What Goes on Inside a Psychedelics Conference?
OAKLAND, Calif. — In a packed, cavernous space one weekend late in April, a crowd of thousands was becoming increasingly amped up. Rainbow hair was commonplace, purple silk pants were sighted, and the smell of marijuana drifted in from a designated smoking area nearby. Audience members watched the stage with avid interest, leaping to occasionally shoeless feet to applaud and cheer.
This wasn’t Coachella, taking place the same weekend some 500 miles south, or any other music festival, but a five-day convention of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), its first in four years. Rather than rock stars, scientists from schools like Johns Hopkins and N.Y.U. were the main attraction, bringing evidence to the medical case for psychedelics like psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) to assuage end-of-life anxiety, to help deepen meditation practices, to search for the shared underpinnings of spiritual life, and — in a new study — to explore a possible treatment for severe depression.
Paul Austin, 26, of Grand Rapids, Mich., a so-called social entrepreneur who runs a website called The Third Wave devoted to getting out information on psychedelic substances, had come to meet other members of the pro-psychedelic community and share with them his vision for how the next generation must proceed. “A lot of the people who are leading the movement now are 60 or 70 years old, based in academia or research,” Mr. Austin said. “But to catalyze change, you have to speak to people, get to them on an emotional level.”
The conference was taking place just over the Bay Bridge from the city that introduced psychedelics to the American imagination in the early 1960s, when LSD was relatively new, legal and regarded by those who used it as a portal to expanded consciousness, a deeper life and an enlightened, humane society. (Cary Grant and other Hollywood stars were among those who experimented with it as part of their psychotherapeutic process.)
But that vision, as closely associated with San Francisco’s past as the tech industry is with its present, did not play out as advocates had hoped, and California banned the substance in 1966.
Over 50 years later, the advocates gathered here believe that psychedelic drugs, from LSD to magic mushrooms to MDMA (also known as Ecstasy or Molly), are taking a place in mainstream life. “We are not the counterculture,” said Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS, “we are the culture.”
The 3,000 or so attendees were a striking mix of ages and types: academics in blazers side by side with a demographic more typically associated with Burning Man than with carpeted conference rooms at the Marriott. They were united by a fierce attachment to the belief that psychedelic drugs, far from being a recreational diversion, have the potential to enlighten, cure illness and change the way people relate to one another and our planet.
Arguably no one is more instrumental in the campaign to make psychedelics commonplace than Mr. Doblin. Since 1986, when he founded the nonprofit MAPS organization, he has raised more than $40 million from sources like Dr. Richard Rockefeller, Dr. Bronner’s Soap and the Libra Foundation, funded by the Pritzker family. Mr. Doblin decided to focus about 90 percent of MAPS’s resources on MDMA, which he argues is not freighted with the same history as LSD, a symbol of antiwar protests and anti-government hippies. It is also “less psychologically challenging,” he said, referring to the effects it has on one’s thought process, though some clinicians might argue otherwise.
Mr. Doblin is determined to avoid the flagrant disruptiveness of the earlier psychedelic movement, to which President Richard M. Nixon reacted by declaring LSD a Schedule 1 drug, the highest level of prohibited substance, in 1970. Back then, Mr. Doblin said, most Americans were still unfamiliar with yoga and mindfulness, and resistant to discussing such subjects as death. But “this is a time of incredible peril for the human species and for the health of the planet,” he said. “There’s this sense of crisis, and at the same time, the recognition that the solution is going be spiritual and psychological, rather than material.”
Mr. Doblin said it’s imperative to work with the government; to show up in a suit and tie; to make sure it’s understood that his cause, advancing the legal use of psychedelics, “is not for the hippies, this is not for the crazies out in California. This is for the red states, this is for people facing ‘despair deaths.’ This is for the mainstream.”
Mr. Doblin and his team have been studying the potential therapeutic use of MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder, for which they are now entering Phase 3, the final one necessary to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration. They are hopeful that MDMA will be a legal prescription drug by 2021 to be used in therapy. And the election of President Trump has not dampened their optimism: On the contrary, Mr. Doblin maintains that Mr. Trump’s general antipathy toward regulation will make it easier for experimental drugs to get F.D.A. approval.
Other figures long associated with the psychedelic movement have also turned to science. Amanda Feilding, also known as the Countess of Wemyss and March, is a member of the movement’s old guard, having discovered LSD in England in the 1960s.
