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When the Medicine is the Conference Itself

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When the Medicine is the Conference Itself

The conference was announced at the last minute. It was at one place then it moved to another. The Boyle Heights location was a warehouse underneath a gigantic brutalist arched pedestrian bridge. Spectacular art on all of the buildings. 

“Most dealers, no joke, learn their job from movies,” the character of Reggie Harris says in the book done in collaboration with Matt Taibbi, The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing; An Almost True Account. This conference was Reggie Harris’s show and he couldn’t have picked a more cinematic location. My lady and I rolled past houses blasting Tejano music amidst the laughter of children and pink balloons, into an area of warehouses that was both desolate and not. This is where spaces are rented for private film shoots, I’m thinking. In the space where a building once stood was a lone woman kneeling in a block’s worth of garbage, surrounded by graffiti on concrete, writing in a notebook. Cats roamed. At the entrance of the event was a guy with a dog with a raven on its head. The bird jumped up on his shoulder. We asked him about the bird. He met the bird in the city somewhere two weeks ago and now they are friends. Tone set.

The man and bird the writer met on the way to the conference.

We wandered through the busy marketplace tempted by multiple vegan soul food vendors. I bought a Kava drink. Rosemary bought some mushroom coffee from two guys who looked like Armenian gangsters. “Embrace racial stereotypes,” is another one of Reggie’s rules of the trade in the book. We asked others in the throng of people which of the three large rooms the analytical testing workshop was being held. No one knew what was going on and we bonded in our confusion, figuring things out together. We ended up sitting on the floor in a room where members of Oakland Hyphae talked chemistry apparatuses and how to glean what exactly is in a mushroom. This is how they discern who wins their famous Psilocybin Cup. It’s all about color was what I gleaned. 

The science lingo was a psychedelic poetry I was hungry for and it was very John Ashberry, as in by the time I landed on a sliver of understanding, they were on to another incomprehensible fugue state of detail. It is by no means their fault that I still don’t know the difference between psilocybin and psilocin. They explained it beautifully many times in multiple locations but I was too caught up in the artistry of their presentation to retain facts. The excitement of what journalist Mary Carreon described as a very “grassroots scene” saturated every moment and molecule. 

Science talk with Ian Bollinger of Hyphae Labs.

We attended the veteran’s panel. Acacea Lewis, an encyclopedia of global plant/fungi knowledge and deep wisdom, spoke about how the medicine teaches a system of honor that mirrors what she was taught in the military but greatly surpasses it. Will Tovar shared about how veterans are used for the medicalization studies but then are dropped cold, without support. Colin Wells spoke about access, saying “Most of the guys who I know who are veterans, they’re in Kentucky drinking whiskey or are marshals.” The conference structure of having speakers on a panel rather than solo lectures served as a smart and simple mycelial remedy to the problem of hierarchies and experts, charging each minute with head spinning and emotional dialogue. Not all psychedelic conferences are psychedelic, but this one by Oakland Hyphae was this and more. 

Acacea Lewis was also a panelist for Warriors Reborn: Sacred Roots: Master Plants and Ancestral Healing Unveiled, with Dr. Maya Shetreat, Shane Norte, Dayana Mendoza, Paula Graciela Kahn and moderated by Monica Cadena. These were all practitioners and activists who work in modalities with very real taboos and sensitivities, both political, practical and spiritual that make summing up what you do in a short period of time to an audience of strangers a very vulnerable endeavor indeed. Paula Graciela Kahn talked about being sexually assaulted within her rave scene as a very young person and how rave culture also became the container for how she heals her trauma with dance, community and psychedelics. For many of us, the word community is loaded, both a scene of injury and a scene of healing. 

The medicine that was the conference itself hit me as fast as a lemon tek. I stumbled into a room to chill and ground to catch the end of Becca Evans workshop on how to prepare microdoses. At that moment I didn’t know what her presentation was other than she was making things, amazing things. But seeing her was what I needed, another queer woman in psychedelics, one who gave me so much support online when I was just starting out. Meeting her in person was a balm to the always open sore of isolation I sometimes feel as a mushroom practitioner. I’ve gone deeper into the rabbit hole than most I am surrounded by can even understand. Seems like everybody is getting a degree in trip sitting these days. These kinds of people don’t understand I’m not like them. They don’t know what years of deep work outside their system even means. Becca does. 

I walked around the block a few times. I was overwhelmed and had so many questions. They were questions I felt weren’t my business, one’s I wasn’t supposed to ask maybe? I made a list of questions in my head.

+ How big is the mushroom trade for real – from the grow kits to syringes and the actual fruits and chocolates.

+ What does bigness mean? What kind of money is being made and who is making it?

+ When does this bigness intersect with the DEA, the government and secret intelligence?

Reggie Harris is the high level weed trafficker turned politician and activist in The Business of Drug Dealing; An Almost True Account. “Get Your Money and Get Out” is a key rule, and the rules of drug dealing can be applied to life on the outside of the game. On the hardcover book he is “Anonymous.” He is named in the 2021 paperback edition. What happened to make this possible? He worked for Hillary Clinton for a bit but I don’t think that’s why. 

