DENVER — Months after Colorado’s voters decided to join Oregon in decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms, Denver is hosting a conference this week put on by a psychedelic advocacy group bringing together an unlikely cohort of speakers — including an NFL star, a former Republican governor and a rapper.
The conference and the thousands attending is an indication of the creep, or perhaps leap, of cultural acceptance for psychedelic substances that proponents say may offer benefits for things like post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. Still, medical experts caution that more research is needed on the drugs’ efficacy and the extent of the risks of psychedelics, which can cause hallucinations.
NFL Quarterback Aaron Rodgers Discusses Ayahuasca Experience
NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’ll soon debut with the New York Jets after years with the Green Bay Packers, will speak with a podcaster Wednesday about his ayahuasca experience and how he believes it helped his game. Rapper and actor Jaden Smith, the son of Will Smith who has publicly shared the “ego dissolution” he felt when using psychedelics, will speak, too, as will former Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is an advocate for researching psychedelics’ potential benefits for veterans experiencing PTSD.
The hosting organization, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is the largest U.S. advocacy group. It has strategized to reach the full political spectrum, said Nicolas Langlitz, a historian of science who’s researched the boom and bust of psychedelic movements.
“Overall, this strategy has been tremendously successful,” he said. “At the time when any topic gets politically polarized, ironically, these super-polarizing substances now get bipartisan support.”
Still, Langlitz said, this conference is “purely designed to promote the hype,” which can exaggerate potential benefits but also drive further funding.
“Any kind of overselling is not good for science because science should be accurate rather than pushing things,” he said. “It’s a tradeoff. (The conference) generates interest, it generates ultimately more research, even though the research might be skewed toward positive results.”
Psychedelics Illegal at Federal Level but Interest in Benefits Grows
Psychedelics are illegal at the federal level, though acceptance and interest in studying their potential benefits has grown. For example, some researchers believe psilocybin, the compound in psychedelic mushrooms, changes the way the brain organizes itself and can help users overcome things like depression and alcoholism.
The drugs themselves — and the interest in them — are not new. Mid-last century, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey helped spur the use of psychedelics during the counterculture movement, and optimism brimmed among some psychologists over the drugs’ potential to augment the human psyche.
But the Nixon administration criminalized psychedelics, pushing them underground.
“In both cases you have this upwelling of exuberance that may or may not be irrational,” said author Michael Pollan, who wrote a book on psychedelics and will be speaking at the conference. “But I think a big difference (now) is that the enthusiasm for the potential of psychedelics cuts across a much more representative slice of the population — it’s not about a counterculture.”
Republican Strongholds Consider Studies into Psychedelic Drugs
Republican strongholds, including Utah and Missouri, have or are considering commissioning studies into the drugs, partly inspired by veterans’ poignant stories. That’s why, though he stops short of promoting recreational use, Perry has become an unlikely flagbearer and helped get a bill passed in the Texas legislature in 2021 to fund a study of psilocybin for treating PTSD.
In Congress, successful proposals to fund psychedelic research for PTSD in veterans brought progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York and far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz from Florida into an unlikely alignment.
Public interest also appears to be growing. Just six years ago in Oakland, California, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies held a conference with roughly 3,000 attendees and a smattering of lesser-known speakers and die-hard proponents.
Famous Speakers and Increased Attendance at Psychedelic Conference
This time, organizers estimate at least 10,000 attendees. Other famous speakers will include former NHL player Daniel Carcillo, who owns a company specializing in psychedelic therapies; Olympic silver-medal figure skater Sasha Cohen; comedians Reggie Watts and Eric Andre, top-10 podcaster Andrew Huberman; and Carl Hart, the chair of Columbia University’s psychology department.
Rick Doblin, founder of the advocacy group, kicked off the conference Wednesday in front of an overflowing theater espousing grandiose goals, such as “net-zero” trauma by 2070 through the use of psychedelics.
The American Psychiatric Association has not endorsed the use of psychedelics in treatment, noting the Food and Drug Administration has yet to offer a final determination. The FDA did designate psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” in 2018, a label that’s designed to speed the development and review of drugs to treat a serious condition. MDMA, often called ecstasy, also has that designation for PTSD treatment.
Further Research Needed to Understand Psychedelic Benefits and Risks
Both Pollan and Langlitz believe further research is key — especially as the nation faces an unprecedented mental health crisis and people struggle to find adequate treatment. But, Langlitz said, it’s important to let research shape the narrative.
“I would just try to keep my mind open to the possibility that in retrospect we will tell a very different story from the one that the protagonists of psychedelic therapies are currently predicting,” he said.