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Denver psychedelics conference attracts thousands

Zack Dorsett, the operations manager of Wonderbags, a company that sells mushroom starter kits, at his company's booth at the "Psychedelic Science 2023" conference in Denver on Wednesday, June 21, 2023
Leigh Paterson
Zack Dorsett, the operations manager of Wonderbags, a company that sells mushroom starter kits, at his company's booth at the "Psychedelic Science 2023" conference in Denver on Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Crowds are gathering in downtown Denver this week to learn about the future of psychedelics like magic mushrooms and MDMA. The five-day Psychedelic Science 2023 event, attracting medical professionals, politicians, celebrities and practitioners, covers a wide variety of subjects from the business of psychedelics to therapeutic uses for these substances.

"We are facing very difficult challenges in mental and behavioral health and we're very excited about the opportunities that psychedelics offer to break cycles of addictions for opioids, to deal with severe depression and anxiety," said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis during his opening address on Wednesday.

Hosted by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), more than 11,000 people have registered for the event which the organization describes as "the largest psychedelic conference in history." This conference is the fourth of its kind, the most recent gathering took place in California in 2017.

"It's really exciting to see just how lively the showing is here in Denver ," Boulder resident Ramzy Abueita said. "The fact that...we are freely walking around in the city being ourselves shows just how much the zeitgeist has shifted and how much psychedelic culture has become normalized and de-stigmatized in our society."

Events include sessions for veterans struggling with PTSD, and researchers discussing a new clinical trial that examines psychedelic therapy for hospice patients. Speakers like musicians Melissa Ethridge and football player Aaron Rodgers are talking publicly about their experiences.

"The beauty in these journeys is to find that self-love because the greatest antidote to the anti-you is unconditional self-love and its been a beautiful journey to try and find that," Rodgers said of using psychedelics.

More mainstream acceptance

The conference represents increasing cultural awareness and acceptance of plant medicine, following recent efforts to bring psychedelics into the mainstream.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state in the nation to allow psilocybin-assisted therapy. Last fall, Colorado voters approved Proposition 122, which decriminalizes psilocybin and creates a framework for some psychedelics to be used in therapeutic settings. In recent years, officials in Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and California have loosened penalties or decriminalized some psychedelics.

Immediately following the passage of Proposition 122, Zach Dorsett founded Wonderbags, a Colorado Springs-based company that sells mushroom starter kits which customers then grow at home. During the conference, he stood answering questions at Wonderbag's booth, flanked by clear humid bags filled with mushrooms, at various stages of growth.

"So it's basically ready to grow. The bag itself doesn't contain any psilocybin, which allows us to sell it," Dorsett said of the starter kits. "You know where your mushrooms are coming from, You know how they're grown. You put that energy into them."

Dorsett says psychedelics have helped him with depression and motivation.

"When the industry started to evolve and we had Prop 122 pass, we were just looking for ways to like, add value to the community, and help others have some of these life changing experiences," Dorsett said.

Still, many of these substances are illegal at the federal level. After widespread use in the 1960s, the federal government classified some psychedelics, including psilocybin, as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they lack an accepted medical use and have a high potential for abuse.

Eventually, researchers began requesting licenses from the federal government to study some psychedelics. After encouraging results, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed some of this work to move ahead more quickly by granting "breakthrough therapy" status to MDMA and psilocybin-assisted therapies.

Many medical professionals say more research is needed to better understand the risks of these substances as well as the appropriate dosages and number of sessions. Certain groups are excluded from some clinical trials including kids, pregnant people and those with a history of psychosis because the risks of using psychedelics in these populations are not fully understood.

Joe Moore, the Breckenridge-based co-founder of Psychedelics Today, an educational organization that produces a twice-weekly podcast, pointed out that this big, visible conference likely feels risky for some, given the legal issues around these substances.

"A lot of people are really spooked, you know, for all sorts of reasons," Moore said.

He points to medical professionals in attendance who could risk their licenses and to people who are part of the underground psychedelics movement.

"This conference to me is a sort of coming out moment for this movement, saying, we're here... We're going to be doing our thing and we're doing it in a lot of different ways," Moore said. "And we're all brave enough to be here together."

Copyright 2023 KUNC

Leigh Paterson
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