Aaron Rodgers talks about mental health at a conference on psychedelics

DENVER — An eclectic crowd of thousands — podcasters, salespeople, startups, researchers — swarmed a psychedelics conference in Denver this week to experience everything from a dimly lit room filled with kaleidoscope art and a wide range of speakers ranging from former Republican governor to NFL star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The conference, organized by a psychedelic advocacy group, came months after voters in Colorado decided to join Oregon in decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms. While it’s a sign of growing cultural acceptance of substances that proponents say may offer benefits for things like post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, medical experts warn that more research is needed on the effectiveness of drugs and the extent of the risks of psychedelics, which can cause hallucinations.

Rodgers, who will soon be making his New York Jets debut after years with the Green Bay Packers, spoke with podcaster Aubrey Marcus on Wednesday night. Rodgers described taking ayahuasca with his teammates as “dramatically life-changing” and said many other professional athletes have reached out to him.

“I found a deeper self-love,” Rodgers said of her experience with ayahuasca. “It’s unlocked this whole world of what I’m really here to do is connect, connect with these guys, and make these connections and inspire people.”

The organization hosting the conference, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is the largest advocacy group in the United States. He strategized to reach across the political spectrum, said Nicolas Langlitz, a science historian who has studied the rise and fall of psychedelic movements.

“As any topic becomes politically polarized, ironically, these super-polarizing substances now enjoy bipartisan support,” Langlitz said. Still, he added, the conference is “purely designed to promote hype.”

“Any kind of overselling is not good for science, because science needs to be precise rather than pushing things,” he said. “It’s a compromise. (The conference) generates interest, it ultimately generates more research, even if the research may be biased towards positive results.

Psychedelics are federally illegal, although acceptance and interest in studying their potential benefits has grown. For example, some researchers believe that psilocybin, the compound in psychedelic mushrooms, alters the way the brain organizes itself and may help users overcome issues like depression and alcoholism.

The drugs themselves – and the interest in them – are nothing new. In the middle of the last century, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey helped spur the use of psychedelics during the counterculture movement, and optimism was boiling over among some psychologists about the drugs’ potential.

But the Nixon administration criminalized psychedelics, driving them underground.

“In either case, you have this surge of exuberance that may or may not be irrational,” said author Michael Pollan, who has written a book on psychedelics and who will speak at the conference. “But I think a big difference (now) is that the enthusiasm for the potential of psychedelics is reaching a much more representative slice of the population – it’s not about a counterculture.”

Republican strongholds, including Utah and Missouri, have or are considering commissioning drug studies, in part based on veterans’ accounts. Former Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry spoke on Wednesday about helping push a bill through the Texas Legislature in 2021 to fund a psilocybin study for veterans, though he does not support recreational use. In Congress, similar veterans-focused proposals have brought progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida into an unlikely alignment.

Public interest also seems to be growing. Just six years ago in Oakland, Calif., the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies hosted a conference with about 3,000 attendees and a handful of lesser-known speakers and die-hard supporters.

This time, the organizers estimate at least 10,000 participants. Other celebrity speakers include former NHL player Daniel Carcillo, owner of a company specializing in psychedelic therapies; Olympic silver medalist figure skater Sasha Cohen; rapper and actor Jaden Smith; comedians Reggie Watts and Eric Andre, top 10 podcasters Andrew Huberman; and Carl Hart, chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.

Recruiting this celebrity endorsement for psychedelics is part of MAPS’ public relations strategy, founder Rick Doblin said. Asked if the platform of a non-expert like Rodgers could mislead the public, Doblin hesitated, adding that it would be “dangerous” for anyone to claim that there is no risk of taking psychedelics.

Doblin said taking MDMA should only be done “under the direct supervision of a therapist, it’s never a take-out medication.” He also highlighted what many speakers repeated on the first day about pairing psychedelics with a mental health professional: “The treatment isn’t the drugs, it’s the therapy that the drug makes it more effective.”

It was a more tempered approach than his keynote speech, when, in overflowing theater, Doblin espoused grandiose goals such as “net-zero” trauma by 2070 through the use of psychedelics.

The American Psychiatric Association has not approved the use of psychedelics in treatment, noting that the Food and Drug Administration has not yet offered a final decision. The FDA designated psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy” in 2018, a label designed to expedite the development and review of drugs to treat serious illness. MDMA, often called ecstasy, also has this designation for the treatment of PTSD.

Pollan and Langlitz believe further research is essential, especially as the country faces an unprecedented mental health crisis and people struggle to find adequate treatment. But, Langlitz said, it’s important to let the research shape the narrative.

“I would just try to keep my mind open to the possibility that in hindsight we’re telling a very different story than the protagonists of psychedelic therapies are currently predicting,” he said.


Bedayn is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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