MAPS Psychedelic Science conference 2017
This past April, I had the great pleasure of attending the largest conference dedicated to the scientific study of psychedelic medicine in modern history. Over 3,000 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 nonprofits in the U.S. 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, 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 them. 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 government agencies, the 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 1960’s, 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 60’s 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-dyes 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 suffering.
A world of dualities
After attending a handful of presentations, it quickly became apparent that there was no consensus on the best way to serve patients the medicine. Some 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. The Brazilian neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro made a passionate argument in favor of the "entourage effect," which argues that an entourage of biochemicals will enhance positive benefits while reducing negative effects. Regardless, there are many reasons that 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 of therapeutic but 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 U.S. 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. Ann Shulgin, author and wife of the late chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin who brought MDMA to the world's attention, was there to answer questions from the audience. Fans of the Shulgins will be happy to hear that Ann is currently working on a third book in the PIHKAL and TIHKAL series that they both authored. Regarding the concentrate versus whole plant duality mentioned above, Ann took a neutral stance, but mentioned, “until we understand everything that’s in the cactus we can’t say for sure that the mescaline produced in the lab has everything that the plant does. Also, I sympathize with the completely non-scientific view of some people that there is a spirit entity attached to plants”. When asked what has been surprising to her in the direction research has gone, Ann made the observation, “as our war capacity increases, the psychedelic research and discoveries seem to rise as a possible balance to that”. Also in attendance were veteran researchers Stanislav Grof and Stanley Krippner who studied these substances before the government banned them, then found creative ways to continue studying consciousness during the research drought. Psychedelic superhero Terence 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 his work. Also present were 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 1960’s when many of these substances were first made illegal. With machetes in hand, they have slowly and persistently chopped through the ignorance, lack of funding, and legal opposition separating 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. MAPS is leading the way, and they estimate the FDA will approve their application for the therapeutic use of MDMA by prescription as soon as 2021. However, 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 widespread legalization of psychedelics. 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 surrounded by thousands of open, optimistic minds. Now is the post-conference integration phase of processing terabytes of information and deciding in which new direction I am motivated to go. Often times the peak of a psychedelic experience seems far more profound than the weeks that follow, and the same has been true with the conference since I returned home. The purpose of integrating a psychedelic experience is to transform these mystical states into everyday traits, so as the energy of the conference slowly dissipates it is important for me to remember how I felt last April in Oakland. Attending that historic gathering of the tribe was truly inspirational and everyday I take one small step closer to working as a professional in this pioneering field. Integrating states into traits is not always easy and when in doubt, I think of the conclusion that I reached at the final day of the conference: the future of medicine has arrived!