‘Psychedelics is about healing’: Thousands gather in Denver for largest psychedelic conference to date

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Magic Mushroom Conference Denver
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Forrest Tahdooahnippah is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma and hosted a panel on the traditional uses of Peyote. He is fighting for indigenous people and tribes to not be left behind as psychedelics become more main stream and legalized.

What if you could use psychedelics to heal trauma, treat mental illness, or even solve a decades-long international crisis? That was the focus of a weeklong conference in Denver meant to explore how the use of mind-altering drugs — like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms or ayahuasca — might positively impact communities, from health and religion to politics and business.

The fourth-ever MAPS Psychedelics Science Conference, which wrapped up at the Denver Convention Center Friday, wasn’t Hollywood's version of a psychedelic gathering. It brought together policymakers, scientists, therapists, community activists, governors and even high-profile celebrities like NFL star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The five days of talks and workshops hosted by MAPS, which stands for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, included panels on legalization, medicinal treatment, medical research, equity, community involvement and more. It brought in 12,000 attendees and hundreds of speakers to Denver — twice as large as the previous conference in 2018 in Oakland, California and a sign of how much the psychedelic movement has grown in recent years.

“I can only wonder, am I tripping?” said Rick Doblin, a founder of MAPS, at the conference. “It's not that I'm tripping, it's that culture is tipping.”

While there was a great deal of excitement about business and legalization efforts, the overwhelming focus and consensus of the conference centered on treatment, healing, and responsible use and access.

This ranged from panels on the use of psychedelics to heal trauma or broker peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the latest medical research and best practices for use in guided therapy.

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Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) addressed a packed Bellco Theater during the opening remarks of the conference.

But access to research is still limited. Psychedelics haven’t been approved for those uses by the FDA yet — a process that could take up to 10 to 12 years — and they are still illegal in 48 states. Though the agency did issue its first draft guidance on research during the last day of the conference.

Despite this setback, many, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, see the potential these drugs have to treat mental illness — including veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You had the courage to understand that your reputation is not more important than these young people’s lives,” said Perry, who credited breakthrough treatments for veterans struggling with addiction and mental health as his reason for joining the legalization movement. 

“And some of you are out there going, ‘What in the hell is that dude doing on this stage’,” Perry said. “You’re literally changing the world. You’re changing minds, and, more importantly, you’re saving lives.”

Even though legalization efforts are underway in dozens of states across the country, only Colorado and Oregon have legalized some psychedelics.

Sean McAllister is a local psychedelic lawyer who spearheaded decriminalization efforts in Colorado. He was also involved in the state’s cannabis legalization process over a decade ago.

“Cannabis is beautiful,” he said. “But psychedelics are healing childhood trauma and opening up opportunities for people that haven't been able to be healed by traditional medicines.”

Tim Meyer/MAPS
Super Bowl-winning NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers on stage at the Bellco Theater discussing his experiences with psychedelics.

When Coloradans voted to legalize psilocybin mushrooms last November, they opened the door for state-regulated treatment centers — where some psychedelics will be allowed in therapy as early as 2025.

“Is it not ironic that the things that actually expand your mind are illegal, and the things that keep you in the lower chakras and dumb you down have been legal for centuries,” Rodgers said at the conference. “We have to change that. And it’s through awareness and education.” 

However many advocates view legalization as only the first step. And with the rollout of licensing in Colorado come more questions and concerns.

“I just hope that the community comes together and shows a model of responsible psychedelic healing,” McAllister said. “And maintain this progress that we've achieved, because you could see a rollback if this is not done right. And I think all of us here are hoping for an effective implementation with safety, with accountability for practitioners.” 

One concern is to ensure a focus on health, healing and equity in the new system.

“That is a very different dialogue than we have with cannabis,” he said. “Cannabis is more about tax revenue and jobs. And psychedelics is about healing.”

Advocates hope not to repeat the mistakes of the past

“These are medicines that define our very spiritual and cultural existence and facilitate our connection with our ancestors, the creator and all of creation,” Maya Padilla, a member of the Arapahoe and Mashika nations, said while acknowledging the Indigenous roots of the land where the conference was being held. “We have watched as the water that we rely on as our lifeline, which my people have always held sacred, is commercialized, hoarded and made scarce when there is plenty for everyone to live. We have watched the tobacco that we have used in ceremonies for centuries become modified and turned into an object of addiction as it is sold to line the pockets of corporations that prefer to keep us physically and mentally unwell.”

Padilla said Native Americans worry that this type of commercialization can happen to their other medicines.

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Indigenous community organizer Maya Padilla gave the land acknowledgment at the Bellco Theater during the conference's opening remarks. She called for the psychedelic movement to ensure equity and inclusion of Native people who have traditionally used psychedelic medicines for centuries.

