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Report: Final Round-up from MAPS Psychedelic Science 2023

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Report: Final Round-up from MAPS Psychedelic Science 2023

The MAPS 2023 Psychedelic Science conference wrapped up with a final day of talks on Friday. The presentations included insights into the impacts of legislation on native communities, wisdom from psychedelic elders, psychedelics and sex, important lessons within drug policy activism, and activists protesting the marginalization of Indigenous voices within the medicalized psychedelic landscape. 

Our coverage offers a sampling of the hundreds of panels and presentations spanning a wide range of topics within the psychedelic space that took place at Psychedelic Science 2023. It provides a taste of a convergence and moment in time that reflects the tremendous energy, tensions and healing potentials of today’s psychedelic ecosystem.

You can read our previous coverage of Psychedelic Science 2023 here: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3

The Impacts of Legislation on Native Communities

Before the start of the panel discussion on “Indigenous Affinity: The Impacts of Legislation on Native Communities” the smell of copal incense wafted through the room as panelists and audience members were ritualistically cleansed by the smoke as people have been for countless generations. 

Attendees waiting for the “Indigenous Affinity: The Impacts of Legislation on Native Communities” panel to start. Image courtesy of Dennis Walker.

A delegation of representatives from different indigenous tribes shared their perspectives on the burgeoning “psychedelic renaissance” and its corresponding industry, a movement which they said is taking place without the consent, consultation, or approval of native communities. 

“There’s a lot of talking going on – a lot of forceful seeking without understanding the impact” said moderator Angela Beers. 

Panelist Johnny Johnson opened the session with a prayer in his indigenous language. He professed that his community was unfamiliar with the word “psychedelic,” and that he had trouble pronouncing this new phonetic label. 

The panelists protested their limited time slot, which was extended to a duration of one hour after pushback. There was a palpable sense of disdain for the spectacle of the mega conference at hand.

The inclusion of peyote in the decriminalization movement was a ubiquitous topic of concern, especially considering the absence of indigenous consent applied to the initial criminalizing and scheduling of peyote under state and federal law. It was suggested that the word “legislation” is similarly devoid of meaning in the same way “psychedelic” is to indigenous communities. 

Before the uptick in demand for peyote driven by the contemporary surge of interest in psychedelics, panelists noted that an indigenous person used to be able to buy 40 pounds of the sacrament for $350 dollars. Today, a person can pay up to $650 for two pounds of the precious medicine. This economic scarcity has fueled illegal poaching and over harvesting, which continues to decimate the supply for native communities and threaten the delicate eco systemic balance of the peyote gardens in southern Texas. 

The panelists touched on intersectional topics ranging from environmental justice and water protection to indigenous erasure in the psychedelic movement. They expressed a shared frustration around what they framed as an endless and fruitless quest to have indigenous perspectives centered and respected by the politicians, lobbyists, and corporate interests driving the emergent psychedelic industry. 

As one panelist succinctly stated, “The time has passed for us to have allies. We need accomplices.” – Dennis Walker

MDMA Offers New Hope for Developmental Trauma, Says Bessel van der Kolk 

“MDMA increases self-compassion and self-tolerance,” trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk said during a presentation of recent data from MDMA Phase 3 studies at Psychedelic Science on Friday morning.

“Almost all traumas start within the family and attachment system,” van der Kolk said. Early childhood trauma contributes to problems with affect regulation, self-esteem, and aggression that he believes are not adequately addressed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). “PTSD is supposed to be who you become after a terrible thing happens to you,” he said. People with early childhood trauma may not have any memory of a pre-traumatized state, van der Kolk added.

According to van der Kolk, MDMA-assisted therapy facilitated self-compassion and provided a transformative experience that allowed individuals to revisit traumatic memories without being overwhelmed by destructive emotions. “In every measure, MDMA plus therapy beats therapy only,” he said.

He advocated for recognizing developmental trauma disorder as a diagnosis and urged a shift away from diagnostic criteria dictated by insurance reimbursement. He also called for more studies on mental functioning, going beyond self-reporting and pursuing ways to measure people’s perceptions.

