Almost a decade ago, Breaking Convention hosted the UK’s first-ever psychedelic conference at University of Kent (UK). Little did the organizers know, back then, that this would play a part in birthing the psychedelic renaissance in the UK. It was a small, unassuming event of 500 psychedelic aficionados who thought there was something valuable about these substances. Back then, anything to do with psychedelics was fringe and far from the mainstream.
Ten years after the first Breaking Convention, here we all are in a psychedelic movement that has changed beyond recognition. Suddenly, psychedelics are considered viable mental health treatments and they’re popular. Michael Pollan’s book How to Change your Mind has brought psychedelics into the homes of people who might otherwise have thought these substances were exclusively harmful. These are wonderful advances but, with this increasing popularity has arrived the potential for big business interest and, with that, the promise of psychedelic-fueled status, fame, and fortune…if you’re willing to do what it takes to get it.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that as psychedelics have become more mainstream, we’ve seen more conferences being created. The number of psychedelic conferences has been steadily growing over the last ten years, each one making a valuable contribution and becoming a welcome addition to the global community. However, in the last 6–12 months, we’ve seen a sudden and disconcerting rise of new startup psychedelic conferences. At first glance, these events almost look like the ones we know and trust. However, scratch just beneath the surface and you’ll start to see the signs of profit-driven enterprises with little regard for the values or ethics this movement was built on. These might be better described as “profitdelic conferences”. To understand how different these are in ethos and feel to what we’ve seen before, we can take a deeper look at what was driving the early psychedelic conferences.
Conferences, like Breaking Convention in the UK and Psychedelic Science and Horizons in the US, have become longstanding institutions among psychedelic communities and have played a vital role in advancing the academic, cultural, and political movements we see advancing psychedelic science and culture today. These conferences give people a chance to learn, a safe place to connect, and provide researchers from around the world places to meet, get inspired, and forge collaborations. The kind of people who attended the first few Breaking Convention conferences were academic researchers, people treating their own mental health difficulties with LSD, ayahuasca, and psilocybin, or people who had discovered psychedelics as tools for exploring consciousness or spirituality. Most of the attendees had some personal desire to advance public debate about the safety and potential benefit of psychedelics. No one was there to make money, and this was a dramatically underfunded field of research. There was no immediate glamour, status or fame associated with it.
Most people want the freedom to use psychedelics legally but the thought of what legalized psychedelics might mean in reality has always been accompanied by fear.
The energy behind these pioneering conferences was one of advancing the fields of psychedelic research for public benefit and the movements towards legalization, or both. But even back at the first Breaking Convention, I was struck by an obvious tension within psychedelic communities that persists today. Most people want the freedom to use psychedelics legally but the thought of what legalized psychedelics might mean in reality has always been accompanied by fear. I remember a man in his 60s who genuinely and wholeheartedly believed in the potential of psychedelics standing up in the auditorium at the first Breaking Convention and saying, “Can you imagine what will happen if they’re legalized in this culture? Do we want a Disneyland of psychedelics? I’d rather them stay illegal if that’s the only option.”
These opportunistic conferences are being created by venture capital startups andpeople who make misleading claims about their experience or connections to the psychedelic community, borrowing credibility from the well-known psychedelic speakers they invite and using the speaker’s legitimacy to recruit other speakers to fill up the conference and sell tickets.
Perhaps he had a point; new players are now entering the field in rapid succession and, suddenly, it’s no longer absurd to hear psychedelics and market forces spoken of in the same sentence. We are living in the era of psychedelic capitalism; startup pharmaceutical companies trying to patent psychedelic-assisted therapies, startup clinics funded by those companies designed to distribute the medicines at high cost to patients who can pay, these new pharmaceutical companies attempting to dominate the market, putting psychedelic researchers in key positions within their organizations, and legal startup psilocybin retreats being set up by, it would seem, just about everyone (with or without the experience to do so). The rise of profitdelic conferences is a part of this wider trend. These opportunistic conferences are being created by venture capital startups andpeople who make misleading claims about their experience or connections to the psychedelic community, borrowing credibility from the well-known psychedelic speakers they invite and using the speaker’s legitimacy to recruit other speakers to fill up the conference and sell tickets. The content is rarely curated, and is more a mish-mash of anyone they could get on board who is known well enough and will sell enough tickets.
Another issue that’s been flagged with these kinds of conferences, is that the organizers, lacking links to the psychedelic community, are unaware of the unethical and unsafe practitioners operating in this field.
Speakers have started reporting issues with these conferences, as Dr. Bia Labate noted when she first highlighted and wrote on this topic. A number of academic researchers recently withdrew their participation in an online conference. It was a cannabis industry conference for investors that included a psychedelic track for the first time this year to attract investors into the psychedelic healthcare market. Some researchers reportedly pulled out of speaking at the event over concerns the organizers had little knowledge of psilocybin for mental health issues, despite attempts to attract investors to invest in this, and that they had invited a speaker with no experience with using psilocybin as a treatment for people suffering with depression to be part of an expert panel discussing this topic. Another profitdelic conference made claims about including Indigenous speakers, something which would lend credibility, but they never materialized in the final speaker lineup. The organizers offered attendees and speakers the opportunity to invest money in their startup psychedelic investment business. It was later discovered that, apparently, there was no psychedelic investment fund and the conference was an attempt to attract the funding needed to create it. Another issue that’s been flagged with these kinds of conferences, is that the organizers, lacking links to the psychedelic community, are unaware of the unethical and unsafe practitioners operating in this field. A number of these conferences have given a platform to psychedelic retreat owners or facilitators who are known within the community to be unsafe or unethical.
