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Breaking Convention 2015: Looking back (and forward)

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BC_report_2Psychedelic researchers gathered from all over the world to present their findings at the third biannual Breaking Convention conference (BC). The conference took place at Greenwich College in London between 10 and 12 July and hosted 140 presenters from about 40 countries as well as performers, artists and musicians. Over 800 people attended the event, which included renowned presenters such as professors David E. Nichols, David J. Nutt and Roland Griffiths, along with a great variety of academics from different disciplines.

According to Dr. Ben Sessa, one of the conference’s organisers, the conference was a success: “We have had a lot of great feedback. BC is a very ‘home grown’ affair, with almost a third of delegates participating in one way or another. People feel a great deal of personal ownership over the conference, which means the atmosphere is great and a lot of important networking gets done.” Sessa was one of the co-founders of BC in 2011, and explains how the conference has built momentum since then: “We set up BC as a platform to showcase psychedelic research and culture. The conference has grown tremendously and we hope it will continue to expand and inspire young people and seasoned enthusiasts to propagate this important subject.”

One of the participants was Michael Kugel, an undergraduate medical science student from Sydney, Australia. He travelled 17.000 kilometres to meet world leading researchers in current medical cannabis and psychedelic research. He thinks his trip was worthwhile and shows that Sessa´s hopes are not in vain. “I’ve met a lot of great people here”, says Kugel. “I met Allan Badiner, author of Zig Zag Zen, who introduced me to MAPS founder Rick Doblin, who in turn told me about a psychiatrist who is trying to get approval in Australia to study MDMA for PTSD in war veterans. At lunch I bumped into Lumír Hanuš, who was part of the team that discovered anandamide [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][an endogenous cannabinoid, ed.], and who currently works with Raphael Mechoulam. I offered him my (limited) lab skills – we’ll see where that leads. I´m feeling really good about it all so far.”

For Tehseen Noorani, a researcher who has participated in a psilocybin studie at Johns Hopkins along with Roland Griffiths and Matthew Johnson, coming to BC was a no-brainer: “I do research on psychedelics and these conferences are rare. They are also big, so it totally makes sense to come and present work and find out what else is going on. When you´re in this space, you realise how much is going on – there are so many small pockets of activity all over the world.

Noorani thinks it’s important to undertake efforts to further convince funders that psychedelics are a topic worthy of research. “For me there are a lot of sciences,” he said. “I work with pharmacologists and the steps forward for clinical trials seem to be pretty straightforward. As there´s a growing acceptance of the impressive outcomes of strictly scientific research, what we really need now is money.” He also underlined the importance of taking social scientific research around psychedelics more seriously: “My background is in anthropology, and I would say anthropological work needs to be taken more seriously. Firstly, research needs to connect the important anthropological and political questions of today. Secondly, ethnographic research needs to be recognised as serious research by so-called harder sciences, and by the public, because to be interested in psychedelics is to be interested in pretty profound stuff.”

Levente Móró, a consciousness researcher from Finland currently based in Hungary, also found what he came looking for: “Along with the interlaced biennial conference by the OPEN Foundation, BC is the most important European meeting of the international psychedelic science field. I wanted to get updated about the status of current research, to meet old and new fellow researchers, and to put forward my own ideas and receive feedback. The conference provided abundant amounts of knowledge, from all the various fields related to psychedelics. It is nice to receive fresh input and viewpoints, also from outside my own fields of study. Moreover, it has been extremely nice to meet more people from Finland, as a result of the recently organised psychedelic science activism.” A group of academics in Finland, who aim to promote practical research and evidence-based information on psychedelics, organized their first small psychedelic seminar last April, with presentations from Teri Krebs, Murtaza Majeed and Helle Kaasik, among others.

Móró’s own presentation at BC was based on a bioethical analysis of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs he produced with his colleague Imre Bárd, who wasn’t present. He focused on representations of ‘evil’ and demonstrated how the UN drug laws used a language of religious immorality to justify drug prohibition. His presentation, although based on a convention that was signed over half a century ago, found resonance in current legislative practices. One of the hot topics mentioned during many of the BC presentations was the new Psychoactive Substances Bill (2015), proposed by the British government just weeks before the conference. The new bill would increase the regulation of most psychoactive substances (not including alcohol and tobacco) and further complicate psychedelic research. An open letter was published on the conference website, addressed to the British Prime Minister, in which the undersigned urge for the content of the Bill to be reconsidered. It was signed by over 40 professionals, including academics, former and current members of Parliament and police officials.

This more politically active role of psychedelic researchers was welcomed by Levente Móró: “It was nice to see that psychedelic researchers have been getting involved more and more with drug policy reform issues.” Despite the possible tightening of regulatory practices in the UK, Ben Sessa seemed optimistic about the future of psychedelic research. “Psychedelic research requires a major Public Relations drive. Most researchers believe that psychedelic drugs are useful, safe and efficacious tools for medicine, growth and development. But sadly, for the majority of the general public, high levels of stigma and misinformation remain attached to these fascinating substances. This means we need to detach ourselves, to some extent, from the “hippie” genre and demonstrate that ‘normal’, everyday people can use psychedelics safely and with personal and communal benefits. One way of doing this is to increase the exposure of psychedelic medicine to people everywhere through the media. This is partly why I wrote my novel ‘To Fathom Hell Or Soar Angelic’, which was launched at BC15. In the meantime, my clinical colleagues and I continue to carry out robust scientific studies to determine the safety and efficacy of psychedelic therapy.”

One way to relieve the stigma could be for researchers to openly discuss their own experiences. But could this harm their credibility as scientists? Noorani: “As a researcher I would say there´s a real dilemma around admitting to having (not) taken psychedelics in terms of how it legitimises or delegitimises the research you do.” Móró believes that scientific credibility should not rest on the researcher´s person: “Researchers might get insights from their own experiences, or become more motivated to investigate phenomena they find personally fascinating and meaningful. Besides, scientific credibility should not depend on a researcher’s personal background. It should be objectively assessable and independent of the researcher’s non-scientific traits or parameters.”

While Sessa openly discussed his own experiences, he also recognises how legal restrictions might affect the extent to which professionals publicly speak about their use of psychedelics: “I am fortunate to have participated in a number of legal psychedelic research studies in the last 6 years, so I can say, on the record, that I have taken ketamine, LSD and psilocybin in those studies.” Sessa supports the idea that ‘coming out’ about safe and beneficial experiences could be a good way to forward the emancipation of these substances: “This method worked well for driving the normalisation of homosexuality in recent decades. However, I also understand professionals – especially doctors – who feel reluctant to do this. The possession of illegal drugs is still penalised in most countries.”

Next year, the special session of the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) will, among other things, give directions for the future of psychedelic research, and the outcomes will probably be extensively presented, discussed and debated at the next BC in 2017.

This report is based on on-site recorded interviews and post-conference email interviews.


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