When one thinks of a large gathering of psychedelic enthusiasts, thoughts typically turn to Burning Man rather than a group of doctors and scientists. This week, however, what’s being called the largest psychedelics gathering in history is happening in Oakland, as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the UK-based Beckley Foundation co-host the Psychedelics Science conference.
Starting Wednesday, more than 2,600 doctors, professors, health-industry professionals, and psychedelic experts from around the world convene at the Oakland Marriott City Center for the five-day event. Psychedelic Science 2017 features more than 100 presentations regarding the therapeutic uses of psychedelics, the neuroscience behind this research, the spread of psychedelic culture into the mainstream, and more. The main thrust of the event will be about legally moving psychedelics into the field of medicine and sharing information about how substances like ayahuasca, ibogaine, MDMA, peyote, psilocybin, LSD, ketamine, and marijuana show promise in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and a wide range of other mental and physical illnesses.
Although the event is sold out, every presentation will be available for free on the MAPS website the week after the conference. MAPS founder and Executive Director Dr. Rick Doblin discusses the explosion of psychedelics into the mainstream, recent developments in the field and how new research is affecting people who have never set foot on the playa.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Psychedelics are really having a moment. Rolling Stone just called them a “miracle” and outlets ranging from men’s and women’s magazines to cable news have done pieces on ayahuasca, LSD, MDMA, and more. Why is this all happening now?
A lot of it has to do with medical marijuana. There were the California and Arizona initiatives starting in 1996, and now we’ve got 80 to 90 percent of the American public in favor of medical marijuana and about 60 percent in favor of legalization, I think that’s one big factor of cultural change. The other is the aging of the baby boomers. There’s a lot of baby boomers that did psychedelics in the ‘60s and did not burn out, did not jump out of the window, went on to have families and jobs and made major contributions to society. But a lot of them gave up psychedelics for 40 years because of the backlash and the criminalization. A lot of these people who have gone into the healing profession — particularly in the fields of psychiatry, neuroscience and psychotherapy — were inspired by psychedelics but couldn’t really study them for most of their career. Now, it’s possible.
What’s the relationship between your organization, MAPS, and more traditional medical realms? Are you finding that mainstream doctors are getting on board with your mission?
One of the speakers at the conference is going to be Paul Summergrad, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association. Another is Dr. Thomas R. Insel, the former head of the National Institute for Mental Health who’s been hired by Google to disrupt psychiatry and believes psychedelics are major. We’ve got more funding available now, and the regulatory situation has been changed dramatically in the sense that the FDA and regulatory agencies around the world are now very much open to this.
How significantly is the stigma surrounding psychedelics diminishing?
If we look at what happened in the ’60s, when everyone came to awareness of the culture and the kind of experiences they produced, symbolic death-rebirth experiences and these unitive mystical experiences, the culture wasn’t prepared for it. In the ’60s, if you had cancer, nobody would even whisper it. People were so terrified of death, and there was this idea that nothing could be done about it.
Women were tranquilized before they gave birth. People were scared of yoga because they thought of it as importing some foreign religion. Now you go to the YMCA and they have yoga centers and teach meditation. I just came back from the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, they actually created a space for us for an MDMA/PTSD therapy training program. At the YMCA! I think the gay rights movement has helped a lot because it’s also people coming out from the underground and normalizing.
MAPS last held one of these conferences in 2013. What has changed in the last four years in terms of research and regulation?
The crucial transition with the research has been moved from phase two to phase three. Phase two research is your small, exploratory pilot studies. We’ve got pilot studies for MDMA for autistic adults with social anxiety and MDMA for adults with life threatening illnesses and anxiety about death and PTSD. There’s research coming out about psilocybin for alcoholism and tobacco addiction, end-of-life anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder and Ibogaine for addiction. There have been a lot of these pilot studies, but for PTSD and depression, we have enough data and we’re moving into negotiations with the regulatory agencies. We have approval for MDMA for PTSD. What that means is that the path to prescription approval has now begun and we are now starting FDA approval for use of psychedelic therapy by prescription. We’re currently estimating 2021 for FDA approval of MDMA.
Taking a look at the schedule, one of the main focuses of the conference is the use of psychedelics to treat various addictions. How significant is the research here?
I think it’s absolutely crucial. When you work with addicts with a psychedelic drug, you can say drugs are not all bad. If this drug is helping people who are having problems with addiction, it helps people rethink what they previously thought about psychedelics. Psychedelics only need to be administered a few times in the context of addiction treatment. It’s not like a daily drug, and people tend to not get addicted to psychedelics, because they’re not a reliable escape from your problems.
But, the two things that are moving into phase three first are [psychedelics for] PTSD and probably depression, not addiction. There’s a lot of focus on addiction, but from a psychological/political perspective, we’re trying to mainstream psychedelics and show psychedelics can be helpful for people that are valued by the mainstream, that are mainstream. That gives you veterans, firefighters, police officers, people with PTSD who are valued by society, and also people who are depressed, and that’s sort of everybody. Addicts are “the other,” unfortunately, and so you can show that psychedelics are good for addicts, but people say, “Well I’m not an addict. Those are bad people. That’s not me.” But everybody could have depression, PTSD, anxiety about dying, so those are the areas that are a little bit ahead of the research with addictions.
Opiate addiction is obviously a huge problem across the country. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, in 2015 there were 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin. Are any psychedelics showing particular promise in this realm?
What we’re hearing is that everyone’s priority now is opiate addiction. Psychedelics, particularly ibogaine, can play a major role in opiate addiction. There’s no federal funding yet for it, so one of our policy missions is to really try and build support for the federal government getting involved with ibogaine for opiate addiction. It’s very important and helps people differentiate from this zero nuance situation of “illegal drugs and psychedelics are all bad.” If that’s true, then how can these things help in the treatment of addiction? Well, maybe they’re not actually so bad.
Various studies that have shown that the life expectancy for Hispanics has been going up, the life expectancy for African Americans has been going up, and the life expectancy for white, college educated people has been going up, but the life expectancy for white, non-college educated people has been going down. The reason that’s been happening is because of despair deaths: suicides, alcoholism and opiate addiction. If you plot where people voted for Trump compared to where the despair deaths are taking place, there’s a strong correlation. These are people who are being motivated by fear, anxiety, fear of the other, imaginary policies that are going to change their lives for the better. So if the psychedelic community can help in those areas to reduce despair deaths, then we’ve really started addressing in a healthy way the fears and anxieties that have driven people to react in unhealthy ways. That’s where I think the work with psychedelics and addiction is especially important in a more long-term way.
Located in the adjacent Oakland Convention Center, the conference’s Psymposia Stage is free and open to the public throughout the weekend and will feature talks, live podcasts and more from artist Android Jones, psychedelic feminism advocacy group Cosmic Sister, psychedelic pioneer Dennis McKenna and many more.
You can livestream Psychedelic Science 2017 here.