Over the Counter Culture

Over the counter culture-what I learned from a conference on psychedelics

Scott Dennis April 2020

In April of 2020 a group called Microdose by the Conscious Fund along with their sponsors held a virtual conference of people who share a goal of expanding access to therapeutic psychedelic substances. The growth of this sector will play out in the context of clinical trials, decriminalization and taxation, professional oversight, funding and finally public perception. These issues were the fabric of the two days of discussion. The principle assumption at the core of this conference is that a well-planned psychedelic experience has a unique and lasting impact on the mind. “Good” or “bad” are weak descriptions for a psychedelic experience perhaps it is more accurate to consider them an antipode of common conditions like loneliness, depression and feeling of dislocation, all of which can be brought on by our own body chemistry.

Is there need for psychedelic experiences?

Recent statistics reveal that over sixteen million Americans have sought a doctor’s advice about some type of mental health issue that range from fear of flying to crippling anxiety brought on by trauma. This has resulted in an explosion of SSRI prescriptions such as Prozac, Lexapro, and Zoloft just to name a few brands.  The work being done by the psychedelic community doesn’t necessarily critique the effectiveness of the pharmaceutical model for treating mental health but hopes to offer a more holistic and permanent solution for those suffering. A typical perspective of the established medical community would be to question how trauma might be treated with only a handful of experiences using psilocybin (mushroom fruiting bodies) or reversing extreme addiction with ibogaine (a plant extract found in West Africa). In one of the more profound moments of the conference a presenter posed a retort to this type of question, pointing out that one traumatic moment in a individuals life can leave lasting effects, so doesn’t it follow that one positive analog to this type of experience could have an equal effect? That is to say that a profound psychedelic experience can have an “Inverse PTSD” effect.

Excitement is building about opportunities

The practical challenges of how to increase access to the therapeutic possibilities of the various psychedelics compounds comes down to the political landscape of decriminalization, quality and reliability found through ongoing clinical testing and pricing that is increased by taxation and the realities of business scaling. However at the core of these challenges is a philosophical discussion that speaks to the nature of this psychedelic ecosystem. Many of these healing journeys derive from the mystical traditions of indigenous cultures that have passed down their knowledge to the faithful as well as to intrepid researchers of cognitive development. For the loudest and earliest voices in this community there is no separation of the plants and the cultural encounter in achieving the full effect of the drugs. Even for the individual psychonaut who grows their own psilocybin mushrooms to have hallucinogenic discoveries or to take advantage of potential long term benefits of micro dosing, there can be the pride of accomplishment and a union with the process that enhances the trip. Others in this space are not at odds with this perspective but ask the question how can we scale this therapeutic to help the millions who need it unless the business adopts a biotech approach, even at the expense of a more spiritual context? This being said most of the participants that were coming from the corporate perspective did note that at the heart of their business plan was a “return to humanity” ethos not just return on investment.

Who is participating in the new opportunities and why?

This conference shows that the bandwidth of stakeholders is as wide as any new technology with an abundance of market opportunities. The landscape is changing from just a few years ago in terms of who and what institutions are driving the narrative on the benefits of hallucinogens. The shift is away from the pioneers of the field who brought the mystical experience out of the indigenous world, who used their story telling abilities to outline the amazing properties of the drugs but were couched in mostly anecdotal accounts. Now the darlings of the ecosystem are young researchers representing the clinical work being done at respected institutions like John Hopkins and the Imperial College in London. Their work is being signal boosted by MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) the non-profit that has been pushing education about these matters since the late nineteen eighties. This move toward a biotech approach has resulted in the entrance of the investor class as well as a host of entrepreneurs seeking to move the needle on practical applications or creating ancillary support businesses. It is easy to see that the next wave of people that will be the face of the industry will be lifestyle CEOs promoting a path toward a new self-awareness and popularization of the brains 2A receptors capabilities through synthetic versions of psychedelic plants.  Although it is early days it is worth noting that the field does not represent cultural diversity, something that will have to be addressed in the future considering the need for and acceptance of this form of trauma relief in a layered cultural environment.

Tripping in the age of corona virus

This conference was altered like everything else by the global pandemic, the speakers were all communicating from a safe space, and there were multiple technical challenges but the resulting product was more focused for the viewer and as everything was recorded the discussions will act as an important resource for anyone interested in the growing importance of psychedelics.  The lack of innovation in healthcare is a major driver for bringing these new treatment methods to the public and social upheaval in reaction to Novel Corona virus (COVID-19) infection has starkly reinforced the problems with American healthcare system.  As a reaction to the global shut down some believe that there will be some lasting change in society. This new health opportunity fits this change model and is a chance to show that business can be a people first and even give credit to indigenous peoples who pointed the way, only time will tell.