Aspen symposium takes on question of medical uses for psychedelics now that it’s legal
June 1, 2023
From Michael Pollan to Netflix and Prince Harry to The New York Times, the buzz around psychedelic therapy has a grip on pop culture.
Closer to home, the recent state passage of the Natural Medicine Act/Proposition 122, which decriminalizes “the personal possession, growing, sharing, and use — but not the sale — of five natural psychedelic substances by individuals aged 21 and over, including two substances found in psychedelic mushrooms,” opened the door to Colorado becoming a leader in psychedelic research and treatments.
The conversation will make its way on Friday to the Wheeler Opera House in the form of a four-part symposium featuring researchers, advocates, and medical professionals presented by Aspen Public Radio, Healing Advocacy Fund, and the Aspen Psychedelic Resource Center.
“I thought Aspen should be the venue where this conversation takes place because of the city’s well-documented history of open-mindedness, embrace of new ideas, and willingness to challenge societal orthodoxies,” said William Dolan, chairman of Aspen Public Radio’s board. “Aspen’s weirdness might have diminished since Nixon outlawed these substances, but the influence and reach of our institutions and their ability to inform a national audience has surely risen. The inaugural Aspen Psychedelic Symposium is yet another example of this community’s commitment to thought leadership.”
Healing Advocacy Fund operates in both states that have decriminalized some psychedelics: Oregon and Colorado. The group aims to educate the public about the benefits of psychedelic therapy for mental-health challenges including depression, anxiety, and addiction.
The organization’s state director, Tasia Poinsatte, who worked on the Prop 122 campaign last fall, said educating the public about the new laws and safety around usage is key.
“I’ve gotten a window into how this connects with people’s lives here in Colorado and had conversations about positive transformations that they experienced through structured and intentional access to the medicines,” she said. “People are cautiously optimistic and have high hopes for it, but they also have a lot of questions. The Aspen Symposium is a really great opportunity to bring together advocates, but also doctors, researchers, therapists, and those who have used the medicines within ceremonial contexts to really get at the root of why is this so transformational? And how can we undertake this change as a state in a responsible way?”
The Aspen Psychedelic Resource Center’s co-founder, Martha Hammel, also helped organize the event.
She became involved in the local movement in 2021 at the behest of then-Aspen City Council member Skippy Mesirow, who was interested in putting together a group that would work toward the decriminalization of psychedelics in Aspen.
Hammel, a licensed nutritionist and who had experience working for The Center for Medicinal Mindfulness in Boulder, was passionate about legal psychedelic therapy and threw herself into advising, writing legislation, interacting with the community, and collecting signatures for a local ballot initiative. But then Colorado voters passed Prop 122 54%-46%, paving the way for her and co-founder Laura Betty to create the Aspen Psychedelic Resource Center.
Their goal is teaching the public about safe, optimal use of psychedelics and to be a practical resource for the community.
“Proposition 122 allows people to go and take responsibility for their own healing,” said Hammel. “In Colorado, we do this with so many things. We like to make independent, personal decisions. What we see is a need for education, so people can make good decisions. What are people’s expectations? What’s the integration? How do people get help if they feel destabilized? On our website, we have resources of local therapists, we have resources for fireside, which is a hotline that you can call if you’re having a difficult psychedelic experience, and I encourage people in the community to use them.”
Kicking off the symposium, on Thursday night is an Aspen Film Isis Theatre free screening of the documentary “Psychedlia: The History and Science of Mystical Experience.” The film is directed by Pat Murphy and explores psychedelic drugs’ ability to induce mystical or religious experiences. The film chronicles this relationship by chronicling their use in controlled research studies prior to the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, when LSD was considered a promising discovery in the field of psychiatry.
On Friday, the symposium opens with the first of four panels: “What is Healing, What is ceremony?” It is a general introduction to plant medicine that dives into the role psychedelics have historically played within indigenous contexts and other spiritual and ceremonial practices, and how that translates to psychedelic healing as understood today.
“It’s hard to talk about this without acknowledging the legacy of the war on drugs and that in many ways psychedelics were lumped together with other drugs and labeled dangerous and harmful,” said Poinsatte. “And that was despite some incredible research that started to happen in the ’50s and ’60s. They became illegal, and they remain federally illegal to this day and illegal in most states. What’s important to this whole conversation is that they are neither harmful nor inevitably beneficial, right? They can be a powerful tool for healing. In some instances, they can cause harm.”
Panels two and three, “Mental Health Breakthroughs” and “The Neuroscience of Psychedelics,” aim to focus on beneficial uses for people suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain. And ultimately offer a message of hope for those who haven’t had success with current medical treatments.
Participating panelist Dr. Scott Thompson, a neuroscientist in the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, has dedicated his life to studying depression in mice and recently moved to this state to work on the first modern-era Colorado psilocybin clinical trial for depression. The trial will being this fall at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and test whether psilocybin — the chemical compound that produces psychedelic effects in “magic mushrooms” — can help with treatment-resistant depression.
“Psychedelics and SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) share a common mechanism of action, which is they interact with this natural hormone serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain,” said Dr. Thompson. “It’s a hormone that’s involved in sort of higher-level things, lots of cognitive processing and emotional regulation. There are 14 different receptor molecules that the serotonin acts on, and of those 14 different receptors, psychedelics bind to almost all of them. A huge question for biologists is which of these receptors is necessary? Most people think that it’s the trip that’s the important thing. That you have alterations of your consciousness that allows you to look at your problems with new insight to reframe them in a way that you can move forward and move past and adapt and adjust. We came at it from the perspective that SSRIs, like Prozac, doesn’t make you trip, but it makes you less depressed (or two-thirds of people less depressed) and that you don’t need this receptor activation to have benefits.”
So, what does he think about all the hype around micro-dosing?
“If people perceive that they are better, the question becomes why do they feel like they’re better? But I’m skeptical because biologically speaking, drugs bind to receptors. You have a whole bunch of receptors. How many of them are turned on by a given drug depends on the quantity of the drug that’s there,” he said. “So if you are micro dosing at a very low level, you’re only going to be activating one of all these receptors, so is that enough to do something? But as a student of the brain, I am incredibly impressed with our ability to want to get better. So if you go into your micro dosing with the expectation that this is going to be the thing that’s going to allow me to move past my obstacle, there is a very good chance that it will work. And that’s good, right? Because at the end of the day, we want people to be better.”
The final panel, “Where do we go from here?” aims to begin the conversation about what access to plant medicines in Colorado might look like in the years ahead, why harm-reduction efforts are an important next step, and how the conversation should continue.
The symposium will close with a keynote address by Dennis Mckenna, who has conducted research in ethnopharmacology for over 40 years. He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute and a key investigator on the Hoasca Project, the first biomedical investigation of ayahuasca. Mckenna is the younger brother of Terence McKenna, who spent 30 years advocating for the investigation of psychedelics for the exploration of consciousness.
While this is an exciting time for psychedelic research, all the experts and advocates want to make something very clear: that this type of treatment is in the early stages of research and not appropriate for everyone.
Dr. Thompson cautions people that these drugs are indeed very powerful, and anyone considering embarking on this type of treatment should speak to their doctors candidly about their medical and mental-health history.
“Psychedelics aren’t for everyone. So, ask your doctor,” he emphasized. “If you have a history of psychosis, this is not for you. A big part of Prop 122 in Colorado is to include a screening step in these officially-licensed healing centers. We need to be very, very careful until we know more, until we’ve had way more experience than we’ve had up to now. So again, I just want to say, they are incredibly powerful drugs.”