Over three sunny days in April and at the University of Exeter’s campus, I attended Breaking Convention, Europe’s largest conference on psychedelic consciousness. This year’s conference represented its first full incarnation since the ‘end’ of the pandemic and the coinciding global explosion of hype around psychedelics. In many ways, the conference is, to borrow a metaphor from the opening address of one of the organisers, one significant fruiting body of the mycelium that is the broader psychedelic movement, resurfacing with its newly found colour and magnitude for the first time since COVID-19. As such, the conference was an opportunity to take stock and reflect on the state of the global psychedelic scene.
In some ways, the conference demonstrated the risks that come with the mainstreaming of psychedelics in the age of consumer capitalism and social media. The sheer scale of the new-found global psychedelic audience, combined with a persistent and passionate belief in psychedelics point to potentially worrying directions. These are not new developments or ones that are necessarily concerning. Nevertheless, those who want psychedelics to find an appropriate place in “legal” society ought to consider the particular risks that come with mainstreaming.
Mainstreaming has historically meant that the complexities of ‘psychedelic politics’ may be reduced to nothing more than stereotypical modes of dress/identity formation. It’s not a comfortable point to make, but an important reminder of the consequences of wider audiences. Moreover, making this point does not detract from the equally significant increase in the appreciation of psychedelics/drug culture that is emerging because of the work of the psychedelic community, which undoubtedly includes Breaking Convention.
Big media and psychedelic movements
Ignoring these developments would mean repeating mistakes of old. We saw this happen with the January 1967 Human Be-In, the iconic psychedelic happening that preluded San Francisco’s Summer of Love (the epitome of the 60s hippie movement), which turned the movement into a national symbol. In the words of historians Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, the media coverage that consumed the 60s movement, beginning with the 1967 happening, reduced the complex psychedelic politics of counterculture into a commercial symbol and simultaneously promoted hordes of nominally dedicated ‘plastic hippies’ to descend upon San Francisco.
This new mainstream audience, only partially dedicated to the politics of the movement, largely ignored the complex and nuanced discussions regarding the use of psychedelic drugs. The result was that the uncontrolled hype around the movement diluted psychedelic politics, serving instead the interests of capitalistic mainstreaming. That a similar outcome is a risk today is an important sensitivity to maintain as psychedelics go mainstream.
And while Breaking Convention’s scale and audience demonstrated the ongoing mainstreaming of psychedelics, the curation of its speakers, topics and discussions exhibited exactly the type of sensitivity that is needed to counter the developments I describe. Rather than unspecified and zealous attestations of belief in psychedelics, the organisers of the conference had clearly made successful efforts to invite speakers and curate panels which intentionally and thoughtfully examined otherwise hype-filled discussions on psychedelics. This was very encouraging, reflecting the call for a broader, more nuanced and reflective tone from those at the forefront of the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, which since the beginning of 2022 has increasingly questioned if the psychedelic hype bubble has burst. The prominence of these more self-critical discussions suggest that the psychedelic movement has to some degree ‘exhaled’, breathing out and slowing down after the mad rush into psychedelics in the last few years.
For example, podcast host and stand-up comedian Dennis Walker satirised the archetypical personalities that come with the mainstreaming of psychedelics in the age of social media. Parodying particular stereotypes of individuals such as ‘The Conspirituality Cult Leader’ and ‘The Corporate Carnival Barker’, Walker’s take on mainstreaming was a part of a broader panel titled ‘Has the Psychedelic Bubble Burst’. Another highlight included drug policy activist Camille Barton discussion on ‘psychedelic exceptionalism’, arguing that the focus on psychedelic drugs distracts from issues of inequity pertaining to the broader war on drugs. Scholar of literature and literary theory Neşe Devenot shed light on how the hype and belief in psychedelics misattributes the power of psychedelics to the drug itself vs language/context, creating an easily exploitable environment in which the context of psychedelic drug use can be directed in maligned ways. Buddhist and psychedelic chaplain Daan Keiman pointed towards the bottleneck issue in the supply of adequately trained professional guides, which is unable to match the demand for psychedelic-assisted treatments. Keiman discussed this issue with attention to arguably the largest ethical issue facing the psychedelic industry, namely issues surrounding sexual abuse in psychedelic therapy.
To sum up, as psychedelics mainstream, important political discussions around the implications of overt medicalisation, access, risk, consumerism, and the decriminalisation of possession risk being compromised by the corporate-driven development of a hype-fed soft culture of psychedelic enthusiasm, building a model of legal psychedelic therapy only. Importantly, the pursuit of legalising psychedelic therapy needs to include difficult, nuanced, and broader discussions centring on ‘how’ legalisation should take place. What Breaking Convention has encouragingly shown is that despite these strong forces, there is still a space for emerging discussions on what truly matters to the community.