Psychedelics conference describes the long strange trip to the lab

April 18, 2010

Silicon Valley Mercury News. “Psychedelics conference describes the long strange trip to the lab.” By Lisa M. Krieger.

(Reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the title, “Psychedelic drugs get a second look from science.”)

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SAN JOSE, Calif. – One speaker introduced his mother. Another thanked his wife and children. And at the closing ceremony of the Psychedelic Science conference in San Jose, the crowd of 1,000 stood up and applauded in appreciation of one another.

The “tune in, turn on” bacchanalian generation has matured into a gentler “take care, take notes” cadre of therapists, nurses, social workers, and spiritual explorers. The sold-out conference, the largest gathering on psychedelic science in four decades, was a forum to exchange news about small, preliminary, and still inconclusive studies on treating such problems as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and end-of-life anxiety.

The happy crowd also swapped stories about the psychedelic drugs’ “sacramental use” – or, more formally, “The Betterment of Well People.”

Decades after a virtual ban on medical research involving psychedelic drugs, some scientists are urging a second look, convinced that psychedelics have significant benefits.

The conference, improbably set between suburban freeways at a Holiday Inn, was sponsored by the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based nonprofit group Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which supports research into LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. It ended Sunday.

“We are an irrepressible force for the good,” said Amanda Fielding, an elegant and grandmotherly figure who discovered psychedelics while studying religion. “It is a very exciting time.

“People are terrified of drugs. Drugs are linked to inner cities and crime – not mystical states. But with diligent and serious science, we can learn about all the wonderful ways that these compounds can help a stressed and troubled species.”

Added Fielding: “Science is the best way forward. I always felt science is the key to overcome the taboo of these substances. It opens a key to learn about consciousness and transform us into more complete and happy people.”

More cautious than the evangelists of the 1960s, they summarized studies at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, UC San Francisco, the University of Arizona, and New York University.

In Miami, researchers are giving heroin addicts a hallucinogen to see if it helps ease withdrawal symptoms. In South Carolina, rape victims take Ecstasy to encourage them to talk about their ordeal. At Boston’s McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard, Ecstasy is also being given to people with advanced cancer in an effort to ease anxiety of dying.

Times have changed, said Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist and one of the first to research therapeutic uses of LSD.

“I think the situation is very different from what it was in ’60s,” Grof said. “Now therapists are used to working with powerful emotions. And the people making the decisions today were on the campuses of the ’60s, and have a different image of psychedelics than the older generation.”

But he cautioned against careless use. “When something comes to let you look too deep or fast, to open up a hotline to the divine, with flashbacks, and underground materials of questionable purity, without supervision . . . accidents happened.”

“It’s not for everyone,” agreed Fielding. “We know everyone doesn’t want to experience altered states. But there’s always a core group of people drawn to more distant shores. And it’s unbelievable that one’s private exploration of consciousness has been restricted by the government.”

As the conference closed, participants exchanged hugs and business cards.

“We’re not counterculture. We’re part of the culture,” said Randolph Hencken, the conference organizer. “We want smart and loving studies that will make big changes used for future generations to make their lives better.”

This article discusses the close of the Psychedelic Science conference in San Jose, California. (Reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the title, “Psychedelic drugs get a second look from science.”)