I’m back from three days in Denver, CO, for the Psychedelic Science conference. At this year’s event, 12,000 people gathered to learn, explore, celebrate and witness the march of psychedelic science toward the mainstream. The conference itself was programmed and planned meticulously with events and speakers crisply scheduled and effectively orchestrated. Much praise to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and event coordinator Momentum Events for pulling it all off.
I tried to follow my own map to the schedule. Here are some of the highlights that stood out.
Rick Doblin – No single name was mentioned more in this conference. To paraphrase a football chant from the television show Ted Lasso: “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every f*cking where, Rick Doblin, Rick Doblin!” Watching Mr. Doblin, the founder of MAPS, accept the conference’s Honey Badger Award, crystalised the vision, perseverance, and magnetic charm of this inspirational leader of the psychedelic movement as it currently exists.
Paul Stamets – On the first afternoon of the conference, Stamets—a mycologist who appeared in the 2019 film, Fantastic Fungi— gave a passionate talk to a packed Bellco Theatre audience that brought people to their feet. His every person presentation of extremely complex information about mycelium was both easily digested and inspirationally nourishing. Stamets’s argument is that research shows that psilocybin reduces crime, violence, addiction and depression. That it is medicine that the world badly needs at this time. That it actually brings together liberals and conservatives, as evidenced by appearances from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, from the right, and Colorado Governor Jared Polis, from the left. And that extraordinary change can occur when indigenous knowledge is combined with modern innovation (a favorite theme here at Terra).
Aaron Rodgers and Aubrey Marcus – This pairing of the best football player who currently uses psychedelics and his podcasting friend made clear that people with higher public profiles speaking out about plant medicines is a permission slip for others to help dispel the myths and negative stories that keep these medicines from the mainstream.
Roland Griffiths – In one of the most moving moments of the conference, this research pioneer talked about the challenges he currently faces with a terminal cancer diagnosis, its relationship to his life’s work and the effect that psychedelic medicine has had in processing his condition. From there, his talk went in a more spiritual direction, with the addition of clergy members.
Ben Sessa – A British medical doctor who’s also licensed to provide psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, this man is the great disrupter. In an insanely entertaining, economical and egalitarian talk, Sessa tried to put the psychedelic movement into proper perspective. The drugs themselves, he said, should be seen as primers for talk therapy. That all the drugs work. Current drug laws are both impractical and unethical. Psychedelics are a marketing nightmare, he said: take them two or three times and a patient is done with them. He put a spotlight on the recent rush to investment and profit in the field, which has little to do with patient outcomes.
Andrew Weil – Like many of the pioneers in this field, Weil—who’s known for his work in integrative health and nutrition—has personally experimented with almost every known psychedelic substance known to man. His free-flowing account of those experiences left many in attendance in awe of his courage, resilience and brilliance. He believes that DMT and 5 MEO DMT are the most powerful chemical compounds available, presenting extraordinary opportunities for positive, fast-acting change. There was also a ringing endorsement for the use of MDMA as an empathogen. Weil sees it as a unique substance, singularly effective at creating a non-defensive state, which is where change in behavior, mood and personality can occur. He also feels strongly that psychedelics may be able to save society and thanks his early collaborators, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, for their foresight, passion and wisdom.
Michael Pollan and Bob Jesse – In a wide ranging, friendly discussion between two friends and collaborators, author and journalist Pollan gave new meaning to the verb “tweezering,” as applied to Jesse’s scrupulous editing of language. This talk was both tempering and cautionary about the field of psychedelics, a perfect counterpoint to the rapturous content throughout the conference extolling its virtues. Both agreed that psychedelics are a breakthrough therapy candidate. At the same time nothing is perfectly safe and efficacious. This requires more specific and nuanced talk about risk. Perhaps talking about the negatives first gives the field enhanced credibility. As another observer noted, undoing 52 years of propaganda is a heavy lift. The “psychedelic renaissance” is in fact replicating a lot of the research from the 1960s and ‘70s. Both Pollan and Jesse mentioned the medical track of approval being one pathway, albeit a difficult one. The other, less explored, avenue is the spiritual track, where there is an exciting area of integration between the use of psychedelics and religion.
Raquel Bennett – Her lecture was an up-to-date status report on the use of ketamine in therapeutic settings. A ketamine expert and author, Bennett is a strong believer in the drug’s therapeutic value and believes that the best use is yet to come. At the same time, she urged for revisions and clarity in the legal status of its use. She outlined the dark side of the drug’s use: overuse, addiction, damage to bladder (cystitis) and retriggering trauma. Bennet also explicitly called for the FDA to approve racemic ketamine, which is a combination of two types. She also questioned the use of mail order ketamine subscriptions, which she felt needed increased supervision and assessment. Lastly she implored insurance companies to expand their coverage to make these treatments affordable for the general public.
Blake Mycoskie – In his keynote address Mycoskie, who founded Tom’s Shoes and an outspoken philanthropist raised the bar for charitable giving to support research and access to psychedelics’ potential to treat mental health issues, by donating an additional $90 million over the course of the next 16 years.
Deep Space – A vast and immersive environment sponsored and curated by Dr. Bronner’s health and wellness products offered a perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of the conference. It contained something for everyone from music, art, a tea room, relaxation spaces and experimental environments from new age to high tech.
This roundup, however, is really just a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the in-person conference experience. Every room that I visited throughout the conference, from stadium-sized theaters to smaller gatherings in intimate spaces, contained passionate, informed and caring individuals sharing the best of themselves. The massive collection of exhibitor booths were diverse, inclusive and stimulating.
With this conference MAPS erected a giant tent as a hub of activity and thought leadership. Through invitation and curation they filled it with people from various parts of the world, with different experiences, expertise, and points of view, united by the curiosity to learn and make themselves and the world they live in a better place.
As for me? I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. See you in 2024.