One of COVID-19’s countless shocks to culture and economy has been to force in-person gatherings online. People may be isolated, but being human is innately social, and the times call for even more urgent conversation than ever.
Last weekend, the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines held their first virtual Psychedelic Liberty Summit. Chacruna, a non-profit organization for psychedelics research, education, and sociopolitical discussion, promotes cultural understanding about the traditional, ceremonial uses of psychedelics, and gives a platform to marginalized and indigenous perspectives. Bia Labate, a Brazilian anthropologist and founder of Chacruna, said in an email that “indigenous people answered our call and made strong efforts to be present” at the Psychedelic Liberty Summit.
“The stars of this conference are people of color. They come with the hope to be heard, and to share,” says Labate.
One of the first digital psychedelics gatherings of the coronavirus era, the innovative effort led over 1300 people into poorly-charted territory, and revealed both the potentials and challenges of this transition.
As the conference’s Technical Director, Andrew O’Keefe, remarked by email, “The world has changed drastically from when PLS was first envisioned. What was meant to be an intimate in-person event instead transformed into a digital global experience.”
Contributors called in from the United States and Mexico, Colombia and Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil. Worldwide accessibility with no spatial limitations meant Chacruna could invite more conference attendees from the global South and offer over 90 scholarships to low income and POC participants. Josh Meadow, Chacruna’s Director of Events, was proud to note by email that the conference gave away over 350 tickets, something that would not be possible for comparable small events in “normal” venues.
In a way, the pivot was a trip in its own right: a phase change from the centralized, embodied, grounded space of a traditional event to a distributed and comparably discarnate group experience hosted in a web of light and magic portals.
The communion, like an ayahuasca ceremony, took some serious adjusting on its way to cruising altitude: several sessions started late, the live chat window streaming with attendees asking whether anyone else had issues accessing the video feeds. Some speakers had persistent problems with live audio from other channels bleeding into theirs, blurring what should have been discrete tracks into one another. Like with any forum or medicine circle, moderators had to guard the boundaries of such a porous open common space to keep out spammers (mostly well-intended people hungry for connection, who nonetheless kept interrupting talks to share links to their podcasts).
But this remix of space and time provided opportunities most conferences don’t. The chat allowed for real-time engagement between guests and speakers, a far more democratic and egalitarian experience. The conference took place on the Crowdcast platform, which offered the ability to ask and upvote questions for the panelists — a major shift from the conventional format of lecture followed by Q&A. Each session was available immediately at the end of its recording, providing instantaneous replay — a necessary feature, when the other “rooms” were just a click away, making it easier than ever to skip back and forth and miss important points.
Casting everyone from home also meant sharing the sights and sounds of people’s private spaces, their art collections and libraries, the joyful noise of children playing in the background, creating a more vulnerable and level space that lent to the sense of shared challenge. The ordinary seams of privilege and power built into a conference environment with elevated stages, business suits, and one mic passed around for Q&A, came open just a little — think sitting in ceremony with celebrities, who purge just like the rest of us.
All things considered, it went smoothly. Meadow said by email that Chacruna had to dedicate “a huge amount of time to training speakers, moderators, and tech support.” Not all speakers had the luxury of high-bandwidth internet connections and the conference didn’t have the time or the resources to ensure they all had high quality cameras or microphones. Most importantly, said Meadow, “we believe the potency and significance of presentations was not lost” in the translation.
And these were potent talks, indeed. Much bandwidth (both scheduling and web traffic) was devoted to Indigenous concerns and issues of sustainability. In one talk, Sandor Iron Rope expressed concerns about the cultivation of peyote, and the threat that over-harvesting of the cactus could lead to its extinction. Daiara Tukano’s breakout session centered around the globalization of ayahuasca. Both presentations explored how globalization jeopardizes ecosystems and Native ways of life.
The intricacies of legalizing psychedelics were addressed in great detail. North Star, a new watchdog group that intends to introduce ethical guidelines for the burgeoning psychedelics industry, announced their Ethics Pledge, a set of principles for those working professionally with psychedelics, for the community to sign.
Not all decriminalization is created equal, either. Saturday’s evening panel, which included Decriminalize Denver’s Kevin Matthews, Ryan Munevar of Decriminalize California, and David Bronner of the ALL-ONE soap company, addressed the future of reform campaigns. The statewide initiative in California missed the signature deadline for inclusion on this November’s ballot, while signature gathering for two statewide initiatives in Oregon appear to be on track for success.
A dialogue between two therapists, Raquel Bennett and Alex Belser, focused on the economics of ketamine therapy, making clear how the roughly 100 clinics currently in business face challenges with instituting a generic medicine that can’t be patented, and has to be prescribed off-label. These centers, however, can provide a model for how to make newly-legalized substances accessible to future patients.
Another panel, led by Greenheart and Nicole T. Buchanan, spoke to the urgent matter of how the community can strengthen POC psychedelic advocacy and protect their rights and safety in the process.
These sessions, and the many other diverse dialogues that took place, covered a wide range of topics of interest to those drawn to the traditional uses of sacred plant medicines.
The main loss, Meadow lamented, was the palpable connection and the ease of networking that conventional events make possible. But a proliferation of auxiliary Facebook and Google groups, as well as Slack channels and Discord servers, made up for some of it, and are “definitely something we would want to incorporate into an in-person conference.” Time will tell, but it seems possible that certain kinds of more slow-growing but long-term relationships were made easier by shunting people into online social networks.
How will we integrate the lessons of this experience? Will it get easier to find the paradoxical humanity amidst an awkward and disorienting move to digital environments, as conferences like this help set the tone of a new normal? Given the commendable work of all parties at the PLS — the staff, presenters, and attendees— it seems likely that the world just witnessed a modest but historic step in that direction.
The conference recordings are now all available for viewing at discount rates on Chacruna’s website.