Mike Margolies had a good job as a chemical engineer at Exxon right after college. For a nice Jewish boy from Owings Mills, it was a good, safe path to be on.
But after some mystical experiences with mind-altering substances, Margolies knew he had to change his life’s trajectory. In the back of his mind, he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but it took these experiences to give him the courage and confidence to pursue that path.
“I just didn’t feel like climbing the corporate ladder. In life, it didn’t seem like what I wanted to do,” said Margolies, 29. “I wasn’t trying to take a break. I was trying to change the course of my life.”
That journey — which included 15 months of backpacking in Southeast Asia — led him back to his home city, where he now runs a psychedelic discussion group called Psychedelic Seminars and is project editor of soon-to-be-launched online magazine Psymposia. Both of these projects are working toward Margolies’ goal of creating a safe space to talk about drugs and psychedelic experiences.
“What we are trying to do is facilitate honest conversations,” he said. “We are not advocates for drugs; we’re advocates for honest conversations about drugs.”
Psychedelic Seminars has hosted scientists from Johns Hopkins University who study psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), a representative of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, medical cannabis activists and experts and a variety of other multidisciplinary speakers. Psymposia, which launches in the coming weeks, will use a similar cast of characters and feature a main article and responses to it from a variety of writers, along with a response from the original author to create a back-and-forth conversation. The theme of the first issue is “Coming Out of the Psychedelic Closet,” something Margolies himself had to do.
It was in Peru where he decided to change the course of his life after several ayahuasca ceremonies. The South American psychedelic brew, used as spiritual medicine among people indigenous to the Amazon, reportedly gives those who take it great spiritual revelations and insight, although those revelations can be coupled with gastrointestinal trauma.
At the time, Margolies’ insights led him to quit his job and go backpacking. In August 2013, he set out for Southeast Asia and spent 15 months traversing the region, mostly in Thailand. While he had planned to start a life over there, after a visit home in November 2014, he decided to stay in the United States. Over coffee with a friend, something obvious presented itself: His passion is talking about psychedelic experiences.
The day after this conversation, which took place this past February, he made the Facebook page for Psychedelic Seminars.
“There was no group I could find in Baltimore like a psychedelic discussion group,” he said. “And there it is: It’s obvious, just make it.”
The first meeting took place in March 2015. Margolies rented a room in a library and spoke to a small group about how ayahuasca changed his life.
But it wasn’t as simple as starting a group. While his parents were initially shocked when he quit his job, he shocked them again when he told them he was becoming something of a psychedelic guru. It took time and a lot of conversations for Margolies to be fully open about his own psychedelic drug use.
“It’s been a work in progress … but they’re coming around,” he said. Although he’s still a bit troubled by a conversation over this past Thanksgiving in which some extended family members told him they were concerned about him.
“This scene itself is the very epitome of why I do what I do,” he said. “There is so much stigma around drugs. We’re so impaired in the subject we can’t even have a conversation.”
If Psychedelic Seminar’s Dec. 22 event is any indication, Margolies’ effort to create a space for conversation is working. About 40 people crowded into Artifact Coffee in the Woodberry area of Baltimore for a talk and Q&A with Twig Harper, who runs a Sensory Deprivation Tank facility and works with psychoactive plant salvia. The light-proof and soundproof tank is filled with water salted enough to make the body float and can produce a variety of different effects some may refer to as psychedelic.
A majority of the evening was more back-and-forth conversations with attendees than presentation, with what Harper said were more “deeper space questions.”
Harper said it’s important to have an educational and social structure around psychedelic drugs and technologies, something he didn’t have in his late teens and early 20s when he did a lot of experimenting. He said it took a lot of work to understand those experiences and get to a point where he could talk about them. While he thinks psychedelic experiences shouldn’t be stigmatized, he still thinks caution should be exercised.
“If you look at other cultures that have these or other cultures that have existed or used sacred medicines … there’s a special class of people, the priests, it was their job to understand the [substances] by direct experience, and that’s not for everyone, and I think that’s something to really consider about these substances,” he said. “They’re oppressed and misunderstood, and [some of] the people who understand them want to liberate them, and there’s a tendency to want to bring them to everyone. They’re not for everyone, and maybe not everyone should understand them.”
But as Margolies found the confidence to search for his true calling, Harper too felt his outlook on life changed from psychedelic experiences.
“It removes the idea that we’re just an accumulation of a personal history with patterns of sensation,” he said. “It allows us to kind of tap into, I think, the eternal and mystical parts of our consciousness, which in the larger society is something that’s greatly needed.”
Albert Garcia-Romeu, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, spoke at a Psychedelic Seminars event in June about his work in using psilocybin in smoking cessation as well as the other work Hopkins’ scientists have done with the compound. He said these kinds of presentations are often given outside of Baltimore to very specialized scientific audiences, so he thought it would be good to give back to Baltimore’s community.
“It can be helpful because we can answer questions around harm reduction with a scientific or medical perspective that sometimes they might be misinformed about,” he said.
Someone like Garcia-Romeu can provide information on drug trends and issues with illicit street-level drugs and can tell people about kits that can test drug purity and where they can find those kits.
“It’s better to provide condoms than it is to tell people to be abstinent, basically,” Garcia-Romeu said.
Hopkins psychologist Bill Richards, Ph.D., who has been in psychedelic research since 1963, will speak at the next Psychedelic Seminars event on Jan. 19.
For Margolies, coming back to Baltimore rather than starting a new life on the other side of the world proved to be more fruitful than he’d imagined.
“It turned out in my own home city, Hopkins is doing this research; it happens to be this hotbed of all the things I’m interested in,” he said. “I only had to come back into my home with new eyes.”