Below the Mainstreaming: A Review of Beyond Psychedelics
At the end of September the psychedelic community gathered together in Prague, Czech Republic, for the Beyond Psychedelics conference. Over three days, numerous speakers and psychedelic enthusiasts shared their revelations, insights, hopes and beliefs in what was a brilliantly delivered event – one that expertly combined cutting-edge research and an engaging community atmosphere.
Beyond Psychedelics took place in an industrial area of Prague in an old waterworks plant, the main hall of which resembled the high ceilings of a church, and which was adorned with slowly turning lights, shaped as cogs, rolling across the tall white walls. Two enormous water tanks flanked the projection screen in the centre, and doors led off from one side to delicious food and book stalls next door. There, stairs led up to a secondary track room upstairs and the walls were covered in eye-popping visionary art.
The event began with a Slovakian ceremony in a green field behind the waterworks. It involved an evocation of the local god of the underworld, and prayers to the cardinal points. Salt and bread were passed around the conference neophytes, along with water from a local sacred spring. Then from old magic, we made our way to a particular vision of the future in the main hall, where hundreds of people from the international psychedelic community sat patiently for the opening talk.
It began with Rick Doblin of MAPS giving his polished story about his own personal journey, along with his organisation’s particular view of a potential psychedelic mainstream. He described the dangerous world that psychedelic discourse was born into—the holocaust, Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and eventually the War on (some people who possess and supply some) Drugs. For Doblin, introducing psychedelics into the mainstream is a political act to help establish a safe world. In the US, MAPS has made an economic alliance with the military as part of their strategy to bring psychedelics back into mainstream medicine, and as part of “global psychedelic change”. Returning military personnel with PTSD cost the American taxpayer approximately $15 billion a year, which of course might potentially be averted by MAPS’ original raison d’être; MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
Along with the rapprochement with the Establishment, a number of other intentions that have developed in the MAPS vision over the last decade or so were discussed by Doblin. For instance, if they successfully move into Phase 3 of their plan later this year through meetings with the FDA, they intend to have clinics open within a few years wherein people can pay for their psychedelic treatments. Due to legal rules, it is likely only MAPS trained clinicians will be able to deliver this treatment initially, although they do intend to develop a licence system for psychedelic drug use. In this way the regulatory system will be extended out from simple healthcare, into the lives of individuals and perhaps worryingly into the festival arena as well. Licensed drug taking at festivals? I, personally, am not convinced that this is a particularly healthy development, but time no doubt will tell.
Outside the psychedelic top-down model, it was particularly engaging to see the meeting of so many psychedelic societies in Prague, groups which have begun to spring up all over the world, and many of whom gathered together for the first time at Beyond Psychedelics. There was talk of this grassroots movement working together for the global good, and it certainly has the power to invigorate. In one talk, Stephen Reid and Stefana Bosse discussed the incredible growth of Psychedelic Societies in the UK; a clever combination of education, political action and experience weekends. In a world without non-medical drug licenses, experience weekends appear to work out just fine.
It was great to see the UK faces like Drs. Ben Sessa, Robin Carhart-Harris, and David Luke, and was also wonderful to hear about the work being done in the Czech Republic by organisations such as the National Institute of Mental Health. Prof. Jiří Horáček, Deputy Director of the institute, gave a fascinating talk discussing the similarities and dissimilarities in the results of fMRI brain scans with psilocybin, ketamine, and cannabis – one interesting point he made was that the more psychedelic ketamine was, the more its therapeutic qualities appeared.
Coming from the UK, and largely having been involved with the history of psychedelics in that country and the US, the track discussing the research history in the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia was very enlightening. A long and venerable tradition! Iker Puente discussed its most famous psychedelic son, Stanislav Grof, who began his career in the former communist state, before emigrating to the US. And Ross Crockford gave an excellent talk on the Sdaská Hospital and the LSD research that was conducted there, including work with artists and the creative process.
Later in the conference, Dr Wendy Kline gave a very intriguing talk about the effect of Grof’s Transpersonal Psychology on countercultural medicine and the home birth movement of the 1970s – examining how the emphasis of Grof’s perinatal matrices helped galvanise new understandings about the methods employed around childbirth. Elsewhere, while dosing his audience on frankincense, author Danny Nemu examined the use of drugs in the Bible, and described the use of the tabernacle as a hot box and the way in which the herbs and spices affect the transmitters in our heads. More about this can be read in his forthcoming book Neuro-Apocalypse.
Other Psychedelic Press contributors Vladimir Stepan and Mike Crowley were also in attendance. Stepan discussed his nine day darkness retreat and the various psychedelic components that arose in his mind during the course of the experience. And Crowley looked at the hidden symbolism of magic mushrooms in Buddhism which is communicated through a curious secret language – he also has a book on the subject coming out shortly. What all these previously mentioned researchers and experiential psychonauts had in common was the ability to look below surface discourse and reveal numerous approaches and cultural effects; Beyond Psychedelics facilitated this uncovering beautifully over the three days.
Beneath the waterworks building of the conference, laid a complex network of rooms and tunnels, which to some degree came to reflect the mainstreaming of psychedelics in my mind. Psychedelic substances have now been a part of the underground network, and reimagining the foundations of our culture, for over fifty years – the sounds from above ground are warped and reinvented sublimely in the unseen world of tunnels and hidden rooms, and replayed afresh in the raves of the everyday world.
Regulatory frameworks, as gatekeepers of this transaction, have the power to either facilitate or stifle this on-going process. Mainstreaming has the power to bring psychedelic medicine above ground, but it conversely risks taking industry regulation deep down into the heart of culture. Beyond Psychedelics quite brilliantly explored this tension with its quality selection of speakers, and I hope future events in the Czech Republic continue to navigate this changing psychedelic discourse as brilliantly as it did with this conference.