Now in its 15th year, the Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference returns October 12-15 to the New York Academy of Medicine and The Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City. This year’s conference arrives only weeks after Horizons Northwest, held for the first time this year at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and only 10 months after Horizons New York 2021.
In the field of psychedelic research and culture, 10 months’ time can reveal distinctive shifts in the terrain ahead. A growing number of activists are pursuing psychedelic policy reforms, new startups are raising capital, and training programs continue to expand. An increasing number of people are exploring psychedelics and critical discourse about the accessibility of psychedelic-assisted therapies is unfolding on a global scale.
As one of the longest-running annual psychedelic conferences, Horizons resembles a collaborative “State of the Union” for psychedelic research and culture. The 4-day agenda is, once again, packed with well-regarded speakers and emergent voices, in-depth classes offering CE/CME credits, and curated panels that highlight the evolving field. The event begins Wednesday, October 12,, and starts attendees off with a series of classes from leading experts. The only bad news for the student of psychedelic research, perhaps, is that it’s impossible to attend all of them.
Classes and Workshops
Psychedelic therapies for PTSD and end-of-life anxiety have received prominent attention in the popular press, but the Horizons Conference elevates the full spectrum of evolving treatments. According to Executive Director of Horizons, Kevin Balktick, the weekday classes are a relatively recent addition to the event lineup, beginning in 2019. The fact that Horizons is now offering intermediate level classes is a testament to the evolving level of professionalization in the field, and the attendees’ growing desire to drop into six-hour discussions of “data, protocol designs, and to talk to those doing the research,” says Balktick.
Offering more than a cursory overview of therapeutic approaches to psychedelic use, these classes are eligible for CE/CME units for licensed professionals. More information can be found on the event’s Classes and Workshops page.
Situating psychedelic therapy in the context of modern addiction research and treatment, Matthew Johnson’s class “Psychedelic Therapy for Addiction” is designed with practitioners in mind. It directs students through a historical review and presentation of psychotherapeutic modalities used in partnership with psychedelic therapies.
Johnson is a prolific psychedelic researcher and professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research. He published the first research on psychedelic-assisted treatment for tobacco addiction in 2014, and was the first to publish data in 2007 indicating that MDMA pill testing services may reduce harm for those taking the drug. Balktick noted that Johnson’s presentation is unique in that “he doesn’t have to explain psychedelic assisted therapy to people, and he can begin at baseline” with attendees who are increasingly familiar with current research and theories of use.
For clinicians wondering where to begin evaluating MDMA therapies, Marcela Ot’alora and Bruce Poulter will be concurrently teaching “Introduction to MDMA Therapy for Clinicians” at the New York Academy of Medicine. As therapists and investigators with MAPS clinical trials, Ot’olara and Poulter will lead attendees through a thorough overview of current research, theoretical approaches, and practical considerations for pursuing MDMA-assisted psychotherapy training.
On Thursday, October 13, Ot’alora and Poulter will lead a second class, “Intermediate Topics for MDMA Therapy Clinicians,” offering students a combination of didactic presentations, large and small group discussions, and video reviews of clinical MDMA sessions. The intermediate class will offer greater insight into the nuances of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD as designed for MAPS clinical trials.
Psilocybin Focused Classes
In addition to MDMA, Horizons’ weekday classes also highlight psilocybin-assisted therapy. Aptly named “Introduction to the Art & Science of Psilocybin Therapy,” they are facilitated by father-son team Dr. Bill and Brian Richards. The deep dive into psilocybin-assisted therapy occurs in the context of the FDA’s 2019 decisions to grant some psilocybin therapy models breakthrough status and the need for licensed practitioners to receive up to date information on approved and evolving models of care.
Mary Cosimano, Director of Guide/Facilitator Services at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, will continue on this theme with a full-day class on Thursday, October 13, entitled “Guiding Psilocybin Therapy Sessions”. As a researcher with Johns Hopkins, Cosimano has personally guided more than 450 sessions and has taught within the certificate program at the Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research at the California Institute for Integral Studies.
