What’s the Psychedelic Community Talking About? Three Main Takeaways from the 2019 Horizon’s Conference

Dr Carl Hart - Horizons NYC

In the heart of Manhattan’s busy Greenwich Village, the Horizon’s Conference: Perspectives on Psychedelics, graced the Cooper Union Great Hall on October 12th and 13th. The largest and longest-running gathering of the psychedelic community brings folks from around the globe together for presentations on psychedelic research findings and activism every year.

The conference first ran in 2007 as a single afternoon of talks at the Judson Memorial Church with around 250 attendees. This year, both days were sold out and attendance exceeded 2,600 people, not including after-parties and other unofficial events around town.

This was also the first year that offered pre-conference classes for physicians as well as interested individuals, like Introduction to Psilocybin Therapy with Bill Richards and Rosalind Watts, Intro to MDMA Therapy for Clinicians led by Shannon Clare Carlin and Marcela Ot’alora, Intro to Ketamine Psychotherapy, and Sexual Ethics in the Psychedelic Community, all of which were sold out on Friday, October 11th.

But what kind of talks are given in such a collegiate atmosphere, at a podium that’s hosted leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Barack Obama? On day one, Julie Holland, M.D. and author of Weekends at Bellevue hosted the science-themed presentations, including recent research on psilocybin from the Imperial College London team, mindfulness-assisted Ketamine therapy by Elias Dakwar, M.D., the potential harms and benefits of 5-meO-DMT given by Alan K. Davis, PhD, among other fascinating and informative talks.

Then on day two, the theme switched to culture and Bia Labate, Executive Director of Chacruna and MAPS’s cultural specialist hosted presentations on psychedelics in the media by the DoubleBlind Mag founders, the indigenous peyote way of life by Steven Benally, president of Azee’ Bee Nahagha Nation (formerly known as the Native American Church of Navajo Land), the intersection of art and psychedelic-assisted therapy by artist and activist, Swoon, along with other important and moving discussions. 

Let’s take a look at three main themes that emerged this year at Horizon’s to get a sense of the kinds of issues the psychedelic community is currently debating.

1. Psychedelics are coming, but how? Medicalization vs. Decriminalization vs. Legalization

The conversation at this year’s Horizon’s seemed to move past whether or not legal psychedelics are coming. Everyone at the conference seemed to agree that the future includes some kind of legal option for substances like psilocybin, but now the question is: What’s the best model for moving forward?

At the end of day one, Carl Hart, PhD, Colombia University professor of psychology, and author of High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, proposed legalizing and regulating all drugs as a civil rights and safety issue to a standing ovation. 

Carl Hart PHD - Columbia University

Yet, even for the psychedelic community, Hart’s ideas are somewhat radical. Other organizations in the space strongly believe in a more medicalized model, where psychedelics wouldn’t be legal to use and possess by anyone, but instead only by doctors who would administer them in a controlled environment to qualifying patients. It’s a big debate in the community, especially considering the medicalization of psychedelics probably wouldn’t be accessible to everyone because of the high price tag that will likely come attached. 

Decriminalization is the third option, but can still fall short of being enough for the safest and most responsible drug use. For this reason, many in the community see it more as a step toward full, adult-use legalization than the finish line. In Hart’s talk, he pointed to the fact that law enforcement can still marginalize certain groups, especially POC (people of color), with decriminalization, and without regulations and purity testing of substances, people don’t have enough information to use drugs safely.

2. Economic Models of Psychedelic Expansion

Which brings us to our next point, if psychedelics are legalized, will companies be able to make a profit from selling them? Could “Big Psychedelics” come in and monopolize the space?

George Goldsmith, Bia Labate, Dr. James Rucker

While this issue was brought up in many contexts at Horizons, it was the center of discussion on Sunday morning at a panel titled, “Economic Models for the Expansion of Psychedelics”. George Goldsmith, co-founder and CEO of Compass Pathways, a for-profit company that has patented synthetic psilocybin and threatens to monopolize the space, was a member of the panel and put in the hot seat by many in the community, both during the Q & A and by the other panelists. Goldsmith is already a millionaire and is poised to make the most profit and have the most control over medicalized psilocybin, and that is cause for alarm for many people in the community. Most of the other organizations sponsoring research into psychedelic-assisted therapy are not-for-profit organizations, like MAPS with MDMA and the Usona Institute with psilocybin.

Other options for psychedelic expansion were also addressed in this discussion, like the “pollinator approach” by economics and public policy professor, Bennet A. Zelner, PhD, which is a more community-based model of resource and information sharing and distribution. 

