What Happens When You Put 300 Experts on Psychedelics in the Same Room?

By Alfa · Sep 27, 2008 · Updated Oct 14, 2008 · ·
  1. Alfa
    What Happens When You Put 300 Experts on Psychedelics in the Same Room?

    By Steven Wishnia, AlterNet. Posted September 25, 2008.

    View attachment 6095 The "Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics" conference in New York presented an older and wiser psychedelic movement.

    The waves of mass psychedelic utopianism have come and gone, but the hippie movement of the late '60s echoes in the rave scene of the '90s. And there's a small but devoted community of scientists, spiritual seekers, artists and grown-up hedonists exploring the value of these drugs.

    The "Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics" conference, held in New York Sept. 19-21, sought to present an older and wiser psychedelic movement, focusing on medicine, art, spirituality and culture. It drew around 300 people, a mix of academic and hippie types, with the white button-down shirts slightly outnumbering the dreadlocks and the NASA T-shirts.

    Psychedelics are "the most powerful psychiatric medicine ever devised," said psychotherapist Neal Goldsmith, who curated the speakers. But because the way they work as medicine -- when used in the proper setting -- is by generating mystical experiences, "science has to expand." Solid research, he added, could change government policy, which classifies psychedelics as dangerous drugs with no accepted medical use.

    The most promising current medical research, said Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is in coupling MDMA (Ecstasy) with intensive psychotherapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Preliminary studies, he said, have had "very encouraging results" with patients who did not respond to talk therapy and conventional medications.

    The group hopes to win FDA approval within 10 years. But pharmaceutical companies aren't interested -- the MDMA molecule is in the public domain, the number of pills used in the therapy is unprofitably low, and the drug is controversial. So the model for developing it, Doblin said, will probably be along the lines of Planned Parenthood's support for RU486.

    The lines between disciplines were often blurred at the conference. Purdue University pharmacologist David Nichols called himself a "reductionist scientist" but said it's fantastic that one-tenth of a milligram of a drug can stay in the brain for four hours and permanently change someone's worldview. Artist Alex Grey showed slides of his tripping-inspired paintings and videos of iridescent, morphing eyes, fish and worms, presenting them as signals from a "visionary culture" that seeks to redeem the world, with a "group soul" supplanting a culture that spends $38 billion a second on war. Artists, said animator Isaiah Saxon, can fill the role of the shaman in an industrial society that has no other space for it.

    Spirituality is a key point for many users. Gabrielle, a 32-year-old mother of two, said tripping makes her lose her ego and become a part of something greater. "Nature wants us to understand we're all equal," she said, recalling an ayahuasca experience in a California forest during which she saw screens of intricate, fine-colored strings and watched the redwoods rejoice when the life-giving fog rolled in. When you realize your part in the universe, said Craig Reuter, 25, you become aware of how responsible you are for your actions, because "everything you do ripples out like drops of water in a giant pond of existence." Sue, a 45-year-old teacher, said psychedelics help her become introspective, to focus on right-brain imagery instead of the language/verbal domain.

    Canadian psychoanalyst Dan Merkur listed five ways in which cultures have used psychedelics for spiritual transformation: the "mass religious revival" of the hippies; the training of religious specialists such as shamen; group ritual use such as indigenous ayahuasca and peyote ceremonies; initiation rites such as the use of ibogaine by the Bwiti of Gabon; and their more recent Western use in therapy. Some former heroin users have reported success in using ibogaine to treat their addiction.

    Sasha and Ann Shulgin, the authors of PIHKAL (Phenylethylamines I Have Known and Loved) and TIHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved), are cult figures in the psychedelic world. Sasha Shulgin, a white-bearded chemist, develops psychedelics in his lab. Ann, his wife, joins him in taking them, and their books catalog the drugs' effects. They deflected the crowd's adulation with dry humor, saying that while tripping can be great for feeling like one being during sex, they don't see the same images.

    "I'm not a regular drug user," Sasha answered when asked what his favorite chemical was. "Except for red wine," his wife interjected.

    Ann Shulgin, a lay therapist, cautioned that taking MDMA more than four times a year undermines the drug's magic. Though it's a wonderful drug for therapy, she said, it's selfish and wasteful for therapists to take it during a session. "You have to pay attention to the patient's insight," she explained.

    Such caution was a main theme of the conference. Doblin counseled that "patience is the fastest way" to get drugs like MDMA accepted as legitimate medicine. If proponents of psychedelics want to forestall a backlash, he said, they need to avoid the mistakes of the past, such as when Timothy Leary huckstered LSD as a hedonistic cultural panacea. (Leary told Playboy in 1966 that "in a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms.")

