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3 Highlights From the MAPS 2017 Psychedelic Science Conference

On April 21, over 3,000 people swarmed the Marriott Hotel in Oakland to attend the third international conference held by MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies), a 5-day conference beyond most imaginations. “[MAPS] is a non-profit research and educational organization that I started in 1986,” Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, told Leafly. “The best way to understand it is as a non-profit pharmaceutical company focused on developing psychedelics and marijuana into FDA-approved prescription medicines.”

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With over 40 countries represented by its attendants, the crowd at Psychedelic Science 2017 was a mixed bag of appearances and experiences. Clean-cut clinical types, curious dreadlocked psychonauts, and everything in between mingled in rows of chairs. Beneath the high ceilings of conference halls typically reserved for business gatherings and trade shows, presentations on LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, DMT, and cannabis projected onto enormous screens. Without the winds of cannabis legalization at our backs, this scene would look utterly surreal. In a way, it still did.

Scanning the day’s schedule, attendees found lectures with titles like Treating Alcohol-Related Disorders with Ayahuasca; Principles of MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD; and Injustice, Intersectional Trauma, and Psychedelics. After hours, guests could meet up for cannabis-assisted meditation or yoga, film screenings, or relaxed networking – and for some guests, a sunset cruise in the San Francisco Bay.

Here, we gathered to explore the healing potential of plant and psychedelic medicines, whose true natures are so often barred from popular knowledge by taboo. For anyone fascinated by the inner workings of the mind, the weekend was an intellectual playground. And in case you missed it, here’s the highlight reel. You can also check out recordings of the presentations, which MAPS has generously shared on their YouTube channel.

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1. Medical Breakthroughs and Hope for PTSD

Setting the tone for the conference was a series of presentations on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for patients with treatment-resistant PTSD. Having recently completed their Phase II pilot study, MAPS was given approval by the FDA to proceed with Phase III trials, the final step before MDMA becomes a prescription drug for use under strict medical guidance in clinical settings. Astonishingly, 83% of study participants no longer met the criteria of a PTSD diagnosis following two months of treatment, in which MDMA was administered just twice. Compare that to psychotherapy alone – about 20% – and it’s clear that we have an important breakthrough in psychiatric medicine here.

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“I love my life. The medicine’s lessons are forever tattooed on the cells of my body,” said one participant, reflecting on her healing experience during a panel presentation. Looking next to the study’s therapists sitting nearby, she finished with a cracking voice, “With all my heart, I bow to you in gratitude.”

A day later, in the same room, three researchers – Philippe Lucas, Sue Sisley, and Zach Walsh – would present on their studies of cannabis and PTSD. Though less curative and more useful as a tool for symptom control, cannabis is giving PTSD patients back their lives as well, especially as it reduces the intake of harmful and addicting prescription medications.

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2. Community, Social Justice, and Taking a Look Around the Room

“The silencing of indigenous people is happening today. It’s happening at this conference.” That’s what panelist LisaNa Redbear had said in a forum just before we all filed into a small conference room for a workshop called White Allies and Anti-Racist Practices in the Psychedelic Community.

Chairs lined the room’s perimeter. We’d be meeting for an hour to discuss with each other the role of race in research of psychedelic and plant medicines. There was an overwhelming white majority in the room, but I hadn’t really noticed – not yet, at least.

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The forum facilitators started us off with an exercise. In our hands were ten marbles, and we were asked to put one on the floor in response to various prompts: “Put a marble down if the color of your skin has never made you feel uneasy when pulled over by police. Put a marble down if you’ve never felt discriminated against in a job interview because of your skin color.”

Marbles rolled out of white hands around the room, but about five questions in, we heard a voice from the back corner of the room. “Excuse me, can we switch this up?” said one of the only black women in the room, tears in her eyes, palm full of marbles. “I understand what this exercise is meant to show people, but for me, this is torture.”

This comment accomplished what no exercise could. Thinking back to what LisaNa had said, it dawned on me that the conference’s keynote speakers were indeed overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male – perhaps not out of discrimination, but a problem running in the veins of an inherently racist drug war; of course participation by minorities in the psychedelic community and research is met with fear of repercussion and prosecution. The importance of this fact cannot be forgotten as we seek to build an industry of diversity and inclusivity.

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3. Spirituality and the Exploration of Consciousness

Inextricably tied to mind-expanding plants and sacred medicines are experiences of mysticism. This spiritual aspect of psychedelic medicines can provide a kind of existential therapy, especially for those enduring the trauma of terminal illness and end-of-life anxiety. These spiritual experiences, often referred to as “catalysts,” can be immensely powerful tools of healing.

Though these types of intense trips are most commonly associated with potent psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD, even cannabis has the power to catalyze healing in the right setting.

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I first experienced the glorious combination of cannabis and guided meditation a year ago with Daniel McQueen of Medicinal Mindfulness, so when I saw a similar opportunity on the MAPS schedule, I hurried over to the 21st floor of the Marriott where Sōtō Zen teacher Vanja Palmers would be leading a silent meditation followed by a sound bath. Outside, we gathered in the largest smoking circle I’ve ever seen and passed around joints in silence.

Back inside were singing bowls, gongs, drums, sitars, and some obscure instrument that looked like a giant tambourine. At least sixty of us laid down quietly and waited for the sound to wash over. It began with quiet tones humming from the bowls then escalated to fearful crashing of the gongs, before finally erupting into the melodious singing of sitars. Here among the sounds, the sensations, and silent friends, peace was on tap.


Want more coverage from the conference? Look forward to more on cannabis, PTSD, political hurdles, and more in upcoming Leafly features. In the meantime, don’t miss these cannabis speakers from the conference!