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Report: Day 3 of MAPS’s Psychedelic Science 2023

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Report: Day 3 of MAPS’s Psychedelic Science 2023

Lucid News is publishing a daily roundup of news from the conference, including coverage of workshops and briefings that took place yesterday. The coverage below is a continuation of Thursday’s talks, which covered Buddhism and psychedelics, global psychedelic policy, ketamine addiction, and more.

(You can read our other coverage of Psychedelic Science 2023 here: Day 1, Day 2, and the Final Round-up.)

An Emotional Lecture from Roland Griffiths

In an emotional address to an adoring crowd, the pioneering psychedelics researcher Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University urged scientists and advocates to work carefully to make psychedelic medicines widely available, not only to alleviate the suffering of people with mental-health issues, but also to broadly benefit mankind.

Griffiths, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year and a half ago, began his talk by acknowledging his “diminishing mental and physical capacity.” He has lost weight and uses a wheelchair.

Griffiths, a longtime meditator who has studied psychedelics in 1999, described himself as filled with gratitude for the gift of life. “I’m in a remarkable state, unlike anything that I’ve experienced,” he said.

As the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, Griffiths has overseen important research into the therapeutic effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy on people with addictions, depression, existential distress caused by end-of-life disease, anorexia nervosa and other ailments. “Good God, we need to reduce suffering,” Griffiths said.

At Psychedelic Science, though, Griffith focused his talk on the “huge upside potential” of psychedelics to bring “profound awakening experiences” to so-called healthy people. Those experiences, he said, leave people feeling more aware of the interconnectedness of all life, as well as more tolerant, loving and altruistic.

“We have the potential to wake up to a sense of freedom, peace, joy and gratitude that sadly, most of the world, I think, finds unimaginable,” Griffiths said. “It may ultimately be important to the survival of our species.”

That said, Griffiths urged his audience to proceed with caution, contrasting his view to that of MAPS’ Rick Doblin, who favors the immediate legalization of psychedelics. “These are uniquely powerful tools,” he said, and as such, they carry significant risks as well as benefits.

Griffiths has launched The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality and Well-Being to serve as his legacy and support the work of scientists in the field. – Marc Gunther

Roland Griffiths delivering a speech at a dinner in his honor at PS2023. Behind him is a painting by Alex and Allyson Grey of CoSM that was gifted to him at the dinner. Image courtesy of Ken Jordan.

John Mackey Comes Out of the Closet

John Mackey first tried LSD in 1973, as a college student. He was on a path laid out by his parents that might have led him to become a doctor or a lawyer or earn an MBA. “I didn’t want to do any of that stuff after LSD,” he said.

Mackey says he went on to study philosophy and religion, especially Eastern religions, and kept using LSD. “It completely changed my life,” he said. “It knocked me off my parents’ path and put me on my own path as a seeker.”

Five years later, Mackey started a natural foods story that grew to become Whole Foods Market. He sold the company to Amazon in 2017 and, when he retired last year, it had 540 stores, $22 billion in revenues and 105,000 workers.

Until his presentation Thursday at the Psychedelic Science conference, John Mackey had never talked publicly about his use of psychedelics because he didn’t want any negative publicity to harm Whole Foods. His talk lived up to its name: “What 50 years of psychedelics has taught me about purpose, love and life.” 

Taking MDMA in the 1980s, Mackey said, helped convince him to engage in responsible corporate practices that were then unorthodox. One of his business partners called him “Wacky Mackey” and sold his 10-percent share of the company for about $300,000. “That was not a good financial decision,” Mackey said.

Mackey says he continues to do holotropic breathwork and recently completed a five-day guided retreat using breathwork and psychedelics. “For the very first time in my life, I felt unconditional love for myself,” he said. “I cried and cried and cried.” – Marc Gunther

Buddhism and Psychedelics

The room was packed for the Buddhism and Psychedelics panel presented on Thursday, Day two of Psychedelics Science. Nearly 200 people were sardined into a relatively small conference room, where people sat on the floor in the aisles between sections of chairs and an overflow spilled out into the hallway. The setting seemed appropriate given the intuitively fluid relationship between psychedelics and Buddhism.

