Reggae dubstep thumps from a pedicab parked in the entrance to the main lecture hall. Psychedelic art hangs from partitions amidst crates of books about death preparedness and DMT; vendors sell non-psilocybin mushroom extracts and chocolates before a backdrop of crawling fungi. Attendees wait to slurp plastic syringes of herbal supplements, open-mouthed like baby birds.
Breaking Convention (BC) is the largest psychedelics conference in Europe, a not-for-profit event that feels like a festival. From April 19-22, more than 1,000 people convened at the University of Exeter in Devon, England—twice the attendance of 2011, when the biennial conference was first held.
The event’s name references the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Organizers believe that BC’s interdisciplinary nature is what’s needed to effect global change, even if they aren’t all in agreement about what that change should look like.
“It’s a cultural event as much as a scientific event,” Leor Roseman, a researcher at Imperial College London studying ayahuasca use among Israeli and Palestinian groups, said at the BC press conference. It “represents the psychedelic ethos in the most precise way: by being very broad.”
“Seeing where the space is heading, it’s a rich person’s game.”
Sure enough, panelists spoke on themes as diverse as psychedelic-assisted therapy; decolonization and equitable futures; metaphysics; microdosing; and ethnomycology. Advocacy groups Psilocybin Access Rights campaign and DrugScience were both well-represented. One panel was devoted entirely to trance music sampling Terence McKenna’s disembodied voice. And workshops, art installations and virtual reality simulations of psychedelic journeys abounded.
All panels were recorded and are being made available to the public on YouTube, as part of a push toward increased accessibility.
“Seeing where the space is heading, it’s a rich person’s game,” Richard Tyo, clinical director at Neuma Centre in Ontario, Canada, told Filter. The goal is to build a movement of “co-creation [and] relationships … and not rely on the commercialization and corporatization of psychedelics.”
Ketamine and ibogaine, each given its own forum, were presented as cautionary tales for the movement. Both have been marketed as miracle cures to Westerners and have increasingly been accessed in unregulated, profit-driven settings. Speakers described the alternative models—grounded in community relationships and fair-trade ethics—that could help reduce the harms of current practices, at both the individual and societal levels.
Psychedelic harm reduction had a strong presence.
“We’ve gotten a bit unbalanced and myopic on on the medical side,” Exeter psychopharmacology professor Celia Morgan, who chaired the ketamine forum, told Filter. “It was brilliant to get the experiential side of things, like movement medicine and a tea ceremony … a holistic perspective [that] is sadly lacking in other conferences.”
Psychedelic harm reduction had a strong presence. Speakers emphasized the role of peer support at festivals, or on spiritual journeys like 5-MeO-DMT ceremonies. Others described the potential of psychedelic harm reduction tools like preparedness scales for certain types of ceremonies, or techniques for regulating the central nervous system.
Accessibility for Indigenous populations was discussed at a number of scheduled events. Speakers shared statements from ayahuasceros, as well as from Gabonese communities about ethical iboga sourcing and use in the Global North.
BC seemed lacking in queer-focused panel discussions, though, despite plenty of queer representation in the crowd.
Psychedelic exceptionalism and the dangers that come with it were also discussed. Psychotherapist Roberta Murphy was among panelists who described concern “that the pace of psychedelic research is outstripping the kind of necessary grounding [for] doing this work safely and ethically.”
To me, BC’s most impactful event was the forum on pan-African perspectives. “It was the best experience I’ve ever had speaking at an event,” said Acacea Sherman-Lewis, founder of Divine Master Alchemy Academy. “Because I was among family.”
Correction, May 3: Due to an editorial error, an earlier version of this article wrongly suggested that psilocybin mushroom extracts were sold at the event; this was not the case.