I’m likely not alone in still integrating my experience at MAPS Psychedelic Science 2023. It was a sprawling, hyper-charged event. How do we make sense of it, and what does it say about today’s psychedelic ecosystem? There’s much to parse.
It certainly felt huge. That a psychedelic conference could fill the Colorado Convention Center is itself a mind twister. But what may be most striking is just how normal it all seemed. This wasn’t Burning Man, not by a long shot. Most attendees kept their freaky threads and playa gifts at home. Folks were generally self-contained and well-behaved. It wasn’t your grandpa’s trippy happening.
Business presentations were offered side by side with reports from researchers, speeches from politicians and talks by Indigenous leaders. It was a heady, ambitious mix. MAPS has long held the center of gravity in the psychedelics movement: an activist organization funding research and policy change, supporting religious use and visionary art, while aspiring to build a potentially billion-dollar for-profit pharmaceutical company that intends to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy an FDA-approved treatment for PTSD and other mental health conditions. In many ways, PS2023 can be seen as an expression of how much MAPS has accomplished, as well as the contradictions at the heart of the enterprise.
Peak experiences. First, the high points. It was truly moving to see Roland Griffiths present the highlights of his two decades of psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins at a morning keynote presentation. Griffiths has announced that he has stage four cancer. The talk was a thoughtful summing up of his life’s work. He emphasized that the great potential of these compounds goes beyond treating illness, and lies in the exploration of the mysteries of consciousness.
Some observers grumbled at the mystical tenor of Griffiths’ presentation, as well as those of a few others, including talks by MAPS founder Rick Doblin that verged on evangelical. But MAPS has long framed psychedelic medical research as part of a larger mission to support cultural healing and end the drug war. Griffiths asserted that psychedelic research may hold the key to a deeper understanding that could help humanity navigate our era of unparalleled crises. It’s a vision many share.
My personal highlight was interviewing the lovely and feisty Norma Lotsof alongside filmmaker Lucy Walker. Lotsof, the widow of Howard Lotsof, who pioneered the use of ibogaine to treat substance abuse disorder, is featured in Walker’s new documentary, Of Night and Light: The Story of Iboga and Ibogaine, which recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. To be in Norma’s presence was to be reminded of the incredible, stubborn persistence that was necessary to bring these compounds out from the underground and make them available to the next generation. Norma’s sweet smile is backed by a spine of steel.
Doblin cited Norma Lotsof during the conference’s closing ceremony, bringing her out on stage to a standing ovation. It was the Lotsofs’ effort to put ibogaine through FDA clinical trials in the 1980s and 90s that first inspired Doblin to pursue the same path for MDMA.
Close the deal. Now that MAPS Public Benefit Corporation has completed Phase 3 clinical trials and announced positive results for MDMA treatment of PTSD, and FDA approval nears, you might expect Doblin to take a victory lap. But the closing ceremony felt more like a sales pitch than a confident celebration. The reason why became apparent only days after the conference when the Wall Street Journal published an article – without naming sources, or a comment from MAPS – saying that MAPS PBC is trying to raise $85 million by selling a large slice of equity at a low valuation, and has only two months of cash in the bank.
It’s fair to say that the future direction of this movement hinges on what happens next for MAPS, and whether MAPS PBC successfully brings psychedelic therapy to market. Biotech companies developing psychedelic medicines look to MAPS to set precedent with the FDA, and plan to follow the path MAPS PBC trailblazes. Were that effort to fail, or even stall, it could impact every other company in the space.
Reverberations. It could also have a similar effect on drug policy reform. When speaking with policy makers, advocates and lobbyists regularly use MAPS’ success with the FDA as their lead argument for change. MAPS’ momentum toward a therapy to treat vets with PTSD has energized a bi-partisan legalization effort. And as PS2023 demonstrated, MAPS’ ability to convene the full range of the psychedelic ecosystem is unparalleled. It’s hard to imagine this movement without MAPS playing this pivotal role.
As the closing ceremony reached its climax, Doblin’s speech was interrupted by a protest. The group was small, but they were loud and determined. Eventually he invited them on stage to address the crowd. It was a classy move, more reflective of a savvy movement leader than a corporate CEO.
The protestors challenged the relative paucity of Indigenous voices at the conference, and warned against mixing sacred plants with commerce. For many in the crowd, the moment was cathartic. Psychedelics are not just another kind of medicine, and they should be treated with at least a bit of awe for the experiences they can invite. Afterwards, the protest was what most people wanted to talk about. Not just that it happened, but that the episode ended with a protestor, Lira Ornelas Godoy, inviting Doblin to embrace.
Come together. That hug touched people deeply and it was greeted by loud applause. Many of us in the psychedelics movement hope to see the Indigenous and the medical approaches come together in this way, with caring and mutual respect. How much this depends on the success of the MAPS PBC raise remains to be seen.
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Image: Mural in Deep Space at PS2023 courtesy of Nicki Adams.