Since the Covid-19 pandemic led to the suspension of live in-person events, there has been a sudden surge of online psychedelic conferences. Some events, such as the Psychedelic Liberty Summit, have been organized by people of long-standing in the psychedelic space.
Other conferences have been organized by new companies and venture funds seeking to attract investors into the growing psychedelic industry, evaluate the prospects of different business models in psychedelics, and, as PsyTech expressed in a conference announcement, “accelerate psychedelic innovation.”
Veteran organizers in the psychedelic field have expressed concern that the speakers at these industry conferences are overwhelmingly white, and in some cases almost exclusively male.
The conferences feature familiar faces from the psychedelic circuit, such as MAPS’ Rick Doblin and the ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, while also giving the virtual podium to investment advisors, business leaders, researchers, academics, and CEOs. Shlomi Raz, founder and CEO of Eleusis, and JR Rahn, founder and CEO of MindMed, headlined three of the seven virtual conferences reviewed for this article.
Thanks in part to recent breakthroughs in research and legalization efforts, a new wave of people are attracted to psychedelics, with over 6,000 people attending psychedelic events and conferences online since Covid-19 necessitated social distancing.
Simeon Schnapper, managing partner of the plant medicine fund JLS, who has been a moderator and speaker at several of these events, said that the corporate conferences meet a growing need for education and networking.
“Psychedelics have been around forever, but it’s also a new industry. The benefit [of these conferences] is for both sides. For the corporate side to see the lineage, the cultures, and the indigenous protocols of how [psychedelics are] used for healing, or ‘indications,’ in corporate language. For the old school psychedelic community, it’s to see the capital and promise in these businesses,” observed Schnapper.
But some psychedelic advocates question how the repeat appearances of the same core group of speakers, mostly white and male, impacts the perspective of newcomers to the field.
The seven conferences examined by Lucid News included just over 400 total speaker appearances. While not all presenters’ identities could be confirmed, this writer estimates that 68% were men and over 90% were white.
Julie Holland, a psychiatrist who is a medical monitor for several MAPS clinical research studies, says, “I’m just exasperated that, at this point, in 2020, there are still so many ‘manels’ – men only panels – in conferences. I’m shocked. There’s no excuse for it.”
After removing the Psychedelic Liberty Summit, organized by the nonprofit Chacruna, from the analysis, the total percentage of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) presenters drops to ~6%.
In his opening remarks at the PsyTech conference, founder Saul Kaye stated that “we have to respect the source of these compounds. PsyTech is all about community and connections.” But with no indigenous voices represented, critics question what respecting the source of these compounds means to them. The company did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.
The homogeneity of the speakers lists was shared by conferences ranging from corporate efforts meant to attract investors to nonprofit convenings for the sharing of scientific findings and policy discussions.
For example, the Future of Psychedelics was sponsored by the biotech company ATAI Life Sciences, MushroomStocks.com, and DLA Piper, a private equity and venture capital law firm, among others. It was described on its website as an “innovative virtual celebration for psychedelic investors, researchers, the general public and media.”
In contrast, Catalyst, a conference originally planned for Calgary that moved to virtual after Covid, was produced by two non-profits, the Calgary Psychedelic Medicine Society and Syntac Therapeutics, and was supported by nonprofit sponsors, such as ICEERS and the Hefftner Research Institute.
Syntac’s executive director, David Harder, described the intention behind the conference. “Catalyst wants to see plant medicines de-stigmatized and brought to legal therapeutic use. Our desire is to bring a medical, professional and spiritual exposure to the professional/legal and therapeutic circles so that we can move them into legal use for mental health, addictions and spiritual awakening.”
But despite the differing intentions and intended audiences of these two events, the speakers at both were overwhelmingly white. Future of Psychedelics was also largely male, though half of Catalyst’s 24 speakers were female.
Virtual Psychedelic Conference, another industry gathering, was organized by veterans of the cannabis industry who “had eyes on the psychedelic market for a while now,” said spokesperson Alex Krause. Originally planned as a two-hour seminar to boost international presence for investment opportunities in the psychedelic market, it grew to become first a one-day, and then a two-day long virtual conference with over 1,200 live attendees and more than 2,400 tuning in overall.
Krause explained that they began by offering speaking invitations to CEOs of well-known companies, then expanded to CEOs of lesser known companies, “at which point we decided to open it up all together as long as they were interested in participating.” Virtual Psychedelics Conference had 108 speakers. An analysis by Lucid News showed about 25% of their presenters were women, while people of color, most of whom were men, were less than 5% of the speakers.
“Finding people of color to speak was extremely difficult,” said Krause. “We were disturbed that, for whatever reason, all of the CEO level executives of these up and coming companies mostly appear to be white men.”