Buddhism lends itself well to psychedelic experiences. Much of the literature about psychedelics incorporates Buddhist teachings. Even the peripheral psychedelics literary canon, such as works by the Beat Generation and Alan Watts, incorporate these ideas. 

Sometimes it’s easy to forget where these ideas originated from because they’re enmeshed in so much of the literature drug nerds consume. But panelists suggested that this enmeshment isn’t always seen as a positive thing. Some alluded specifically to what some perceive as damage caused in the 1960s during the countercultural revolution, when many Buddhist beliefs were lifted and applied out of context.

“There are some great works in the underground around Buddhism and psychedelics that we shouldn’t forget about, even the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,”” said Daan Keiman, a practicing Buddhist and director of ethics and advocacy for Synthesis Retreats. “ We just need to look at what worked there and what didn’t.” 

Another big topic discussed by panelists was the issue of spiritual bypassing, as a possible negative outcome of using psychedelics in a Buddhist context.

“There’s a lot of spiritual bypassing going on in the Buddhist communities, either the spiritual bypassing of our own shit or the deep racial, sexist, ecological, and financial problems in the world,” Daan Keiman said. “Psychedelics can amplify beauty but also amplify spiritual bypassing.”

Panelist Spring Washam, a Buddhist mindfulness teacher and author, explained that when she lived in the jungle for years to study as an apprentice, she saw many people consume ayahuasca and leave the experience extremely lost and ungrounded.

“I saw so many people go there and leave lost and unsure of who they are,” Washam said. “Buddhism could be the mechanism through which people integrate and ground themselves post psychedelic experience. It can be the grounded path.”

It was difficult to hear the speakers at times, which seemed a testament to some Buddhist’s dedication to silence. Despite sound issues, the panel was well received. – Mary Carreon

Comments From Study Participants

T. Cody Swift, co-director of the Riverstyx Foundation, which has funded psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins University, presented Thursday some anonymous comments from religious leaders who participated in a long-awaited psychedelic study at Hopkins and NYU. 

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and NYU Langone Health in Manhattan administered psilocybin to two dozen healthy and “psychedelically naive” religious professionals— including rabbis, priests, chaplains and seminary professors.

After careful screening and preparation, each were separately given two doses of synthesized psilocybin in a comfortable, supervised setting. The idea was to measure the chemically induced mystical experiences they might have had and follow-up to see how that divine encounter helped—or hindered—them in their ministry. 

Swift’s report on the study, which is still unpublished, was based on follow-up interviews from the participants conducted seven and twenty-one months after they had their second psilocybin session. 

One clergy member said they experienced hell as a “purging of the ego,” but left with a “deepened sense of humility.” Another participant said she now makes an effort to “leave holes in her sermons where the spirit can move.”

Yet another said routine holiday rituals now seem “more like a lived practice,” rather than just “going through the motions.” Several of the volunteer subjects reported “increased openness to other religious pathways.”

According to Swift, two of the clergy reported “acute disorientation” and a “sense of isolation” because they did not feel they could share their experience with their congregations, and they found it hard to return to preaching the same old doctrines and dogma. 

An Episcopalian minister said that they are now “more in love with the mystery of God.” 

A Muslim participant observed that in her psychedelic session, “I didn’t see God, but I felt God the whole time.”

Lead Johns Hopkins researcher Roland Griffiths said clergy in the study are reporting similar experiences to research subjects in similar studies including the 2002 followup to the 1962 Marsh Chapel Experiment. Study participants say they view the psychedelic experience as “among the most spiritually and personally meaningful experiences of their lifetime.”

Griffith conceded that the results are based on a small and self-selected group, and that “expectancy bias is at play here.”

“That will be a point of attack,” he said, speaking of those who are already questioning the findings before they are formally released . 

Another member of the research team, Anthony Bossis of NYU, said separate quantitative and qualitative studies will be published “a little later this year.” According to Bossis, “the marriage of science and the sacred are the best hope we have for moving forward.”

The anonymous comments mentioned in yesterday’s session were similar to long report Lucid News published last year from on-the-record interviews with four of the participants. – Don Lattin

A Focus on Global Psychedelic Policy

The Psychedelic Policy in Mexico panel. Image courtesy of Allan Steiner.