“The commodification of psychedelics is certainly against the Indigenous tradition,” said Forrest Tahdooahnippah, a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma and a Minnesota law professor. “It’s not for profit. It's not for sale. The purpose is healing, spiritual well being. I think commodification and commercialization have no place in this kind of space at all.” 

Tahdooahnippah hosted a talk about the importance of peyote as ceremonial for the Native American Church and the traditions that survived despite the U.S. government's history of violence and suppression. While peyote is not currently listed under Colorado’s Prop 122, Tahdooahnippah is looking ahead to what the implications of legalization might mean to his community.

“There's a lot of anxiety around legalization,” he said. “That expanding [peyote] to too wide of an audience will lead to too much pressure on what is a fragile habitat. Peyote takes years and years to grow – like five to ten years — into a mature plant. So, there's a big anxiety that it will be overused. The centuries of resistance to suppression will be for nothing, because the habitat and [plant] population will then be destroyed,” Tahdooahnippah said. 

Ean Seeb, the special advisor on Cannabis to Gov. Jared Polis, acknowledged the challenges of not repeating the same mistakes of the cannabis legalization rollout.

“The ability for us to attempt to address it and do it from the outset instead of 10 years later is something that we are focused on,” Seeb said during a panel.

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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis addresses the crowd in Bellco Theater during the conference's opening remarks.

During the conference, Gov. Polis announced he would seek more power from the legislature to mass pardon people convicted of crimes involving psychedelics — specifically crimes now legal under Colorado's Prop. 122. This is similar to what the state has done for past cannabis crimes in order to address issues of inequity. 

“Anybody who has something on their criminal record that is now legal can have that expunged and doesn't hold them back in future employment,” he said during remarks at the Bellco Theater.

It's unclear how many people would qualify for a pardon. Prop. 122 allows the cultivation, use and sharing of psilocybin mushrooms and a few other psychedelic drugs, but selling any of those substances remains illegal.

“Know that it is the governor's priority to focus on social equity,” Seeb said. “It has been for the past few years, and there's no reason why it's not going to extend to something like this.”

While certain psychedelics are legal in Oregon and Colorado, they are still illegal at the federal level

The Oregon Psilocybin Services Act, which regulates the substance in the state after voters approved it in 2020, requires the federal government to attempt to meet with the U.S. Attorney of Oregon, according to Angela Allbee, who manages the Oregon Psilocybin Services for Oregon Health Authority. 

“And so we have sent a letter, and we received a response that said, ‘Thank you. We're aware of what you're doing, and we'll let you know if we have any questions,’” Allbee said during a government panel on regulation and policy behind the rollout of psychedelics in Colorado and Oregon.

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Attendees listen to a presentation by popular podcaster Andrew Huberman in the Bellco Theater.

The interplay between state law and federal law in this arena is murky. Psilocybin currently does not have an equivalent Cole Memorandum that clarifies the federal government’s stance on Colorado’s legalization rollout. The Cole Memo was issued by then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole in 2013 and stated the Justice Department would not prosecute in states where cannabis was legal and had “effective regulatory and enforcement systems.” It involved controlling issues like access to youth, interstate commerce, and ensuring there was no violence related to cannabis or connection to organized crime. 

Just making sure you're following the rules and the regulations and knowing what they are,” said Jashua Kappel, a writer of Prop. 122 and fellow panelist. “Because when you violate the laws, then you end up on the front page of the paper, and you make us all look bad.”

“And (you) welcome federal intervention,” Seeb added. “Which nobody wants.” 

"I’m so excited about where this is headed, and we really are at the very beginning,” McAllister said.

Outside the more than 300 workshops and talks, the conference featured a market with hundreds of booths, including McAllister’s, that showed the intersectionality of the psychedelic movement. While academic panels and presentations took place, musicians played in the lobby that featured a “Deep Space” art gallery. 

The market space showcased products and experiences ranging from ketamine infusion clinics, which are legal in some states, to psychedelic-based retreats to accessories — including apparel, non-psychoactive mushroom products and even manure for fertilizing plants. 

Magic Mushroom Conference Denver
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An expo marketplace inside the Denver Convention Center featured various products and experiences related to the psychedelic movement and community including retreat opportunities, treatments, self-care and swag.
Magic Mushroom Conference Denver
Jenna McMurtry/CPR News
Musicians filled the main lobby of the Denver Convention Center for the 4th Psychedelics Science Conference.

And while there are still risks involved with building a start-up business catering to psychedelics, many were preparing for what McAllister called the potential “mushroom boom.” 

People like Nat Segers from Baltimore have changed the trajectory of their whole career because of psilocybin.

“I'm really, really proud of the work that I've done as a nurse,” Segers said. “But after five years there's just been a lot of burnout, and it's taken a lot out of me. I'm starting to realize the draw to the mystic and the scientific intersection. And (I’m) just trying to plunge into and understand all of these things we don't know.”

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