3. “Coming Out” as a Psychedelic User

Lastly, another main theme that was touched on in both presentations and private conversations was the need of community members to “come out” publicly as psychedelic users. The idea is to show the mainstream that anyone can be a responsible psychedelic (or other type of drug) user to try and break some of the stigma that still surrounds these substances. If we can change the public perception of psychedelics, then a shift in law and policy could naturally follow. 

Horizons NYC Opening Ceremony and Party

There’s even a group from Costa Rica trying to start an international coming-out campaign on February 20, 2020 called “Thank You Plant Medicine” to support folks in telling their transformative psychedelic stories publicly. 

It was a busy and exciting year at Horizons NYC, and a great opportunity for the community to come together to push the conversation forward. These are three major issues to continue to pay attention to as psychedelic research and decriminalization progress!

Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends, and education. She’s the author of, “Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms – From Tips and Trips to Microdosing and Psychedelic Therapy”, and her work has also been featured in Playboy, DoubleBlind Mag, High TimesRolling Stone and Teen Vogue. One of her core beliefs is ending the prohibition of drugs can greatly benefit society, as long as we have harm reduction education to accompany it. Find out more on her website: www.michellejanikian.com or on Instagram @michelle.janikian.

Confronting Alcohol Dependence and Depression with Microdosing — One Woman’s Quest for Healing

After years of seeking refuge at the bottom of a bottle, Karen Shaw’s experimentation with psilocybin yielded unexpected discoveries… and a fresh start

Not long after Karen Shaw started microdosing psilocybin, a very distinct thought seemed to cry out, louder than the rest.

“One of the things I said to myself is I have to make my life more beautiful. I have to do things to make my life beautiful and happy.”

For months leading up to this point, Karen’s life felt far from beautiful.

Having deviated from her career to start a silversmithing business with her partner of 10 years, the venture turned sour early on as their relationship disintegrated. With both her professional and personal lives entwined in a deepening crisis, the depression and anxiety Karen had struggled with for decades intensified and began to close in.

Laying out the story from her home office in The Hague, at this point Karen paused and looked down at her teacup. A feeble laugh and a pixelated Skype connection did little to disguise her lingering pain.

“I’m a bit surprised. I thought I was over it. But there’s obviously still something there. I’m happy to be talking about it,” she said, lifting her chin. “They were bad days. Feeling like I could spiral into the depths of despair and not come out of it.

“I felt like I was hanging on for dear life sometimes.

“Just trying to keep my sanity and keep going. And of course, relying on drink too much.”

Alcohol had been a toxic ally during ongoing bouts with mental illness. Feeling trapped in a decaying business still reeking of her failed romance, Karen’s reliance on the habit grew.

“I think it was vodka at the time. If I’m honest about it, I was probably drinking between half a bottle to a bottle of it a day.”

***

Karen’s mounting dread and desperation, as well as her dissatisfaction with past mental health treatment, sent her searching for other solutions. Having stumbled across an article on microdosing a few years earlier, Karen decided it was an alternative measure she was willing to try. Living in the Netherlands, this was a significantly easier undertaking for her than it would be for many others.

“I bought a grow kit of magic mushrooms at a shop down the road from me. I grew them, dried them and I started microdosing in March 2017,” she said.

Following a protocol recommended by psychologist and psychedelic researcher, Dr. James Fadiman, Karen took a sub-perceptible dose of psilocybin mushrooms twice a week for six weeks.

“I would weigh out 0.2 to 0.3 of a gram and put it in a little capsule and take that in the morning. I would do that on Wednesdays and Sundays. They were my microdosing days,” she recalled.

From there, it didn’t take long for things in Karen’s life to start rearranging. Within weeks, she was finally able to pry herself from the doomed business and damaging relationship. While walking away was liberating, the reprieve was brief. At 59-years-of-age, having to join the unemployment line offered proof her life would have to get ugly before finding beauty.

“I was on employment benefits and I had the opportunity to do some courses in how to design what you want to do with your life. I remember feeling very insecure walking into those rooms, feeling everybody was looking at me. I didn’t want to be there.”

The early days of her microdosing experiment also proved a little bumpy. With some gentle coercion from the psilocybin she was taking, Karen was forced to embrace a deeper level of vulnerability and openness, which caused her to “feel a lot of anxiety at first. I think it’s because I felt that I actually had to face the problems I was going through,” she said. “It (microdosing) does make you think a lot more. It makes you analyze yourself and why you do things and of course that can make you feel uncomfortable.”

But as the days inched past, anxiety gave way to something else.

“There was a gradual realization that things were getting better. That I could handle things better. I was much calmer.”

