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The Detroit Psychedelic Conference brings the international science of consciousness home

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Kilindi Iyi presents a striking figure walking into a suburban Tim Hortons. Standing at more than 6 feet tall, the broad-shouldered African martial arts master and psychedelics expert towers above everybody else, topped with a West African cap. The native-born, lifelong Detroiter is now well-rested, a week or so after an itinerary of globe-trotting trips that's enough to make our head spin: Mexico, Prague, Spain, Paris, Rome, London, and Los Angeles.

Some of it was pleasure, but most of it was business. Iyi is in demand as a speaker and presenter on psychedelics. And all that jet-setting offers a glimpse of the worldwide scope of interest in the topic. Academic curiosity about these substances has always been strong, but now researchers are looking into the hallucinogenic spectrum for ways to treat a surprisingly wide range of ailments.

"Psychedelics are the hottest movement going forward now," Iyi says, "for stuff like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, opiate addiction. It's about getting away from the pharmaceuticals and moving into LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, ketamine, MDMA, those type of things."

In fact, interest in hallucinogens and similar substances hasn't been so keen in a half-century. But you hardly need to remind Iyi of that. He'll rattle off stories about all the people who used LSD back then, and not just the obvious ones like Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, but more obscure tales about Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W., President John F. Kennedy, JFK mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer, among others.

"In the 1960s, the research community was very, very interested," Iyi says. "In the mid- to late '60s, the medical community was really moving forward with it, but other things in the '60s basically short-circuited it. Because psychedelics change behavior, they change the points of view that people have, and that scared the old guard."

In other words, about 50 years ago, Washington launched one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in history: the War on Drugs.

"It gives the authoritarian regimes the ability to do the same thing they were doing pre-1938 in Nazi Germany," he says. "The same type of oppressive laws, the same type of 'let's kick your door down and take everything you got' type of mindset. The people played into this mind-control propaganda program for so long, now they think that policing drugs is something that is legitimate for the government to do, when, in actuality, it is against the freedoms of any free people that live on earth."

If Iyi has an unusual perspective, it's one informed by the circles he travels in, where hallucinogenic substances are viewed as pathways to psychic liberation and even as treatments for disease, addiction, and more. In recent years, the scene has been driven by forces as various as public disenchantment with drug prohibition and exciting peer-reviewed research.

"At Johns Hopkins, Roland Griffith and his team are doing experiments with psilocybin on fourth-stage cancer patients," Iyi says. "What it does is it actually diminishes their fear, looking into the jaws of death. They've been doing it now for several years, and it's been working."

It's a subject close to Iyi's area of expertise, not only because he has hundreds of experiences with psilocybin mushrooms, but because "the most important thing I think that I've discovered dealing with psilocybin is that we're not hooked to the body. There's no end. There's no death. Consciousness goes on, and it's a trip and an exploration."

"It takes away the fear of death," Iyi says. "I lost my wife in 2016 to cancer, and about six months prior to her getting sick, she took psilocybin. And I'm thoroughly convinced that's how she dealt with her last four months of life, the way she faced death in her last few months."

Or Iyi points to the exciting work being done at the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies. "They're doing studies on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in treating soldiers coming back into the country with post- traumatic stress disorder," he says. "They're doing million-dollar studies to be able to bring this thing to a 'legitimate' forum: the medical community, the psychological community, and also into the public domain."

The use of hallucinogens to treat addiction is another possibility researchers are probing. Their work seems to confirm what Americans are seeing anecdotally with legalized marijuana — for instance, the way opium use is trending down in states that have legalized recreational cannabis.

Iyi also points to Portugal, "where they legalized everything, every drug. If a person has a problem, they come and say, 'I've got a problem,' and they'll be taken care of medically. They're seeing reductions in opium addiction, reductions in the use of so-called harmful drugs."

We can't resist playing a little devil's advocate with Iyi. After all, doesn't he encounter some people who accuse him of just trying to find a loophole so people can get freaked out and have fun?

"Heaven forbid that people would have fun!" Iyi says with a hearty laugh, before countering the charge with science. "The thing is, we have so many different studies dealing with the positive aspects of psychedelics. Number one: with classical tryptamine psychedelics, like, no one has ever died from mushrooms. You can't overdose because it has what's called a 'high LD50' or 'high lethal dose 50.' Lethal dose 50 is how much of any compound you can feed to 100 rats before it kills 50 of them. Psilocybin's LD50 is very high. There's less effect on your nervous system and body than that cup of coffee that you're drinking. It's safer than Reese's Pieces, so you can't kill yourself with it, you can't overdose. It's nonaddictive. As a matter of fact, it's anti-addictive. It's a very, very ancient, sacred compound that's been used for eons by many different cultures, in Africa, South America, and Australia, and Europe. It dissolves boundaries of race and class."

"The difficulty is we've had 40 years of propaganda," Iyi says. "'Your brain on drugs.' But these aren't drugs. These are plants."

