In January 1967 ethnobotanists and neuroscientists gathered together in San Francisco, California to discuss the exotic psychedelic substances that explorers were finding in use in indigenous cultures around the world. The Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ESPD) was the first psychedelic conference of its kind and was funded by the US government, happening just prior to advent of the war on drugs. This landmark event resulted in a publication of the same name, which for many years was available from the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. While the drug war for a long time prevented follow up conferences from happening, the symposium publication which collected the research papers of the various presenters would go on to become a legendary volume of psychedelic literature that would inspire future ethnobotanists and psychonauts for many years to come.
One such psychedelic explorer was Dennis McKenna, a young ethnopharmacologist who would go on to be a founding member of the Heffter Research Institute and publish seminal books such as The Invisible Landscape, Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, and Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. Fifty years later, Dennis is spearheading a semicentennial follow up to the original ESPD conference called ESPD50, where some of the world’s leading experts on exotic psychoactives will gather together in the UK at Tyrigham Hall to share their latest research. We caught up with Dennis recently to discuss ESPD50 and the exciting things we can look forward to such as a new symposium volume, live streaming of the event on Facebook, and the enticing subjects the conference will explore.
Thank you so much for speaking with us Dennis. I’ve been reading up on ESPD50 and I can see why you’re so excited about it. Can you talk about how this conference came together?
Fifty years is quite a long time. I wanted to do this in 1997 for the 30th anniversary, but it never came together. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm about it this time around, the book presales are doing well, and some people have come forward and made tax deductible donations to support it, so we are actually going to pull this thing off. I couldn’t be more pleased, it was a very short timeframe, and we really didn’t get rolling on this until January. People said “Well it’s too late now you can’t have this in June,” but I’ve proven them wrong, apparently we can! That’s the miracle of social media and mass communication.
This conference is a chance to look back on the last fifty years and we’re trying to stay true to the spirit of the original one. We’re going to publish a symposium volume and package it with the original symposium volume, making a nice box set and collectors item. We also have technology now that we didn’t have then such as Facebook live streaming, so we can share the event with the public that way. People are also coming to Tyringham so we will have some physical attendees, but they only have a limited number of spaces there. We’re not full on the physical level at all but that’s ok. We’ve got enough revenue from the book presales that we can pay everyone’s airfares and even give them an honorarium. So I’m really happy about this. I think it will be a great conference, and hopefully it won’t be another fifty years before we have another one. Maybe this will kickstart it into a regular thing, maybe every five years which is a more reasonable timeframe.
What’s the particular focus of this event?
We’re trying to focus the conference on not just the same old stuff over and over again, psilocybin and ayahuasca and all that. I mean they are fascinating and interesting but there are other things out there. That said, we’ve got four talks on ayahuasca, because it’s hard to get away from, but they are unusual talks. They’re not the usual review of clinical applications and so forth, but look into obscure areas and open questions about ayahuasca, of which there are many.
When the first conference happened, the importance of admixture plants for ayahuasca was not really understood. It all began to be elucidated in ‘68 or ‘69 with Schultes and his graduate students looking in the field for these plants. In the entire original symposium volume, the word ‘psychotria’ occurs only once which is interesting [ed note: Psychotria viridis, also known as chacruna, is the DMT-containing plant in the ayahuasca mixture]. So there’s been all that work done, and there’s a lot of other things that were perhaps known about at the time but not really investigated.
Another example is Salvia divinorum, which we will be talking about. That was known at the time of the original conference, but it was not reported on and very little was known about it other than that it had this tradition of use. And now of course we know a great deal about it. We know that its chemistry and pharmacology are unusual and it’s just a really fascinating plant in a lot of ways. Hopefully a number of things will come to light here that will be interesting to people. The whole idea of the conference is the “ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs” so we want to focus on the unusual things, the things that are a little bit off in left field. And with our presenters we have the expertise to report on that.
There are many great speakers lined up for ESPD50, but the round table discussions look particularly fascinating with topics like “What will we learn about ayahuasca in the next 50 years?” Can you offer any teasers on this subject?
Ayahuasca as you know is remarkable for a number of different reasons, but in the 60’s when the first conference happened, who cared about ayahuasca, you know? Nobody had heard of it, just a few ethnobotanists, it was really off the radar and now it’s the superstar of the psychedelic world, at least in the plant world. I think it’s remarkable how it has asserted itself on the global stage. If you know my rap, I say it’s because Gaia is sending it as an ambassador of the community of species to try to wake us up, because we’re in sore need of being woken up.
We still have a lot to learn about ayahuasca, about how to use it, about some of the constituents. I spoke at the MAPS conference about ß-carbolines, one of our speakers is talking about harmine, and it turns out that these things are not simply MAO inhibitors. They are that, but they have a lot of other activities. It’s amazing to me in some ways, here you have harmine, which is so old that it was discovered before we knew about ayahuasca, it was discovered in Peganum harmala in the 19th century which is where it gets its name. Now we’re discovering it has all these remarkable properties that go beyond simply MAO inhibition, such as the inhibition of kinase that is involved with nerve growth, potentially anti-dementia properties, all of these things. This is not a new compound, but nobody ever looked in depth at it before. So these are the kinds of unique areas that we’ll be exploring at the conference.
We are very grateful to Dr. McKenna for speaking with us and eagerly await ESPD50 and the symposium volume box set. To learn more about ESPD50, buy tickets to the event, and preorder books, visit ESPD50.com. You can also check out the schedule for the event here.