Eventually, this shift unearthed another realization Karen would never have thought possible… She was now ready to say goodbye to an old and domineering friend.

“I started drinking less. I’ve not stopped. I might have a glass of wine, or some cannabis, a joint after work. But I don’t drink to excess. I don’t like getting drunk anymore. It’s not something I enjoy.”

***

Following a 10-week break, Karen began her second round of microdosing, and the insights continued to flow, alongside some unexpected opportunities. A few months after making the tough decision to abandon silversmithing, someone approached Karen and offered her work on a small project. Given her background in graphic design and website creation, she decided to take it on. Then, a crazy notion caught her attention.

“I thought, ‘okay, now’s a good time to start my own business.’ Which I did.”

Softly spoken and harboring a gentle temperament, Karen doesn’t come across as the bragging type. But as she described her newfound joy and contentment at growing her fledgling freelancing venture, she allowed herself a confident smile. Progress is going well. Networking events have filled her calendar as she seeks to expand her client base.

“Before, I just didn’t think I had it in me. But I haven’t looked back since.”

Throughout this time, Karen has continued to microdose on and off. She’s recently returned to it again, this time only taking one dose a week. As well as using psilocybin to climb out of a depressive slump, Karen found it’s benefitted her creativity, ultimately aiding her work.

“When you microdose, you sort of go into this flow state and become very, very aware of everything around you. At first, I could get very distracted. But once I could control it and focus it on one thing… well, you just forget everything. You get a sort of childlike delight. It’s difficult to explain,” she said, shaking her head.

“I feel I can enjoy everything much more completely than I have done for a long time.”

Digging into the depths of her artistic potential, Karen has also discovered a love of writing. With the freedom to explore a new passion, she’s since developed it into more than just a pastime, and now offers it as part of her professional repertoire.

“I always thought I hated writing. These days, I can spend hours getting the tone and the message right and enjoying the language. I’d never enjoyed that before.”

While she’s relishing a fresh start, Karen realizes the difference between her old life and her recent achievements is terrifyingly slim. Asked where she’d be right now, had she not purchased that mushroom grow kit… Karen was adamant she’d be worse off.

“I’d probably still be drinking a lot and just not enjoying life.”

Having come close to snaring a number of helpdesk positions during her time searching for work, Karen is grateful such an opportunity never came to fruition.

“I would have jumped at whatever came along. I’d be sitting behind a computer answering problem emails all day and feeling very bored and very unhappy with myself.”

***

While Karen’s career has enjoyed a kickstart, the most radical transformation has been unfolding internally.

“One thing I noticed is I actually like spending time on my own. I like being in my own head.”

This prospect, as simple as it seems, wasn’t an option for Karen before microdosing. Stuck in a never-ending game of cranial cat and mouse, she spent much of her mental capacity drowning out the pain of her thoughts and problems. When this got too strenuous, liquor was able to finish the job.

“My head was like one of those old telephone exchanges,” Karen said, tensing her hands all talon-like above her light brown hair to emphasize the analogy. “And it was a terrible mess. I didn’t know what my problems were. I didn’t know how to turn my life around. I didn’t know how to stop drinking. I didn’t want to stop drinking.”

The biggest gift psilocybin gave her, Karen said, was a “brain reboot”.

“It’s as if you had all this chaos in your brain then all of a sudden, it sorts itself out and all of the connections are working properly again. You can think more clearly and make better decisions.”

While the phrase “brain reboot” feels as if it was lifted straight from the greasy elevator pitch of a Shake Weight salesman, proof of Karen’s claim goes far beyond her words — it’s written all over her demeanor. The current portrait of Karen Shaw hasn’t a single brushstroke of the anxious scrapheap she spent half the interview describing.

“I think if you spoke to my eldest daughter, she would say that I’m a very, very different person now than I used to be.”

So different, in fact, that talking to this daughter wasn’t something even Karen herself could do back then. Difficulties communicating led to frequent confrontations. The shame she carries about for being inattentive to her children’s needs was just as easy to pick up on as her own emotional scarring.

“When you feel pain inside, it’s very difficult to connect with other people. You tend to lash out at them and not be aware of their situation and their feelings,” she said. “I don’t think I’d ever thought about my role as a mother before. I sort of just became a mother but never thought about what that really means. Which sounds awful doesn’t it?”

As Karen’s relationship with psilocybin deepened, so too did the frayed relationship with her eldest daughter start to mend. Being less swept up in her perceived problems, Karen’s empathy grew. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Karen started truly listening to her daughter.

“She’s much more willing to phone me about her problems and I’m not just able to help her more, but I’m happy to as well. I’m gradually getting this feeling that I want to be a role model.