Thursday’s policy track focused on the global context of psychedelic policy with talks dedicated to policy contexts in Jamaica, Mexico, and Canada. The first of these sessions, titled “Challenges and opportunities of psychedelic policy reform in Jamaica” featured Jamaican Senator Sherene Golding Campbell in conversation with Adriana Kertzer. Campbell’s remarks emphasized the importance of working with legal council from Jamaica for guidance when bringing clients into the country for psilocybin retreats – which was not surprising given Campbell’s position as prominent Jamaican attorney. There has been an expansion of psilocybin tourism in Jamaica and retreat centers that support facilitated use. 

 Another panel titled “Psychedelic policy in Mexico: context and a case study” featuring Mexican Senator Alejandra Lagunes in conversation with Human right’s lawyer Natalia Rebollo Corral, emphasized the importance of centering Mexico’s indigenous use of psychedelics as the center of policy development efforts rather than allowing colonial practices that threaten to dominate the conversation. 

A third panel, titled “Opportunities for Policy Reform in Canada” looked at the country’s drug policy from three perspectives: clinical, traditional, and public health. The panel featured speakers Kim Haxton of the Potawatomi First Nations, Dominique Morisano, Ph.D., C.Psych, and Brian Rush, Ph. D. discussing Canada’s emphasis on research-backed harm reduction focused drug policy. 

This panel acknowledged that while Canada’s drug policy is ahead of other countries, there is still lots of room for improvement. Panelists cited frustration regarding limited access to existing psychedelic protocols and limited requirements for certifying psychedelic therapists in the country. Canada allows therapists to be certified for psychedelic therapy via “8-week online classes” rather than more intensive apprenticeship learning seen in traditional medicine communities. – Allan Steiner

Dennis McKenna Shares Plans to Restore Institution Dedicated to Amazonian Plant Knowledge

Dennis McKenna detailed plans for BioGnosis, a campaign to preserve Amazonian plant specimens at the Herbario Amazonense in Iquitos, Peru – and the expert knowledge of its curator Juan Ruiz Macedo – during a presentation at Psychedelic Science on Thursday.

The project seeks to fully digitize the 160,000 voucher specimens in the herbarium’s collection, physically mount and archive 100,000 unprocessed specimens, and document Macedo’s unique knowledge “before it’s too late,” McKenna said.

The project’s first phase is “The Visionary Rainforest,” which will create an open-source online database of the institution’s holdings using the latest VR and AI technologies. Next is upgrading the herbarium itself, which McKenna hopes to establish as “a nexus where science and traditional knowledge can come together.” The process will be the subject of a concurrently developed documentary series.

The McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy is overseeing the project in collaboration with the Universidad Nacional de la Amazonia Peruana. McKenna anticipates the project will need $10 million of seed money to execute these plans by 2027. – Charles Lighthouse

Dennis McKenna speaking about amazonian plant knowledge preservation. Image courtesy of Nicki Adams.

Psychedelic Therapy for Adolescents: Safety, Integration, and Support

As the teen mental health crisis deepens, psychedelic therapy is being explored as a potential treatment option for adolescents. Experts discussed the contours of the sensitive topic on Thursday during a panel at Psychedelic Science.

Corine de Boer, former chief medical officer of MAPS PBC, explained that pediatric clinical trials are required for FDA approval of new drugs in the U.S. and its regulatory counterparts in Europe. “We need to create more safety and efficacy in adults before we move onto adolescents,” she said. Clinical trials are not expected to begin until after the FDA renders a decision on MDMA’s Phase 3 clinical trials for MDMA-assisted therapy which is expected next year.

Introducing psychedelics to adolescents is not entirely new, said social worker and Plant Parenthood founder Rebecca Kronman. She cited examples of indigenous cultures in Mexico and Gabon administering small doses of plant medicines to older children and teens.

Sociologist Glauber Lures De Assis, who serves as associate director of Chacruna Latinoamérica articulated his experiences within the Santo Daime tradition in Brazil. He said ayahuasca is introduced to young children in a small, largely symbolic drop of medicine. As they reach maturity, teenagers receive the option to move on to full doses as part of community ceremonies.

