What Happens When You Put 300 Experts on Psychedelics in the Same Room?
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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.
Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion , he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues. He is looking for a job.