I read the book for this answer and you should too. It’s an incredible book on many levels. Corporate weed killed his trade, a DEA agent infiltrated his tight crew, working with him for a long time all the while snitching to corporate weed and the feds simultaneously. I think I got that right. I’m in over my head. I don’t understand how things work. 

What was actually over my head and everyone else’s at the conference were helicopters. They hovered above us, unmistakably there because of it. Squad cars drove back and forth with their lights on for no reason we could discern. 

I was on the street smoking with Mrs_Vicius and some members of Hyphae when she was like “Hell no” with the helicopters and we all dispersed. She’s from Detroit running decrim initiatives. LA is a dangerous place and I sensed many of us, each for our own various different reasons, were on high alert for what exactly “dangerous” meant. For some, danger means their personal way of working may lead to public attack and persecution. For others, danger means the DEA. Both are conditions of high anxiety and I was in the soup of it, wondering what was my own anxiety or a general mycelial frequency. 

The specter of the Big Kingpin game going on Denver, The Psychedelic Science Conference 2023, put on by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), loomed large for many. I heard from the grapevine each speaker had to sign a non-disclosure agreement there. The MAPS brand of medicalized psychedelics and the grift of psychology, politics and anthropology that roll alongside this particular roadshow, are a bigger game than this, but what exactly “this” was, I wasn’t quite sure. The evening’s keynote speaker was Freeway Rick Ross, the kingpin who single handedly catalyzed the crack trade in Los Angeles in the 80’s. Mary Carreon guided the conversation between Rick Ross and Reggie Harris, a riveting testimony by a man who always has to find “the goose with the golden egg.” Still does, he admits. Ross was a little late because he was at his kid’s tennis match. Hot tears were streaming down my face as I listened but I wasn’t sad. It’s a phenomenon that happens when I’m tripping, and maybe I was tripping a little ok. Ok? But I was losing it. 

The conversation veered towards how the crack trade was tied up with the Iran Contra scandal and the CIA and the journalist who broke the story of how the CIA was involved in the crack trade basically, and how he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head twice. Twice. Got it? Gary Webb was his name. 

I learned from digging in to Leonard Pickard’s story and so many other suspect kingpins in the psychedelic arena – like Rick Doblin, like the institution of Johns Hopkins University – situations where individual’s trajectories intersect suspiciously with high government co-operation, that the feds and secret intelligence are always near, maybe even sitting beside you, might even be someone you call a friend. I was in a room where the rubber meets the road there in Boyle Heights, witnessing power in motion. And I was having a freak out like Peter Fonda in The Trip. 

Freeway Rick said he tried mushrooms for the first time because he had run out of weed chocolate so he reached for a mushroom chocolate he happened to have around. He liked it. He felt chill. Freeway Rick’s chocolate was Reggie’s chocolate. In a theatrical moment that felt both real and scripted, they made this realization. Reggie’s chocolate was Rick’s first mushroom chocolate. What are the chances?  

“Stay behind the white guy,” is one of Reggie’s rules of the trade in The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing.

In the construct of taking the rules of the trade into the straight world, could that white guy be me? Do I care? 

Why are the women fronting this scene so beautiful? They speak of motherhood, microdosing, African, indigenous and pagan ways. They are all serious practitioners but the optics serve another function – PURE CAPITAL P POWER. The veterans serve that same power structure, bringing cred, heart, political agency in the form of being another marginalized identity represented. This is my scene and I was freaking out. Are we all going to be okay in the end? 

Several of the women speakers presenting on a panel at the conference.

Like the machines that Oakland Hyphae use to discern the chemicals in a mushroom, I was amidst an apparatus that gave me a glimpse of what everything was made of. But like the machine, all I really saw were colors and shapes. After the conference I cried in bed. I don’t know how anything works!!! I don’t know how the world works!!! It’s all so big and powerful and I barely understand the difference between senate and the congress and the freaking city council, and what I saw was massive structural power in motion. It’s small compared to what MAPS is doing, a scene I’ve been part of, but it’s big power nonetheless. Decriminalized, legalized, pharmaceuticalized, or none of the above, drug trade is the unavoidable elephant in the room of the so-called Psychedelic Revolution. 

And with elephants come carnivals and carnivals have their predictable characters and I’m one of them. I serve a function beyond my own personal agenda of being a writer and artist who works with mushrooms. I know I’m not the only one who feels vulnerable in this way. 

At the end of the day Reggie Harris took a moment in-between setting up for Lizzie Jeff to sit down and talk to me. We met earlier and his welcome was loaded with such skillful warmth, I felt confident he was seeing what each and every one of us brought to the room with clarity and studied ethics. I trust him. We’re all vulnerable here. I asked him if there was one takeaway from the conference, what would it be.

That decrim doesn’t really work, he said. Not for what a lot of us are doing. 

I missed the Sunday program. I had other plans and also, I was recovering. Hamilton Morris was the final keynote. I spoke to some others on the phone who were on the panel on drug policy, wanting to dig deeper on what Reggie said about decrim not working. Was there an overreaching magic bullet strategy regarding policy that is shared by this community on how to move forward, reduce the danger, especially when it comes to marginalized people and the prison system? The answer I gleaned was not really, not yet.  

Featured image: The writer with conference attendees. All images courtesy of Bett Williams.

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