The panelists emphasized a need for further research, supportive frameworks, and culturally sensitive approaches that involve parents, peers, and communities. – Charles Lighthouse

Family Support in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Researchers Adele Lafrance and Jennifer Danby shared results from a recent Imperial College study on next-of-kin supported psychedelic-assisted therapy for people with anorexia at Psychedelic Science on Thursday.

Inspired by caregiver involvement models from the field of treating eating disorders, the study required subjects to engage a family member to support them through the treatment. Each support person was actively engaged in the study, completing pre- and post-dose questionnaires, participating in three support calls, and an optional interview. Subjects selected parents, spouses, siblings, and, in one instance, a close friend.

Previously, “some partners never ate together,” Danby said, “this reorganized the family in a good way.” By providing permission to talk about the illness, the process increased communication between the parties, with participants showing more ability to reach out for support from their support person and close others. Danby said this improved relational dynamics, patterns, and emotional wellbeing within the family/support system.

Caregivers in the study had support managing their concerns, increased understanding about the illness and psychedelic medicine, and enhanced their skills in being able to respond to challenging emotions and experiences.

Lafrance sees the inclusion of close others as essential “to healing from the impact of problematic individuality,” and reimagining therapy as a collaborative effort for transformative healing. – Charles Lighthouse

MAPS Receives $5 Million Grant From the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation

One of the main questions at Psychedelic Science is whether MAPS will be able to raise enough money to commercialize MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of PTSD. 

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Bringing a new drug to market typically costs $500M to $1B. MAPS says they expect their commercialization initiative to cost less. The organization has made several announcements during the event which they say brings them closer to their funding goals. 

On Thursday, MAPS announced that it has received a $5 million grant from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. According to MAPS, the grant provides its subsidiary, the for-profit MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MAPS PBC), with vital mission support as it enters the final stages of the drug development process.

MAPS PBC plans to submit the New Drug Application for MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD to the FDA later this year. If the treatment is approved by the FDA, MAPS says that advocates and companies “will work to integrate approved therapy into the healthcare system.”

MAPS notes however, “that not unlike many other mental healthcare treatments and therapies, those who are prescribed the treatment and are without insurance coverage, or the means to pay out-of-pocket costs, may face financial burdens to access the therapy.”

According to MAPS, the grant not only supports their present mission, but also will establish the foundation of a financial assistance program for patients if MDMA and other psychedelic-assisted therapies are approved by the FDA.

“Alex Cohen has supported our mission of healing by creating future access to treatment for people in need,” says Erin Tasman, MAPS VP of Finance and Philanthropy. “We’re honored to have such compassionate, strategic partners in developing an effective patient support program.”

“Millions of Americans, including our veterans and first responders, suffer from PTSD and other mental health conditions that affect their quality of life. Psychedelic compounds represent a new opportunity to address these often treatment-resistant conditions and bring hope to patients,” said Alex Cohen, president of the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation in a statement. 

MAPS notes in their statement about the grant that the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation’s Cohen Psychedelic Research & Health Initiative is one of the largest private funders of research into psychedelics for debilitating and chronic mental health conditions with over $60 million of grant commitments to psychedelics. 

Since 2020, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation has committed over $10 million of philanthropic support to MAPS’ mission, including MAPS-sponsored clinical research of MDMA- assisted therapy. – Ann Harrison 

Rick Doblin speaking to the press at PS2023. Image courtesy of Nicki Adams.

Concerns and Misconceptions Around Ketamine 

At yesterday’s talk, “Ketamine Treatment: Current Issues & Controversies,” ketamine specialist and KRIYA founder Raquel Bennett voiced concerns about the ways ketamine is being prescribed and administered by some providers, and provided a more nuanced understanding of ketamine’s legality. 

A chief concern for Bennett is the overly liberal prescribing of self-administered ketamine at home.“Some prescribers are prescribing in insane ways, massive amounts, telling people to use it every day,” said Bennett. “That just leads to addiction and cystitis.” Ketamine’s damaging effects on the bladder, including cystitis, have been documented in numerous studies. 