“I want to show my daughters that you can work for yourself. You can be an independent woman and enjoy your life. I’d never thought that before.”

Admitting this was a completely unexpected development in her microdosing journey, the sheepish excitement that crept into Karen’s features betrayed her gratitude for it nevertheless.

“I’m even looking forward to being a grandmother. Before, that was something I didn’t want to think about. I thought being a grandmother meant you were old!” Karen laughed, but was cut short by the follow up: Is it possible a reconciliation may never have taken place?

“I think if I’d carried on like I was, then I really think we might have grown further and further apart. It’s awful to think that was definitely a possibility.”

***

Beyond the prospect of becoming a grandmother, Karen has much more to look forward to. Chief among all of that is a commitment to spend as much time as possible with herself.

Being at home, enjoying creative pursuits, cooking, and gardening now sit at the top of her list of priorities. The simple pleasures, it seems, are where she’s discovering vitality, as well as that all-important objective she set out to achieve back when her life fell down around her ankles — these days, Karen finds beauty where she’d never once cared to look.

“I can spend hours just watching the birds and the insects… Oh, and the spiders!” Karen added, an overt tinge of enthusiasm taking hold of her voice. Someone imbued with a healthy distrust of spiders might even describe her tone as bearing an irrational relish. “I find myself being blown away by the incredible beauty of their webs and how they made them and what clever little creatures they are.

“I even postponed trimming one of my bushes because a spider had its web up and it was obviously preparing for winter. I wouldn’t have thought that way before. I’m much more empathetic and feel very connected to everything.

“I bet I sound very silly now, don’t I?”

To those scared of spiders, yes. But to those working in certain research labs at Columbia and Yale, not at all.

Last year, a published study out of the Spiritual Mind Body Institute suggested cultivating a belief in being connected to something greater than oneself can “have profound impacts on people’s lives”. Having highlighted exactly where in the brain transcendent states are processed also helped researchers deduce that spiritual encounters aren’t just limited to religious practice, but can be brought about in many varied ways.

Potentially, Karen’s newfound love of spiders, and nature, in general, may be helping her build a brighter outlook and find greater meaning.

“Life is such a great thing. It’s all around us. The world is teeming with life and we’re just a tiny little part of this living entity,” she said, before more muttering about sounding silly again.

As for microdosing, Karen plans to continue with one capsule a week, for as long as she feels is necessary. Lately, the toughest thing about it is actually remembering to take the dose. Without a reminder set in her phone, she’s prone to forgetting it altogether. It’s a much different relationship with substances she’s still getting used to, but understandably, she doesn’t mind the change.

“I’m healing. I don’t know if that process will ever stop, because you’re always growing and changing. But it’s certainly put me on a different path and has me feeling a lot better about myself,” she said. “The world could do with a lot more microdosing, I think there are a lot of people who could benefit.”


Author Bio: Jason Schwab

When a 10-week microdosing experiment helped Jason overcome a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety, he immediately became a passionate advocate for the widespread acceptance of psychedelics. A believer in the power of informed, intentional substance use to foster positive transformation, Jason knows that pulling people’s stories out from the shadow of prohibition is key to inspiring true healing on a global scale. A former journalist, he now travels the world seeking out the everyday men and women taking ownership of their health and wellbeing, making a real difference in their own lives, and consequently, the lives of others.

Extinction Rebellion Co-Founder Says Psychedelic Disobedience Can Address the Climate Crisis

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion has become the most well-known climate justice movement in history.

With over 100,000 members and worldwide protests regularly attracting crowds of thousands, XR aims to use non-violent civil disobedience to share their message: political leaders are not doing enough to protect the world from climate catastrophe.

Now the XR hourglass logo can be seen dotted around most major cities, and local groups are catalyzing a global revolution.

Extinction Rebellion began as a collaboration between climate activists who were becoming disenfranchised by the slow progress of their protest efforts. And uniquely, its roots are deeply set in the world of psychedelic plant medicines.

The Psychedelic Origins of Extinction Rebellion

Gail Bradbrook, one of the original co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, has been very transparent about the psychedelic influences behind her decisions.

Having been involved in climate activism for most of her life, Gail was feeling like nothing was working. Speaking at this year’s Breaking Convention in London, UK, Gail described how she prayed for “the codes to social change” during an ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica. Gail also took iboga and kambo, alongside ayahuasca, during her time there.

In her talk at Breaking Convention, Gail described the immediate lessons she learned from the West African plant medicine iboga, which told her: “Gail, you create your own reality!” The notoriously uncomfortable iboga experience eventually gave way to Gail feeling all her negative thought patterns being gently removed by a grandmotherly figure. 

