By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.
Cannabis PR

Psychedelic Science 2023: 5 Exciting Insights from the Largest Psychedelics Conference in History

July 3, 2023

The fourth annual Psychedelic Science Conference came to the Queen City of the Plains in June. With over 300 speakers and more than 11,000 registered attendees, MAPS’ international gathering was the largest psychedelic conference in history. 

This was a rare opportunity to not only hear from some of the best and brightest minds in the industry today, but to connect with journalists covering the emerging psychedelic beat. But perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Psychedelic Science is how it invited this one-of-a-kind community to converge—not as a niche corner of a broader conference like SXSW, but loudly and proudly in its own unfiltered context.

Along with my colleagues Ricardo Baca, Gretchen Giles and Meghan O’Dea, I managed to explore the Colorado Convention Center. We walked the halls, attended panels and took the pulse of this nascent industry. Here are five takeaways that highlight the current state of the union in psychedelics, and point to where we’re headed next! 

1. Psychedelic Science was big PR for psychedelic substances.

We’ve said it before about legal weed—PR for individual cannabis brands is PR for the cannabis industry. The same is true of psychedelics, even if the industry is structured very differently and is far less mature. 

Many of the big headlines that came out of Psychedelic Science didn’t emerge from panel discussions like The Biological Antidepressant Effects of Ayahuasca or Clinical Development of MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD. Rather, they were focused on a diverse array of celebrities openly discussing the profound experiences they’ve had on psychedelics. 

NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, for example, described how tripping opened him up to “deeper self-love” and a stronger sense of connection with others. Actor and musician Jaden Smith spoke to the impact of psychedelics on his familiar relationships and the natural world. Other guests included Melissa Etheridge, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, and even former Texas Governor Rick Perry, all contributing to the mainstreaming of the psychedelic experience. 

Most of these celebrities spoke not of their professional or scientific expertise in psychedelics, but of the positive role substances like psilocybin and ayahuasca have had on their mental health and relationships. Although none were promoting any single substance or brand, all were generating positive PR for the psychedelics category as a whole—and it felt as though all of us attendees were witnessing, in real time, a tangible effort of socialization for the industry.

Biotechnology analyst Patrick R. Trucchio speaks at Psychedelic Science 2023

2. Growth in psychedelics has slowed, but the industry is here to stay—and “it does come down to marketing.”

Many of the conversations at Psychedelic Science had an existential flavor. Some, like author and documentarian Michael Pollan’s conversation with psilocybin researcher and LGBTQIA advocate Bob Jesse, were on the philosophical end of the spectrum. The pair mused on futurist possibilities, like whether a critical mass of psychedelics consumption could change our collective response to threats like climate change. 

But the conference also touched on the industry’s vulnerabilities, including how the psychedelic investment market peaked two years ago, in 2021. The decline in investments and funding can be attributed in part to factors behind similar softening in the tech industry and the crypto sector, as well as the inevitable bubble effect that hits highly-hyped sectors.

Broader economic woes have dinged company valuations and spooked investors. It’s harder to raise a round of funding than it was even a year ago, and startups don’t have the leverage they recently did. Now the psychedelics industry is grappling with how to move forward amidst adverse economic conditions and solve the “last mile” of capital financing to get studies and startups to the finish line. 

If the psychedelics industry needs positive public-facing, national PR from the likes of Aaron Rodgers, it also needs strategic B2B messaging to help overcome what can feel like an existential threat to the industry.

As biotechnology analyst Patrick R. Trucchio explained on the panel Lessons From the First Three Years of Psychedelic Public Companies, “It does come down to marketing. Unfortunately, providers need to feel comfortable prescribing [psychedelics] and customers need to feel comfortable taking them. That means marketing."

Stanford neuroscientist Andrew D. Huberman speaks at Psychedelic Science 2023

3. Psychedelics futurism is radical. But the past is still important.

Pollan and Jesse also discussed whether the word “renaissance” is appropriate for the current resurgence of psychedelics research, consumption and policy-making. 

