.Psilicon Valley

This weekend, psychedelic explorers, academics and medical professionals gather in San Jose to discuss 'Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century.'

Illustration by Stanley Mouse

INTERNET PIONEER John Gilmore, one of Sun Microsystems’ first employees and co-founder of the free-software firm Cygnus Software, says psychedelic drugs have been an essential tool in his life’s work.

Before he made his millions, Gilmore was a journeyman programmer who had moved to Silicon Valley from the East Coast in 1978. He says he grew up believing in absolute truth, and that the world was just a puzzle to be solved through logic and reason. Then he started experimenting with drugs.

“My experiences with psychedelics convinced me that there was more mystery in the world than that,” he says, “and that our perceptions are not as closely matched to reality as we believe.”

He says he was stunned by the realization that “having a small amount of a particular chemical in your bloodstream can change your perceptions of the world.

“It sort of taught me that our relationship to reality is a little bit fuzzy. It’s mediated through our senses and through our expectations. That knowledge has helped me puzzle my way through a bunch of situations in both programming and business, sort of not taking the obvious at face value but looking around the corner to see, well, how does it look from that angle?”

Gilmore is responsible for a well-known saying about the nature of the Internet: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” He credits his mind-expanding experiences with this intellectual tendency to turn things on their head to find a solution.

He says he has taken drugs when confronting big life decisions—moving to a new town, taking a new job, breaking up a relationship—because they help him see things in a different light. “Having had the experience, I could then use the knowledge I’d learned in everyday life,” he says.

A self-described “civil libertarian millionaire eccentric,” Gilmore now occupies himself as a philanthropist and outspoken proponent for the end of the war on drugs. He is also a board member and major contributor to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a Santa Cruz–based nonprofit committed to mainstreaming the medical use of psychedelic drugs, which is hosting a national conference in San Jose this weekend.

For the past 24 years, MAPS has been facilitating and sponsoring medical research into the benefits and risks of alternative substances such as LSD, ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms and the Amazonian vine ayahuasca. This week’s conference, “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century,” will be the biggest international psychedelic science gathering in almost two decades.

More than 800 psychedelic researchers, health-care professionals, psychotherapists and spiritual leaders will converge on San Jose April 15–18 at the Holiday Inn at 1740 N. First St. The conference will focus on the range of emerging psychedelic drugs and the burgeoning scientific fields of study that are springing up around them. Dozens of speakers will attend, including Weiland Ralph Metzner, who have been leaders in the field since the 1960s, and Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, widow of the late Grateful Dead guitarist, “Captain Trips” himself. It will also feature less-well known presenters exploring the clinical, spiritual, therapeutic and social applications of psychedelics.

OFFICE SPACE: The staff of the Santa Cruz–based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which is funded largely by Silicon Valley money and is hosting a global conference in San Jose this weekend.

Weird Science

The alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, who began his career in the 1960s as a psychedelic researcher and wrote several popular books on the subject, says people have always used certain drugs “to allow them to transcend their human and ego boundaries, to feel greater contact with the supernatural, or with the spiritual, or with the divine, however they phrase it.

“Drugs don’t have spiritual potential,” he says, “human beings have spiritual potential. And it may be that we need techniques to move us in that direction, and the use of psychoactive drugs clearly is one path that has helped many people.”

Weil, who will attend the conference this weekend, was a colleague of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard, where the three men rocked academia with their studies. At that time, LSD was legal—but that changed quickly. After a brief public debate about its potential merits, LSD was outlawed in 1966.

Leary, who had by then become “the Psychedelic Messiah,” was not surprised by the development.

“The effect of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence,” Leary said. “These possibilities naturally threaten every branch of the establishment. The dangers of external change appear to frighten us less than the peril of internal change. LSD is more frightening than the Bomb!”

After decades of social marginalization and governmental suppression, there is a renaissance going on in the world of psychedelic research. In 2010, there are as many research projects on mind-altering drugs going on as there were in the late 1960s, before the U.S. government started cracking down on them. But Summer of Love redux this is not.

Having learned from the mistakes of the acidheads of that era, today’s psychedelic community might be better prepared to deal with some of the most powerful substances on earth.

There are promising studies under way around the world into the use of psilocybin for cancer patients, MDMA for autism and Asperger’s syndrome, as well as ibogaine for addiction and LSD-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of anxiety associated with terminal illness. Still, MAPS and the broader psychedelic community aren’t out of the woods yet. It took the researchers at MAPS five years of fighting and navigating the bureaucracy of the Drug Enforcement Agency and Food and Drug Administration to get their most recent, and widely hailed, study under way.

Michael Mithoefer’s 7-1/2-year, $2.2 million trial study into the use of MDMA (Ecstasy) in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was the first legal pilot study of its kind in the United States in decades and has been widely hailed by the medical community a breakthrough in psychedelic research.

Despite the DEA putting up roadblocks at every turn, Mithoefer’s MAPS-funded research will be expanding this summer into the MDMA treatment of Iraq war veterans’ PTSD. Mithoefer’s presentation is one of the most highly anticipated talks of the San Jose conference.

