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“What Just Happened?” Processing the Closing Protest at Psychedelic Science

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“What Just Happened?” Processing the Closing Protest at Psychedelic Science

In the Colorado Convention Center’s 5,000-seat Bellco Theater, at the closing of the largest psychedelics conference in the world three weeks ago, we witnessed what appeared at first to be a clash of two movements-within-the-movement. One is personified by MAPS founder and president Rick Doblin, elder and optimist, who had earlier strode onto the stage looking conspicuously like Neil Armstrong in an all white suit, as he confidently planted the flag of the arrival of the “Psychedelic ‘20s.” 

The other movement is personified by a group of five ostensibly Indigenous-allied protestors who brought the closing ceremony’s celebratory remarks to a halt when they commandeered Doblin’s microphone and each in turn warned their fellow participants that this march of psychedelic progress is heading in an all-too-familiar direction – one that values consumption without understanding the consequences to Indigenous and other marginalized communities.

For anyone watching this scene who had experienced the dissonance that week between the ballooning excitement over the opening floodgates of psychedelic access and the precautionary conversations being held simultaneously on other stages, the direct confrontation at the closing felt at once uncomfortable and relieving – for it brought tensions that have been brewing in this movement and were manifest at the conference to the fore. 

We were all left hanging, however, after the issues were so passionately raised. A hug was shared, the audience duly applauded, and time was up. Doblin carried on with his closing, and a few minutes later we were dismissed, filing out dazed onto the Denver streets to process this wrenching end to the weeklong event. “What just happened?” 

A Collective Doorknob Moment

One conference participant and seasoned psychoanalyst later analogized the protest to a “doorknob moment” in a therapy setting in which a patient, in the last 30-seconds of the hour-long clinical session, suddenly, and with their hand on the door, drops a bomb by sharing a huge event (e.g., “I was abused as a child.”). Then, “time’s up,” the session is over and they leave the room. 

In a clinical setting, rather than receiving a doorknob moment as an ambush, a good therapist welcomes such disclosures as inevitable and productive because of what they can reveal. It is undoubtedly important as well for the therapist to follow up and not leave the patient’s disclosure hanging, because the opening represents an opportunity for deeper work. The psychedelic movement is, after all, a wellness movement, with many of its participants identifying as some form of therapist. 

We are lawyers who engage with other stakeholders in the psychedelics community for deeper discussions about ethics within the professional treatment of psychedelic medicine and sacred medicine. We seek to build bridges between competing narratives, ontologies, and value systems. As a good therapist would, we know well enough to embrace the doorknob moment represented by the protest. This means resisting the instinct to feel alienated by the protest or, maybe worse yet, simply dismissing it. 

Although the protest will undoubtedly be perceived as an “Indigenous protest” by many onlookers, it’s important to note that not all Indigenous people will see themselves in it. Indigenous communities, particularly the traditional communities who we invoke when we speak about stewards of the biocultures, are not a monolith. While they do tend to face similar challenges and threats, they choose to represent themselves and their communities’ needs and goals in different ways. 

Our responsibility as members of a movement that is colliding with their sacred cultures and ecosystems is to do our due diligence by listening, learning and appreciating the nuances of these medicine cultures and the needs and sensitivity that come along with that. The medicines are interconnected with, and inseparable from, the health of these communities, and that of the land and water, and of non-human creatures. Harm reduction, first and foremost, means that our desire for healing must not come at the expense of these traditional cultures’ ability to exist.

The doorknob moment is an opportunity for us to deepen in awareness and maturity as a community. We are not simply dealing with “psychoactive drugs” according to the legacy drug enforcement regime, and we’re also not simply encountering newly-discovered “breakthrough therapies” according to mainstream media’s coverage of the movement. We are also engaging with the most sacred cultural elements of the most vulnerable and vital communities on the planet. And we are only just beginning, as a movement, to appreciate what that responsibility entails.