“Renaissance implies this broad cultural flourishing,” said Jesse. “Renaissance adds to the hype. It over-promises. It elevates our hopes. We all need hope. But let’s temper it a little bit. I’d like to leave that term to historians.” 

Instead, he suggested “reemergence” or “resumption,” acknowledging the vast body of psychedelics research that was conducted prior to prohibition. The Renaissance, after all, wasn’t just a period of scientific and artistic advancement—it also stands as an era of relearning and recovery of knowledge that had existed hundreds of years prior. 

Today’s psychedelic renaissance is much the same; a clear period of recalibration and research. It’s crucial, as Stanford neuroscientist Andrew D. Huberman put it in his keynote, to keep people in the lab and inspire young scientists to continue psychedelics research and cultivate the field of psychedelics science. But the present moment is also a huge opportunity for what Jesse calls “the excavation of knowledge.”

That’s one reason it was so meaningful that Psychedelic Science included figures like Carolyn Garcia, who were part of the last wave of psychedelia in the 1960s and ’70s. Better known as Mountain Girl, Garcia joined the Merry Pranksters in 1964 and helped run the group’s LSD-focused “Acid Tests” with author Ken Kesey. 

The rich history of the psychedelics movement, including both science and culture, is valuable from a research standpoint, as Huberman says. But it’s equally important for journalists, marketers, PR professionals and other storytellers who are changing and expanding the narrative about psychedelics each day.

4. We must do more to include Indigenous peoples in the psychedelics conversation.

Speaking of psychedelics history and the industry at present, we cannot ignore the persistent, urgent question of how to honor and respect Indigenous cultures that have deep, long-standing relationships with substances like peyote, ayahuasca and ibogaine. They must not be ignored, regulated out of existence or disrupted by demand from consumers outside those traditions and communities. 

Even conferences as well-organized as Psychedelic Science have work to do when it comes to making sure that Indigenous people’s voices are heard and that they maintain their rightful and integral place in the psychedelics landscape. This must be a continuous conversation.

Members of the Grasslands PR and Account Oversight teams at the Grasslands Nightcap

5. There is a fundamental optimism to psychedelics.

The biggest takeaway for me wasn’t the gateway concept that it’s safe and interesting to try entheogenic substances like magic mushrooms, although that was an important message. For me, it was the deeper notion that the psychedelics industry is here. It exists, it’s real and it needs support to keep fruiting. 

That sector is very different from its cousin the cannabis industry in both structure and rhetoric. The medical cannabis movement may have given us the increasingly widespread recreational landscape we know today, starting with a grassroots response to a public health crisis. But scientific research and cooperation with the FDA lag far behind the younger world of psychedelics, which is germinating from directly within the biopharmaceutical industry. 

The psychedelics industry has significant challenges to face, it’s true. That biopharmaceutical focus means psychedelics companies need a level of funding beyond what most cannabis operations require. And academic and government institutions are not exactly known for their speed when it comes to advancing research or setting policy, no matter how much pressure founders, funders and the public exert.

Despite these challenges, however, even speakers who were initially hesitant to publicly reveal their relationship to psychedelics said they can’t help but feel excited. As Huberman explained, “I decided to be here—though I don’t do many public speaking things these days—frankly because I’m in awe of what’s happened. I did not think y’all would pull this off.” 

Awe is right. MAPS did pull it off, as did the over 11,000 guests in attendance. Speaking with people at the Convention Center and at the Grasslands Nightcap networking event we hosted off-site and after hours, it was clear that the emerging psychedelic space is defined by a fundamental optimism for what lies ahead. 

It was also clear that the sense of connection psychedelic substances tend to foster is part of why this industry is built on a foundation of strong partnerships. Our Nightcap event is a good example of this—we couldn’t have brought together such a vibrant room of high-level professionals without our friends and co-hosts at Filament Health, reMind and the Shulgin Foundation That spirit of community and collaboration contributes to the overall sense of promise and positive anticipation.

At the core of it all, psychedelics and the industry it is building are rooted in plasticity. As humans we now face an opportunity to make room for an emerging diversity of possibilities, thanks to greater understanding of psychedelics, that will help preserve the future of our species’ very existence. We just have to be willing to open our minds.