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Psychedelic Conferences Evolve with the Times 

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Psychedelic Conferences Evolve with the Times 

Eleven years ago, a few hundred passionate psychonauts gathered at Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village to discuss psychedelics for the annual conference, Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics. Back then, the topic was taboo. While Roland Griffith’s landmark study on psychedelic-induced mystical experiences had been published eight years prior, the resurgence of psychedelic research was slow, following a hiatus of nearly a half century. 

The crowd fit within a single room, sitting a few feet away from panelists presenting in front of a small projector screen. Organizations, including the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, tabled in the back, sandwiched next to each other. Virtually everyone there was “experienced” – and this colorful sea of psychedelic enthusiasts looked the part.

A whole new world. This was my first psychedelic conference, back when being at one felt transgressive and new. It was novel, and somewhat surreal, that respected academics were presenting the results of their peer reviewed studies on psychedelic compounds. 

In high school and college during the aughts and early teens, I learned about psychedelics by doing them. I also read books by Terence McKenna, Aldous Huxley and Diana Slattery, binged Erowid trip reports, and participated in online forums like Shroomery and DMT Nexus. I never raised the topic outside my close circles, but I did find ways to incorporate psychedelics into my grad school papers, bemusing my tolerant but psychedelic-naive liberal arts professors. 

In 2012 I became professionally involved in psychedelics, starting as an intern at Reality Sandwich, which led to an actual job. A new world opened up to me. I felt myself part of a rarified underground rife with glittering weirdos and offbeat intellectuals openly exploring this taboo terrain. Psychedelics wasn’t a subject to discuss with most people. I certainly couldn’t mention it at home, even when my traditional Greek family members asked about my work. 

Gatherings were small and intimate, full of starry-eyed folks tickled by any mainstream positive acknowledgment of psychedelic or new age culture. As the scene slowly grew, spaces hosting events for the psychedelic community began to crop up around New York. There were panel discussions, integration circles, sound healings, and, of course, parties. 

Different times. Fast forward 11 years: MAPS is gearing up for Psychedelic Science 2023, a conference at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver with nearly as many speakers as Horizons 2012 had attendees. The conference organizers expect to sell over 10,000 tickets. Panelists will include legislators working on psychedelic policy reform, politicians, celebrity athletes and rockstars. 

How did we get here? Much credit is due to MAPS, which helped fund and promote the new era of rigorous scientific research into the medical efficacy of these compounds. Particularly important have been their pioneering clinical trials for MDMA-assisted therapy to treat PTSD, which is on track for FDA approval next year. MAPS’s journey from advocacy nonprofit to for-profit pharmaceutical company inspired a wave of psychedelic drug development startups that have attracted some $2.5 billion in investment. 

MAPS’s focus on PTSD also, crucially, engaged the veterans community and their political supporters as allies and advocates. Starting in the late teens, psychedelic policy reform emerged as a bipartisan issue. At the same time, Michael Pollan landed on the bestseller list with How to Change Your Mind, which brought a spotlight to the medical framing of psychedelics that MAPS had been cultivating.

I can even feel the shift at home, where my uncle raves about the Netflix docuseries based on How to Change Your Mind, and my father texts me New York Times articles about psychedelic therapy. 

Coming up. Later this month, when the MAPS conference convenes in Denver, it will celebrate this shift. It’s certainly a relief to feel the oppressive taboo lift and to discuss psychedelics openly. But mainstreaming has also ushered in perspectives and values that diverge from prominent ones held by the underground, including a commercialism and medicalization of psychedelics that feels inappropriate to many, and a materialist approach that dismisses the ineffable. 

The current field has many shortcomings, and significant challenges lay ahead. Still, we’ve come a long way this past decade. It will be nice to savor the moment among so many faces, both familiar and new.

Trending is a series of news analysis essays by the Lucid News editorial team that appear weekly in our newsletter. To read past newsletters, and to subscribe, click here.

Main Image: Photo by Shane Perez.

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