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The Colorado Convention Center has seen its fair share of eclectic gatherings—Comic Con and the Great American Beer Festival immediately come to mind—but even among those authentically expressive events, Psychedelic Science stands out. With 12,000 registered attendees ranging from scientists and politicians to underground guides and venture capitalists, the convention is considered the largest gathering of psychedelic thought leaders in history. It’s also a seminal moment in psychedelics’ shift to the mainstream.
That much was apparent when I arrived at the convention center on Wednesday, June 21 at 9 a.m. and found myself funneled into a crush of suits (likely some of the aforementioned scientists, politicians, and venture capitalists in attendance) as well as people adorned in a Burning Man grab bag of flowy frocks and paisley-patterned get-ups. All of us made our way to the 5,000 seat Bellco Theater for the conference’s opening addresses, and a buzzing excitement fueled by coffee, adrenaline, and perhaps a few other molecules filled the air. Wednesday was technically the third day of the weeklong conference, although Monday and Tuesday mostly featured training workshops around psychedelic-assisted therapy. Now, attendees looked forward to hearing a who’s who lineup of psychedelic speakers from around the world—including renowned researchers Roland Griffiths and Paul Stamets, journalist Michael Pollan, and even celebrities such as musician Melissa Etheridge and star NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers (more on him later)—who would be speaking to the science, policy, therapeutic uses, business, and cultural considerations around psychedelics.
At 9:30 a.m., drums boomed from speakers set around the theater in what can best be described as a musical facsimile of John Williams’ Olympic theme song. If the theater already had some of the feeling of a Colorado Springs megachurch, it only intensified when the host of the conference took to the stage in a head-to-toe white suit.
“The future is psychedelic,” declared Rick Doblin, the founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). “Welcome to the psychedelic ’20s.”
Even for a seasoned presenter—Doblin’s TED Talk on psychedelic-assisted therapy has over 4 million views—Doblin appeared especially at ease throughout his speech. His persistent smile was likely in recognition that this event is among his and his organization’s crowning achievements since Doblin founded MAPS in 1986. For decades, MAPS has worked to reverse Drug War policies and bring psychedelics above ground through government approval. It now appears on the verge of doing so with MDMA, which MAPS has been conducting clinical trials with by pairing the psychotropic compound with psychotherapy to help individuals suffering from PTSD.
In fact, during his keynote address, Doblin declared that he expects the Food and Drug Administration to approve MDMA for PTSD treatment by mid 2024, which would make the drug available for PTSD diagnoses through doctors around the country.
Of course, MAPS’ efforts only make up one slice of the larger psychedelic pie, and it’s no coincidence that the nonprofit chose Denver to host its fourth-ever psychedelic convention (this one is at least three times bigger than the last one MAPS hosted in Oakland in 2017). Doblin acknowledged as much in his welcome speech when he praised Denver for being the first city to decriminalize psilocybin in 2019, and he also called out the Centennial State’s passage of the Natural Medicine Health Act—which legalized some plant- and fungi-based psychedelics and decriminalized others—last November.
“Every one of us can step out of the psychedelic closet,” Doblin said before ending his speech to a standing ovation. And in many ways, Psychedelic Science has indeed felt like a coming out party for the psychedelic movement writ large. All week, the conference delivered surprises and an unprecedented public embrace of psychedelics—including addresses by Governor Jared Polis and former Texas Governor Rick Perry—that would have been unimaginable even five years ago.
Below are five key takeaways from Psychedelic Science.
It drew a very diverse crowd and vendors.
Yoga mats, fractal art, hugs, a “canine comfort” room filled with furry friends, and lots—I mean lots—of felt hats and feather accoutrements. Was there a Goorin Bros somewhere in the convention? Were it not for the big box store feeling in parts of the Colorado Convention Center, Psychedelic Science sometimes felt like being at a dharmic retreat center–one that cost attendees anywhere from $750 to $1,700 per ticket. Of course, given the “science” part of Psychedelic Science, one of the more interesting dynamics of the conference was the diversity of attendees’ interests and backgrounds. This was no more apparent than in the exhibition hall, where hundreds of vendors had set up booths hawking various services, missions, or products. In one corner, near a vendor who—let’s be honest—too stereotypically blared Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” from a speaker, I saw a guy in a bright t-shirt in an even brighter-colored tent selling mushroom growing kits. His set up could have fit right in at a wookie music festival like Sonic Bloom. But just a few booths away? Some slick-dressed businessmen showed off a demonstration of a wearable head device with probes that could measure brain waves.
