Over the past few years, psychedelics have been making their way onto elite college and medical campuses — and not just in the form of the occasional LSD bust. Psilocybin cancer projects at Johns Hopkins and New York University, based on a psychoactive substance found in some mushrooms, have shown success in improving patients’ moods, while other researchers have found ecstasy may calm anxiety among terminally ill patients. Combined, such efforts have sparked fresh interest in the formerly taboo hallucinogens, which were banned in the U.S. in the 1960s.
This weekend, some of the brightest minds in mind-altering substances will meet at Penn for the first-ever Psychedemia conference, an interdisciplinary meeting including psychiatrists, sociologists, biochemists, anthropologists and journalists. A group of students organized the conference, running Sept. 27-30. Student organizer Matt Young figures an Ivy League host will boost credibility. “Academia, university culture, is how things gain legitimacy,” he says. But the study of psychedelics is “a loaded subject. There’s a momentum of history behind just the word ‘psychedelic’ — certain images and ideas come to mind. Those images don’t necessarily reflect the work that’s being done today.”
Not that Young shies away from those images: The conference includes an exhibition of trippy “visionary” art, and some presenters’ bios feature endeavors such as “solo vision fasts.”
Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and science history at Penn who’s working on a book about the “human potential movement” of the 1960s, says students don’t see any of that as detracting from the conference’s rigor. “I think it’s a generational change. The stigma of much of this is associated with people like [Harvard psychologist] Timothy Leary, and it became a kind of a front in the ’60s culture war, where people were blaming hallucinogens for lots of suicides,” he says. “I think we’re in a better position now to see what good can come out of [psychedelics] than we were 40 years ago.”