Penn Conference Explores Ecstasy, and Everyone’s Invited

Psychedemia looks at medical benefits of psychedelic drugs.

Psychedelic drugs are making a comeback. No, not at Phish concerts (where they never left). They’re making a comeback in the medical world, where studies involving psylocibin (found in “magic mushrooms”) and MDMA (also known as ecstacy) are being used to treat depression in clinically ill patients and people with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

This weekend, the University of Pennsylvania will host a three-day conference called Psychedemia, so that people involved in this research can meet and discuss their findings. Furthermore, these meetings will be open to the public (paid registration is required), so that people can learn about the up-and-coming field of psychedelic medicine.

“After the 1960s, psychedelic research was shut down, but in the past three to five years there has been a renaissance,” says Nese (Na-Shea) Devenot, a Penn grad student and one of the event’s organizers. “It still carries a cultural taboo, but all of the work we’re doing has been government sponsored. There is nothing illegal going on with these studies.”

Indeed, as a recent write-up in the New York Times shows, psychedelic drugs are being used more and more in the lab and in therapy sessions, particularly in “end of life” therapy.

“For people who are dying from cancer, this medicine is used for end of life anxiety,” says Devenot. “People go into this therapy, where they take psylicibin in the morning, and they talk to a therapist, and it’s kind of a guided trip. A lot of these people will come out of this with a sense of peace. We have thus far had very successful outcomes but we are still in the early stages.”

Studies have also shown a lot of success with MDMA. In a 2010 study led by a South Carolina psychiatrist, 83 percent of the patients who received MDMA showed no signs of PTSD after two months of treatment.

“A lot of people in studies with MDMA and post traumatic stress syndrome had had it for years,” says Devenot. “They had tried things like talk therapy and pharmaceuticals, but nothing was working. They still had panic attacks, sweating, nervousness. And some of these people have said that they got as much out of a single session with MDMA as they have with all previous therapies.”

So what’s the backlash? Are there those who brush it off as either students wanting to do drugs or as some sort of hippie, new-age fad?

“There was an initial backlash, but it has waned over time. As anyone who comes to the conference will see, we’re all dedicated college researchers. You can’t come here if you want to take drugs. In fact, we’re being held to a higher standard, since we are [working with Schedule 1 drugs]. We have to be especially mature and forthcoming about what our intentions are going into it.”

Tickets for the full three-day conference are $130, though Penn students get a huge discount ($60 for all three days.) And the discussions aren’t going to be in doctor jargon.

“It’s supposed to be for a wide audience,” Devenot says. “There will be artists there, scientists there, anthropologists there. It will be very accessible.”