According to Balktick, this course is also a testament to the groundbreaking work of Mary Cosimano who, as a clinical researcher and psychedelic guide, is uniquely situated to share her experiences with students and therapists considering training and practice in psychedelic assisted therapy. Cosimano “has a true specialty and loves being in the room with students and sharing these experiences,” says Balktick.
According to the conference website, Cosimano will be presenting on “compassion, connection, play, and therapeutic competencies” while establishing the importance of a “safe set and setting” and the use of guided imagery in psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Psychedelics Business Forum
With the bulk of classes dedicated to health professionals, Thursday’s Psychedelic Business Forum offers something completely different: a full day exploring how and if values-driven, conscious capitalism can help lay the groundwork for the integration of psychedelic therapies and healthcare models into troubled medical systems. The day’s agenda is heavy with representatives from public benefit companies in the psychedelic space, namely Journey Colab, Journey Clinical (no relation), and the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (PBC).
While MAPS PBC and Journey Colab are focused on psychedelic drug development of MDMA and mescaline derivatives specifically, Journey Clinical is focused on the accessibility and delivery of psychedelic services to large populations. Following a $3 million seed raise in 2021, Journey Clinical is deploying a turnkey ketamine assisted therapy platform for licensed mental health professionals who seek to incorporate psychedelic therapies into their pre-existing practice. The model could serve as an example for supporting accessibility to other psychedelic therapies, a concern that consistently emerges in psychedelic healthcare policy discussions and among patients and advocates.
The Psychedelic Business Forum begins the day with an introduction and a “State of Psychedelic Economy and Industry” presentation from Josh Hardman of Psychedelic Alpha, a news site that tracks developments in the sector. After a panel on “Values-driven Approaches to Psychedelic Ventures,” the forum dives deeper into the specifics of how psychedelic therapies will integrate into current health system infrastructure and offers an overview of MAPS PBC commercialization plans and implementation timelines.
The day closes out with talks focused on funding, raising capital, and a panel on balancing investments and public benefits alongside psychedelic drug development and community needs, a topic Balktick noted that Horizons was able to engage in September’s first ever Horizons Northwest Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Developing “regional partners on the ground [in Oregon] and bringing in our network of speakers allowed us to widen our focus in a nice way, because we cannot cover every topic worth covering every year, even with four days in New York”, says Balktick. He added that it seemed the event “made a real contribution to that community, and their unique challenges and opportunities”.
Horizons Conference at the Cooper Union
Horizons Classes and the Psychedelic Business Forum are both held at the New York Academy of Medicine, while Friday, Saturday, and Sunday’s presentations take place in The Great Hall at The Cooper Union. Beginning with Friday’s focus, “Psychedelics in Research,” Saturday and Sunday will concentrate on “Psychedelics in Medicine” and “Psychedelics in the World,” respectively.
Friday’s panels will offer attendees an overview of recent and ongoing clinical research trials. Presentations will include MAPS Phase 3 MDMA-assisted therapy trials, psilocybin trials for alcohol use disorder and end-of-life anxiety, and upcoming avenues of therapy. The day concludes with a panel discussing why psychedelic therapies are able to have a multitude of applications.
Saturday’s focus, “Psychedelics in Medicine,” begins with a presentation from Lia Mix, “Is Psychedelic Medicine Finally Within Reach?,” a policy-directed question that seems to ground the day’s discussions.
Psychedelic-assisted therapies that are integrated into present medical systems will require policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels. Shifts in thinking will also need to take place in the boardrooms of insurance companies, public health offices, and courtrooms where laws are ultimately interpreted. Speaking to their experiences in that regard are Sam Chapman, Taylor West, and New York State Assemblyman Patrick Burke, all of whom have been engaging with psychedelics policy reform and implementation at the regional level.
