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Dispatch from Denver & Psychedelic Science 2023

Going into MAPS’ Psychedelic Science 2023 conference in Denver, CO, I was concerned about the sheer size of this year’s iteration. This was the first MAPS conference since PS2017 in Oakland, CA and the number of people attending the 2023 conference was about four times larger. It made me think of the relatively intimate first Psychedelic Science conference I attended in 2010 in San Jose, CA which seemed to maybe have a few hundred attendees. PS2023 sold a total of 13,200 tickets before the Fire Marshall put a stop to it and it was being held at the cavernous Colorado Convention Center and I was prepared for a disorganized shitshow. The explosion of this current “psychedelic renaissance” and MAPS’ ability to respond was about to be put to the test.

Kim and I arrived in Denver on Saturday afternoon and made our way to the Hyatt Regency which would be our home for the next week and it was conveniently located across the street from the Convention Center. That evening, we were able visit with Rick Doblin who was his usual congenial self. Despite what some have said about MAPS and how the organization has grown and evolved over the years, Rick continues to be the relentless true believer he has always been and he is, above all else, a very kind man with a big heart for people and this work. He and MAPS have been the driving force for researching MDMA-assisted therapy for almost 40 years and they are finally on the brink of submitting a New Drug Application to the FDA. This has been a monumental task and continues to be one for MAPS as the pool of willing donors has shrunk with all the psychedelic companies and boutique pharmaceutical organizations that have sprung up over the last few years. Seems like folks are now more motivated to invest their money rather than donate which is an unfortunate development. With the New Drug Application so close to submission, now is not the time to waver on one’s support for MAPS.

Monday and Tuesday were devoted to pre-conference workshops and these ended up being a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed the all-day Monday presentation by Mary Cosimano on “Guiding Psilocybin Therapy Sessions” in that Mary was her usual playful self and brings a wealth of experience from years of working with psilocybin at Johns Hopkins. The next day consisted of a couple of half-day presentations and one was OK but consisted mainly of audience participation and the same 5-6 people dominated most of the conversation. There were a couple of underground therapists in that presentation that seemed to suggest that they were fully actualized, self-anointed shamans which always causes me concern because that attitude alone will usually set one up for problems down the road. If there is one thing I have learned from these compounds over the years, it’s that one is never done doing the work on oneself and these compounds demand absolute humility and trust. The afternoon presentation I had paid to attend was overrun with people when I got there (no one was at the door checking passes) so after trying to find a spot on the floor, I bailed and decided the fee I had paid would just be a donation to MAPS and the presenters. I had a couple of random elevator encounters with NYU researcher and palliative care psychologist Tony Bossis whom I had connected with at previous conferences and it was nice to see this fellow Deadhead in his element. He has become a bit of a celebrity at these conferences and the attention is well-deserved for the important research he has done and continues to do with psilocybin.

The MAPS Psychedelic Science conferences have always been my happy place. Since 2010, I have enjoyed attending the talks and meeting researchers and authors whom I have read and deeply respected for years and the environment has always been half academic conference and half Grateful Dead show. It is an unusual mix of scientists, chemists, therapists and freaks and the one thing you can be guaranteed of is that everyone you meet will, at the very least, be interesting. Most of the time, I do not have anything all that important to say or discuss with the myriad presenters at these conferences but just the opportunity to look them in the eye and sincerely thank them for the work they have done is satisfying. In past conferences, I never knew who I may cross paths with including Terence McKenna, Sasha and Ann Shulgin, Paul Stamets, Stanislav Grof, Bill Richards, Ralph Metzner, David Nichols, James Fadiman, and on and on. Most of the original titans of psychedelic research have passed on but there are a few of them still here and their work should be respected, honored and studied because we all are standing on their shoulders and still have much to learn.

Wednesday night was a MAPS dinner honoring the work of Roland Griffiths, the Johns Hopkins researcher who may be as responsible as anyone for the resurgence in research involving psilocybin. This old school scientist/drug researcher is terminally ill with cancer and the dinner was well-attended and included the unveiling of a portrait by the psychedelic artist Alex Grey and an array of psychedelic luminaries paying tribute to this man who has done so much for psychedelic research. Although frail, he still looks like the Elfin King and gave a warm, typically self-deprecating talk thanking those who have supported his life’s work which ended with a lengthy and loud standing ovation. The heavens also contributed to this ovation by sending down a deafening torrent of hail that beat loudly on the roof of the Convention Center.

The Pearl Psychedelic Institute was a Community Sponsor for PS2023 so we had a booth set up in the Exhibition Hall and were in a central area where almost everyone wandering in would pass by our location eventually. Pearl staff and family took turns at the booth and it was an excellent place to meet folks and answer questions about what our non-profit does in the world of psychedelic-assisted therapy. An endless stream of curious attendees came by and were given free stickers, Pearl brochures, tee shirts, hats, bracelets and the opportunity to register for a basket giveaway of Pearl-centric items. The name of the winner was drawn on Friday afternoon and NYC-based acupuncture specialist Tsao Lin Moy was our big winner! My personal highlight was when Mountain Girl (Carolyn Garcia) and her daughter Sunshine Kesey came by and I was able to give them each one of our Pearl stealie stickers. M.G. is someone I have briefly connected with at all of the previous Psychedelic Science conferences and she continues to be one of the kindest, most beautiful humans walking the planet.

This conference, for me, ended up being one of networking more than the previous ones so I was unable to make all of the presentations I had hoped to attend. However, some of the more notable ones I attended were James Fadiman’s video presentation on microdosing, Jose Carlos Bouso’s talk on a pilot study examining ibogaine in the treatment of methadone detoxification, a report on a study using psilocybin to treat OCD, a trial using LSD to treat metastatic cancer induced bone pain and Dick Schwartz talking about “IFS as a Safe and Deep Healing Map to Psychedelic Territory.” But the most moving and exciting presentation was the one on “Effects of Psilocybin-Facilitated Experience on Religious Leaders from the Johns Hopkins and NYU study” presented by Tony Bossis, Roland Griffiths and Cody Swift. In this study, twenty four religious clergy representing over 16 different religious organizations participated in two high-dose psilocybin sessions to explore how these experiences may affect them. This study is soon-to-be-published so the results were only briefly discussed but what was reported was astounding. In general, the experiences were highly significant to each participant and in my interpretation, seemed to break down some of the barriers that humans have constructed between religions suggesting that beyond the cultural clothing of each, there is a similar core spiritual element they all share. As Rick Doblin suggested, this study could be the most important study thus far in the psychedelic renaissance and I am inclined to agree. I would highly advise checking out the two papers that are forthcoming from this study. Truly groundbreaking stuff.

It’s always a little sad when these conferences come to an end. It’s kind of like a big family reunion that is always growing and reminds that one is not alone in their interest in this burgeoning field of research and treatment. What used to be a fringe element of psychology and psychiatry is no longer and that, my friends, is a good thing. It is also apparent to me that this genie is not going back into the bottle thanks to the intrepid work of the psychedelic pioneers, the solid science supporting the recent and current research and (unlike the 1960s and 1970s) the vast and seemingly endless influence of the internet. However, every single one of us has a solemn responsibility to do no harm and to continue to help shepherd these medicines into mainstream acceptance with the utmost respect and humility these compounds demand and deserve. We still have much to learn but thanks to MAPS and the vision of Rick Doblin, we are much further down the road. Thank you MAPS for a wonderful PS2023 and I look forward to the next one!


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