Huffington Post: From “Ethnomedicine” to “Medicine”: A Glimpse into the World of Scientific Research on Psychedelic Plant Medicines

Summary: Author Bia Labate, Ph.D., writes for The Huffington Post about the prominent inclusion of plant medicine research at Psychedelic Science 2017. “Psychedelic Science 2017 offers stimulating discussions about interspecies communication and the scientific challenges of understanding the pathways to healing with plant medicines,” explains Labate. “Almost half of the Plant Medicine track is dedicated to ayahuasca, following the boom in this field of research.”

Originally appearing here.

I am excited to invite you all to come join us at Psychedelic Science 2017, a conference co-hosted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Beckley Foundation this April, in Oakland. The Psychedelic Science 2013 conference sold out with 1,800 attendees; this year, we expect nearly 2,200. This means it will be among the largest psychedelic conferences ever.

Unlike the last edition, which featured an Ayahuasca Track, this year, there will be a Plant Medicine Track alongside the Clinical Research and Interdisciplinary Track.

I am proud to be the curator of the Plant Medicine Track, and to support this brave research community that aims to advance knowledge and find new treatments for various ailments. I am also pleased that this gathering will be held in California, the historic home of the psychedelic movement in the US.

The track includes three dimensions: (1) the way social scientists and historians treat the history of psychiatry and healing, especially as it intersects with plant medicines; (2) a reflection about the substances themselves, and their effects on bodies; and (3) traditional healing, as it connects back to our understanding of drugs and of psychiatry. In a unique effort, this platform both unites the most cutting edge biomedical, psychological, and public health research on the therapeutic potentials of plant medicines, and offers important insights into contemporary healing practices.

The Plant Medicine track made a proactive effort to be multidisciplinary, inclusive, and diverse, keeping a strong scientific focus. Of the 50 speakers that will present, 30 are men and 20 women, advancing the balance of what has been traditionally a heavily male-dominated field. Researchers come from disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, political science, geography, history, law, biology, chemistry, pharmacology, neuroscience, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, public health, communications, environmental science, and drug policy. Therapists, practitioners, and some indigenous voices will also share their knowledge. Among them, Sandor Iron Rope, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from Pine Ridge, South Dakota; hopefully, a small step toward making the psychedelic science field more aware of traditional peoples’ perspectives.

In terms of geographical reach, presenters come from the US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Spain, France, Mexico, the UK, and Uruguay, among others. Some internationally renowned names—such as Gabor Maté, Stacy Schaefer, Dennis McKenna, Jordi Riba, Draulio de Araujo, Sidarta Ribeiro, and José Carlos Bouso—share the space with a whole new generation of young and enthusiastic researchers.

Included in the designation “plant medicines” are a variety of substances, and not all are strictly plants. The track includes ayahuasca, DMT, peyote, psilocybin/ mushrooms, iboga/ibogaine, cannabis, kratom, salvia, and toé. Bringing together pioneering scientific research on such a varied spectrum is an important goal of this track. Another great novelty consists of a good amount of research on peyote, a cactus containing mescaline that grows naturally in Mexico and southern Texas, and whose natural populations are unfortunately in decline, demanding serious conservation efforts.

These are some of the questions raised on the scientific research on plant medicines: What are the differences between plants and drugs? Are active principles equivalent to whole plants? What are the continuities and discontinuities between ayahuasca and DMT, mushrooms and psilocybin, iboga and ibogaine (in effects, legality, and spiritually)? Would it be inappropriate to transform ayahuasca to fit into standardized FDA requirements? How should plant medicines be integrated into allopathic psychiatric or psychological treatments? What are the limits of techniques such as double blinding and creating efficient placebos when the substances at stake are psychedelic? Are findings from laboratorial research valid for natural settings? Can empirical experience with drugs, or anthropological fieldwork, help design better clinical research protocols?

On the ethnographic front, the track introduces reflections on how healing “works” in traditional contexts, such as ayahuasca in the Amazon, mushrooms and salvia in Hualta de Jimenez, and peyote in North American and Mexican indigenous communities. Further, it contrasts some of these groups’ understanding and use of these substances with the views of the new Western and urban public drawn towards these practices. It also addresses the current transformations that are the result of the increase in foreign interest, such as the impacts of ayahuasca globalization, including criminalization, commodification, and sustainability.

The track reveals that research on the therapeutic potentials of ibogaine—a substance extracted from a plant native to Central Africa—to treat problematic drug use is flourishing in alternative treatment centers in Mexico, alongside great advancements in research on the potential for psilocybin (the active principle in magic mushrooms) in treating end-of-life anxiety, depression, and addiction, carried out in mainstream hospitals in the US. Cultural and scientific reinventions and transformations of the use of plant medicines are opening promising new avenues for medicine.

Almost half of the Plant Medicine track is dedicated to ayahuasca, following the boom in this field of research. The track brings together some the findings of the most relevant research being conducted in Brazil and Spain on the antidepressant effects of ayahuasca and the plant’s potential to grow neural stem cells. The presentations also address short- and long-term effects of ayahuasca on quality-of-life, well-being, health, substance dependence, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.

In sum, Psychedelic Science 2017 offers stimulating discussions about interspecies communication and the scientific challenges of understanding the pathways to healing with plant medicines.