First Intermountain Psychedelics Symposium meets in Salt Lake City this month
If you’re a regular reader of this publication, chances are you’re already familiar with psychedelic therapy. Over the last three decades CATALYST has covered the growing use of these once-vilified compounds in healing trauma, anxiety and depression. It’s a topic of interest ascending worldwide now. This month Salt Lake City will host the first Intermountain Psychedelics Symposium.
Catalyst sat down with Dr. Parth Gandhi, a local neuropsychologist, a pioneer in ketamine-assisted therapy in the state, founder of the nonprofit Salt City Psychedelic Therapy and Research (SCPTR) and an organizer of the upcoming two-day event at the Sheraton in downtown Salt Lake City. He chatted with us about the psychedelics renaissance, the work he and his colleagues are doing, and the task of providing a forum for this meeting-of-the-minds.
Tall, quick to smile, and with a direct and engaging gaze, Gandhi’s enthusiasm for his work is obvious. He’s a transplant to the Salt Lake area, born and raised in a Hindu Buddhist family in Farmington, Michigan, near Detroit. He began his training at the University of Michigan then transferred to BYU, where he stayed for graduate school in clinical neuropsychology. After a short stint in Manhattan at Columbia in the early 2000s, he moved to Salt Lake City and became a consulting neuropsychologist to wilderness and residential treatment centers, working with families and youth in distress.
How to Change Your Mind paves the way
Even though Parth had been interested in psychedelic therapy for a while, reading Michael Pollan’s highly influential 2018 book How to Change Your Mind was a watershed moment for him. (See CATALYST, December 2018, “Psychedelics Revisited,” by Carl Rabke.)
In the book, Pollan takes his personal brand of immersion journalism into the psychedelic world, experiencing and meticulously reporting on various types of psychedelic therapy. “This really confirmed for me that it was finally OK to talk about this,” says Parth. “It’s an area that most professionals are still careful around, because we don’t want to look like lunatics. But about six months ago, [my colleague] Dr. Reid Robison and I made a conscious decision that there’s enough science now, and we can put our names on that. Somebody needs to stand in front of this, and so we created SCPTR.”
Dr. Reid Robison is a psychiatrist at Cedar Psychiatry in Springville, with a truly impressive resumé and a decade’s worth of experience providing ketamine-assisted therapy. Parth works closely with him on many different fronts.
“We met about a year ago through some friends and found we had a common interest in psychedelic medicine. He’s the psychiatrist with the most experience delivering ketamine-assisted therapy in Utah, using it to treat anorexia and other issues. Reid and I come from a position where we can talk science and take it to a different group. Ketamine is a powerful vehicle in terms of its ability to raise the consciousness up and lubricate psychotherapy. It’s not magic by itself, though. It creates an opportunity for neuroplasticity [the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections] which we think lasts about 24 to 48 hours, and we have to take advantage of that. (See CATALYST, November 2019, “Ketamine: This drug may finally change the way we study depression.” Written before we learned of Dr. Robison.)
Leading lights in psychedelic research join in
“There’s actually a ‘neuroplasticity’ to the conversation around psychedelics out in the public right now,” he continues. “This conference came about because I was talking to [Dr.] Jim Fadiman about some research data in his microdosing study, and I said, ‘well, what if we brought you up here to talk to people for a couple of hours,’ and it very quickly became this huge deal.” Dr. Fadiman is a leading light in psychedelic research and is currently gathering data on the widespread-but -still-underground practice of ‘microdosing’—that is, taking a sub-perceptual dose of a psychedelic in order to self-treat depression or anxiety, or to increase creativity. (See a CATALYST interview with Fadiman in “Psychedelic Microdosing for Health,” by Benjamin Bombard, November 2016). He is also the author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys (2011).
“We went to the Psychedelic Science Summit in Austin and started talking to people, and we got [Dr.] Phil Wolfson on board. He is the researcher on ketamine—he wrote The Ketamine Papers [the definitive book on ketamine therapy], studied MDMA before it was made illegal in the 1980s, and runs the Ketamine Training Institute, training other psychologists on how to do psychedelic therapy.”
From there, the symposium grew, attracting many more speakers from various areas of specialty, including the Burning Man-affiliated harm-reduction Zendo Project from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and an expert in Holotropic Breathwork, a drug-free psychedelic therapeutic modality. Other practitioners and clinics have been offering ketamine therapy in Utah, and there is also demand for ‘underground’ psychedelic therapy from not-yet-approved drugs like psilocybin (a naturally occurring compound found in certain mushrooms) and MDMA (aka Ecstasy). Clearly the field is expanding rapidly, and there needs to be more communication. “I want people to be able to come together and create a conversation,” Parth says, then adds, “I went to a traditional psychology conference recently and I realized I’ve come so far from that.”
Therapy, the modern-day ceremonial process
To provide legal and protocol-regulated psychedelic therapy to a public that craves healing, Parth says SCPTR and its clinical arm, SCPTR Wellness, plan to have four clinics open in the next 18 months or so, but these clinical teams must be assembled very carefully. “In ancient traditions [of using psychedelics] there was a ‘container’—ancestors, shamans, elders who held space for you. Therapy is our ceremonial process right now, so you have to have very well-trained therapists.” The SCPTR clinics will be positioned to administer other psychedelic medicines besides ketamine as they become approved by the FDA. Research of therapeutic models through clinical trials using MDMA and psilocybin will begin in 2020; SCPTR is currently recruiting for these trials.
In the meantime, the Intermountain Psychedelics Symposium will provide a meeting point for people of all backgrounds who may be interested in the healing that these drugs offer. “I look at the 3,200 people who’ve already replied to the event on Facebook,” says Parth, “and I try to imagine what brings them together, and how to help, because I truly believe psychedelics are a catalyst that moves through ceremony into healing medicine for depression, addiction and anxiety and creates something in society that’s missing, which is connection and compassion and tribe.”
Alice Toler is a regular contributor to CATALYST. For more information, visit scptr.org/