For a country so seemingly liberal, where the national museum includes a ‘rainbow road’ to take you through LGBTQ history, vegan options better than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world, and the people are just…lovely. It’s kind of strange that Iceland’s drug laws are seriously uptight – very much like the UK…
Up to 40 per cent of the inmate population in Iceland have served time for drug offences in recent years, with a maximum prison sentence for drug violations reaching 12 years. Psychedelics, like psilocybin, MDMA and Ketamine are all very much illegal, and even cannabis possession can land you up to 6 years in prison. But, despite all that, they’ve just held the country’s first ever ‘Psychedelics as Medicine’ conference and, as it turns out, there’s huge support for reform.
Unlike some other conferences in the psychedelics and cannabis space, this one had quite a blend of attendees, ranging from long multi-coloured dreadlocked characters and shamans, to psychologists and perhaps most importantly, ministers and police. This was not just a gathering to share information within an echo chamber, it was an opportunity to educate those who can make the necessary changes to bring psychedelic medicine to the Icelandic people. And get them excited about the possibilities this opens up.
Despite being ranked as the second-happiest country in the world in 2020, Iceland is far from immune to the global mental health crisis we’re in the midst of. In fact, their population has the highest antidepressant consumption in Europe. One speaker, Héðni Unnsteinssyni (Iceland’s Senior policy analyst for the Prime Minister’s Office), shared that around 70% of Icelanders are on SSRIs – a number that could be cut down exponentially, should psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA become legally available as a mental health treatment, just like in Australia.
The talks given at the Psychedelics as Medicine event were nothing short of mind-blowing and hopefully enough to at the very least throw a serious question mark over the rescheduling of these potentially life-saving substances. Dr Eric Vermetten told an audience of at least 1000 change-makers harrowing stories of veterans suffering extreme combat PTSD, who had their lives completely transformed after receiving MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), spoke of a refreshing and heartening dream of ‘Spiritualising Humanity’ through psychedelic use, and entering an era of truly compassionate healthcare. Dr Ben Sessa spoke of the efficacy of Ketamine-assisted therapy (the only psychedelic therapy currently legally available in the UK) for addiction and trauma.
The passion for healing, and bringing safe, effective medicines and methods to people who are suffering was tangible. Not only hoping to offer treatments for trauma and mental illness but to help eradicate (or decrease) addiction to medications like opioids and anti-depressants that are so readily prescribed.
Alongside lectures covering some of the most exciting studies into psychedelic therapy, we also heard of innovative formulations being developed to help make psychedelic medicine mainstream – and sustainable. Biomind Labs, a biotech company based in Toronto, Canada, for example, are currently developing a drug based on mescaline that targets inflammation, which is associated with several types of depression. Clinical trials are due to run in the Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital, São Paulo, Brazil. One thing that was abundantly clear in the light-filled, ethereal space of the Harpa conference centre, where we could look out of the towering floor-to-ceiling honeycomb windows, was that the momentum for psychedelic therapy is here, it’s powerful and it’s only getting bigger.
Something very unusual (and perhaps questionable) about the event was that one institute had set up a stand offering guests the chance to try (and buy) Hape – an indigenous plant medicine traditionally used by Katukina, Yawanawa, Kaxinawa, Nukini, Kuntanawa, Apurinã, Ashaninka, and Matses tribes in a ceremonial setting. While I’m sure the will is good, to bring a plant medicine known for its ability to impart feelings of alertness and serenity to the wider world, it was a little concerning that people were being given this substance with no prior awareness of their medical history, and no aftercare.
In almost every talk given during the event, the vital importance of set, setting and using psychotherapy alongside the use of psychedelics was drilled in – and rightly so. Safety must be of utmost importance when dealing with such powerful drugs and experiences, as well as vulnerable people. Although Hape (which is typically made with mapacho – Brazilian tobacco) is not a psychedelic, it does produce an intense effect that is not the same for everyone. To make sure psychedelics do become widely available to those who need them most, and to introduce them to society in a safe manner, patient care (before and after) must remain at the forefront and centre.
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As we enter into a time when using psychedelics as medicine comes into its own, we must strive to keep patient focus at the heart of all we do – something that feels natural now but is at risk of dwindling as the industry grows. Hopefully, the very essence of psychedelics, the ego dissolution and the strong feelings of community and oneness with each other and the world, will help keep us on track.
Ruby Deevoy is a U.K. cannabis journalist with years of experience covering CBD and cannabis in mainstream publications such as The Independent, The Mirror, The National, Elle, Red, Top Sante and Natural Health magazine. She’s also the U.K’s only CBD columnist, writing monthly for Top Sante magazine, cannabis agony aunt for Leafie, writes the Indybest CBD product lists, is founder of The CBD Consultancy and is the primary press member for The Cannabis Industry Council. Tweets @RDeevoy.