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Tripping at Horizons Psychedelic Conference

Is there a good side to psychedelics?

From the audience, a middle aged woman raised her hand and shared that she had recently come out of the "psychedelic closet" to her twenty something children. They had told her about their experiences with Ecstasy, so she was curious to try the drug herself. At 51 years old, she had experienced her first "trip."

This was just one example of the unorthodox stories told at Horizons' third annual conference on psychedelics, which took place September 26-27, 2009 in New York City. Hosted by Judson Memorial Church, a venue that has long advocated social justice, free speech, and progressive politics, Horizons was founded by Kevin Balktick in New York City to share fresh perspectives on the role of psychedelics in medicine, culture, history, spirituality, and art. The conference invites experts, researchers, and scholars who all share an intimate knowledge of psychedelic drug use to discuss developments in research, debunk myths, and ultimately educate the public about this esoteric sub culture.

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Over the two-day event, speakers lectured on topics ranging from "Making Sense of Mushrooms" to "Psychedelic Harm Reduction--Rethinking the 'Bad Trip.'" Speaking on behalf of psilocybin, Andy Letcher, a writer, academic lecturer, and musician from Oxford, discussed his personal experiences while under the influence of "magic mushrooms" as well as explaining mushrooms' significance in the context of shamanism and mysticism over the last hundred years.

Similarly, Valerie Mojeiko, from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit pharmaceutical company and educational organization which conducts clinical trials under the US FDA with psychedelic medicines like MDMA (Ecstasy), LSD, and psilocybin, shared her experiences with Ecstasy as a teenager, which inspired her present career choice. Mojeiko discussed being a guinea pig herself for certain drug trials, and advocated the beneficial uses of certain drugs, noting successful treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with MDMA as an example.

Earth and Fire Erowid, co-creators of Erowid.org, a non commercial website that collects data and publishes original research on visionary plants and drugs, humorously discussed copy-cat legal drugs mostly available in Europe that mimic the effects of their illegal counterparts. One of the more notable copy-cats is "Spice," which was developed in 2006 in Germany and ostensibly emulated the effects of cannabis. The Erowids revealed that "Spice" was, in fact, produced by pharmaceutical drug company Pfizer, and was recently outlawed once researchers discovered its ingredients (particularly CP 47, 497) were more potent than cannabis, itself. Their website, which garners over one million hits monthly, is devoted to providing fair, honest, and current information about drug research.

Part hippy-commune, part academic lecture, Horizons offered a weird but informative look into today's pervasive yet uncommercial drug culture. One that Letcher describes as the most available and accessible in history, thanks to technology and the Internet. Audience members were also encouraged to speak about their own psychedelic experiences and engage in thoughtful panel discussions with guests. Star speakers came from such venerable institutions like NYU and UCLA, where they actively work with FDA-approved psychedelic medical research programs.

The general theme of the conference was to advocate an open mindedness to psychedelic drug usage. Speakers frequently referenced Native Americans and other cultures that safely used drugs as part of sacred rituals and cited examples where psychedelics successfully treated health problems. For instance, educational pamphlets available at the conference boasted LSD as curing founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson of alcoholism and described Psychologist Gary Fisher's success in treating childhood autism with LSD.

In such a positive environment, it was difficult to see the downers of psychedelics, but Mojeiko's presentation did focus on how to deal with a "bad trip" and turn it into a good one. Furthermore, other speakers discussed general warnings, risks, and hazards regarding improper drug use. Perhaps the most surprising fact was learning that fatalites attributed to psychedelics are exceptionally rare. In fact, Balktick shares that there has been only one recorded LSD fatality, attributed to injecting 3,000 doses. 

Horizons definitely raised new insight and legitimacy to this otherwise notoriously vilified drug culture.

Jen Kim is a PT intern.

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