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The largest psychedelic conference in history is surprisingly sane

The walls of psychedelic prohibition are crumbling. What comes next?

A person onstage in front of a large colorful screen that reads “The future is psychedelic.”
The opening address at the Psychedelic Science 2023 conference in Denver, Colorado.
Oshan Jarow
Oshan Jarow is a Future Perfect fellow, where he focuses on economics, consciousness studies, and varieties of progress. Before joining Vox, he co-founded the Library of Economic Possibility, where he led policy research and digital media strategy.

This week, I went to the Psychedelic Science conference in Denver, Colorado, where more than 11,000 scientists, artists, investors, and uncategorizable members of the psychedelic community gathered to both celebrate and scrutinize as the “walls of prohibition start to crumble,” in the words of Bia Labate, executive director of the Chacruna Institute. It’s likely the biggest psychedelics conference in history.

“Welcome to the psychedelic ‘20s,” cheered Rick Doblin, founder of the conference’s host, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, at the welcome address — while sporting an all-white suit that may as well have been plucked from Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test chronicler Tom Wolfe’s closet.

The psychedelic hype bubble is already concerning many in the community, so let’s not exaggerate the scale: Well over half a million people attended the recent parade celebrating the Denver Nuggets NBA finals victory over the Miami Heat. Comparatively, psychedelia remains relatively niche. But a sampling of 11,000 people from the psychedelic community punches above its weight in creating a palpable, colorful, and ever-surprising atmosphere. During Doblin’s opening address, a sort of collective effervescence buzzed through the auditorium. For many in the room, an above-ground psychedelic gathering of this size and stature was decades in the making. “I’m not tripping — culture is tipping,” said Doblin.

Psychedelic culture is back, but it looks a little different

It’s tempting to write about all the oddities that come along with a mass congregation of psychedelic-curious folks. And there were plenty: attendees wearing sparkling dragon outfits; a ukulele band stationed in the main hallway attracting a rotating cast of passers-by into a sort of ecstatic but strangely relaxing dance; a “Deep Space” exhibit room — a neon-lit warehouse, really — with tea ceremonies and real-time painting. Outside the convention center, hundreds of people sat upon the patches of turf in every sort of posture you can imagine, with circles of police officers dotting the perimeter.

But the real story that strikes me is the sanity of it all. The conference logistics ran relatively smoothly. Audience members were mostly well-behaved. I haven’t been offered illicit substances even once (the press badge around my neck may have something to do with that). In part, that makes sense for a conference where the three-day tickets start at $805. For all the talk of inclusion, that’s a steep price of entry that surely screened out some of the fun. Nevertheless, this cross-section of psychedelia might optimistically suggest a synthesis between the bacchanalia of the ’60s and the straight-laced, bureaucratic vibe familiar to today’s conference culture.

During that ’60s era, psychedelia and government stood at odds. At Wednesday’s opening ceremony, Doblin was followed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, as well as current Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who voiced his support for pardoning all criminal convictions related to psychedelic drugs.

Next was Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Promising results from clinical trials are recruiting governmental allies across the aisle, something the hippies lacked. Psychedelics are still illegal at the federal level, but that’s not stopping states from passing legislation that ranges from decriminalizing the cultivation, possession, and sharing of psychedelic substances, to regulated access at certified clinics for anyone over the age of 21.

Spread across the long halls of the Colorado Convention Center, sessions were grouped into one of 11 different categories, ranging from science and business to society and community. I bopped into a crowded room where Hamilton Morris (the journalist and chemist behind Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia) chronicled 90 years of tryptamine chemistry. The handful of psychedelic drugs we’re familiar with today — which have already caused such a ruckus — hardly scratch the surface of the thousands of psychedelic compounds chemists are discovering. Earlier this year, Jason Wallach, a pharmacologist at St. John’s University, filed for a patent on 218 novel psychedelic drugs, which he hopes will help fill out the inventory of mental health treatment options. (At a later session on AI-assisted drug discovery, Michael Cunningham, a research scientist at Gilgamesh Pharmaceuticals, said that the number of potential small molecules yet to be discovered vastly outnumbers the quantity of stars in the observable universe).

In the afternoon, I moseyed over to hear Robin Carhart-Harris, a professor of neurology and a leading researcher in the psychedelic science realm. At the moment of my entrance, he was describing how brain activity grows more “entropic” on psychedelics. You might recognize entropy as what the second law of thermodynamics tells us the universe is tending toward: disorder. In terms of the brain, you can think of it as the unpredictability of electrical activity.

Entropy is also a fitting theme for the conference at large, which otherwise resists being packaged into a tidy narrative. Everything from the outfits to the art installations is spiced with unpredictability. Even the weather, which delivered a quick bout of hail Thursday night, was surprising. In the brain, heightened entropy can help shake up harmful patterns of thought and behavior. As a culture, psychedelia — at its best — can serve a similar function: shaking up settled patterns, inviting opportunities for new ways of organizing ourselves, our institutions, and maybe even our academic conferences.

Balancing the chemistry and neuroscience, the keynote stage featured speakers like football star Aaron Rodgers and the rapper/artist Jaden Smith (like psychedelics, he’s a little difficult to place). Asked about his first psychedelic experience, Smith shared that he did literally hug a tree, and in that moment, thought: “Oh, wow, there’s a lot going on inside of here.”

Does psychedelic experience have broader political implications?

High-entropy psychedelic states that shake up settled patterns, alone, do not offer reliable pathways to making anything better. That’s why psychedelics are now often paired with therapy, which provides a structured experience to guide one toward beneficial outcomes. Is it possible to structure the cultural impact of psychedelics so that, this time around, it doesn’t plummet into moral panic and prohibition as it did in the ’60s?

The metaphor often deployed here is integration. For individuals taking psychedelics through clinical or legalized adult-use formats, a session with a therapist usually follows the day after the trip to integrate the experience. Across a number of panel discussions, participants have suggested that integrating psychedelic experience at the cultural scale requires wholesale systemic change.

Often, this sort of thing is usually followed by a few vague critiques of capitalism or the profit motive. “Don’t forget,” said Jamie Wheal, a writer and co-founder of the Flow Genome Project, “the set and setting of the psychedelic renaissance is free-market capitalism.”

Quibbles over the imprecision of calling the present economic paradigm free-market capitalism aside, the political implications of psychedelics are a rich and unsettled area of debate. “Our minds shape our social structures, and our social structures shape our minds,” said Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana, during a talk titled “Rebuilding society in the light of mystical insight.”

There was no disagreement in the crowd when it comes to ending the prohibition on psychedelic drugs (though how that should be done is another story). The political interests of psychedelic discourse, though, tend toward far larger spheres. “If we’re going to have a conversation about drug policy endgame, the endgame is complete social transformation,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. What does that mean in practice?

The hippies also held a famously antagonistic view toward prevailing economic structures. But their engagement with policy discourse wasn’t up to the task of achieving meaningful change.

If the conference was any indication, this new iteration of psychedelic culture is more willing to speak the language of decision-making institutions (another source of polarized debate). There is a new dose of prudence in the air. Panelists discussed the absolute importance of informed consent, the slim-but-real risks of psychosis (particularly for those with a family history), and the value of clinical research. A keynote conversation between Michael Pollan and Bob Jesse (a behind-the-scenes driver of the movement for decades) was titled “Tempering psychedelics,” in which Pollan reflected on the virtues of opening conversations around psychedelics with their risks. But if psychedelic culture is an unpredictable force of entropy, you never know what turns it may take next.

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