    In 1961, Doblin noted, Harvard psychology professor David McClelland warned of several disturbing elements in Leary's psilocybin project. The emphasis on mysticism could lead to withdrawal from society. The initiates often acted superior to those who had never tripped. Their feelings of cosmic oneness with humanity didn't stop them from being insensitive to individuals. Their faith in the omnipotence of thought denied reality. And their spontaneity was a good thing, but not when it also spawned irresponsibility.

    Saxon, who collaborated on the animation for Bjork's "Wanderlust" video, creating a three-dimensional Arctic dreamscape of grassy tundra, tendril-filled streams and prehistoric-looking bighorn sheep, said he'd taken psilocybin while conceiving the video, but not while actually executing it. And though Alex Grey and his wife, Allyson, suggested using psychedelics in rituals to initiate teenagers into adulthood, they also warned, "you want to have an ego before you try transcending it."

    Several speakers stated flatly that they were not interested in recreational use. But many people at the conference never would have connected to the more serious aspects of psychedelia otherwise. Brian Jackson, 36, an audio engineer and musician, says he hasn't tripped in a long time, partly because New York City is "not a very conducive environment" for it and partly because he outgrew the rave scene, but that getting high on psychedelics moved him to consider their medical possibilities and act against prohibition. Author Daniel Pinchbeck said the lines between recreational and spiritual use are not necessarily clear, and that rave-style partying can lead to "group bonding."

    Saxon probably had the most cogent line on the question: "On a large dose, you don't have control of whether it's recreational."

    What would be the social consequences of a psychedelic renaissance? If Leary was right, religious-psychology specialist Robert Forte posited, drugs like LSD could make people less susceptible to far-right propaganda, because they feel a "sea of love."

    On the other hand, although washing away your normal sense of reality for a while can be enlightening, abandoning your normal rational skepticism can be dangerous in a society full of capitalist, religious and political mind scams -- especially those that come in a "countercultural" or "anti-Establishment" package.

    In the conference's closing session, Pinchbeck suggested that the current renaissance in psychedelic culture came about because Saturn was at right angles to Pluto. And when one audience member asked who doubted the "official 9/11 story," more than half the crowd raised their hands. Forte then began spouting a mix of 9/11 conspiracy theory and erroneous Holocaust history -- and confessed that Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered the effects of LSD in 1943, had told him shortly before his death that he thought the Jews had been behind the attacks.

    While getting out of the verbal, logical realm and into the intuitive can also be stimulating, the advertising industry has spent more than half a century refining ways to exploit people's sensitivity to visual, symbolic stimuli. There are breath-mint commercials that explode in images as trippy as anything in the Fillmore Auditorium light shows of 1968.

    Ultimately, however, all that just reinforces that psychedelics are a powerful tool, not a panacea. Though the Fender Stratocaster guitar and the Marshall amplifier are masterpieces of sonic technology, buying them isn't going to enable you to play like Jimi Hendrix unless you also have a lot of talent, experience and soul.

    "I think time evens all this out," said Goldsmith. "There is just as much need for paradigm-breaking, innovative thinking, as there is to rein in the nonsense."

    In an 2007 essay titled "The Ten Lessons of Psychedelic Psychotherapy, Rediscovered," Goldsmith posited a "poetry science," a "worldview that can accommodate shamanic states and quantum mechanics." Integrating the communal spirituality of tribalism and the objective observations of modernity, this would comprehend human consciousness as a complex synthesis of the quantifiable realm of neurochemical reactions and the ineffable world of thoughts and emotions, a natural miracle far greater than the sum of its parts.


    Share This Article


  1. RaverHippie
    I couldn't afford the admission price :(
  2. Expat98
    Sounds like overall it was a great conference with a lot of bright people who are making serious and valuable efforts to promote a better understanding of psychedelics. But...

    Sigh... These types of people are a real weight on the efforts of others to try and advance the study of psychedelics. I guess that's part of what's going to happen when you put 300 "experts" on psychedelics in the same room. I kind of think the best way forward is for the more serious researchers and spiritual thinkers to distance themselves from these quacks.
  3. Figaro
    I guess you guys know that if a Heroin addicts get on psychodelics mostly LSD or Ibogain. They will not feel the withdrawl effect, and some claim that because of their trip on psychodelics they do no longer use opiates.
  4. Nacho
    It used to be used medically for that reason but, because of the whole "unpredictable effects due to mentall illnesses in the family", it's not the safest thing. I find it funny that I'm talking about mental illnesses when you typed "psychodelics" instead of "psychedelics". :laugh: I digress...

    I don't know what to say about it. The "right angle with pluto" dealy was a big turn off.
  5. Heretic.Ape.
    I consider it rather a shame that of all the people to be potentially be gaining quite a bit of spotlight as a psychedelic figure one is Dan Pinchbeck. Guy is a flake, a loon. Not to mention a narcissist. Breaking Open the Head was fairly good aside from disliking the guy as a self-congratulating pseudo-intellectual, but it became rather apparent that he was really slipping in 2012.
  6. Panthers007
    Nice to see this still goes on.