Two Messages Within One Movement

It’s time to name these two movements-within-the-movement that collided on that stage three weeks ago. The prevailing narrative – particularly from a mainstream onlooker – holds up psychedelics as the next moonshot technology, savior of the mental health crisis, triumphing against the backward prohibition government through heroic and scrappy visionaries like MAPS, and delivering hope and healing to the masses. This is a compelling narrative, fueled by very real experiences of healing, and, indeed, never has the world appeared more in need of a miracle cure. 

The counter-message to this “arc-of-progress” narrative says, “hold your horses,” and insists that the course we take to achieve this healing must be different than the one that led us into these health crises to begin with. Otherwise MAPS and everyone else will be worse than disappointed when what we create turns out not to be utopia, but just another extractive enterprise, harming everyone for the temporary benefit of the few. We heard forms of this precautionary message voiced on different stages by speakers from Indigenous and other marginalized communities, who find themselves caught up in the current swell of capitalizing on their sacred medicines, or left out of the developing market for psychedelic therapy. Their voices call for equity, cultural humility, and conservation to animate the structures we choose to create the psychedelics economy. 

These calls are echoed in justice movements in other sectors that have been building for some time. The demands here, however, are uniquely inherent to psychedelics given the deep cultural significance at the root of many of the prohibited substances themselves and given the failures of pre-existing structures of healthcare to meet the needs of our most traumatized populations. 

For example, some participants of color at the conference were transparent in conversation about avoiding spaces that aren’t actively focused on decolonizing the movement. These divergent messages and segregated spaces reflect different priorities resulting from different historical treatment and different cultural experiences. There’s a growing constituency in the psychedelics sector that is increasingly resistant to business-as-usual models of access to these substances. 

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In spaces like the closing protest, we experience this as an emotionally-charged power struggle over the agenda of the fate of these compounds and plants. The news headlines every day raise the alarm of ecosystem collapse at the hands of business-as-usual models. Unfolding climate change and social upheaval demand that the psychedelic establishment demonstrate a deeper commitment to addressing head-on the harmful patterns reinforced by traditional commercial institutions. This requires examining what “progress” looks like.

Collaboration and Connection

Despite the challenges, these two movements are not doomed to remain at odds. The Psychedelic Science conference still represented a high watermark of collaboration and connection between these narratives. As one Indigenous presenter at the Mile High Stage reflected, although participating at this conference still felt compromising, at least this time around they and other Indigenous presenters had a full schedule of dedicated programming, unlike earlier conferences where they had to fight for a few minutes of time, if any was given at all. 

And so it is on this hopeful rising tide that we name these two narratives. Yes, there was confrontation and, yes, there were very different conversations going on at this conference. But addressing the tensions raised by the protest and present in important corners of this broad tent of psychedelics is one step in our path of crafting wiser agreements that result in better overall health outcomes this time around. One future lesson for MAPS here might be that to fulfill its namesake “multidisciplinary” mission, it needs to more intentionally counteract the predictable conference effect of siloing these conversations. This might look like more conversations where cultural leaders are not just talking amongst themselves, but are also sharing the stages with business and medical innovators discussing holistic implications. 

The protest ended with human-to-human connection – a hug between Doblin and a Brazilian woman who was volunteering at the conference and stepped in – offering a moment of possibility despite the very real tensions present on stage. Progress calls first for integration, slowing down, and turning toward long-needed trust-building and empathy work. That’s the invitation that we can choose to receive from this protest, however imperfect. Being able to be comfortable with not knowing – with not having a ready-resolution to this tension right away – is a healthy starting point for each of us, and will actually strengthen this umbrella movement. 

The question for psychedelics stakeholders is, will we roll up our sleeves and use this doorknob moment as an opportunity to build deeper empathy and deeper trust? Are we ready to be accountable to the implications of dealing with the most sacred cultural fabric of the most vulnerable communities? 

It’s important that we engage in this reflection and continue having this conversation. While the tension does not by any means characterize the entire story, it does reflect certain unresolved wounds that we must continue to work with to deliver on the movement’s full potential. For just as important as healing our bodies and minds is healing our relationships to each other. The healing potential in that opportunity may be the real “breakthrough therapy” of the movement. 

Image: Protestors onstage at PS2023 courtesy of Charles Lighthouse.

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