Is Australia ready for psychedelic progress?

Notes from the Mind Medicine Australia launch, originally published on Medium

My only photo that night
Only photo I took that night

Psychedelic researchers, advocates, and skeptics alike met on February 13th, 2019 in Melbourne for the Mind Medicine Australia launch. Fresh from San Francisco and eager to meet people in this city also interested in psychedelic medicine, I bought an early-bird ticket.

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February 13th, 2019, 5:30 PM. At this point in life getting ready to go out involves more time bopping around with acid under my tongue than looking in the mirror. Microdosing quells my zapping nerves and oftentimes overactive mind, especially before larger gatherings.

So I took a small dose before biking to the University of Melbourne for the Mind Medicine launch. The bats weren’t out yet, but they would be soon, and the air was a perfect 23°C. I locked my bike, tried to tame my helmet hair, and entered the Sidney Myer Asia Centre. Immediately greeted, thick lashes ushered me to the left. More smiling eyes appeared around the corner, showing the way upstairs. I entered the full, bustling theater.

There were only a few seats left. Everyone was finding their space, finding their friends. I sat down in the back and observed the crowd. No matter if it’s in Melbourne, London, Berlin, or San Francisco, the general attitude and sense of psychedelic conferences remains the same: compassionate, curious, positive, and present. There’s this shared understanding, communicated with kind and sometimes cheeky glances that say: “We’ve seen a glimpse of the possible. That’s why we’re all here.” It’s usually a clash of characters, buttoned-up scientists, artists. The kind of people you might bond with at a music festival and never see again are there, anticipating a lineup of lectures.

Sound cultish? It really shouldn’t. People from all edges of the earth have been interested in psychedelic medicine and its potential for millennia. Many aboriginal people wonder what took us so long to make the connection. This goes beyond a Reddit thread.

“Hi neighbor,” the man next to me introduced himself. He was wearing a sheen suit and said he wanted a job.

The lights dimmed and we were asked to close our eyes. To think about our own mental conditions and the conditions of those close to us. A shared moment to acknowledge our collective pain. Inhale, exhale. My bulging veins and beads of sweat much appreciated the guided meditation. I biked fast and was feeling the acid.

A soprano voice began to sing. Opera? It was striking. Was it a recording? Where was the singer? At this point, I was no longer meditating with everyone else, but obsessively scanning the room for the source of that voice. And there she was: right next to me, walking down the aisle. Kaleidoscopic animations on the main stage were dancing apart into atoms and drawing back together. Was I tripping or did they really put on a show?

She made her way to the front of the room, sang her final note, and began to speak.

Making a dramatic entry, the mysterious opera singer happened to be Tania de Jong herself, one of the founding members and financial backers of Mind Medicine Australia along with her husband Peter Hunt, a successful-and-philanthropic investment banker.

de Jong and Hunt started off the night with a sense of urgency: “There can be no excuse for slowness given our current issues.” They provided alarming statistics, most of them Australian, on the increasing rates of mental illness, met by inadequate treatment. They spoke about positive research results from the U.S. and Europe. For depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, addiction. Johns Hopkins, NYU, lmperial College London. Then they asked: Where is the progress in Australia?

Psychedelic research can and already has contributed to our current/basic understanding of the brain, and we’ve only seen a sliver. The especially harsh regulatory binds in Australia, and around the world, not only impede research on the substances themselves and their therapeutic potential, but also impede the advance of knowledge across many disciplines from biology to sociology, ontology to epistemology.

There is no arguing the fact that Australia lags behind in psychedelic research. When searching ways to volunteer or get involved before moving here, I stumbled across PRISM’s research page, and read this:

“For students, we’re sorry to advise that Australia is lagging far beyond other countries in terms of psychedelic research. All PhDs so far have been confined to survey based research or people have travelled overseas. The best advice we can give is to complete your honours in a related field (eg psychology, brain-imaging, neuroscience, anthropology etc) and then seek support to do a PhD.”

While those exact words remain on their site, the page seems to be turning in Australia. News about the upcoming psilocybin trial at St. Vincent’s Hospital for end-of-life anxiety in terminally ill patients (co-funded by Mind Medicine) has been all over the press. There was a recent microdosing study out of Macquarie University in Sydney which showed that microdosing may improve mood and concentration, but may also increase neuroticism and anxiety (sounds about right, especially in people without mental illness or depression. Maybe not everyone needs a lift?). At Breaking Convention in 2017, Benjamin Mudge from Flinders University in Adelaide presented his research into ayahuasca for bipolar disorder. I’m curious what he’s working on now.

Things are changing. Slowly. Australia is beginning to rethink its psychiatric system. To start, gay conversion therapy will be banned in Victoria “after the Health Complaints Commissioner found ‘overwhelming evidence’ it does serious and long-term harm to those who receive it.”

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Hunt said in his speech: “We’re an intelligent country, and we’re a lucky country, but there is a lot of pain.” When he said this I couldn’t help but think: Lucky?… Who?… But these questions may be distractions from his point: Australia is a relatively well-organized and wealthy country, with a dire need for better mental health care and every reason to be progressing psychiatric reform. A lot of space + not too many people = resources and potential (ethical implications, especially for aboriginal people and migrants, very present).

Melissa Warner spoke next. She’s the Executive Officer of Mind Medicine and a member of the management committee of PRISM. She brought her neuroscience background to explain some of the mental mechanisms behind conditions like depression and the ability for psychedelic-assisted therapy to unlink cages of thought, with the same storylines stuck on repeat. She spoke about experiential medicine and the entropic brain.

The people behind Mind Medicine seem to come from a place of compassion and a genuine desire to help. Hunt himself spoke about his father’s suicide and friend’s lifelong sexual assault trauma. These issues touch all of us, and won’t improve without a shift in perspective.

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The keynote speaker was Professor David Nutt. He gave a hilariously entertaining, yet informative, presentation about the history of psychedelic research, therapy, and results. He spoke about the ’60s and the government’s response to the Vietnam War resistance. It was “Drop Acid, Not Bombs” against the war, so they went after the people taking acid. He spoke about Bobby Kennedy questioning the termination of psychedelic research and what can happen to the sense of self when psychedelics quiet the default mode network and increase brain connectivity.

You can watch the whole talk here:

Before wrapping up, Dr. Simon Longstaff, the director of The Ethics Centre, said a few words about prohibition and control, and then it was time for questions.

Hands shot up, including mine and my heart rate. I wanted to ask:

How can we ensure accessibility to these medicines if it’s currently difficult/expensive to get a booking with a psychologist or therapist? Is there a consensus on self-medication or underground therapy prior to reform for people who can’t afford to wait?

Whichever lens you choose or question psychedelics through — financial, political, psychological, philanthropic, cultural, philosophical, or a few stacked together — there is a rapidly growing opportunity in psychedelic medicine to heal and be healed, to give and take. Who grants and is granted access to this expanding symbiosis is going to be a crucial ethical question concerning psychedelic therapy and medicine. Especially if we look at the people already outspoken in this space (myself included) and the people still behind bars for these very same substances.

Many of us were not chosen to question. The final, precious inquiry of the evening was: “Hi. I saw you speak in London, and we spoke afterwards about ayahuasca… I wanted to ask if you think kambo is a psychedelic?” The crowd somewhat sighed, but there was too much joy in the room to hold a grudge against a Googleable question.

And that was it. Mind Medicine Australia launched and announced they are collecting donations. The night made me think: Maybe Australia was late to the party, but will do it right, with a bit more care. Or maybe they’ll just follow the leaders.

 

Thoughts?