What a Long, Strange Motherboard It’s Been

It’s a poetic coincidence that this week’s MAPS conference is taking place in the heart of Silicon Valley. Many of John Gilmore’s contemporaries—the engineers and entrepreneurs who created the digital revolution—were inspired by the use of psychedelics in their formative years.

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs is probably the most candid of the Silicon Valley pioneers on the subject of his drug use. He has called taking LSD and traveling in India in the early 1970s “one of the two or three most important things I have ever done in my life.”

Jobs’ former partner Steve Wozniak has also discussed his experimentation with psychedelics, as have Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Lotus founder Mitch Kapor. Bob Wallace, the early Microsoft employee who went on to found Quicksoft and coined the term “shareware,” is known as an “online drug guru” and donated generously to MAPS and other psychedelics research before his death in 2002.

Programmer Mark Pesce, one of the early developers of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, says he was inspired by an LSD experience, as was Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the first mouse prototype at the Stanford Research Institute in 1963.

While Stanford grad-student Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were tripping with the Grateful Dead in San Francisco and in the hills above Palo Alto, tech heads were exploring the world of mind-altering substances in a different way. The stimulating blend of technology culture and the psychedelic culture that emerged in Silicon Valley in that era of change continues to impact the evolution of technology. The list of influential locals who were inspired by psychedelics goes on and on, and it isn’t just limited to the world of high tech. Former state senator and Assembly Ways and Means chairman John Vasconcellos, who represented San Jose for 38 years, says that he too experimented.

“I’m curious,” says Vasconcellos of his psychedelic drug use, “but I’m also not a dumb guy. I asked the experts, read the books and knew what dangers there were with any of them and what conditions made it far less risky, if at all. I was shrewd, and don’t think I ever did anything that might have gotten me in trouble. And as far as I know, it didn’t.”

Vasconcellos, who is a MAPS supporter, has been a major figure in the effort to reform the laws on drug abuse and prevention. He says that his drive to make intelligent, informed drug policy in this country goes back to 1968, when he first sat in on a drug conference at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. There, he was surprised to learn from presenters that marijuana is chemically not a narcotic, despite how it was defined by law at the time. This discovery prompted him to spearhead one of his first bills.

“I put a bill in that took away all the marijuana positions word by word and moved it out of the narcotics section, into a special section,” he says. “It didn’t change the penalty, it doesn’t say it’s OK. It just said call it what it is, and people acted like it was the end of the world. I just wanted the law to be honest, so it was respectable.”

Vasconcellos will be attending this week’s MAPS conference. He says that he’s excited to learn about the new developments in the world of psychedelics research.

“I think what MAPS stands for is an enlightened approach to the facts and to promote well-informed choices by the public,” he says. “We need a government that helps its people understand what their choices are, rather then trying to hoodwink them into thinking things are more dangerous then they are, or less dangerous than they are.”

JUST SAY YES: Randolph Hencken, organizer of the MAPS conference, has been active in the drug-policy reform movement since his early 20s, when he used ibogaine to kick heroin.

Ritual High

The first ceremony begins at dark. The participants come into the octagon spiritual room in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. They sit in a circle and state their intentions about what they want out of the ceremony. The more specific the question they want answered, the better.

The doses of ayahuasca are handed out in small cups. Everyone drinks it together, most wincing at the acrid taste that has been likened to “the entire jungle ground up and mixed with bile.” As soft tribal music plays in the background, everyone lies down. They focus their attention and wait.

Ayahuasca is not the kind of psychedelic that one takes to go dancing at a party. A tea derived from two vines that grow in the Amazon jungle, this powerful psychoactive causes intense nausea in most people. It also catapults its users into an intense, introspective psychedelic experience that many feel is capable of curing addiction, anxiety and depression.

Deborah Quevedo, a San Jose resident who has attended more than 50 ceremonies in South America, says the ayahuasca experience is like a “psycho-spiritual purging of past traumas.”

Users are immersed in a visionary experience that lasts four to six hours. Many people experience insights; they may relive parts of their lives or see parts of their childhood they had forgotten, Quevedo says.

Over the last decade, ayahuasca has become a favorite among the psychedelic community. Also called yage, it is the very same plant that the beat writer William S. Burroughs sought out while corresponding with poet Allen Ginsberg in The Yage Letters.

Since the 1990s, there has been an upswing in the establishment of neoshamanic retreats in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. More and more Westerners are traveling to South America with the intent of undergoing these psychedelic experiences for personal growth and healing.

An entire track of the upcoming MAPS conference is dedicated to presentations and discussions on ayahuasca, and its active ingredient dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

Long used by natives in the Amazon basin for healing and divination, the drug can currently only be used in the United States by members of the União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime churches, both of which have won Supreme Court battles in the last three years.

“The interesting thing about ayahuasca is that’s it’s really let the faith community kind of blossom into the psychedelic community,” Gilmore says. “It’s brought in people who were more interested in the metaphysics or religion and the direct experience of God. I think with the validation in the Supreme Court helped also. They established that, yes, this really is a religion, and they get to use their sacraments the same as Native Americans and their peyote ceremonies.”