“People think studying molecules is science and studying the mind is bullshit,” van der Kolk said. “I hope what we’re doing together will bring mind back into our profession.” – Charles Lighthouse

Considering the Drug Policy Endgame: Engaging with the Broader Drug Policy Movement

An afternoon panel on the final day of Psychedelic Science titled “The Drug Policy Endgame: Beyond Public Health’ was moderated by MAPS Director of Policy and Advocacy Ismail L. Ali, and featured Jason Ortiz, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director at Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and Shaleen Title, Founder And Director, Parabola Center For Law And Policy. 

The far reaching discussion covered important lessons for advocates to keep in mind while doing policy work related to psychedelics. Some takeaways from the conversation included: the need to interrogate and interrupt economic systems designed to benefit those with the most resources when discussing decriminalization and legalization; the dangers of regulating based on the most afraid (or the most fearless) person in the room; the need for advocates to explicitly and legally define the terminology they use; the dangers of using certain language, such as saying that psychedelics are a “medicine, not a drug,” which threatens to hold back broader drug policy efforts. 

Panelists also discussed the importance of preventing known bad actors from having a seat at the table, the need to avoid blindly trusting a medical establishment which is subject to the same political pressure which has taken power from harm reduction advocates – and which is not inherently benevolent. 

The panel concluded with speakers explaining that the endgame for drug policy should be to provide people with bodily sovereignty. They also emphasized the need to empower indigenous communities to take a key role in shaping the conversation about how psychedelic policy is written and implemented across North America. – Allan Steiner

Elders Warn About Getting Ahead of the Medicine

“Don’t get in front of the medicine,” said Adele Getty during the “Ask The Elders” session in Deep Space on the final day of Psychedelic Science. “We’re seeing organizations collapse, businesses collapse, teachers or communities collapse because they’re getting in front of the medicine in ways that are either unethical or just premature.”

“That’s a really important message,” said panelist Patricia James. “When you’re ahead of the medicine things can happen that aren’t helpful.”

“You want to balance the material world with the spiritual world and take one step forward at a time,” Getty said. “Take too many steps forward in the spiritual or psychedelic world and you can look back and see that you’re living in your car. Take too many steps in the material world and you may look back and see you lost your soul or spiritual connection.”

“We’re so close,” James said. “Psychedelics are still illegal and there’s a very thin veil between success and failure. The political part is very unstable and there’s still a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong. Let’s keep our skill level up, our intentions high, and let’s get to the other side.” – Charles Lighthouse

Examining Religion Through a Psychedelic Lens

This year’s programming at Psychedelic Science 2023 took a deeper look at religion, mysticism, and their intersection with psychedelic experience than the prior 2017 MAPS conference. 

On Thursday, an entire track was dedicated to exploring Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—in the context of psychedelics. There was a focus on looking at psychedelics as a tool for treating traumas that arise from associations with, or persecutions on account of, religion – including experienced and intergenerational trauma. 

The panels also examined the way religions can offer a framework for understanding and integrating the psychedelic experience. Author Michael Pollan and researcher Bob Jesse touched on this point in their discussion on Thursday, pointing to the undertones of religious practice in psychedelic communities: that regularized, communal, even ritualized experience can feel like a form of religion. 

During the discussion on Judaism and psychedelics among myself, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and Professor Sam Shonkoff, we discussed the way psychedelics and spirituality impact greater systems outside the individual, in the spirit of social justice. 

To that end, initiatives like the Israeli-Palestinian ayahuasca conflict resolution work, presented on Friday by Leor Roseman and Sami Awad, take the notion of “sacred activism” and apply it in contexts of political or religious conflict. Jewish and Arab musicians Noam and Marwa joined the conference to play medicine music together at both Roseman and Awad’s presentation, as well as at a side event at Mercury Cafe. The performances brought the community together to learn about Jewish spirituality through a psychedelic lens. – Madison Margolin

Eliza Dushku Palandjian and Peter Palandjian Launch $500K MAPS Challenge Grant

On Friday at Psychedelic Science, MAPS announced that Eliza Dushku Palandjian and Peter Palandjian are facilitating a $500,000 challenge grant to match gifts to the MAPS nonprofit organization dollar for dollar. 

The funds will be donated towards the Mission Support program in the MAPS general fund to help further MAPS’s mission where the need is greatest. If this grant is matched, MAPS says donors will have given a total of $1.5 million in support of MAPS in honor of Rick Doblin’s 37- year mission to support MDMA assisted therapy. 

