Perceptions, platforms, and protecting sacred medicine: musings on Psychedelic Science 2023
Heading to psychedelic events is always a curious thing. Who’s going to be there, what new information do we have, and how will our community be represented? I always approach them with an inquisitive and open spirit, hoping only to absorb information and tell the story of my experience.
Occurring every four years or so, the Psychedelic Science conference is a true melting pot. Where else can you listen to a shamanic elder from the Amazon and a right-wing politician from Texas on the same day? What other event allows you to learn about cutting-edge research right after you take part in a human mandala ceremony?
Bringing together more than 12,000 attendees from around the world, close to 500 speakers covering all facets of the space, dozens of exhibitors representing everything from functional mushroom brands to ecstatic dance coaches, and a wide array of visionary artists, this year’s Psychedelic Science conference in Denver was beyond massive.
And while the event and its many affiliated dinners, workshops, and parties were a wonderful celebration of the incredible advancements being made in the emerging psychedelic space, tough conversations around appropriation and inequality were also raised. I couldn’t help but feel excited about the future while also feeling concerned about honoring the past.
Debate swirls around “psychedelic renaissance”
The intersection of cutting-edge research, mainstream acceptance, and the colonization of sacred medicines was on many minds at Psychedelic Science, which was presented by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
Exploring the vast list of panels at the event, it was clear that organizers tried their best to represent all sides of the conversation—even if news coverage focused on celebrities like Aaron Rodgers and Jayden Smith (whose talks were far less well-attended than those by psychedelic superstars like Paul Stamets).
However, some still called into question if MAPS did enough to elevate marginalized voices, specifically Indigenous leaders and people of color.
Oakland Hyphae founder Reggie Harris and journalist Mary Carreón penned an open letter to MAPS published on the first day of the Psychedelic Science conference. The op-ed criticized organizers for the high cost of admission to the event but acknowledged MAPS for their efforts to offer need-based scholarships while thanking them for their support of Oakland Hyphae’s Juneteenth celebration.
“I found representation lacking (at the conference), but from what I saw, MAPS tried to do their very best to solve the problem, and from what they have told me, they’re committed to doing better—I believe them,” Harris told GreenState.
Later that week, a protest erupted in the Bellco Theater audience. A number of representatives of the Native Coalition, some of whom had spoken on a panel discussing Indiginous affinity, interrupted MAPS founder Rick Doblin during the closing keynote of the conference. The group accused MAPS of tokenizing Indigenous people and failing to provide adequate resources for community elders presenting at the show.
Doblin, facing pressure from the crowd to let the protestors speak, eventually gave the group time to address the audience.
“You have been deceived by this movement,” one Indigenous protestor named Kuthoomi Nirmal told the crowd. “This is not a collective liberation movement, this is a capitalization, and you’re stepping on our lands, you’re stepping on our medicines.”
GreenState attempted to reach out to the Native Coalition but did not get a response prior to publication. If we do make contact, we pledge to share their message.
When asked about the incident, representatives from MAPS sent GreenState a statement highlighting the organization’s commitment to equanimity.
“We dedicated significant time and financial resources to ensure that perspectives from across the psychedelic ecosystem – including many critical of MAPS – could be shared,” the statement said.
“We consider in-person gatherings to be an essential part of healthy movement building,” MAPS continued. “And we recognize the limitations of that approach, acknowledging the inherent inequity of in-person conferences and the marginalization of BIPOC or low-income communities in society at large and within the psychedelic field in particular. We endeavored to facilitate access to many people who could not otherwise afford to attend.”
MAPS officials also said a full conference report would be released in the coming months. The report will, among other things, “provide more insight into the opportunities to improve Psychedelic Science.”
The doors of perception
In my short time at Psychedelic Science, so many thoughts ran through my mind. There were moments of magic and inspiration, anxious tears triggered by doubting my place, and exciting realizations that more people than ever may be able to heal their emotional and physical wounds.
Despite all of the incredible information being disseminated at the conference, the calls to action in favor of protecting sacred medicine, and the thrilling advancements being made to increase access to revolutionary medicines, it at times felt as though these messages were being lost outside of the sprawling convention center.
Scrolling through the news (and my DMs), I mostly saw click-bait. The vast majority focused on the conversation between podcaster Aubrey Marcus and NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who discussed their mutual love for ayahuasca at length and the benefits sitting in ceremony can have on one’s life. However, a lot of reporting used the opportunity as a way to mock Rodgers, instead of highlighting the broader issues raised at Psychedelic Science.
One headline read, Aaron Rodgers Explains the Value of Watching Colleagues Vomit and Shit Simultaneously, a reference to the colloquial term “double platinum” that Rodgers and Marcus associated with purging during an ayahuasca journey.
I found myself a bit troubled. Despite being a longtime fan of the former Packers quarterback, I began to wonder if his association with the event would help elevate awareness around psychedelics or serve as more of a distraction. On the one hand, having a revered professional athlete discuss his own journey with psychedelics helps start conversations. But if the conversations are merely water cooler jokes that paint our movement in a less than serious light, what will the long-term ramifications be?
But hey, any press is good press, right?
I began thinking about conference as a whole, what messages were being disseminated within the halls of the sprawling Colorado Convention Center, and the perception of the psychedelic space in mainstream America. More people are clearly curious about these compounds and the potential they have, but the psychedelic space is still quite misunderstood—the narrative is still taking shape.
What is the future of the psychedelic landscape?
Overall, I was happy to see so many people show up at the Psychedelic Science conference. It was clear from the packed ballrooms and bustling expo floor that folks are activating to these compounds like never before. The energy was open, understanding, and powerful, with empathy superseding all emotions.
The MAPS event certainly created many conversations likely to continue long after people departed. There’s no doubt that the majority of attendees agree there are still many pressing questions that need to be addressed as the psychedelic industry moves forward.
How can we ensure cultures that have utilized compounds like psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT in rituals for centuries remain part of the narrative? What can we as a community do to support these voices while also understanding the need for clinical studies? And is it possible to have a utopian vision for the psychedelic future, where sacred practices and Western medicine co-exist in harmony?
These are complicated queries but not wholly impossible to dissect. Let’s hope that when the Psychedelic Science conference convenes again in a few years that we’ll start to have some answers.