Quevedo will be presenting her own graduate-school research on ayahuasca at the conference. She and her husband have worked for decades in the fields of holistic and alternative healing at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, Stanford University Medical Center and UCSF Medical Center.

“We had heard all kinds of interesting reports about ayahuasca being effective in the treatment of addictions,” she says.

The Quevedos made their first trip to a Brazilian ayahuasca retreat in 2001 to experience the drug themselves. “It was really life-changing for me,” she says. “I had never had any experience with any mind-altering substances before, so it was all new and very expansive.

“I came home from that retreat when I was starting a Ph.D. I basically spent the next six years of my graduate school trying to figure out what had happened to me.”

SCIENCE MATTERS: Stanford medical student Brian Anderson has conducted scholarly research that he says shows ayahuasca can help addicts.

Drugs Against Drugs

Brian Anderson is a Stanford University medical student who is presenting his own independent scholarly project on ayahuasca at the MAPS conference. Drawing from his own research, Anderson says he has seen evidence that ayahuasca “really works” in the treatment of addiction.

“I think a lot of other medical professionals are starting to reach into this literature,” he says. “They say this is a good reason we should investigate these substances in controlled trials, in a more medical setting here in North America.”

Randolph Hencken, MAPS director of communication and the main organizer of this week’s conference, says it wasn’t a Brazilian vine, but an African shrub that cured his addictions. In his early 20s, Hencken says, he was a heroin addict.

“I’d been a junkie for four years,” he says. “I’d pissed off my family, I’d pissed off my friends. I didn’t like myself anymore, but it was easier to keep using heroin.”

After he tried 12-step programs and methadone clinics, Hencken heard about ibogaine. While it has long history of use in African spiritual rituals, there is also a large international underground movement of people using the drug to treat addiction. Desperate, Hencken made the trip down to Mexico City in 2001 to take capsules of the drug with a doctor (ibogaine is currently illegal in the United States).

“It wasn’t a fun trip,” Hencken says. For more than 24 hours he experienced ataxia, rendering him unable to move as the substance’s psychoactive effects took hold, bringing with it visions from throughout his life. “I don’t think I had any epiphanies that day,” he says, “but it did stir up all these things I was suppressing about my childhood that were interrelated as to why I was a drug addict.”

Hencken says he has been clean for nine years. Since then he has earned degrees from San Diego State University and is dedicated to spreading the word about alternative drugs.

“Getting through something that is so mentally tough, I think gave me some strength,” he says. “It made me confident that if I could get through that, then I can stay away from using heroin.”

Demon Dots

If human beings are set apart by their ability to design and use tools, then, in a way, psychedelic drugs are a form of technology. Whether they be synthetically synthesized substances like MDMA or LSD, or naturally occurring drugs like psilocybin and mescaline, psychedelics can be viewed as a tool for the brain to be able to tune into diverse states of consciousness.

Considering the extraordinary power of psychedelic drugs, it’s not shocking that when LSD and other mind-altering substances first appeared in the mainstream in the 1960s, some people were terrified. A mere 50 micrograms of acid, an amount that could fit onto the head of a pin, can have a profound effect on the brain’s function and launch a person into a full-blown psychedelic experience.

“What we often hear from the media is that psychedelics will bring out your demons and make you go crazy,” Hencken says. “Or, they’ll give you schizophrenia or you’ll jump off the roof—things that have only really happened to a very few people. I think the bulk of people, if they have these experiences and do them in the right setting, they’ll find them to be very beneficial to their lives.”

The late Laura Archera Huxley, a psychedelic advocate and wife of Brave New World and Doors of Perception author Aldous Huxley, once said that a person can get out of psychedelics in one night what they could get from a psychotherapist in several years. As an organization, MAPS would like to see psychedelics accepted to the point that they can be administered safely.

“I first did psychedelics when I was in high school, and I remember friends taking friends to go tripping in a grave yard,” Hencken says. “That’s a terrible place to go tripping. You’re opening yourself up to a situation where you’re going to see dead people, and you’re going to freak out. A lot of people choose terrible places to do these drugs for the first time.”

Hencken says that the bulk of the “bad trips” that people experience on psychedelics could be prevented if the drugs were regulated and the users were properly informed about how to conduct a safe trip.

“Ideally, MAPS would like to see a situation in the near future where people who are interested in these drugs can get honest information. Where they can get unadulterated, clean, safe drugs, and they can do them with a guide that understands the power of these things.”

Though next week’s conference, MAPS and its allies aim to present a spectrum of examples of psychedelics’ worth. By re-examining what casual explorers, scientists, religious leaders and others have learned during the decades since these substances have been discussed in a public forum, the psychedelic community endeavors to find a valid social accommodation.

“I think that process has only just begun,” says John Gilmore. “Researchers need to continue to learn both about how psychedelics work in the brain, and how they can be used to heal brains that don’t work perfectly. We’re just in the infancy of all of this, and I expect to see a lot of people live better lives in the future thanks to psychedelics.”

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