Last month I had the great pleasure of attending the largest conference dedicated to the scientific study of psychedelic medicine in modern history. Over 3000 people from 40 countries attended this 6 day conference in Oakland, California. The main purpose was to present the latest results from research occurring at leading academic institutions and non profits in the US and around the world. The event was hosted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Beckley Foundation as part of their missions to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of psychedelic substances for treating a variety of treatment resistant conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addiction.
The attendees were a balanced mix of clean cut PhDs and MDs, practicing therapists hoping to catch a glimpse of the future of their profession, some potential patients exploring their options, and psychedelic advocates eager to celebrate what they have known for years. The vibe of the conference felt to me like a group of people excited to unite with like minded souls. People who know from personal experience about the great potential for psychedelics to help millions of others who have never heard of it. This was certainly a gathering of the tribe, and while everyone was open to learning new information I suspect that few in attendance were surprised to see the long list of successes being reported. Instead, the main reason this massive effort took place was to provide the data that the government agencies, mainstream population and mass media will demand on the path towards legalization. Yes, the people in attendance at Psychedelic Science 2017 already know what indigenous people around the world have known for centuries, psychedelics are a powerful and necessary part of the healing process.
Love Trumps Haight
During the 1960s the recreational use of psychedelics spread like wildfire from California onward, and a fearful government responded with the most extreme regulations imaginable. The Drug Enforcement Agency classified nearly all psychedelics as Schedule 1, a category reserved for substances with no known medicinal value. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, yet research was frozen and as a result decades of knowledge were lost. From the famed Haight-Ashbury neighborhood next to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to the Oakland Marriott Hotel across the Bay Bridge, the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love has come full circle to this so called psychedelic renaissance. The word renaissance means rebirth, but to assume we are now entering a rebirth of the 60s would be a huge mistake. This time around psychedelic advocates have learned from the past and are moving forward with the power of science on their side. Replacing their tie dies with ties and counter cultural lingo with statistical and biochemical jargon, this generation presents data that is going to be difficult to ignore. During this rebirth psychedelics are returning where they belong, to research institutions around the world, and hopefully they will soon arrive in the hands of patients desperate for relief from their suffering.
CALIFORNIA, a prophet on the burning shore, CALIFORNIA, I’ll be knocking on the golden door, Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light, Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine”
-Lyrics for Estimated Prophet, performed by San Francisco 1960s psychedelic band, Grateful Dead
A world of dualities
After attending a handful of presentations it quickly became apparent there was no consensus on the best way to serve patients the medicine. Many different perspectives coexisted throughout the conference. Some of the presenters focused on a traditional indigenous shamanic style of plant based medicine while other studies closely resembled a modern clinical academic style of pharmaceutical based medicine. With a substance like MDMA this difference is to be expected as MDMA comes from a chemistry laboratory instead of a plant growing in the forest. With a substance like psilocybin mushrooms a choice arises of whether to use an isolated concentrate of the psychoactive ingredient psilocybin, or to use the entire mushroom and all the other chemicals contained in the whole specimen. My preference is certainly for whole species medicine, and Sidarta Ribeiro made a passionate argument in favor of the “entourage effect”, which argues that an entourage of biochemicals will enhance the positive benefits while reducing the negative effects. Regardless, there are many reasons a researcher, federal agency or medical professional might prefer working with isolated chemicals. My guess is the debate will never be settled, nor does it need to be as there is room for both in a therapeutic setting.
The other duality I witnessed was that of underground versus above ground. The conference was obviously focused above ground, and represents 50 years of work by a handful of dedicated scientists and policy reformers attempting to illuminate these medicines. However, there is no denying the immense amount of knowledge that exists because millions of people have defied federal law and expressed their birthright to cognitive liberty by expanding their consciousness as they wish. The underground community are the torch bearers who have carried the light through 50 years of prohibition. Some therapists even believe they have a moral obligation and take great risks to treat patients in desperate need for illegal substances that are more effective than the available legal options. Sure there have always been legal options for these patients in certain foreign countries such as Peru, or here in the US under the protection of religious freedom, but those options are limited. Again, the movement as a whole benefits from what both sides have to offer.
Hall of Fame
For somebody closely following this emerging science over the past few years like I have, attending the conference was like visiting the psychedelic hall of fame. Anne Shulgin, author and wife of chemist Sasha Shulgin who brought MDMA to the world’s attention, was there to answer questions of the audience. Veteran researchers like Stanislav Grof and Stanley Krippner were there; they studied these substances before the government banned them and found creative ways to continue studying consciousness during the research drought. Psychedelic superhero Terrence McKenna is sadly no longer with us in this world, but his spirit was there as his brother and wife gave presentations, and many other speakers referred to him. MAPS founder Rick Doblin, mycology expert Paul Stamets, addiction and trauma expert Gabor Maté, the list goes on. It was truly a treat to absorb the wisdom and energy of the elders of our psychedelic tribe.
While listening to countless presentations during the conference I often had the feeling of following a narrow winding path through the jungle. It was like this small group of dedicated and passionate pioneers had carved a way forward from the 1960s when many of these substances were made illegal up until now. With machetes in hand they have slowly and persistently chopped down the ignorance, lack of funding, and legal opposition that separates us from access to these amazing medicines. With complete gratitude to these trailblazers I now feel the strong urge to run down this trail as fast as possible. This is not a paved 4 lane highway, it is still a narrow winding jungle trail, but it is something to follow. Of course the trail is not yet complete as legalization is still at least 4 years from now, but the end is in sight. Many obstacles remain and we can see in the current administration that politics can easily trump science. The best science available on climate change is being ignored because it is not considered good business for select industries and corporations. Are psychedelics to pharmaceuticals what solar panels are to coal energy? Most likely, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a defensive pharmaceutical industry oppose this. Regardless, at least the data is now becoming available and people will have the power to choose.
Conference as Medicine
The conference itself actually felt like a psychedelic experience including the 3 essential phases of any safe and productive therapy session. There was the preparation phase of making travel arrangements and choosing which of the 120+ presentations to attend. During the trip phase there was a noticeable energy that resulted from being surround by thousands of open optimistic minds. Now is the post conference integration phase of processing terabytes of information and deciding what new direction I am motivated to head. Of course being the responsible hosts that they are, MAPS sent a pre conference email reminding attendees not to consume any psychedelics during the event. As far as I could see people were well behaved and following this advice. However, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to microdose (minidose to be more accurate) on the final day of the largest conference on psychedelic science in world history. I can’t believe I was the only person with this idea. I definitely received the benefits of that decision as many new connections were formed and a much deeper understanding emerged. From the slightly altered perspective of this therapist in training I came to one conclusion that day, and can say with confidence, the future of medicine has arrived!
For more information, MAPS has generously posted an abundance of presentations from the conference.
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