DENVER — Months after Colorado’s voters decided to join Oregon in decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms, Denver will host a conference this week put on by a psychedelic advocacy group bringing together an unlikely cohort of speakers — including an NFL star, a former Republican governor and a rapper.
The thousands of people expected to attend the conference is an indicator of the cultural acceptance of psychedelics, which proponents claim may be beneficial for post-traumatic disorder or alcoholism. Medical experts warn that further research on the efficacy of these drugs and their risks is required.
NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’ll soon debut with the New York Jets after years with the Green Bay Packers, has been open about his use of ayahuasca in the past and is slated to speak Wednesday. Jaden Smith will also be in Denver. The son of Will Smith has spoken publicly about the ‘ego dissolution’ he experienced when he used psychedelics. Rick Perry, who is an advocate for researching psychedelics’ potential benefits for veterans experiencing PTSD.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is the biggest advocacy group in the United States. Nicolas Langlitz is a scientist and historian who has studied the rise and fall of the psychedelic movement.
“Overall, this strategy has been tremendously successful,” he said. “At the time when any topic gets politically polarized, ironically these super polarizing substances now get bipartisan support.”
Still, Langlitz said, this conference is “purely designed to promote the hype,” which can exaggerate the potential benefits but can also drive further funding.
” Any kind of overselling for science is bad because it should not be pushing products. It’s an exchange. (The conference) generates interest, it generates ultimately more research, even though the research might be skewed toward positive results.”
Psychedelics are illegal at the federal level, though acceptance and interest in studying their potential benefits has grown. Researchers believe that psilocybin (the compound found in psychedelic mushroom) can change the organization of the brain and help people overcome depression or alcoholism.
The drugs themselves — and the interest in them — are not new. In the mid-nineteenth century, Aldous Kesey and Ken Kesey, two authors, encouraged the use of psychedelics in the counterculture. Some psychologists were optimistic about the potential for the drugs to enhance the human mind.
But, the Nixon administration banned psychedelics and pushed them underground.
“In each case, you can see an exuberant enthusiasm that is either rational or not,” says Michael Pollan who will speak at the conference. He wrote a book about psychedelics. “But I think a big difference (now) is that the enthusiasm for the potential of psychedelics cuts across a much more representative slice of the population — it’s not about a counterculture.”
Republican strongholds, including Utah and Missouri, have or are considering commissioning studies into the drugs, partly inspired by veterans’ poignant stories. That’s why, though he stops short of promoting recreational use, Perry has become an unlikely flagbearer and helped get a bill passed in the Texas legislature in 2021 to fund a study of psilocybin for treating PTSD.
In Congress, successful proposals to fund psychedelic research for PTSD in veterans brought progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York and far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz from Florida into an unlikely alignment.
Public interest appears to also be increasing. Just six years ago in Oakland, California, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies held a conference with roughly 3,000 attendees and a smattering of lesser-known speakers and die-hard proponents.
This time, organizers estimate at least 10,000 attendees. Other famous speakers will include former NHL player Daniel Carcillo, who owns a company specializing in psychedelic therapies; Olympic silver-medal figure skater Sasha Cohen; comedians Reggie Watts and Eric Andre, top-10 podcaster Andrew Huberman; and Carl Hart, the chair of Columbia University’s psychology department.
The American Psychiatric Association hasn’t endorsed the treatment of psychedelics ,, noting that the Federal Drug Administration is yet to make a decision. The FDA did designate psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” in 2018, a label that’s designed to speed the development and review of drugs to treat a serious condition. MDMA, often called ecstasy, also has that designation for PTSD treatment.
Both Pollan and Langlitz believe further research is key — especially as the nation faces an unprecedented mental health crisis and people struggle to find adequate treatment. But, Langlitz said, it’s important to let research shape the narrative.
“I would just try to keep my mind open to the possibility that in retrospect we will tell a very different story from the one that the protagonists of psychedelic therapies are currently predicting,” he said.
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America, a national nonprofit service program, places journalists into local newsrooms in order to cover undercovered topics.
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