David Nickles contributed to the reporting of this story.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is preparing to host what is being dubbed “the largest psychedelic gathering in history” — the Denver-based Psychedelic Science 2023 conference — from June 19-23.
In preparation for this conference, organizers are asking presenters to sign a 30-clause contract with requirements that many presenters and reviewers have told Psymposia they find concerning. Among some standard contract clauses covering things like presentation duration and speaker materials, two clauses have concerning implications for a conference that claims to represent the interests of psychedelic scholarship and evidence-based science.
The first clause in question is titled “Exclusivity Window” and reads:
“16. Exclusivity Window. To ensure that the Conference remains the focus of the Denver region and meets its 2022 attendance goals:
- Presenter agrees to not perform or participate in any public or ticketed live event, seminar, conference, class, workshop, or similar related to psychedelics in or within 500 miles of Denver from April 15, 2023 1 [sic] – August 15, 2023 without written agreement from MAPS.
- Presenter shall notify MAPS prior to booking confirmation of any pre-existing conflicts to discuss, and notify MAPS promptly of new requests for approval.
MAPS will typically grant permission for Presenter’s participation in non-MAPS produced events hosted by partner organizations (e.g. fundraisers, conference afterparties) during the Conference time period. But Presenters must seek MAPS’ approval in advance.”
This clause essentially grants MAPS the final say on any presenter’s psychedelic-related speaking engagements for two months before and after Psychedelic Science 2023.
Although the contract states that “MAPS will typically grant permission for Presenter’s participation in non-MAPS produced events,” the nature of the clause also gives MAPS explicit permission to deny participation in those events.
The psychedelic conference Horizons, in New York City, included a similar clause in its 2022 presenter contract, but the window of exclusivity was notably shorter. Where MAPS is asking for four months of exclusivity on presentation content, Horizons’ contract only stipulated exclusivity for the month of the conference — October — and half of the following month.
A psychedelic researcher who spoke with Psymposia anonymously said that they have given poster presentations and talks at other science conferences and were never asked to agree to an exclusivity window. Multiple other psychedelic conference organizers who preferred to remain anonymous said that this type of exclusivity period was not included in the contracts that speakers signed for their conferences. The author of this article presented a poster at the 2022 Psychedemia conference at The Ohio State University and was also not required to agree to an exclusivity period in a presenter contract.
The researcher who spoke to Psymposia worried about how this could impact early-career academics looking to present their research in 2023 anywhere within 500 miles of Denver. As one example, this clause could interfere with anyone looking to present at the annual College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD) conference taking place in Denver between June 17-21. This conference is expected to draw at least 1,200 attendees according to organizers.
The second, and more controversial clause, which is titled “MAPS’ reputation,” reads:
“18. MAPS’ reputation. MAPS may cancel this Agreement and rescind Presenter’s invitation to participate in the Conference if MAPS determines, in its sole discretion, that Presenter, or any organization to which Presenter is associated: (i) discredits MAPS or tarnishes its reputation and goodwill; (ii) promotes false or misleading information; (iii) violates the rights of others; (iv) violates any law regulation, or public policy; or (v) mischaracterizes the relationship between MAPS and Presenter.”
On its face, a clause penalizing a presenter for discrediting the host of a conference seems potentially reasonable.
However, MAPS — the conference host — is also the sponsor of the most advanced FDA clinical trials in the psychedelic industry and the subject of a number of legitimate criticisms. These criticisms have been directed at MAPS’ research by academics, therapists, trial participants, journalists, and more for methodological issues and the abusive behavior of MAPS-contracted trial therapists.
It is unclear whether engagement with controversies involving MAPS — such as sexual abuse in MAPS trials; data inconsistencies across clinical trial sites; or the death of Bailey Gatlin while under the care of MAPS’ harm reduction services — would qualify as behavior which “discredits MAPS or tarnishes its reputation or goodwill.” The language of the contract seems to leave the choice to ban presenters for engagement with this material to MAPS’ “sole discretion.”
The researcher who spoke with Psymposia asked, “How can you claim to be the biggest gathering for psychedelic science when you’re not allowing freedom of the scientists to share information?”
By potentially forbidding speakers from citing research that conflicts with MAPS’ preferred narratives, this clause seems to contradict the following contract clause, titled “Scientific and medical compliance,” which states that presentations “must be of scholarly quality and consistent with the conventions and practices of evidence-based science.”
How a presenter could provide scholarly commentary about topics like psychedelic harm reduction, clinical trial design, or ethics without acknowledging the many controversies involving MAPS — arguably the industry’s most prominent organization — is unclear.
Psymposia has confirmed with multiple Psychedelic Science 2023 presenters who preferred to remain anonymous that they all received contracts with this language. Multiple presenters expressed surprise and concern about the inclusion of these clauses.
Psymposia presented the clauses to multiple lawyers, most of whom said that they had never seen clauses like this in a speaker’s agreement for a conference. One of the lawyers did note that radius clauses — like the “Exclusivity Window” clause above — are fairly common (“and quite controversial,” this source notes) for large music festivals like Coachella.
“[I’m] not [concerned] from a legal basis [about this clause], but in my honest opinion [these clauses] are inappropriate to use and shouldn’t be in an agreement like this. The speakers aren’t performers. They’re sharing knowledge which should be widely shared. And no speaker individually is enough of a draw to do this for,” this lawyer said.
In the case of a music festival like Coachella, the festival would want to assure that a headlining act like Beyonce wasn’t playing in the same general area around the time of the festival. This is because the festival producers expect to sell tickets based on a regionally-exclusive appearance of (in this hypothetical) Beyonce.