    I was at a similar venue in 1979 in Toronto calling itself (they take on a life) the Symposium on the Humanities. Not strictly devoted to psychedelics due to attempting a facade of respectability - the underlying current swept all into such. From Joseph Campbell giving a series on "The Masks of God" to Richard Alpert sputtering out his nascent Buddhist interplay with "New-Age Therapy" - it covered a wide spectrum. I delivered a piece on the newly-created therapeutic and psychenautic ramifications of MMDA & MDMA. All conjecture, of course...We all walked out with steamer-trunks of new data to use as templates and maps.

    If you ever get a chance to attend such a serious gathering - GO! Money? Someone will let you in.
  7. Alfa
    With subjects like 2012, you are bound to attract conspiracy theorists and people with very extra-ordinary world perception. It has really amazed me that academic oriented conferences like this which try to establish scientific foundation, add this anti-scientific topic to their program.
    It would more suit a new age conference.
  8. Nature Boy
    Unfortunately psychedelics are often lumped into these non-mainstream circles that draw ridicule on some of the more valuable aspects of their use. Conferences such as these shouldn't get political. I think you're spot on, Alfa.
  9. Beeker
    You have to remember that the guys who do these conferences, like McKenna, have to style everything to please a target audience.

    If you are hired to do a UFO conference then best style your talking points around unexplained alien visions while on DMT. These guys have to sell books and that takes making everyone happy. No matter how whacky the theories are.

    If I had a book to publish, I wouldn't style anything around 2012. Even if I was just a dude trying to make a fast buck off conspiracy theory and the 2012 date. It's so close now that after 2012 rolls on by, anyone who actually pushed theories on '2012' will be a joke covered with aluminum foil hats very soon.

    I have a theory about 2012 ... 2013 will follow it.
  10. Panthers007
    "Elvis is coming back in 2012!"

    You could hold a 2012-Con (koff!>) across town from a real conference to draw the nutjobs away from the serious folks. And make a fortune off them in the bargain.
  11. Expat98
    But this was not a "UFO conference" as you put it. Look again at the people who were present. There were some serious scientists, psychotherapists, and spiritual thinkers. And then there were also the quacks. The point was that maybe it's not a great idea to invite Pinchbeck types to a conference devoted to "serious" thought about psychedelics. Eliminate the Pinchbecks and you'll eliminate their target audience too.

    Psychedelic research IS a very multi-disciplinary field. But that doesn't mean that EVERYONE has to be allowed in to present their "Saturn at right angles to Pluto" views.
  12. Beeker
    Good point. You wouldn't invite a Creationist to a Biology conference.
  13. Rehab Quitter
    very nice post and some excellant points

    its such a shame that pschedelics have such a stigma attached, it just seems like everything now thats beneficial, by simplistic irony is denied this case especially.

    swim cannot see why willing educated people should not be given the TOOLS under controlled enviroment, even on a trial basis if its such a complex area make the patients sign a waver as such permitting them for legal action then theyve covered there own arses.

    if historys anything to go by it will HELP alot of people all we can do is wish them luck
  14. Panthers007
    I believe any stigma people perceive about psychedelics can be quickly dispelled with a few coherent sentences spoken by a well-known author and scientist. Preferably a doctor - and not named 'Leary.' Fact is, the people are wide-open and don't know what to think. That's why I believe conferences like this one above are very important. Now weed the garden. Dis-invite the kooks. And invite the media to the next one.
  15. enquirewithin
    This is not one of Alternet's better articles, although they do publish good ones. The writer would know that "abandoning your normal rational skepticism can be dangerous in a society full of capitalist, religious and political mind scams -- especially those that come in a "countercultural" or "anti-Establishment" package." Did we need the same "Doctor X" photo of Shulgin again?

    Is it true that Robert Forte "confessed that Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered the effects of LSD in 1943, had told him shortly before his death that he thought the Jews had been behind the [9/11] attacks." If so, can he prove Hoffman said that?

    I agree these conferences need scientists not pseudo-intellectuals like Pinchbeck (at least the preposterous Bruce Eisner wasn't there). Maybe in four year's time I'll be eating my words when Quetzalcoatl breaks open my head!

  16. savingJenniB
    Baby Steps! Nothing radical. No fast moves. Using psychedelics and psycho-active plants for the betterment of society is an idea whose time will come.

    Change the approach. My Aunt does botanical presentations and educational programs to variety of garden societies. She presents enthno-botanical uses of some of these plants ~ gets these garden ladies to think about "drugs" on a different plane. Loose the War on Drugs stigma.

    If someone considers that using this plant can contribute quality ~ can enrich their own lifestyle . . . . that opens doors. The doors of perception. The message does not need to be radical. It can be kind and gentle.

  17. Greenport

    It's already on the way :) That will be our generation when we're older
To make a comment simply sign up and become a member!