Peter Palandjianis a real estate investment manager and Eliza Dushku Palandjian is an actress and is now studying to be a psychedelic therapy provider in Boston.

“Our gift is about honoring, supporting, and encouraging the dedicated MAPS team and everyone who shares the beautiful and most pure goal of positive mental health and healing for all,” said Eliza and Peter in a statement. “Especially in these times, MAPS’ multidisciplinary approach, using evidence-based sciences together with holistic integration, will change the world’s approach to mental health.”

“MAPS’ clinical studies are showing beyond any doubt that psychedelic-assisted therapy can significantly reduce suffering in most measurable ways,” said Peter. – Ann Harrison

NIH May Soon Fund First LSD Trial in Over 50 Years

Stephen Ross, the Associate Director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, announced at Psychedelic Science 2023 that his study, “A randomized controlled trial of LSD-assisted psychotherapy to treat metastatic cancer induced bone pain,” is on the verge of receiving a funding decision by the NIH. If funded, it would represent the first time that the NIH has funded a therapeutic trial using LSD in over 50 years, he says.

“Bones are one of the most common sites that cancer goes to,” says Ross. About 80% of those with advanced cancer will get this form of severe chronic pain, which is associated with a decreased quality of life and a higher chance for completed suicide. “It’s the most prevalent form of cancer pain,” that affects millions globally, he says.

Before psychedelic research was halted by drug laws in the 1970s, pain researcher Eric Kast administered a single 100 microgram dose of LSD to over 250 terminal cancer patients. Even without preparation or therapists, he found that the single dose caused rapid reductions in pain that lasted two to three weeks. This was also the first study to report that LSD reduced existential distress in terminal cancer patients.

Even if the funding is not completed during this round, Ross is optimistic. “It’s very clear to me that NIH is incredibly open to funding more and more psychedelic research,” he says.

Notably, if the study were to be funded, it “potentially sets up for LSD to be rescheduled from [Schedule] 1 to something else” and be a prescribable medication, he says. – Andrew Meissen

Regulating State Markets for Psychedelic-Assisted Services

The “Regulating State Markets for Psychedelic-Assisted Services” panel. Image courtesy of Allan Steiner.

A panel titled “Regulating State Markets for Psychedelic-Assisted Services” featured regulators from Oregon and Colorado who are developing regulations for psilocybin in their state. The panel, moderated by Joshua Kappel, featured Angela E. Allbee, Oregon Psilocybin Services Section Manager, Dominique D. Mendiola, who serves as Senior Director for Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division under Colorado’s Department of Revenue, and Ean Seeb who is Colorado Governor Jared Polis’s Special Advisor on Cannabis and Natural Plant Medicines. 

The speakers addressed the progress and challenges associated with implementing SB23-290 in Colorado and Ballot Measure 109 in Oregon. They discussed the lessons learned through cannabis regulation, and how psychedelic regulation is inherently different. 

In Colorado, psilocybin will be regulated by a new Division of Natural Medicine under the Department of Revenue (DOR), with the first licenses expected to be awarded in mid-2025, with discussions to add additional psychedelic medicines, including mescaline (not including peyote), ibogaine, and DMT beginning in 2026. 

In Oregon, psilocybin is regulated by Oregon Psilocybin Services (OPS), a new section housed within the Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division’s Center for Health Protection which began awarding licenses in early 2023. OPS is already in the early stages of building out their psychedelic services, and has created a portal for those looking for information about accessing psilocybin services.

Regulators from both states expressed a need for something resembling the Cole Memo, a guidance issued by the Department of Justice that declared the federal government would not pursue enforcement against state-legal cannabis business. Similar guidance focused on psychedelics could potentially protect those working within new state-legal frameworks for psychedelics from possible federal prosecution. – Allan Steiner

Not Enough Room For Sex, Love, Religion or the Body

While much of the coverage coming from Psychedelic Science has focused on science and business, there also appeared to be an overwhelming appetite for programming about how psychedelics intersect with fundamental human topics, including sex, love, religion, and the body. 

On Friday morning, hundreds of attendees had to be cleared from the room where Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score spoke. Later in the day a panel entitled “Sex & Psychedelics: Weaving Altered States for Healing of Pleasure” turned away more than a hundred people who came to see the program in a 600 seat room. 