It is hard to talk about Ms. Feilding without mentioning the fact that in 1970, she drilled a small hole into her skull to help “expand her consciousness,” a practice known as trepanation. Now she was sitting in a bright conference room in Oakland, dressed in her signature shades of emerald green and holding up photo after photo of neuroimaging results, depicting brains flushed with neon trails of activity. They were all from research supported by the Beckley Foundation, which Ms. Feilding founded in 1998 to fight back against the stigmatization and illegality of psychedelic drugs.
“These compounds have become so taboo that in order to reintegrate them into society, we have to use the very best scientific evidence as to how they work in the brain, how they can be beneficial to mankind,” she said, displaying a photograph comparing brain activity on LSD to a normal, nontripping baseline, to point out that in the LSD brains, there’s a large increase in “connectivity,” or neurons talking to one another, giving credence to the long-held idea that an acid trip can lead to new ideas.
Not that lying on the floor in a wowed-out stupor is for everyone, especially the multitaskers of the 21st century.
And this perhaps is why microdosing — the practice of taking such small doses of a psychedelic that you can only just barely register its presence — is becoming enormously popular across the country, from elite pockets of innovators seeking an edge in Silicon Valley, to others who are simply trying to feel better, work harder, focus more. Its effects are so subtle, so slight, that it “doesn’t scare anybody,” said James Fadiman, a psychologist who took part in some of the original research on LSD in the 1960s.
When the drug was declared illegal, many of his compatriots like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey continued to devote their time to it, but Mr. Fadiman went straight. “I’m not an outlaw,” he said. “I couldn’t handle those hours.”
Now in his 70s, with an affinity for Oxford-cloth shirts and canvas tote bags, Mr. Fadiman is busy collecting more than a thousand written reports from “citizen scientists,” who write to him from all over the world with descriptions of the benefits they’ve derived from microdosing psychedelics: to mood, health, work, even menstrual cramps.
So exactly why are we witnessing what many are calling a “renaissance” in psychedelic drugs now, when they’ve been around so long?
There are many theories, including that Big Pharma’s solutions to mental illness are not satisfactory to everyone; that the internet is helping to spread knowledge about the power and potential of these drugs; that ayahuasca — the tree-bark tea administered by shamans — has become so popular in certain enclaves in the United States that it’s helping revive interest in other psychedelics; or simply that baby boomers who discovered the wonders of LSD in the ’60s are now facing death, and looking, again, for ways to get in touch with their spirituality.
Like any movement, this one has its struggles.
On Saturday afternoon, in the Marriott’s jammed ballroom, Dr. Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician and expert in addiction who over the last decade has embraced the therapeutic potential of plant medicines, was finishing his speech when a woman with dark hair and dark sunglasses approached the microphone to ask a question.
In front of the huge crowd, she identified herself as “an indigenous person” and began to speak. “My heart is pounding in my chest like a jack rabbit because what I want to say is not necessarily going to make anybody happy,” she said. “But what I want to say is that cultural appropriation is a form of retraumatization to indigenous people.”
She was referring to the growing boom in American and European tourism to countries like Peru and Brazil for the purpose of taking part in healing ceremonies using psychedelic plants, which some people fear will threaten access for native populations to these ancient, sacred rites.
“You’re speaking from a deep wound,” Dr. Maté said. “But I cannot stand here and heal your wound.”
His response seemed to inflame the woman further. “That’s not what I’m asking for,” she said, and then she turned to the audience. “I’m asking for everyone here to just be accountable for your own white privilege.” With that, she walked quickly out of the room.
Her words seemed to strike a nerve: The crowd at the conference was indeed overwhelmingly white.
“I didn’t handle that one well,” Dr. Maté said later. “I had a plane to catch — and I got defensive, instead of listening. I sent her an apology. I was insensitive and condescending. It was a lesson for me in gender and cultural politics.”
Like many organizations, MAPS has someone devoted to diversifying the psychedelic community: Natalie Ginsberg, the policy and advocacy manager.“This whole issue of appropriation in this white psychedelic community is so important,” Ms. Ginsberg said. “I think that’s something that really needs to be addressed more fully in our science community, how we’re not fully recognizing the lineage of these substances.”
Debates around cultural appropriation aside, by Sunday night, a definite back-to-school melancholy was in the air at the Marriott. Shoes returned to feet, and PowerPoint slides were packed up to be carried home to East Coast labs. Wistful conversations turned to the subject of “reintegration” before many in the crowd of thousands said goodbye to new friends and began to disperse back into their normal lives, where most people around them are not privy to the psychedelic sense of what the world can be.
For the moment, anyway.
(This article originally appeared on nytimes.com and was written by Casey Schwartz)