It was in an ayahuasca ceremony that Gail asked the specific question about where to go next with her activism. The Amazonian psychedelic brew, typically associated with intense physical purging, is often taken by people in search of otherworldly wisdom. “I was praying for guides, and allies, to know that people would have my back.” Although she received no immediate answers, Gail was aware that “ayahuasca is mysterious, and her gifts come later.”

One month after her ayahuasca ceremony, Gail met with activist Roger Hallam, and they talked for hours about the latest research into activism and revolution. It ended with Roger saying “What you’ve got here, Gail, are the codes for social change.”

It looked like her prayers had been answered.

Disobedience was the foundation of these codes, and it directly led to the philosophy of Extinction Rebellion. “It’s only by being disruptive that you get people to have a conversation about an issue,” says Gail. During the press conference at Breaking Convention, Gail called for mass psychedelic disobedience, “where we take [psychedelic] medicine to tell the state that they have absolutely no right to control our consciousness and to define our spiritual practice.”

Gail’s calls for psychedelic law-breaking are a distinct contrast to the mainstream stance of the psychedelic community, who are mostly seeking the medicalization of psychedelic compounds, the first wave of which could come within the next ten years.. Gail has responded to this by saying “We don’t have time to wait for the science. […] Society will have collapsed by then. Why mess around behaving ourselves?”

Psychedelics Can Shift Our Relationship With Nature

Although the Extinction Rebellion organization has no official stance on psychedelics, there’s good reason for XR to be interested in their potential. We know that psychedelics can help to change the way we see ourselves and our position in the world.

People who have more lifetime experience with psychedelics are more likely to feel a connection to nature, and be more environmentally friendly (such as reducing water usage and recycling) compared to others. Even when other personality traits linked to environmental behavior – such as conscientiousness and liberal morals – are taken into consideration, this finding stands up.

It’s also been shown that the intensity of the psychedelic experience can predict the level of connection to nature that people have. Those who have had the most profound sense of a “loss of self” during their psychedelic experiences are the people most likely to feel a strong connection to nature.

These findings are important because our detachment from nature is arguably a large part of why humanity has caused the climate and ecological crisis we find ourselves in. As Daniel Quinn explains in his book Ishmael, the modern narrative of our inherent disconnection from the natural world is a pervasive philosophy that has convinced many of us that humanity is a lost cause.

One chance we have to reject this philosophy is through psychedelics. Science has now confirmed that psychedelics have the potential to change our perspective of the natural world. And any psychedelic journeyer can testify about their power to remind us that there is no such thing as humanity outside of nature.

A Return to Animism?

It’s not just the psychedelic experience itself that can bring us into an awareness of our true place in the natural world, but also the traditions that can accompany it.

Most cultures that have developed alongside psychedelic plant medicines are fundamentally animist societies. This means that they believe every living thing in the world has a spirit, or soul. In other words, every being is just a human in another form; another life.

Animism takes interconnectedness to be the very core fact of life. Although animist societies are not immune to greed, corruption, homophobia or misogyny, in general they appreciate that these actions have consequences. These cultures, though often flawed, very rarely destroy their lands, and they understand that their existence relies upon the wellbeing of their surroundings.

The concept of animism is also starting to enter mainstream Western thought, as our growing understanding of quantum physics points towards consciousness being something of a big deal. The philosophy of idealism, adapted to fit our quantum view of the world, could be about to see a surge in popularity among Western thinkers and scientists. Animism could soon see a resurgence in Western culture.

Westerners often end up taking psychedelic plant medicines within animist cultural contexts, as the most experienced shamans and practitioners usually come from these traditions. This means that psychedelics present a unique opportunity – not just for the encounter with one-ness they can induce, but for the animist wisdom they can bring us into contact with.

Could Psychedelics Catalyze Social Change?

Is an increased connection to nature enough to catalyze widespread social change? Could this be enough to combat the climate crisis?

Gail Bradbrook does not think that this should be our focus. She feels that although changing our relationship to nature will be crucial in order to build a less destructive society, it would be a process requiring “many centuries of work.”

Right now, Gail is calling for urgent social upheaval, starting with large acts of civil disobedience. 

Plant medicines have already catalyzed the formation of Extinction Rebellion. Now, they may be used as an expression of cognitive freedom. And ultimately, they could be a route towards a society that accepts its place in a global ecosystem.

Author bio:

Patrick Smith, PhD, is a biologist and science writer. He has been working in the psychedelic space for the past five years. He currently writes for EntheoNation.