Similar stories abounded from those who attended the panel “What Psychedelics Can Teach Us About Love,” and a mini-track on Psychedelics and Religion on Thursday. Clearly there seems to be a strong and ongoing desire to talk about sex and psychedelics. – Charles Lighthouse

Indigenous Activists Protest at Close of Psychedelic Science

The Psychedelic Science conference concluded on Friday with an unexpected takeover of the closing ceremony by local indigenous rights activists. A low drum beat sounded as MAPS President Rick Doblin walked onto the main stage to present closing remarks signaling that the choreographed moment was about to take a surprising turn towards ego death and collective healing. 

The program presented a triumphant narrative arc, starting with a congratulatory summary of the week’s events, music, and the crowdfunding trailer for the Rick Doblin documentary “Prescription X.” That was halted when local indigenous rights activists rose from their seats to protest and were eventually invited onstage. What followed was an articulation of some of the challenging and nuanced issues facing the psychedelic community as MAPS attempts to set the tone for the movement’s next phase.

When it became clear that the protesters would not be deterred, Doblin invited the group to the stage to speak for one minute. “There are a lot of people who have been harmed by this movement,” said protester Dr. Angela Beers who was the first to speak. According to sources within the indigenous activist community, Beers objected to what they said was the failure of MAPS to provide travel, lodging, and conference passes for some indigenous elders and medicine carriers appearing on the panel “Indigenous Affinity: The Impacts of Legislation on Native Communities.” The community supporting the panel said they raised the funds themselves to bring these elders to the conference. 

Beers accused Doblin and MAPS of tokenizing indigenous voices. “You’re sprinkling us in and you’re not giving us the space that we deserve,” she said. “If you don’t liberate the people who are most marginalized under their own land and sovereign nations, you can’t liberate anybody.” 

“That’s a good point,” Doblin said. “We have been in an oppressive culture and we will do our best.” Beers continued over Doblin, not ceding the mic. “Nobody owns healing,” she shouted. “You don’t own our culture. You can’t take it from us and we deserve respect.” 

Medicine carrier Kathoomi Castro, who drummed during the protest, then stepped up to the podium despite attempts by security personnel to prevent mic access. Doblin intervened saying, “It’s okay, let him speak.”

Castro, visibly emotional, said “It’s so hard to be in front of here. We open our medicines for you to heal, not to take. You’re taking it. You’re colonizing it. You’re damaging us and erasing our cultures. Please stop. Think. Think critically. This is not OK.” 

“You are being deceived,” said Castro. “The same happened to tobacco, now causes cancer. The same happened to opium, now causes addiction. The same happened to coca, now causes a lot of harm. Decades from now, you’re gonna see the medicine is harming you because they’re living beings and they don’t like to be abused. Please look at the cycle of colonization and how this continues to happen. We’re here because we love you. We’re here because we don’t want you to harm yourself. Please think. Have conversations including us.” 

Two more protestors took the stage whose names Lucid News was unable to fully confirm by press time. The first, a Black man named Jayson said, “The people that need healing the most is the BIPOC community. We can’t afford it. I appreciate you, Rick. I do. I come from the hood. People in the hood don’t get the healing they need. They can’t even afford to attend this conference.” As this was said, the mic was shut off and transition music came on. 

Gracefully navigating a challenging situation, Doblin asked for the mic to be turned back on and a fourth protestor, a woman named Kelly from the indigenous community spoke. She said, “The last thing that we want to say is we don’t necessarily need to stop the entire movement. We need to shift the focus. We need to let the indigenous lead.” 

Finally, Lira Ornelas Godoy, a student of social work from Brazil who was volunteering at the conference as part of the “vibe patrol,” stepped forward. 

With folded hands, Godoy spoke slowly in a low voice that suggested she was channeling her message. She said, “Thank you for the permission of being here. In name of all of our ancestors, may we be strong and united. You listened. We are one. We are united. We are peace. We are love. We will overcome the challenges as they did. Thank you.” 

A silence familiar to medicine people filled the space as Godoy and Doblin, alone on the stage, faced each other. Godoy then embraced Doblin to thunderous applause. – Charles Lighthouse

Edited by Ken Jordan, Ann Harrison, Faye Sakellaridis

Featured Image: The closing ceremony for PS2023 at the Colorado Convention Center. Rick Doblin thanks MAPS’ volunteers. Image courtesy of Nicki Adams.

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