Friday, September 26, 2008

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

Alternet reports on the Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference in New York and finds a more mature psychedelic movement.
What Happens When You Put 300 Experts on Psychedelics in the Same Room?

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

The waves of mass psychedelic utopianism have come and gone, the hippie movement of the late '60s and its electronic terpsichorean echo in the rave scene of the '90s. But 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," says 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 adds, 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 the disciplines often blurred. Purdue University pharmacologist John Nichols called himself a "reductionist scientist," but said it's fantastic that 1/10 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, says tripping makes her lose her ego and become a part of something greater. "Nature wants us to understand we're all equal," she says, recalling an ayahuasca experience in a California forest where 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, says 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, says 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.

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