This observation would come as no surprise to Lorna Liana, the founder of EntheoNation. Liana describes what she sees as a cognitive bias in Western society towards the perceived expertise of white men.
“One of the things I, and many people of color, especially women of color, have to do in order to be taken seriously and given a seat at the table is pay-to-play. This means investing thousands of dollars in being an event sponsor first, so that you can be a speaker later. Or providing free labor for someone else’s venture or project in order to even be heard. This kind of thing happens across many industries, especially industries that are white male dominated. There’s a hidden tax that women of color have to pay to receive the respect, opportunities and advancement they deserve.”
The link between sponsorship and speaking opportunity is often explicit at industry conferences. Debra Borchardt, the Editor-in-Chief of Green Market Report and organizer of The Economics of Psychedelic Investing, a conference that took place in person just before the pandemic necessitated social distancing, explains that having sponsors pay for the conference helps make ticket prices more affordable for attendees.
“If the sponsor has specific people that they want on the panel, that’s what we’ll work with,” said Borchardt.
In response to this challenge, Liana has been building her own media platform, finding allies, collaborating, and creating community with those who have shared values. “That way, success isn’t dependent on anyone else, or subject to anyone else’s unconscious biases. Unfortunately what this also creates is a separate world, where people of color then become the spokespeople for racial issues and culture categories, when they have so much more to offer than talking about racial justice, and the ‘serious’ topics are still dominated by white male speakers,“ said Liana.
It’s notable that all of the conferences reviewed for this article were newly launched, first time events, reflecting the influx of new people into the psychedelics field. About half of the conference organizers told Lucid News that psychedelics had come into their life relatively recently, within the last year or two.
One organizer of PsyTech excitedly confessed during a panel that she had had her first trip only two weeks before the conference. This lack of familiarity with the history of psychedelic communities may contribute to the narrowness of the speaker lists.
The one exception is the longtime conference organizing group, Chacruna, which produced The Psychedelic Liberty Summit. Also forced to go online due to Covid-19, this event featured 73 speakers from across the globe with a line up that demonstrated gender balance and diverse representation. Panel topics ranged from “How Can We Strengthen the Role of POC in Psychedelic Advocacy?” to “Sacred Peyote Conservation” and “How Can We Learn from the Experiences of an Established Psychedelic Community Led by Women?”
“This event was truly epic, stellar. We feel deeply blessed and honored,” said Chacruna’s executive director, Bia Labate.
Chacruna recently published these guidelines for organizations, conference organizers, and sponsors on the inclusion of indigenous people and communities into psychedelic science events. Labate explained, “As we have deep roots in the field, we also benefit from having a lot of trust and support. For example, indigenous people answered our call [to speak at and attend the Psychedelic Liberty Summit] and made strong efforts to be present. That is because we have been doing this work for over two decades and earned their respect.”
But while some conferences offer a more representative range of speakers, other issues remain to be addressed. During the writing of this article, several BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people expressed a sense of being tokenized in their dealings with conference organizers. However, they would not go on the record for fear that a public statement would limit future opportunities in a field that already has too few.
This is complex territory that the psychedelics field has yet to publicly address. Yarelix Estrada, a harm reduction researcher and organizer based in New York, noted that “any person [can tokenize], regardless of if they are BIPOC or have some other marginalized identity. If they hold a position of power within this current system, it’s unlikely that they are working to dismantle those systems. In order to maintain that position of leadership, they have to uphold the structures of hierarchy, typically for their or their organization’s own gain.”
Activists point towards the growing body of online resources that are available to support organizers grappling with the issue of inclusion, which are receiving more attention since the murder of George Floyd.
MAPS is developing a set of “Mindful Event Guidelines” to help them evaluate whether or not to support an event, whether as a sponsor, promotional partner, exhibitor, presenter, or any other supportive role. Jenni Vierra, manager of events and community engagement at MAPS, explained that their participation will be based on a list of commitments and considerations, such as inclusion and diversity, relevance and ethical integrity, admission and costs, focus and intention, and audience.
After a previous experience of one too many “manels,” the psychiatrist Julie Holland approached the conference organizers, asking them to do better. “They were open to what I had to say, but they didn’t do anything about it. They basically wanted us to do their work for them and tell them who to book.”
Does Holland envision a change coming in the future? “Everyone should contact conference organizers as soon as they see a tremendous imbalance and speak up. It shouldn’t just be the people who are marginalized who are speaking up. The white men themselves need to ask who else is invited, and realize that it’s not a good look on anybody to have these homogeneous lineups.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that exactly half the speakers at the Catalyst conference were female.