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Horizons Conference Reconvenes in NYC to Connect Psychedelic Communities

Horizons Conference Reconvenes in NYC to Connect Psychedelic Communities

After an arduous two-year interruption, the annual Horizons: Perspective on Psychedelics conference returns to New York City December 1-5, 2021. 

This will be the 14th annual gathering of Horizons which has played a pivotal role in shaping the conversations around psychedelics. While the event will once again be held in the historic Cooper Union Great Hall, the presentations reflect a new era of thinking about the role of psychedelics in health care.

As Horizons Founder and Director Kevin Balktick noted, “the things that have happened over the past two years have been astonishing.” And he doesn’t just mean changes brought by the pandemic.

To put this evolution of psychedelic communities and economies into perspective, Balktick points to seismic shifts in public policy and capital investing. These two key issues will shape the five-day conference which will engage topics in psychedelic science, medicine, spirituality, and economy. 

Two years ago, a handful of companies existed in this nascent marketplace, and none were listed on the NYSE. Psychedelic research centers were minimal, the ketamine-based nasal spray Spravato had just been approved by the FDA, and Denver had just passed Initiative 301, the first successful effort by a city to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms.

Today, things are very different. 

Funding Psychedelic Ecosystems

Most notable, says Balktick, is the increase in capital investment. According to the 2021 Psychedelics as Medicine Report, more than $2 billion in private capital has been invested in the psychedelic industry. Balktick adds that 80% of that funding is going toward psychedelic drug development. 

While federal approval for the full range of psychedelic therapies remains presently out of reach, ketamine is being used off-label to treat depression. Spravato was approved by the FDA in 2019, and the number of clinics offering different forms of therapeutic ketamine for mental health treatment has been rapidly expanding since. 

Following Denver’s 2019 passage of Initiative 301, successful grassroots decriminalization campaigns have evolved, emerging in dozens of cities across the U.S. Hundreds of clinical trials are exploring new psychedelic compounds, and the media has broadened the public perception of psychedelics through art, film, and music. Meanwhile, policymakers are grappling with questions about regulating psychedelic therapies that many assumed were still decades away.

Whether the vision of healing promoted by some advocates of psychedelic therapies is aligned with growth supported by investors, however, remains to be seen. The psychedelic renaissance has found an abundant source of capital, but many therapies are still unproven. 

What is clear, according to Balktick, is that no matter what drug is developed or used, a “safe psychedelic journey will have extraordinary costs under the American system of healthcare. And I don’t see very many people among the psychedelic private sector stepping up to solve that problem.” 

Unlike the grassroots efforts toward decriminalization, accessibility of medicines has not been at the forefront of investors’ minds during this rapid period of expansion. Balktick argues that this mirrors the typical story of capital investments, where “the owners and executives of pharmaceutical companies benefit tremendously from a poorly functioning system that harms those who need care.”

Horizons aims to elevate this conversation by addressing the connections between science, community, and capital through panels, classes, and a full-day Psychedelic Business Forum.

Classes, Clinical Research Review and a Business Forum

Horizons kicks off with a series of full-day classes at the New York Academy of Medicine on Wednesday, December 1, and Thursday, December 2 that offer an introduction to psychedelic therapies. Participants can visit the Horizons website to register for continuing education (CE) eligible classes. 

In addition to classes, Horizons has also partnered with the nonprofit North Star to present on Thursday, December 2 The Psychedelic Business Forum, a full-day discussion designed to explore ideas around how money can be invested in the service of psychedelic healing and communities in a sustainable way — right from the start. 

Launched in 2019, North Star aims to “serve the psychedelic companies committed to building transformational businesses shaped by psychedelic wisdom, and inspiring others to raise their sights as well.” 

With sessions titled, “Is a values-centered psychedelic ecosystem possible,? “Catalytic funding,” and “Building to operate with integrity,” the business-focused, “pro-market” forum assembles a collective of impactful thinkers and leaders in the psychedelic ecosystem. Each offers a unique piece of the puzzle that expands the conversation of an ethical psychedelic economy ever outward — as will the participants. 

Balktick says that unlike every other psychedelic business event in the past two years, the “pro-market program” will avoid focusing on the question of how psychedelics can serve investors and fund managers. Rather, the event frames discussions around the idea that ethical businesses must be profitable in order to fulfill their mission.

While the live Psychedelic Business Forum event caters to funders and entrepreneurs, anyone can request an invitation for the virtual segments. The response to the forum, says Balktick, has been strong. Noting that a psychedelic industry implies a psychedelic job market, he says the perspectives shared during the forum may be valuable to any student or professional aiming to work in the new psychedelic healthcare paradigm.

As a Public Benefit Corporation that has values and impact written into its governance structure, Horizons is one of a handful of companies that aims to help create the ethical psychedelic economy promoted through the Psychedelic Business Forum. According to Balktick, other notable businesses in this category include the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation, Sage Institute, Synthesis, and Nautilus, a handful of psychedelic therapy clinics that engage directly with patients.

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The Psychedelic Business Forum is intended as a space to learn and network — and brainstorm with others eager to learn how to grow an ethical psychedelic economy. Scholarships for the virtual aspects of the business forum are also available through the event page here

Class Highlights and Scholarships 

Balktick says Horizons allocates some scholarships to cover registration, trusting in good faith that all who can afford to pay the full sticker price will. The Scholarship Program offers an opportunity for participants to attend for free and also provides discounts, volunteer work exchange, and other ways to contribute. 