Despite these significant issues, these conferences keep popping up, securing lots of high-quality psychedelic speakers and selling lots of tickets. The question is, how are profitdelic conferences getting away with producing these poor-quality conferences and getting people to present and attend? One factor is that most psychedelic researchers and practitioners aren’t paying much attention to the events they’re invited to. Up to this point, there has been little to worry about. All of the psychedelic conferences up to this point have had skin in the game and had been about advancing education and/or legalization. Psychedelic conferences have, more or less, been working towards similar ends, albeit in diverse ways. Until now, speakers have been able to have a quick glance at the website of the conference they’re invited to when they get invited. Most will agree to speak at any conference that looks legitimate because they care about their work and want to share it.
For some early career researchers and practitioners, it’s hard to say “no” to a speaking opportunity, even if they don’t agree with the conference offering it, because they feel the need for the visibility and networking opportunities conferences offer, since they’re trying to build careers in a field with scarce resources and jobs.
Some other researchers and practitioners are starting to become aware of concerns about these conferences but still choose to speak there anyway. There are a few different reasons people give for this. For some early career researchers and practitioners, it’s hard to say “no” to a speaking opportunity, even if they don’t agree with the conference offering it, because they feel the need for the visibility and networking opportunities conferences offer, since they’re trying to build careers in a field with scarce resources and jobs. For others, often more established in the field, there’s the growing sense there’s nothing they can do about psychedelic capitalism and its influence on the field, so they may as well go to these conferences and try to influence the conversation there. Some say they should join them in their capitalist pursuit and make money with them. There’s also this idea bouncing around that, unless every speaker refused to speak at these conferences, some people will always agree to speak; so, not participating wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
These are all valid and understandable things to think in an attempt to make sense of a confusing time in the psychedelic movements we’re all involved in. So many changes so fast, and too many new people entering the field to vet them all. But the concern is that, if we don’t take a proper look at this and the long-term implications of what’s happening now, this movement will slip through our fingers, turning into something hollow, completely losing sight of the values psychedelics first revealed. Now, it is more important than ever to ask ourselves why we got involved with this vast psychedelic movement, why we’re still involved, and what we want it to bring into our world, our societies, and our relationships.
Transparency, compassion for those suffering, challenging cultural norms, and an awareness of our interconnectedness have always been at the heart of it all.
Every time we let something slip by that we don’t think is right, we’re moving further away from the values this movement was built on. Transparency, compassion for those suffering, challenging cultural norms, and an awareness of our interconnectedness have always been at the heart of it all. Waking up to what’s happening now and making a conscious choice about the role we want to play in it is vital. We do all have an important part to play; each person’s choices matter and will have an impact, however small.
It’s important to note that for profit approaches to psychedelics aren’t inherently negative but, like any approach, they do need to make conscious their values and ethics to ensure profit doesn’t supersede the intentions of the project and damage whatever good they set out to do in the process. A story titled We Will Call It Pala by The Auryn Project is a cautionary tale for psychedelics of this.
We are realizing that, rather than trying to stop these conferences or give them credibility by collaborating with them or attending them, we might be better off focusing our efforts on supporting and building events we truly believe in; ones that embody values and ethics we can be proud of.
For the last few months, a few of us, including myself, Bia Labate, Anya Oleksiuk, Ros Watts, Mike Margolies, Lia Mix, Julie Holland, Pam Kryskow, Mareesa Stertz and an informal network of women called “Women and Psychedelics”, have been trying to reach out to organizers and challenge motives, deficits in curation, and lack of diversity. This has been exhausting. We are realizing that, rather than trying to stop these conferences or give them credibility by collaborating with them or attending them, we might be better off focusing our efforts on supporting and building events we truly believe in; ones that embody values and ethics we can be proud of. At the same time, we need to keep raising awareness about this topic and this article is a modest attempt in this direction.
If you’re thinking of attending or invited to speak at a conference, here are some ways you can assess the legitimacy of the event.
- Find out how long this conference has been around. A brand-new conference requires research to determine if you are supporting a legitimate event
- Find out what the purpose of the conference is; don’t just accept what is written on the website. Find out who the conference is aimed at and what the personal and professional benefit is to the organizers for running the event.
- Google the organizers, find out who they are. How long have they been part of the psychedelic community? What are their backgrounds? What are their jobs?
- Ask if the conference is paying their speakers; often, unscrupulous ones won’t pay anyone even though ticket sales are high and it’s a for-profit event. Good conferences should be transparent about remuneration.
- Look at the list of speakers to see if they make any attempt at diversity; many of the most well-known conferences still aren’t meeting the best standards for this, but they have made significant progress in the past 10 years. The new startups often lack diversity and create an echo chamber of limited wisdom.
Additional things speakers can do:
- Ask other speakers and conference organizers about the reputation of the conference organizers among people in the psychedelic community.
- Ask other speakers about their experiences of the conference you’re being invited to and share your own experiences to help others make informed decisions
- Support local grassroots psychedelic communities and organizations
Considering the rise of profitdelic conferences, we need to create ethical, safe, and values-driven events and empower speakers in the field to do more due diligence and be more selective about where they speak.
Art by Mariom Luna.
The author thanks Bia Labate and Anya Oleksiuk for the valuable dialogues around this piece.
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