It's worth pointing out that not all controlled substances are hallucinogens; opium, for instance, is not. But are there any hallucinogenic substances that Iyi isn't into?

"Well, it's an individual thing," Iyi says. "Everybody's physiology is different. Some people like ketamine, some people like combos, you know. Ketamine is kind of like a dissociative, like a tranquilizer. I'm not really into not knowing whether I'm here or there or anywhere, you know? Waking up and asking, 'What happened? Where I been?' I stick more with the psilocybin and DMT areas of the psychedelic world. I explore consciousness. I'm not dealing with psychological problems or dealing with depression or anything like that, I like to explore the multiverse. Explore my own consciousness, and that's really my personal pursuit."

Given Iyi's close involvement with the intrepid psychedelic community that chases down these exotic compounds, we have to ask: Doesn't it cause problems when wealthy Westerners start appropriating substances from aboriginal cultures?

What follows is a fascinating discussion about the origins of that phenomenon: specifically, how bank executive R. Gordon Wasson traveled from New York to Oaxaca in 1956, met curandera María Sabina, and wrote an article in Life magazine about the sacred mushroom.

"That sent a drove of young white professionals down to get the mushroom," Iyi says. "So, yes, it was disruptive, and ultimately the people who lived in Oaxaca got mad at Sabina and burned her house down because she let these gringos come in, and now there were people coming in from all over the place, barefoot with backpacks and long hair, disrupting people's day-to-day lives."

"It's still going on in places like Peru," he adds, "because they have a lot of ayahuasca tourism that goes on in South America. The plants are actually becoming endangered and disappearing because so many people are going down there. It's supposed to be a shamanistic type of ritual, and you have people who are not ayahuasca shamans but they say they are — because if you're living in the country and making $5 a week, and someone says, 'Well, if you take those bushes in your backyard, you pull 'em up, boil 'em together, we'll give you $10,000 for a weekend.' That's a big incentive. So you have abuses."

Iyi even says that tourists can cause trouble in their hunt for the ultimate naturally occurring substance: 5-MeO-DMT, the venom of a toad that is native to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico.

"They milk the glands of the toad and put it on a piece of glass, dry it, and then it's smokeable," Iyi says. "As far as ratio of weight, it's one of the most powerful psychedelics that exists because it only takes 10 milligrams or something like that to send you almost over the edge."

The venom's popularity has led to another problem: toad abuse. "People are grabbing toads from all over the place, sticking them in cages and milking them past the point where it's healthy for the toad."

He adds that conferences offer people the opportunity to get information on who the abusers are and which are the responsible outfits. "So, by information, these type of abuses can at least be controlled on a certain level," he says. "It's starting to self-police now that we're seeing there are abuses."

Which brings us to the reason Iyi has met with us today: He and others in the international movement are bringing it to Detroit this week, for the Detroit Psychedelic Conference. Due to Washington's hostility toward psychedelics, this sort of gathering normally takes place on the coasts or overseas. But as a native son and resident, Iyi wants to make the knowledge he's chased around the world available to folks at home.

JACOB LEWKOW
  • Jacob Lewkow

"I spoke at this conference in Prague that brought together many of the luminaries of the psychedelic movement — psychiatrists, psychologists, anthropologists from all around the world — who presented papers, gave lectures, and conducted workshops and all these things," he says. "Not many people from Detroit can go to Prague to get that type of information, not when it costs $1,500 to get there, not including a hotel, or the $300 entry fee."

"So what we've done is, we're bringing the same information to this urban environment, where the people of the city of Detroit can pay out an affordable conference fee."

Presenters from Europe and beyond will lecture, participate in panel discussions, and lead workshops. Iyi expects hundreds to attend, and considers it an interesting opportunity for some of the experts to see the city they've heard so much about over the last decade.

It goes without saying, but is worth spelling out: No illegal substances will be sold, transferred, or gifted at the conference.

"People who have an affinity for this, or who want to get more information, will be able to come listen to the speakers, and also get a chance to voice their information or their opinions," Iyi says. "Because with the changes in the cannabis world, we're moving from just medical cannabis to the realm of recreational use by mature, responsible adults, such as in Colorado, California, and Washington state. Ultimately, every state will have recreational cannabis, and they'll be doing the same thing with psilocybin and ayahuasca and these types of compounds also. As we move into the next few years, we're just trying to make Detroit a place where every other year we'll be doing this conference and people will be able to have access to this type of information."

And though the future looks promising, things are already changing. We ask him if he thinks the conference will get a fairer hearing than it would have, say, a decade go.

"Oh, most definitely, yes," Iyi agrees. "My brother, I'd say something to him and he'd be like, 'Pssh!' But now he's like, 'I saw this program, and they were talking about what you were trying to tell me years ago! Maybe you aren't crazy!'"

The 2018 Detroit Psychedelic Conference takes place Aug. 10-12, at St. Matthew's Church, 8850 Woodward, Ave., Detroit; Tickets are $150, available at detroitpsychedelics.com.

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