“Some are doing it because they don’t know better and are not adequately trained or licensed by a nationally recognized program,” said Bennett. “And some are doing it because it benefits them economically. We have to stop denying that this is happening.” 

Bennett isn’t wholly against at-home ketamine usage, but believes it should be “done judiciously, with some form of psychospiritual support.” 

As a clinician who’s dedicated 21 years of work to researching ketamine, Bennett has high regard for the ketamine’s visionary effects. “It’s an incredibly beautiful, psychedelic dissociative medicine that can open up space, and can move towards the sacred and divine when used correctly, in the right context, in the right dose,” said Bennett. “It has a bad rap, but for me, it’s an incredibly important and powerful medicine.” 

That being said, Bennett does acknowledge ketamine’s potential risks. “Ketamine has a dark side and we cannot continue to ignore this. It’s easy to overuse this, and there’s a tremendous amount of ketamine addiction going on all around us.” Bennett also noted certain challenges to working with it. “People can be inadvertently triggered into revisiting or reliving traumatic material.”

Bennett also clarified certain misunderstandings around ketamine’s legality in the subsequent panel, “The state of ketamine-assisted therapy,” in which she was joined by Danielle M. Herrera, Gita Vaid, and Sunny Strasburg. 

Many people refer to ketamine as a legal psychedelic, but that may be an oversimplification. “All ketamine prescribing is actually not clearly legal or defensible at this point in time,” says Bennett. 

The DEA classifies ketamine as Schedule III, meaning it is allowed to be used per the clinician’s best discretion when it is clinically indicated. However, says Bennett, “that’s not the whole story.” If a licensed healthcare professional receives a complaint against their license, that case is overseen by the state boards, which have a “notoriously conservative perspective on controlled substances like ketamine.” 

“They do not take kindly to this being used in a way they don’t approve of. Currently, what is allowed is if a patient has a functional impairment, or a psychiatric diagnosis that causes functional impairment. They are refractory to other kinds of treatment,” says Bennett. 

Practitioners who get in trouble with the board must demonstrate that their treatment is consistent with the published literature, explains Bennett. “If you can’t find a citation for it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.” 

The way to change that is by adding to the body of published literature around ketamine treatment, suggests Bennett. “We’re going to start writing up our cases, success and difficulties, and we’re going to get them into the published literature where they can be cited, because that’s the key to making this more accessible and available.” – Faye Sakellaridis

How Can Ketamine Be Addictive Yet Also Treat Addiction?

Elias Dakwar giving his talk “The Mirror Molecule.” Image courtesy of Andrew Meissen.

In yesterday’s talk, “The Mirror Molecule”, Elias Dakwar spoke about a research study in which his team injected ketamine into volunteers who were dependent on cocaine. The day after, they offered them the opportunity to use cocaine in their lab. Compared to volunteers who received a control infusion, more volunteers who received ketamine refused the offer.

At the same time, Dakwar, who is an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, sees patients who have an addiction to psychedelics. Among his patients are a hedge fund manager who experienced antidepressant relief from ketamine, but then doctor shopped until he was receiving 13 ketamine infusions a week, and a cannabis entrepreneur who takes ketamine daily alongside LSD and psilocybin.

In the case of ketamine, Dakwar’s patients initially sought the substance for a diversity of reasons: for its antidepressant properties, for its utility in vision quests, for pain management. 

But in the pursuit of their goals through ketamine, they found it effective, but became stuck in a relationship with it. 

After pursuing their idea of what ketamine can be, whether from what they saw through popular media or were told by a peer, “the person in turn comes to limit herself, with the ketamine accorded disproportionate power to achieve the goal” they initially sought to fulfill, he says.

While says further research is needed to understand ketamine’s properties, he suggests that an anti-addictive relationship with ketamine is possible. He advises caution in our relationships with all substances, and recommends a more mindful approach to their use. Pharmakon is Latin for ‘medicine,’ but also for ‘scapegoat’, he says, and adds that what may unite all addiction to substances is that they mirror what we do not wish to see in ourselves. – Andrew Meissen

Edited by Ann Harrison, Ken Jordan, and Faye Sakellaridis.

Featured image: The Colorado Convention Center during Psychedelic Science 2023 courtesy of Nicki Adams.

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