PRISM Goes America: Psychedelic Science 2013


By PRISM President Martin Williams PhD

Psychedelic Science 2013, a five-day conference/workshop event presented jointly by MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), the Heffter Research Institute, the Beckley Foundation and the Council for Spiritual Practices took place in Oakland, California in mid-April. Steve McDonald and I headed over to fly the PRISM flag and discover what’s happening in psychedelic research worldwide. The full Australian contingent numbered around ten; most of us have links to PRISM and the broader EGA family (Rak Razam, Belinda Wickens, Sean Leneghan and Nathan Mudaliar) and one (Dean Carson, currently a post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford) is an expat who – we hope – may be amenable to collaboration in the future.

I suspect that like many others, I initially had mixed feelings about the choice of venue. The Marriott is located right in the heart of downtown Oakland, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. Oakland has long been considered something of an edgy, surly cousin to its immediate neighbours, intellectual epicentre-cum-hipsterville Berkeley to the north, and San Francisco, the universally adored spiritual capital of northern California, directly across the bay to the west. Thus, Oakland has languished for many years at the intersection of two very long shadows. Happily, however, it proved to be an excellent choice for the conference. Its downtown area is neat and compact, with a friendly personality quite distinct from its more famous neighbours. And, more importantly, the Marriott comfortably accommodated the 1,800-odd delegates (or should I say, 1,800 “odd” delegates) attracted by the lure of 125 presenters spread over 3 parallel conference tracks, a series of stimulating workshops, a wonderful marketplace selling books, art and psychedelia, and a colourful galaxy of associated events and attractions.

Psychedelic Science 2013 is best summed up by the words of welcome on page 2 of the program. “The conference is dedicated to the courageous scientists and healers who use rigorous scientific methodology to understand the potentials of psychedelic drugs, to the donors who have made this research possible by their generosity, to the policymakers who have permitted this research to go forward, and to the people who have volunteered as subjects in these studies. We encourage attendees to listen with an open mind and heart, and to ask questions in order to gain a deeper understanding. It is with the shared wisdom of our entire community that we make the world a better place.” The enthusiasm and goodwill were infectious; I definitely felt infused with a golden glow that I trust will eventually spread to the broader community. I’m sure most, if not all, of our fellow delegates felt the same way.

The three-day core conference was book-ended by workshops, offering in-depth coverage of closely related topics including MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD (convened by Michael and Annie Mithoefer); visionary art (Alex and Allison Grey); ayahuasca (Beatriz Labate et al); medical marijuana (Don Abrams); women’s experiences of psychedelics (the Women’s Visionary Congress); and Holotropic Breathwork (Stan Grof). Given PRISM’s particular interest in establishing an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trial for PTSD in Australia, Steve and I attended the Mithoefers’ Thursday workshop. We found the day very useful in terms of practical insights into conducting clinical trials using experimental psychoactive substances. Steve also attended the ayahuasca workshop on the Monday, while I participated in a global researchers’ forum and networking session attended by many of the conference presenters. I found this forum to be an extremely valuable opportunity to connect with like minds and represent our organisation to the international research community. A similar opportunity was afforded by the smaller and more focused MAPS clinical investigators’ meeting, to which Steve and I were invited on the first evening following the MDMA/PTSD workshop. We even had a very useful Australian team meeting involving the PRISM crew, Dean Carson from Stanford and Amy Emerson and Berra Yazar of MAPS.

The conference itself kicked off with welcome addresses by Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS (who will need little introduction thanks to his contribution to the EGA conference in 2010 and his presence at the hatching of PRISM) and key figures representing each of the three other co-sponsoring organisations. From that point the event split into three parallel thematic tracks, Clinical, Interdisciplinary and Ayahuasca, which gave us a luxury of choice that was at once a blessing and a curse. Many times I wished I could clone myself in order to catch two (or three) simultaneous presentations; I’m sure Steve felt the same way.

Despite these small frustrations, I managed to catch many great talks. Among the highlights were Dave Nichols’ presentation on LSD neuroscience and Alicia Danforth’s (Harbor-UCLA) discussion of her observational study of MDMA use among adults on the autism spectrum. Matt Johnson (Johns Hopkins University) offered entertaining and thought-provoking insights into Salvia phenomenology and the application of psilocybin to smoking addiction therapy, while Julie Holland shared her inspiring reflections on ethical considerations in psychedelic therapy in a beautiful visual presentation. Jim Fadiman provided an entertaining analysis of problem-solving with psychedelics, and Bill Richards (Johns Hopkins) shared the wisdom gained from 25 years’ practice of psychedelic psychotherapy in the research environment – that’s 25 years before it was curtailed by US federal legislation in the mid 1970s.

In keeping with its global reach, PS13 also included a small Australian contribution. Midway through the conference, I introduced PRISM in the context of a panel presentation on fledgling MDMA/PTSD studies around the world. The panel was chaired by Dr Ben Sessa, a paediatric psychiatrist based in Bristol and co-organiser of the Breaking Convention conference at the Uni of Greenwich, and consisted of MAPS affiliates from Colorado, Canada, Israel, the UK and Australia. Footage of the presentation can be accessed on the MAPS website.

Attending Psychedelic Science 2013 left me feeling exhilarated and energised, and I have little doubt the feeling of positivity was shared by everyone who attended this excellent event. Huge nods are due to all involved, particularly the convenors and the presenters who shared their knowledge and insights, but also the attendees who contributed so much colour, energy and passion. I am always deeply grateful that such a vibrant psychedelic community exists here in Australia – and that is certainly the case – but it’s also tremendously encouraging to see others carrying the torch with the same enthusiasm on distant shores.

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The re-emergence of psychedelic research places a crucial emphasis on a holistic approach to mental health from pharmacology, neurobiological process, ecological connection, and therapeutic support.  PRISM supports research and clinical development of therapies where current options provide limited relief.

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