This article originally appeared in Conscious Choice magazine.

 

The
2008 World Psychedelic Forum was an almost shockingly respectable
affair. Held in Basel, Switzerland, in a spacious convention center
next to the five-star Swissôtel Basel, the event drew 1,500 visitors
for a two-day symposium on the past and present state of psychedelic
thought and research. Despite flashes of eccentricity and DayGlo, you
could have easily thought you were at a conference for alternative
medicine or some abstruse but uncontroversial hobby. I felt honored to
be one of the speakers, part of a high-profile group which included the
Czech LSD researcher and theorist Stanislav Grof; Ralph Metzner, a
well-known author and teacher and one of Leary's original partners at
Harvard; botanists Dennis McKenna, Christian Raetsch and Kat Harrison;
MAPS director Rick Doblin; anthropologist and author Jeremy Narby;
visionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey; and many more.

The
Gaia Media Foundation organized the forum, following upon their
successful LSD conference, marking the 100th birthday of the recently late LSD chemist
Albert Hofmann, two years ago. The 2008 event mingled nostalgia and
insularity, futurism and hope, in equal measures. On the nostalgia
side, Timothy Leary's archivist Michael Horowitz mounted an exhibit of
psychedelic art and media imagery, much of it from the heyday of
late-sixties flower power, while Carolyn (Mountain Girl) Garcia gave a
heartfelt speech about her journeys with the Merry Pranksters and the
early Haight Ashbury days of the Grateful Dead. Although Hofmann was still living at the time, he declined to attend the festivities, due to family concerns.

Sixty-five years since Hofmann's first
accidental dose, new frontiers in psychedelic research are opening up,
represented at the Forum by an array of therapists and scientists from
institutions across Europe, the U.S. and Canada. After a 35-year
blockade on the subject, psychedelic research with human subjects is
being permitted again. In Switzerland, a new study explores LSD as a
tool of psychotherapy — the first such study to be allowed since the
early 1970s. After years of persistent effort, the Multidisciplinary
Association of Psychedelic Studies (maps.org)
has succeeded in shepherding a number of projects through the
regulatory system. Studies underway in the United States include
research on use of psilocybin as a treatment for cluster headaches, and
on MDMA (Ecstasy) as a treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a
complex likely to haunt tens of thousands of veterans as they return
from the Iraq War.

Today, there is potential for
psychedelics to be reintroduced into mainstream culture, not as drastic
catalysts of social upheaval but as tools that can help people overcome
serious problems. In the future, MAPS sees itself becoming a "nonprofit
pharmaceutical company" that distributes psychedelics to qualified
professionals. On a deeper, almost subconscious level, cultural and
political resistance to the scrupulous study and at least the religious use of psychedelics
seems to have dissipated, to a certain extent. A recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins,
giving psilocybin to subjects who had never taken a psychedelic before,
found that most subjects had long-lasting positive changes in their
worldview. CNN and The Wall Street Journal gave prominent coverage to the results of this study. Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court ruled in the favor of the American branch of União do Vegetal, a syncretic religion from Brazil that uses ayahuasca as its sacrament. 

Beyond the scientific framework, there is compelling anecdotal data on
the benefits of psychedelic use for creative processes, intellectual
work and personal development. Recently, British newspapers reported
that Francis Crick may have been taking low doses of LSD
when he
discovered the double helix shape of the DNA molecule (although he
refused to allow this to be published before his death). The Nobel
Prize winning biochemist Kary Mullis openly discussed the inspiration
he gained from psychedelics. Many pioneers of the Internet and the
personal computer experimented with psychedelics. And of course, the
anthemic music, film, literature and visual culture of the late-1960s
remains iconic.

During his speech at the conference, Dr. Tom
Roberts, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University,
proposed that the rediscovery of psychedelics in modern culture is
creating a "second Reformation." During the first Reformation, the
Bible, which was only available to a priest class able to read Latin,
was translated, printed and distributed to the masses, who were then
able to read and interpret the "word of God" for themselves. By
providing direct access to the mystical experience described in sacred
texts from around the world, this "second Reformation" will,
eventually, eliminate the need for a priest class that stands between
the individual and personal revelation. Of course, such a deep shift in
cultural perspective is a long process — the first Reformation
developed over a few hundred years.

At this point in time,
those of us who see validity in the psychedelic experience can feel
cautiously optimistic that we are reaching some tipping point in
cultural perception. The discourse around hallucinogens has become far
more sophisticated and measured than it was a generation ago. While
Timothy Leary argued psychedelics were a shortcut to "enlightenment"
and that everyone should "turn on" and "drop out," researchers today
consider psychedelics to be powerful tools that have negative effects
if used improperly, like all tools. But these substances may also have
tremendous benefits for the individual and society, when we become
mature enough to make use of them.

Image by marco braun, courtesy of Creative Commons license.