“For nearly every speaker but maybe [someone like] Paul Stamets, having [a radius clause] is pointless to MAPS, there’s no real concern, but having it in the contract nevertheless can serve a real chilling effect on presenters that want to abide by what they signed,” the lawyer said.
Some of this “chilling effect” can be observed in the fact that all the presenters who spoke with Psymposia about these clauses were only willing to have their comments published if they could remain anonymous.
Another scientist presenting at Psychedelic Science 2023 who spoke to Psymposia anonymously said that spokespeople from MAPS have reportedly told some presenters who reached out that MAPS disagrees with the need for these clauses and that the clauses will not be enforced.
Psymposia has reviewed contracts from multiple presenters and has confirmed that they were sent by Momentum Events “on behalf of MAPS’ Psychedelic Science 2023” and signed off with “Momentum Events, Official production partner of MAPS.org.” Momentum Events is the production company collaborating with MAPS to produce Psychedelic Science 2023, and MAPS presumably read the finalized contract before it was sent to presenters.
If MAPS is telling presenters that they disagree with these clauses, that does not change the fact that this is a legally-binding contract. Such verbal assurances are explicitly overridden by Clause 25, which says that statements like the ones allegedly made by MAPS are superseded by the contract. This clause reads:
“25. Integrated agreement. This agreement supersedes all prior oral or written agreements, discussions, negotiations, understandings, and proposals regarding the subject matter of the Agreement. In entering into this Agreement, neither Presenter nor MAPS has relied upon or is relying upon any oral or written statement, promise, or representation made by the other party, or by any employee, agent, or representative of the other party, except those expressly set forth in this Agreement. No part of this Agreement shall be considered to have been modified or waived unless the modification or waiver is agreed to in writing and signed by Presenter and an authorized officer of MAPS” (emphasis added).
MAPS’ Director of Communications Betty Aldworth said that MAPS has granted waivers for every request for exemption from the radius clause. This willingness to waive the agreement calls into question why the radius clause was included in the contract to begin with.
Psymposia asked whether these waivers were presented in writing and signed by the presenter and an officer of MAPS, as required by the contract. Aldworth responded, “Not sure what that process looks like and doubt that I can get the answer timely. Sorry!”
Aldworth also claimed that the event is platforming a number of speakers who have been critical of MAPS, but did not identify any of them. She said that the reputation clause was in place in case “a speaker is no longer considered of good character, particularly with regard to credible allegations of social, professional, sexual, or serious criminal misconduct.” What “good character” entails and how “serious criminal misconduct” would be interpreted in the context of a conference centered on currently-illegal drugs and their advocates was not elaborated on.
If these specific issues were indeed important to MAPS, it is unclear why this language was not included in the contract. Aldworth avoided answering the question of what MAPS would consider “discrediting or tarnishing MAPS’ reputation,” as the actual language in the contract states. As the contract is written, these ambiguities allow for MAPS to deplatform presenters at its “sole discretion.”
MAPS appears to recognize that presenters are uncomfortable with a number of the contract clauses and is dealing with these concerns on an ad hoc basis. Speakers with concerns about the contract, Aldworth said, should reach out to their primary Psychedelic Science or MAPS contact.
A Broader Trend of Limiting Discourse
These contract clauses represent a broader and concerning trend of limitations on the free and open exchange of ideas at events billing themselves as premier academic conferences while, in reality, behaving like industry-sponsored gatherings.
At the end of last year, it was revealed that MicrodoseHQ’s Wonderland Miami 2022 conference — sold as “the biggest event in the psychedelic medicine industry” — banned a number of individuals within the psychedelic field without announcing the decision. This list included all members of Psymposia; independent journalist Sasha Sisko; and two former staff members of the Conscious Fund, which funds MicrodoseHQ.
None of these parties were informed of this ban list until it was anonymously leaked online. Sisko — who was gifted a ticket to the event by a MAPS researcher — entered the conference and was immediately forced to leave by security.
MicrodoseHQ claimed (in a statement which has since been removed) that it had assessed a number of individuals and organizations who contributed to concerns of “physical safety” at the event. Psymposia was also informed that individuals were told that those on the list had “openly threatened to physically harm [MAPS Founder and President] Rick Doblin.”
All of these claims were false, and no evidence was ever provided to support MicrodoseHQ’s claims of “physical safety” concerns. Doblin, himself, confirmed with Psymposia that he did not fear for his safety, nor did he request any individuals be banned from the event.
What all of the individuals on this list truly had in common was a history of critiquing the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry, presenting consequential holes in psychedelic research, and standing up to unethical employers in the industry.
The Psychedelic Science 2023 Presenter’s contract clauses may not seem as obviously egregious as Wonderland Miami’s secret ban list. But the clauses represent something just as corrosive to the quality of ideas circulating in the field: the formalization of discourse-limiting behavior at psychedelic conferences. This trend is especially worrying at this moment in time, as hype and financial conflicts are widely acknowledged as rampant issues throughout the industry.
Much of the psychedelic field rallied around the banned individuals when it was discovered that MicrodoseHQ had secretly limited discourse, without even informing participating speakers. But hardly anyone will publicly criticize powerful organizations like MAPS (which also conducts research and business that should be scrutinized) when they write limitations on discourse directly into their legal contracts.
Many individuals who spoke with Psymposia did not believe the clauses in question would be particularly easy to enforce. But the fact remains that the clauses are part of a legally-binding contract and could be enforced (or not) at MAPS’ “sole discretion.” While some may be comfortable assuming these kinds of agreements will not be enforced, many — likely those early in their career and not looking to make waves — will nevertheless be thinking twice about what they say or write about organizations requiring contracts like these.