Local nonprofit MAPS makes history with hit conference on psychedelic science
“The Tao Te Ching says, ‘Those who know don’t speak; those who speak don’t know,” psychologist William A. Richards, Ph.D., says to a large and colorful crowd on April 16. “But in science, we do the best we can. We just don’t know any better!”
Richards, whose talk outlined a study of the use of psilocybin for the treatment of end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients, was one of dozens of speakers at “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century,” a keenly anticipated conference that took place at a San Jose Holiday Inn from April 15-18. The event was presented by the Santa Cruz-based organization MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), an IRS-approved nonprofit working to legalize psychedelic drugs and marijuana as prescription drugs.
It was the largest conference on psychedelic science in four decades, drawing some 1,000 attendees—an unlikely mélange of suit-clad professionals and flamboyant galactic gypsies—curious to hear the latest findings on the clinical and spiritual uses of LSD, MDMA (better known as ecstasy), psilocybin (the key ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms), the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca and the psychoactive substance ibogaine.
Arguably the most impressive scientific data was presented by South Carolina psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer, M.D., who reported the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled 2004-2008 pilot study on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Only 15 percent of the group that was given MDMA still met the criteria for PTSD, while 85 percent of the placebo group still met these criteria. An average of three and a half years after the study, 81 percent of the participants (13 out of 16) still did not meet the criteria for PTSD, while 100 percent reported having benefited from the therapy.
Representing such institutions as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA and NYU, other presenters at the conference offered information on subjects like the use of ayahuasca to cure disease, the psychological and physiological effects of MDMA, the potential of drugs like LSD and MDMA as supplements to the treatment of autism and Asperger syndrome and the use of psychedelics to treat cluster headaches. The results of many such studies can be found under “R&D Medicines” at the MAPS website (maps.org).
Much of the buzz surrounding the event can be attributed to the newfound acceptance of these types of studies after a long moratorium on psychedelic research. Santa Cruz’s Jim Fadiman, Ph.D., who gave a presentation at the San Jose conference on Psychedelics as Entheogens, is enthusiastic about the resurgence of LSD research, which, before being banned in the mid-’60s, showed the drug to have great potential as an aid in the treatment of such disorders as psychopathology, drug and alcohol addiction and end-of-life depression and anxiety. “LSD was the single most researched psychiatric drug on the planet,” Fadiman recalls. “It was incredibly exciting and interesting.”
Randolph Hencken, M.A., B.S., is the director of communication and marketing at MAPS. He cites a cessation of hysteria as the reason this type of research is being allowed again after having been forbidden for so long.
“Frankly, a lot of the people who were really scared in the late ’60s and early ’70s are dying off,” he says. “People that are now at the helm of the FDA or other institutions where the research is happening are more likely to have come from that generation, and they’re not as scared by it.”
Fadiman echoes Hencken’s sentiments. “It’s now 40 years later, and there are these 23 million Americans who have had psychedelics,” he says. “They didn’t die; they didn’t go crazy; they weren’t transported to Mars. So they’re not as frightened by other people using them. And second of all, they’re in positions of power. They are the psychiatrists; they are the professors; they are the heads of law enforcement.”
Fadiman, who recommends the new website entheoguide.net to people interested in learning to use psychedelics in a safe, benefit-maximizing way, is currently writing a book called “Shattering Certainty: Using Psychedelics Wisely and Well.” He says he’s also collectisng reports on experiments with the use of “sub-perceptual doses” of psychedelic drugs (dosages too low to produce any noticeable effects) as cognitive enhancers. As an example of this practice’s alleged performance-boosting potential, Fadiman mentions that according to some medical students, the use of sub-perceptual doses of psychedelics makes it easier to memorize anatomy for tests. He adds that indigenous people know all about the benefits of micro-doses of psychedelics. “Again, we in the West are discovering what indigenous people have obviously figured out,” he says, chuckling.
One Westerner who is especially interested in indigenous cultures’ knowledge of psychedelic drugs is Santa Cruz’s Robert Forte, M.A., who gave a talk at the MAPS conference on the preliminary findings in a study of the use of ayahuasca and other indigenous medicines for the treatment of cancer. In 2009, Forte, a former UC Santa Cruz instructor who serves as adjunct assistant professor at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies, launched the first stage of a project that he plans to conduct over several years: He went to Peru with a man suffering from prostate cancer and a woman with ovarian cancer. After regularly taking ayahuasca for a month in combination with various non-psychoactive plants, the male patient returned to the United States to discover that his prostate cancer, which had been steadily on the rise for the previous five years, had dropped to where it had been five years before. The woman, on the other hand, was told by her doctor that there had been no improvement in her condition. However, it eventually came to light that her CA-125 (cancer antigen 125, a primary indicator of ovarian cancer) had gone down by a factor of five. “According to oncologists, if it changes by a half, up or down, it is significant,” Forte states. “A reduction like this is remarkable and demands a closer look.”
Forte also mentions that Donald Topping, a now-deceased professor of linguistics at University of Hawaii who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, lived eight years longer than expected after receiving ayahuasca treatment.
Though Forte seems enthusiastic to share news of the curative properties of indigenous flora, he fears that it could be disastrous if Western psychopharmacologists and molecular biologists were to go to Peru in an attempt to identify the material in these plants that was causing the treatment to work, as opposed to taking a more holistic approach. “These gentle, wonderful indigenous people have been the keepers of these plants,” he says. “They live in a more sustainable way until Western corporations go down there, find the drugs and continue to decimate these people and their lands. Many drugs have been isolated from Amazonian plants to the multibillion-dollar profits of Americans, while the communities that have been guarding them and learning from these mysteries become expendable.”
Proponents of drugs like ayahuasca and psilocybin have long believed these chemicals to be the ultimate cure for the “dominator” mentality that leads people to annihilate indigenous populations. Might their uses for positive change extend beyond the clinical? Yes, according to Hencken. “Our collective dream [at MAPS] is that at some point in the near future, people are able to take these drugs in a safe setting and use them not just for the treatment of an illness, but also for the betterment of themselves,” he says, “because the drugs have been used for millennia as rites of passage for many cultures and spiritual seekers.”