Psychedelic Science 2017: a political perspective

It was a beautiful experience in itself to attend the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference held in Oakland, California, organised by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in conjunction with the UK’s version, the Beckley Foundation. Over 2,500 attendees of all ages attended, numerous scientific talks were presented on the latest research into a range of psychotropic substances, which all happened in an impressive venue; various stalls and psychedelic or “visionary” art, music and psychotropic superfoods were offered for our enjoyment; workshops, films and discussions on the possibilities of ending the brutal drug war that has claimed so many lives and incarcerated so many otherwise law-abiding people were presented in further rooms across the Marriot Hotel complex were a constant source of education and discussion and inspiration.

But if one is willing to notice it (and one must), the demographic of such events may be cause for concern. Yes, there are people from different ethnic groups, but not many, the vast majority seeming to come from the usual white, middle class, affluent groupings you see also in new age and personal development fields, as well as the sober, suited middle-aged white men you might see in any medical practice or perhaps pharmaceutical company board room. The price of a three-day festival running into several hundred dollars makes the accessibility for those from a lower economic status a difficult prospect, and perhaps there are other reasons too. There was talk towards the end about the possibility of extending scholarship funding to allow greater access, but a deeper and more frank discussion has to be developed about this exclusivity and what it means politically in the research and the future strategy for an effective social campaign against prohibition and the devastating effect it has on society.

MAPS makes no secret of the fact that in the 1980s their policy committee specifically distanced the organisation from the countercultural element of the psychedelic hippy culture of the 1960s and 70s, the likes of Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna. In one sense this made perfect sense and has no doubt been of help in gaining respectability among the very policy makers and medical professionals they need to convince. Of course, these bastions of the psychedelic underground still draw a sizeable portion of the largely affluent young, white crowd, who ride on the back of that intellectual and spiritual rebelliousness.

But visionary art selling for $28,000 a pop may leave some wondering whether this is all just an elitist exercise in pseudo-radical posturing. That MAPS is looking for at least $25 million in funding for the third phase of their FDA-approved MDMA research, may leave one wondering just what deals need to be made either consciously or unconsciously with corporate finance in order for medically approved prescription psychedelics to become part of the psychiatrist’s choice toolbox. Psychedelic remedies to treat the damage that our present neoliberal system inflicts on individuals, and by extension our society and planet, will hardly be lessened much less eradicated were approval to be gained.

But there is cause for optimism, which I found in the midst of this a festival mainly centred in white male privilege and reductionist scientific cheerleading. One of the talks I attended was with a panel of speakers all involved in some way with marginalised communities of colour and indigenous groups, who raised concerns about diversity and representation at these groups, as well as key issues regarding cultural appropriation of the increasingly faddish trend among westerners in using Ayahuasca, Peyote and San Pedro among other sacred plants, either in authentic, semi authentic or increasingly westernised pseudo ceremonies. Additionally, scientists are also researching the neurological effects of these plants, and are increasingly isolating the active chemicals in these substances for further study. The variety of research is phenomenal and many would agree it is needed, but is the right respect being shown to the cultural heritage around these concoctions or indeed of the communities whose habitat is being destroyed in ever-greater ways by our corporate western culture?

What are we moving towards? Is this just a space for the new elite? How can the rest of us bring our contribution and show due respect to other cultures while keeping our own authenticity? How can we look at the drug war, which disproportionately affects people of colour and those of lower socioeconomic status, in a light that allows for prohibition to be seen in the context of draconian laws, which disproportionately affects people outside the hippy demographic? What are the festival-goers and Burners and the like actually doing to agitate for constructive change? Are we stuck in psychedelic spiritual bypassing, thinking our psychedelic experiences, our visionary art, our funky moulded leather “tribal” wear selling at $250 a belt or $700 a calf-skin jacket, is going to create a “psychedelic tribe” that will bring in a new world of enlightened beings who will bring about utopia?

And what of conventional psychiatry, which is built on a discrete scientific and medical model, which sees the individual as separate in space and time from their surroundings. Mental anxiety and anguish is often treated on a case-by-case basis, rather than recognised as the product of collective anxiety emerging from a set of human and environmental relationships existing within a fundamentally dysfunctional society. How do we recognise that governmental prohibition of certain drugs is rooted in that same dysfunction and how do we move to a new perspective? That will be explored in part two.

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