Between those two poles of counterculture and buttoned-up lay pretty much everything in between: booths advertising ketamine therapy. Organizations selling drug testing kits. A lounge in a geodesic dome. People zen-ing out to music. A booth advertising psychedelics for pets (yes, really).
Everyone wanted to talk about their own psychedelic experiences.
Everywhere you went, whether it was between conference stages or vendors, there was lots of talk about doing drugs. It was impossible to go anywhere without overhearing snippets of conversation about people’s trips. It didn’t seem to matter that some of these conversations—“So I was taking DMT the other night”—happened within earshot of security personnel or Denver police officers.
“That’s when my ego got blasted into a thousand pieces,” I heard one guy (wearing a felt hat with feathers) declare while he got his shoes shined near the entrance of the conference. The friend he was talking to nodded knowingly. The convention center employee who was shining his shoes didn’t react at all.
Aaron Rodgers claimed ayahuasca upped his game.
While the bulk of Psychedelic Science featured panel talks or addresses from individuals who aren’t household names, the conference did feature prominent cultural figures giving their two cents on the topic of psychedelics and healing. One of the most hyped (at least from the number of PR emails being sent out about it) was NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ talk about his experiences with ayahuasca. Wearing a beaded necklace, Rodgers told podcaster Aubrey Marcus that doing ayahuasca not only gave him “deeper self-love,” but improved his performance on the field after he first tried the psychedelic brew in Peru in 2020. “The previous year? 26 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, we had a good season,” Rodgers said of his season with the Green Bay Packers before tripping. “Ayahuasca? 46 touchdowns, five interceptions, MVP.”
Whether mother ayahuasca allows Rogers to keep up those stats when he debuts with his new team—the New York Jets—come September remains to be seen. But Rodgers says that as news of his psychedelic use has spread, “hundreds” of other professional athletes have reached out to him in support and with interest.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said psychedelics transcend partisan politics.
Outside of sports, the event platformed prominent politicians, including an unlikely one. “Some of you out there are probably like what in the hell is that dude doing on stage?” joked Rick Perry. “I’m the dark, knuckle-dragging, right wing, Republican former governor of Texas.”
Perry told conference goers that he unexpectedly became a psychedelic convert when a friend of his family—a Navy SEAL experiencing PTSD after serving in Afghanistan—showed up at the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas in mental distress. “We ran down literally hundreds of miles of rabbit holes to find solutions for this young man,” Perry told the crowd at Bellco Theater on Wednesday. But nothing worked, he said, until psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Perry admits he was surprised at seeing positive results, having previously bought into rhetoric against psychedelics. He’s now changed his tune. “Let’s look at what the results are, and not just look at what the government tells us,” Perry said. And while the Republican kept his comments specific to therapeutic use of psychedelics and didn’t say anything about recreational use, he gave his stamp of approval for the gathering. “Changing people’s minds—literally, figuratively, and forever—is what this conference is about.”
Gov. Polis touted Colorado as the psychedelic standard.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis followed his Republican counterpart with a similarly supportive speech, if slightly lower in energy than Perry’s (many people left Bellco Theater during Polis’ address). “You are truly on the forefront of psychedelic science,” Polis said to the Bellco crowd. “We’re facing difficult challenges in mental and behavioral health, and we’re excited about the possibility of psychedelics.”
Polis spent most of his speech talking about how Colorado is working to implement Prop 122, the ballot measure Colorado voters approved last year to decriminalize various plant medicines as well as create a state-regulated system to access certain psychedelic therapies. While the governor hadn’t commented much about Prop 122 before voters passed it, Polis now appears to be embracing the measure. He even declared that Colorado should go further and expunge the criminal records of individuals with convictions related to psychedelics–similar to what Colorado did around cannabis convictions. “We want to be an ambassador for other states,” Polis said. “We want people to say, ‘Hey, Colorado got this right.’”
Implementing Prop 122 will be both complex and complicated, with a lot of unknowns clouding the question of whether it will truly become the national model of psychedelic reform. Tensions also remain amongst some psychedelic community organizers in Colorado–evidenced by some heated exchanges this reporter witnessed at Psychedelic Science–since some organizers felt the political process moved too fast, and not everyone in Colorado believes the state regulations contained in Prop 122 represent the best way to move forward. At least when it comes to Colorado being an epicenter of psychedelic organizing, though, this conference proves that the Centennial State is at the forefront of a movement. Only time will reveal whatever comes of all the networking, backroom meetings, late-night party connections (there were plenty of these), and weird encounters that happened in and around this conference, but this gathering in Denver from June 19 to 23 is bound to go down as a historic moment in the mainstreaming of psychedelics. As anyone who attended Psychedelic Science this week can tell you, it’s been a trip.