Altered Conference: Exploring Psychedelics and Altered States of Consciousness will take place at the Essentis BioHotel in Berlin, Weiskopffstraße 16/17 12459 Berlin on 3-4 November. It’s about time we revamped the way we talk about and take drugs worldwide. Where better to begin the journey to safer drug use than the grittily utopian hedonistic party capital of Europe?
“Look around you!” says Amit Elan, when I ask him about the intentions behind Altered’s harm-reduction focus. Amit is the ultimate multi-tasker. He’s riding his bike as he gives me a whistlestop tour of the party capital’s drug culture in a series of voice notes (which are stonkingly eloquent, given the mise en scene): “Whether they call it ‘getting high’ or not, people everywhere are guzzling psychoactive substances: nicotine, coffee, alcohol, lines of cocaine, dabs of MDMA, bumps of ketamine or entheogens at psychedelic retreats.”
As a teenager, Amit’s first serving of magic mushrooms came to him in Israel from Ireland, (“I won’t say how they got there, and I was probably way underprepared for that experience!”). Several years wiser and now deeply engaged in exploring the healing potential of entheogens from an academic standpoint, Amit has undertaken healing and integration training with Dr Gabor Maté and Tanya Maté in the Peruvian jungle.
As Amit’s own relationship with psychedelics has evolved, his early entheogenic connection to Ireland has blossomed in step with it: Altered’s stellar 35-strong speakers list includes Ciara Sherlock, founder of the Irish Psychedelic Society. Ciara will be presenting with Stefana Bosse (Head of Experience at the UK’s Psychedelic Society) on the developments in “best practice” when facilitating psychedelic experiences.
Ciara, Stefana and UK Psychedelic Society director Stephen Reid facilitate the celebrated Psychedelic Experience Weekends in the Netherlands – where interested parties can explore the transformative potential of psychedelics by consuming psilocybin-containing truffles in a safe and legal environment.
I asked Ciara and Stefana, who have 150+ collective trip-sitting experiences under their belts, what they’d most like to see altered regarding European drug culture and, epileptics be warned: Altered 2017 promises to shine light on the issues surrounding the reducing the potential harms of drug use from a kaleidoscopic multitude of different angles.
“Because of their legal status, and the negative propaganda around psychedelics over the last decades, there is a very dangerous lack of public education and awareness around their proper use,” says Stefana. Both Stefana and Ciara have partied prolifically in both Germany and the UK, and are insightful and incisive about the nuances of the ways that drugs and nightlife intersect in both countries.
“One of the main differences between nightlife in the UK and Berlin is the time restraints in clubs,” says Ciara. “In Berlin, you generally have all weekend to party and can go out at whatever time suits you, and go home whenever you feel ready. In the UK (& Ireland), you have to get in at 11PM or midnight and have a few short hours before getting kicked out at 3-4PM.”
She explains that this “creates a massive pressure to have an ecstatic experience in all too short a time period, and to be in some way prepared to be walking the streets again in a few hours.” Shorter club opening hours in the UK, according to Ciara, are directly related to the UK punters’ focus on short-lasting substances like alcohol.
“In Berlin there is less of a focus on overindulgence of alcohol, because alcohol tends to make you tired after a while – it’s just not suitable for long-term dancing. Other drugs like MDMA and amphetamines are more popular because they’re more conducive to protracted partying.”
Inside Berghain, one of Berlin's most famous nightclubs (Source: Wikimedia)
Whilst binge drinking is less widespread in Berlin, the party scene’s focus on drugs other than alcohol is not without its unique issues: Dax describes the “dark side” of the revelry: when drugs are so readily available, it’s easy to become “a pleasure-seeking robot.” Amit agrees, noting that much of the drug use in Berin constitutes a tragic squandering of the therapeutic and life-enhancing potential of psychedelics.
“Because of how some drugs have been demonized in society, the way we take them has been distorted as fuck. Mostly what’s happening at the moment is people are abusing psychoactives. And abusing themselves as they abuse the substances. It’s a tragedy, because many of the exact same substances, if you tweak the context in which they are taken, have the potential to engender a beautiful medicinal healing growing experience.”
Whilst Berlin’s nightlife is certainly leading the way in terms of standing up for subcultures ‒ whether it’s fetish, kink or an obscure DJ set you’re after, you’ll find it in Berlin ‒ there’s room for improvement in the toilet cubicles…
“When I party in Berlin these days,” says Ciara, “the lack of harm reduction practices plays on my mind a lot – I'm disappointed that they aren't doing it better.”
What needs to change? “I’d like to see information about how to safely use substances and what not to mix. Testing kits, safe snorting tools and capsules should be available to everyone who wants them, to ensure people aren’t sharing utensils or using nasty money notes.”
Ciara notes that experienced users of psychedelics, and particularly those who use them for spiritual practices, are familiar with the practice of taking stock of one’s mindset before one ingests a psychoactive substance, and going into the experience with an intention for one’s mental journey.
But, despite the efforts of platforms like Talking Drugs, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and drugsand.me, on a national level – in both Berlin and the UK – practices designed to help one get the most out of a psychedelic experience, like intention-setting, are clearly yet to break into the mainstream clubbers’ mindset.
The importance of integrating one’s psychedelic experiences through activities like journaling, group discussion and meditation is another practice designed to maximise the potential benefits of psychedelics which is well-established in the inner circles of the psychedelic scene, but practically unheard of in society at large.
“Integration is an indispensable aspect of psychedelic journeying that is very often glossed over,” says Stefana. “It’s a very cutting-edge area to work in as there is still so much to learn. Rather than tripping again and again to ‘tune back in’, we could do a lot more to integrate the lessons learnt and change the way we live our lives to bring them more in alignment with our truth. Psychedelics are teachers, and it’s important to do our homework.”
As more people are “taught” the basic principles of holistic tripping, will we see a shift away from risks and recklessness in club drug culture?
“I think that what Ciara and Stefana are doing is basically group therapy,” says Dax, “and to me therapy is trying to shine the light of consciousness into the dark places of habit and mechanical thinking. I think the idea of harm reduction is not that we need fewer drugs but that we need more awareness.”
In terms of increasing our understanding of psychedelics and the ways in which it is possible to use them to invigorate our hearts and minds, Altered looks set to be a total game-changer. Who’s up for a serious party in Berlin?
*Rosalind Stone tweets: @RosalindSt0ne. She is the publicist for the Psychedelic Press and director of development for drugsand.me