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Talking to the Rotary Club about Psychedelic Therapy

I could not have asked for a more fitting Main Street American venue to gauge public attitudes toward psychedelic drug therapies than a regional Rotary Club author talk I gave last month. A speaking engagement there felt like the perfect way to take the community’s pulse on the acceptance of psychedelic drugs—new therapies that include the use of MDMA, DMT, ketamine, and psilocybin—to treat conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to treatment-resistant depression. 

I knew from the description of the invitation that I would be addressing a crowd of approximately 45 Rotarians from 40 to 70 years old, who had signed up for a morning breakfast club to learn about the writing I’ve been doing on the topic of psychedelic therapies. They were intrigued to learn more about these new treatments. The program planner found my perspective interesting, he said, noting that his members were probably “a little less High Times and a bit more Forbes.” I took that to mean that the crowd leaned conservative—at least where psychoactive drugs were concerned—and assumed it could mean opposing viewpoints from the audience about the use of currently illegal drugs. I was up for that. 

The club members sounded like an engaged and attentive group, working professionals who regularly attended these Wednesday morning author talks at 7 a.m., held on various subjects, meant to create a forum for Rotarians to share new ideas over eggs, bacon, pancakes, and coffee. The setting was also an ideal focus group for me: A utilitarian Masonic Hall—indistinguishable from countless such buildings dotted across the U.S.—and located literally on Main Street in a small town known as the “Gravenstein Apple Capital of the World.” You didn’t get more American than that. Their mission struck the right chord, too: “Rotary is a global network of 1.2 million neighbors, friends, leaders, and problem-solvers who see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change – across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves.”

The email invite arrived a few days after I was interviewed on The Entheogenic Evolution podcast, hosted by psychedelic specialist Dr. Martin Ball. During the show we discussed my reporting for Forbes online covering trends and breakthroughs in psychoactive drugs, as well as my booklet titled “Your Neighbors are Doing Psychedelics: MDMA” (2021). The story follows an ex-policeman named Nick Watchorn, who was part of FDA-sponsored clinical trials of MDMA-assisted therapy to treat his severe, treatment-resistant PTSD. Watchorn had suffered with the debilitating condition for 22 years after arriving on the scene of a horrific mass-shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1996. Those ongoing trials using MDMA are sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization led by Rick Doblin that’s worked for 35 years to see such treatments used as a therapy for emotional trauma.

Ball had mentioned during the show that writing on the subject of psychedelics for a high-profile mainstream media outlet like Forbes was having an impact, particularly with people in the 5-MeO-DMT community. I had been covering that topic with greater frequency since early 2020, when a story I wrote about psychoactive toad venom containing 5-MeO-DMT garnered hundreds of thousands of views. 

The Rotary representative, who had heard the podcast the week it aired, emailed me saying: “As the coordinator for the Rotary morning club in Sebastopol, I’ve been looking for a long time for the right person to discuss the post-war-on-drugs psychedelic rethink. It’s a long shot, I know, but I’d like to invite you to spend a half hour with us on a Wednesday morning sometime in the next few months.”

It wasn’t a longshot at all. I fully welcomed the opportunity to give such a talk and was excited to speak to Rotary Club members—as they were not the usual bunch I typically addressed. Over the course of the last year since publishing my booklet, I’ve been invited to speak at psychedelic-focused conferences and symposiums and it began to feel like I was preaching to the choir. Not many people who heard me at those events needed informing on the subject of psychedelics. 

At the Rotary on the other hand, I was bound to be talking to people who knew far less about new psychedelic therapies. Many of them would probably have little knowledge about the likelihood of psychedelic treatments becoming legal, doctor-prescribed options within the next couple of years. I would discover during my talk that one of the Rotary members was an addiction specialist who was particularly interested in hearing how a drug that contained methamphetamine was going to be a useful tool for society.

While Sebastopol is little more than an hour drive outside of San Francisco, not far from the city the landscape transforms to rural, and with it political views skew from liberal to moderate/conservative. I was about a quarter of the way into my talk when I asked if there were any questions. More than a few hands shot up. 

A fair question posed by the addiction specialist concerned the relationship between MDMA and of methamphetamine (the “MA” in 3,4-methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine). The gentleman had clearly seen his share of people addicted to the street drug crystal meth, which can be a highly addictive substance. Abuse of methamphetamine can lead to paranoia, depression, and hallucinations. How could the FDA knowingly promote a drug therapy that might have such dire consequences for users? 

Like many drugs, there is a risk of addiction when misused. Methamphetamine is a worthwhile compound already used clinically—for instance, in the form of the doctor-prescribed drug Desoxyn—to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In the case of MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of PTSD, the methamphetamine component is beneficial in that it keeps patients alert and engaged during arduous periods of self-reflection that can last for six to eight hours. Whereas the meth abuse described by the addiction specialist is typically recreational use (and illegal), it’s key to note that clinical trials of MDMA occur under rigorous medical settings. 

I explained to the crowd that as the trials sponsored by MAPS continue on their positive trajectory and become legal therapies, commercialized MDMA therapy will certainly require the same rigorous protocols and administration by medical doctors.

Another question that I didn’t expect to hear, but a reasonable one to ask, concerned people driving while under the influence of MDMA. Wasn’t that going to add to the already dismal death toll of impaired-driving accidents? In clinical settings, this simply isn’t advised and should not occur. Much like driving a vehicle after an invasive surgical procedure where something like morphine is prescribed, MDMA-assisted treatments occur in an inpatient setting where patients typically spend the night following treatment sessions. 

The tenor of the next few questions followed that same safety theme. It was clear that nearly everyone there had some understanding of the drug Ecstasy—much of it from their exposure to news about illegal use—but many wrestled with separating the recreationally used drug from the clinically administered medicine. Still, for a group that knew very little about MDMA therapies, all their concerns were rational and thoughtful points. 

The biggest takeaway I had from my talk was the overall interest and enthusiasm most of the people had for learning more about psychedelic therapies. I knew my talk had a real impact when the final questions from the crowd centered around how people can personally participate in these MDMA-assisted therapy clinical trials. It meant that they saw this as a genuine viable option. Opportunities do exist around the world that offer volunteers participation in such clinical studies, as long as they qualify for enrollment criteria based on the goal of the study. There was also interest from one Rotary member to know if clinical research included examination of military personnel with PTSD. A study is currently underway for veterans with combat-related, refractory PTSD, with an estimated study completion date of December 2023.

By the end of my talk the crowd seemed pleased and eager to learn more. I sold a handful of books and was asked if I’d like to speak at other Rotary Clubs in the area. I said I certainly would. Though I’m not paid for such speaking engagements, the opportunity to communicate directly to mainstream America on this topic is something I would never pass up. 

Image: Nicki Adams using adapted photo by Ossewa