At this time scholarships for registration are still available, but nearing their cap. Balktick advises that anyone with questions about attending contact the staff as soon as possible and fill out a scholarship form here

Since its inception, Horizons has featured some of the most eminent elders and scholars in the field of psychedelic research. Designed with mental health professionals and students in mind, classes offered at Horizons are presented live and unrecorded. 

Bill Richards, a psychologist from the early days of psychedelic research, will be teaching a course entitled “Introduction to the Art + Science of Psilocybin Therapy” alongside his son, researcher Brian Richards. The class will encompass basic principles, survey procedures, and potential therapeutic applications of psilocybin therapies.

Bill Richards has been studying the impacts of psilocybin for over two decades, leading research around end-of-life anxiety and other treatments at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic Consciousness Research. Brian Richards is working on developing clinical research protocols for psilocybin treatment through the Sheppard Pratt Hospital.

Longtime members of the psychedelic therapy community, Annie Mithoefer and Dr. Michael Mithoefer, will be teaching a workshop on the “Introduction to MDMA Therapy for Clinicians.” The Mithoefers have been working in MDMA therapy research with MAPS since the early 2000s, completing two of the six Phase II MDMA trials among several others. They will draw on their decades of study and practice to help clinicians uphold MAPS FDA-approved therapeutic protocols.

The Mithoefer’s workshop will also explore important questions for clinicians who are curious about becoming an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy practitioner. The therapeutic approach, somatic manifestations, training requirements, and core competencies will be discussed, along with the important topic of patient access to treatment.

Psychiatrist, Dr. Gita Vaid, who co-founded the Center for Natural Intelligence, will lead a class on the historical uses and current treatment models for ketamine assisted therapy. The class will review the applications of this therapy, as well as insights from ketamine providers who will examine the response rates to ketamine therapy for treatment resistant depression.

On Friday, December 3, Horizons will offer a discussion of clinical psychedelic research at the New York Academy of Medicine. This briefing on the psychedelic research lexicon will be presented by leading scientific investigators including Dr. Elizabeth Nielsen, Dr. Anthony Bossis, and Dr. Charles Raison. The panels will include topics ranging from indications for treatment and new research pathways, to the role of insurance and education. The final session of the day asks, “What can psychiatry learn from psychedelics?”

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Psychedelics in Medicine and the Wider World

On Saturday, December 4, Horizons will move to the Cooper Union Great Hall where sessions will focus more on the big ideas and challenges in delivering psychedelic therapies. 

The morning of Psychedelics in Medicine opens with a discussion of patents, economies, and insurance strategies from several key people and organizations, including Usona Institute, with its open science approach, and the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation. 

Afternoon sessions incorporate additional perspectives from the field of public policy, including presentations from Tom Eckhert who led the successful 2019 Measure 109 campaign in Oregon, and Kasia Malinowki-Sempruch from the Global Drug Policy Program

Other panels include “Hype, harm, bias, and failure in psychedelic therapy,” from Johns Hopkins researchers Matthew Johnson and Manoj Doss along with psychotherapist Laura Northrup. Dr. Mellody Hayes, founder of the Seton Medical Center, will examine public health perspectives in a final session before an all-speaker panel.

If registration numbers are any indication, the discussions on Sunday, December 5, entitled Psychedelics in the World, might be the most interesting day of Horizons. The presentations will tap into how prohibition drove psychedelics underground and how those who used these substances persevered and reemerged into new communities and cultures. 

Speaking on the program is Troy, Co-Founder and Co-Director at Sia: The Comanche Ethno-Ornithological Initiative and William Leonard Pickard, who was recently granted compassionate release after serving nearly twenty years of two life sentences for manufacturing LSD.

With prohibition mindsets shifting more broadly, Balktick hopes that this year’s participants consider the even bigger question: “To what extent will the people who have been in this community prior, whose main interest is not financial, how and in what ways and when are they going to benefit from this?” 

How indeed? It’s a question that requires interdisciplinary perspectives as the growth of a psychedelic industry encounters psychedelic cultural traditions built on an ethic of care.

Speakers on December 5 will offer perspectives that elevate indigenous worldviews, the critical discussion of reciprocity, and the reality of supply chains in a globalized psychedelic ecosystem. According to the program, presenters will look at the systems that “underpin the psychedelic community from cow dung to GMP synthesis, and Bitcoin to slash-and-burn.” 

Other panels cover topics including the global landscapes and expansive histories of iboga and mescaline, and indigenous communities that engage psychedelic ceremony, custom, and ritual. 

Horizons will close with an open panel focused on The Future of the Psychedelic Community which will examine the question: “In light of growing visibility, what are the futures that we want for our community, and what will it take to get there?”

Discussions will leave open the possibility that communities and entrepreneurs may embrace accessible mental health care, patient autonomy in medical decision-making, sustainable investments that consider global supply chains of psychedelic substances, the intellectual property rights of indigenous people, and other ideas for the future of psychedelics presented by panelists. 

If predictions are correct, the next two years will continue to show unprecedented investment and development in the psychedelic sector. Horizons is seeking to keep the questions of psychedelic community development at the forefront, watching to see if a holistic psychedelic healthcare paradigm keeps pace with psychedelic drug development.

Image credit: Soulfocus Media

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