Is there a good side to psychedelics?
October 1, 2009
By Jen Kim
From the audience, a middle aged woman raised her hand and shared
that she had recently come out of the "psychedelic closet" to her
twenty something children. They had told her about their experiences
with Ecstasy, so she was curious to try the drug herself. At 51 years
old, she had experienced her first "trip."
This was just one example of the unorthodox stories told at Horizons'
third annual conference on psychedelics, which took place September
26-27, 2009 in New York City. Hosted by Judson Memorial Church, a
venue that has long advocated social justice, free speech, and
progressive politics, Horizons was founded by Kevin Balktick in New
York City to share fresh perspectives on the role of psychedelics in
medicine, culture, history, spirituality, and art. The conference
invites experts, researchers, and scholars who all share an intimate
knowledge of psychedelic drug use to discuss developments in
research, debunk myths, and ultimately educate the public about this
esoteric sub culture.
Over the two-day event, speakers lectured on topics ranging from
"Making Sense of Mushrooms" to "Psychedelic Harm
Reduction--Rethinking the 'Bad Trip.'" Speaking on behalf of
psilocybin, Andy Letcher, a writer, academic lecturer, and musician
from Oxford, discussed his personal experiences while under the
influence of "magic mushrooms" as well as explaining mushrooms'
significance in the context of shamanism and mysticism over the last
Similarly, Valerie Mojeiko, from the Multidisciplinary Association
for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit pharmaceutical company
and educational organization which conducts clinical trials under the
US FDA with psychedelic medicines like MDMA (Ecstasy), LSD, and
psilocybin, shared her experiences with Ecstasy as a teenager, which
inspired her present career choice. Mojeiko discussed being a guinea
pig herself for certain drug trials, and advocated the beneficial
uses of certain drugs, noting successful treatment of Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD) with MDMA as an example.
Earth and Fire Erowid, co-creators of Erowid.org, a non commercial
website that collects data and publishes original research on
visionary plants and drugs, humorously discussed copy-cat legal drugs
mostly available in Europe that mimic the effects of their illegal
counterparts. One of the more notable copy-cats is "Spice," which was
developed in 2006 in Germany and ostensibly emulated the effects of
cannabis. The Erowids revealed that "Spice" was, in fact, produced by
pharmaceutical drug company Pfizer, and was recently outlawed once
researchers discovered its ingredients (particularly CP 47, 497) were
more potent than cannabis, itself. Their website, which garners over
one million hits monthly, is devoted to providing fair, honest, and
current information about drug research.
Part hippy-commune, part academic lecture, Horizons offered a weird
but informative look into today's pervasive yet uncommercial drug
culture. One that Letcher describes as the most available and
accessible in history, thanks to technology and the Internet.
Audience members were also encouraged to speak about their own
psychedelic experiences and engage in thoughtful panel discussions
with guests. Star speakers came from such venerable institutions like
NYU and UCLA, where they actively work with FDA-approved psychedelic
medical research programs.
The general theme of the conference was to advocate an open
mindedness to psychedelic drug usage. Speakers frequently referenced
Native Americans and other cultures that safely used drugs as part of
sacred rituals and cited examples where psychedelics successfully
treated health problems. For instance, educational pamphlets
available at the conference boasted LSD as curing founder of
Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson of alcoholism and described
Psychologist Gary Fisher's success in treating childhood autism with LSD.
In such a positive environment, it was difficult to see the downers
of psychedelics, but Mojeiko's presentation did focus on how to deal
with a "bad trip" and turn it into a good one. Furthermore, other
speakers discussed general warnings, risks, and hazards regarding
improper drug use. Perhaps the most surprising fact was learning that
fatalites attributed to psychedelics are exceptionally rare. In fact,
Balktick shares that there has been only one recorded LSD fatality,
attributed to injecting 3,000 doses.
Horizons definitely raised new insight and legitimacy to this
otherwise notoriously vilified drug culture.
Jen Kim is a PT intern.