Speaking about the impact of community organizing and coalition building are Amber and Marcus Capone of VETS Inc., an organization focused on helping to support veterans in accessing psychedelic therapies for the treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Extending the discussion of mental health among the veteran community, Brett Waters and Brigadier General (Ret.) Stephen Xenakis of Reason for Hope will speak to the impact of coalition building on advancing change at the federal level.
Saturday’s afternoon panels consider what the psychedelic-assisted therapy industry might look like, and whether the vision of psychedelic healthcare, which focuses primarily on the individual, truly provides access for the millions of people living with mental illnesses. The day concludes with journalist and author Robert Lovato’s presentation, “The Gentrification of Consciousness,” which ends the morning’s question of accessibility with a question of the acceptability of psychedelic medicine in the context of globalization.
A Global Context for Psychedelics
On Sunday, Horizons continues this theme with the “Psychedelics in the World” focus. The morning sessions feature lessons from The Fireside Project’s peer-support line, a unique hotline that offers psychedelic trip support along cultural affinity groups. Subsequent panels share insights from two Colombian scholars and their recent studies on neoshamanic ayahuasca settings and the context of the psychedelic resurgence for Mazatec people in Mexico, an indigenous community that has long felt the impact of colonialism from Western psychedelic cultures.
Balktick says that the morning panels set the stage for a deeper conversation about the global context for psychedelics to follow, acknowledging that Horizons has sought to be respectful about how they engage with this topic and the presenters speaking about indigneous perspectives.
In reference to working with indigenous community members, Balktick adds “I believe that a lot of people want to do right, understand, and treat communities well, to contribute and not be unhelpful or cause harm, but people don’t know what they don’t know. We try to give communities a stage to tell larger non-indigenous audiences what it’s like to engage with this in the right way, and in right relationship”.
Sunday afternoon seems a bookend to the Psychedelic Business Forum session, offering attendees a chance to listen to first-hand discussions of the impacts of colonization on indigenous communities.It is also an opportunity to connect with presentations from “bridge builders, and those directly representing indigenous communities to tell people what they need to hear even if they weren’t looking for that,” adds Balktick.
These sessions begin with Sandor Iron Rope of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, who will be presenting a talk entitled “Finding Right Relationship with Indigenous Communities.” Founded in 2018, the IPCI is built upon the continued efforts toward peyote conservation and protection along the U.S. and Mexico border.
Also speaking from lived experience are Riccardo Vitale and Miguel Evanjuanoy, both involved with UMIYAC, the Union of Indigenous Yagé Doctore of the Colombian Amazon. According to their website, UMIYAC works to financially and culturally support the traditional holders of sacred medicine lineages. The organization has publicly declared their sovereignty over the knowledge and practices that they say corporate and private interests seek to decontextualize and desanctify.
Aside from their standard all-presenter grand panel, the Horizon’s final presentation features an interview with Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky and “The Subliminal Kid.” A world-renowned artist, writer, and musician, Miller is currently the Artist in Residence at Yale University’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media. Working throughout the world at the intersections of art, tech, and music, Miller’s perspectives of the current state of psychedelics in a global context is likely to shed light on ideas that attendees have never considered.
Fifteen Years of Horizons Conference in NYC
As the psychedelic ecosystem evolves, the communities of researchers and advocates that have sustained this field continue to expand the diverse global network supported by events like Horizons. Reflecting on the event’s evolution over the years, and Horizon’s commitment to seeking out how to engage in right relationship, Balktick says that, “people have extractive attitudes toward it (psychedelics). They want to attend something ‘authentic,’ want to learn from indigenous teachers, but most of their desires are about benefiting themselves. But it’s hard to find information, because these communities are presented as a sacred product to be consumed.”
Such a circumstance, says Balktik, leads away from right relationship, and is one reason why Horizons has devoted years to nurturing a community platform that can sustain dialogue needed for a global perspective.
Main image: Andres-Bohorquez-Marin