certifying at least 200,000 mental healthcare providers as needed.

“I believe in the importance of preparing and educating the patient about what to expect and how to incorporate into their lives what they are learning through the medicine and the education with the therapist.”

Jeannie believes there is a paradigm shift in the way mental healthcare is delivered. 

“For instance, a medicine like an SSRI is the same dose per person whether you are 200 pounds, 400 pounds, or 100 pounds. You get the same medicine. You take your medicine every day and you talk to a doctor every once in a while and you are on it for decades. Sometimes it helps a lot of people but for a lot of people, it doesn’t help. They are masking symptoms.”

However, mental health care will look very different and people need to be properly prepared for these experiences.

“I believe in educating the public on what mental health is and how best to navigate difficult emotions. And that is part of this therapeutic paradigm shift. Talking about the issues and then explaining the experience in going into the medicine space and how best to manage what can otherwise be very destabilizing emotions. It is intensive work. It is work, work, work.”

Educating School Systems

The funding will also be used to educate school systems and introduce psychedelic therapy in the curriculum. They will be educating schools to teach students how to deal with emotions. 

Public Education

Money will be dedicated to educating the public. They will be focusing on having a strong online presence through social media and putting good information out.

“I think it is so important to educate the public on what we are doing at the TREAT Institute including the positive and negative results that come from these clinical trials.”

TREAT is Not a Decriminalization or Legalization Initiative

Jeannie clarified the intent of TREAT and their stance on decriminalization and legalization.

“While we support the efforts of decriminalization, I don’t believe people should be in jail for the use of psychedelics and cannabis personally. Few people are put in jail for psychedelics. Cannabis is different but I believe that should be changed. I do not support legalization because I think about the safety of the individual. I think people need to be educated. They need to be supervised as they undergo these medicines.”

Jeannie’s Final Thoughts on Her Purpose and The Mental Health Landscape 

Jeannie talked about how these medicines can help humans connect and improve society’s well-being.

“We’re all going through post-traumatic stress. All of us in the United States. We had a pandemic. There’s a disconnection with human-to-human contact and we are siloed through these phones. I think we’re missing some essential pieces of connection and these medicines can help.”

She shared how we need to be respectful, thoughtful and intentional when talking about psychedelics with the public.

“We have to be thoughtful and intentional about what is shown to us as we bring these medicines out to the public. I think we have to be respectful, very respectful of the thousands of years of the wisdom keepers. And how to balance that in our modern-day society, how to merge and how to evolve together in it. It’s not one or the other, it’s not black or white. It’s grey.”

Connecting Through Psychedelics

Jeannie talked about how all human beings are connected—each of us has a primal need to help one another.

“We are nuanced in living on quick fixes. Just fix this one piece and you’ll be fine. No, we are integrated pieces in a complex societal network. When we talk about the mycelium network underneath the ground and how it communicates and connects with animals and trees and the soil and the earth and the decomposition, it keeps us alive. I believe we’re more than just survival of the fittest and procreation. We are connected and we have to help each other. There is something in our DNA that drives us to help others.”

She expressed how psychedelic medicines transformed her level of compassion.

“I see the darkness and the demise and the destruction of the planet. And I look at that. I look at society and I look at the homelessness and I look at the suffering. It pains me now. I have this compassion. The compassion this medicine gave me, this self-compassion. It allows me to have compassion for others in a way that I hadn’t been able to tap into before. I’m deciding to embrace love and helping, healing and serving others.”

Lastly, Jeannie shared her thoughts on her life’s purpose and mission. 

“As a woman who is at this stage of life, I feel like all my prior experiences in my life, all of them, not just professional, have led me to this moment in time. And this is the reason why I’m on the planet. I’m here to lead this change.”

Follow your Curiosity

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The content provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should be a substitute for medical or other professional advice. Articles are based on personal opinions, research, and experiences of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Psychedelic Support.

Published by:
Author: Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. She has published in scientific journals and co-authored health research books. Her bylines include Verywell Mind, CBC Parents, Family Education, Mamamia Australia, HuffPost Canada, and CafeMom. Check out her books at Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.

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