The quiet reading room that gets trippy after dark
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The quiet reading room that gets trippy after dark
A visitor takes part in a meet and greet at the Anthenaeum, a library devoted to the psychedelic experience and its devotees, in New York, Sept. 1, 2023. Mind-altering drugs may be illegal, but learning and talking about them isn’t. (Sara Hylton/The New York Times)

by Rachel Nuwer

NEW YORK, NY.- Midtown Manhattan doesn’t usually come to mind when thinking about the epicenters of psychedelic culture. But just three blocks from Grand Central Terminal, tucked within the sprawl of advertising offices, finance firms and chain stores, a community center dedicated to consciousness-altering substances has taken root.

The only drug sold on-site is the caffeine in the coffee and the tea, and visitors typically remain sober. But psychedelics are on the minds of everyone who stops by the Athenaeum, as the center is called.

“Currently these substances are illegal,” said Kat Lakey, the Athenaeum’s 33-year old founder, “but talking about them isn’t.”

By day, the Athenaeum — among the few psychedelic libraries in existence — is a quiet reading room and coworking space, where members and day-pass holders type away on laptops and chat over coffee. After hours it turns into an event venue, hosting everything from trippy art openings and drug-themed comedy shows to a “spookadelic” haunted house for Halloween. Talks are held on subjects as esoteric as the legal considerations for psychedelic startups, the science of hallucinogens and neurodiversity, and the intersection of psychedelics and artificial intelligence.

As recently as a decade ago, the Athenaeum’s existence would have been virtually impossible, said Kevin Balktick, founder of Horizons, the world’s longest-running annual psychedelics conference. “Almost to a T, people were very concerned about repercussions of having even an interest in psychedelics known.”

But in the past few years, the conversation around psychedelics has begun to shift. Substances like MDMA and psilocybin are being medicalized, and dozens of U.S. cities and counties have decriminalized or are considering decriminalizing personal possession of some psychedelics. Oregon and Colorado have passed legislation that permits the use of some “magic mushrooms” and psychoactive plants under certain circumstances.

As interest in psychedelics has risen, there “has been something of a Cambrian explosion” in meet-ups and conferences on the subject, Balktick said. But many of these groups are geared toward a specific slice of the community, from Black or queer psychedelics fans, to scientists or therapists working in the field.

The Athenaeum was Lakey’s answer to what she saw as a missing piece of the puzzle: a brick-and-mortar home base for anyone interested in mind-altering drugs. It would also be “a bridge to the mainstream” for curious passersby, she said — from United Nations delegates to moms with strollers.

But like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, Lakey took a circuitous path to open a psychedelic community center. It involved a stint in the Amazon rainforest, a pen pal in a maximum security federal prison and an auspicious meeting at a sushi restaurant in New Mexico.

“There were all kinds of different factors that led to the Athenaeum forming,” Lakey said, “but the short answer is magic.”

Raised in Phoenix by artist parents, Lakey first experienced psychedelics in 2007, when she was 17 and took LSD with her older sister. Her mother supervised the trip, providing the girls with art supplies, snacks and a soundtrack of Grateful Dead albums.

In 2014, while living in Berkeley, California, where she had moved with her sister hoping to find like-minded psychedelics fans, Lakey experienced a terrifying paranoid psychotic episode. She briefly checked herself into a psychiatric ward but did not find relief. The experience left her disillusioned with the Western psychiatric model. “Instead of helping people by giving them community and support, we lock people in a room together and medicate them and cut them off,” she said.

A series of chance encounters introduced Lakey to the psychedelic plant ayahuasca. She eventually wound up in the Peruvian Amazon, where she undertook a three-year apprenticeship at Parign Hak, an Indigenous ayahuasca center. Lakey credits her time there with saving her life and restoring her mental health.

She might have stayed in Peru permanently were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit while she was on a remote jungle retreat. When she got back to cell service, she learned that Peru had declared martial law. She left the country on a repatriation flight arranged by the U.S. embassy for stranded Americans.

Back home, she felt disconnected and directionless. Then she received an invitation to an in-person 75th birthday celebration for William Leonard Pickard, a former drug policy analyst with whom Lakey had been exchanging emails since 2017, when he was in federal prison after being convicted of conspiracy to synthesize LSD. The Drug Enforcement Administration had seized more than 90 pounds of the hallucinogen at a drug lab that Pickard was running.

Pickard had been serving two back-to-back life sentences without the possibility of parole, but in that first pandemic summer, he was unexpectedly released under the First Step Act, which freed elderly, nonviolent federal prisoners at risk of contracting the coronavirus. “It was a miracle,” Pickard said.

For his birthday, Pickard met Lakey and Michael Dupler, a friend from New York City, over sushi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Dupler happened to own a five-story former tenement in midtown, which his grandfather purchased in 1945. Known as the Blue Building, its 6,800-square-foot ground floor had become a favorite hangout for musicians from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, who often come for intimate practice sessions or low-key get-togethers. It goes by the name ClearLight, a reference, Dupler said, to “one of the two major LSD distribution networks in California back in the day.”

A few weeks after the sushi dinner, Dupler gave Lakey a call. “He said, ‘Want to move to New York and work in my weird building?’” Lakey recalled. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Lakey tried her best to adjust to city life. She organized two demonstrations to protest Amazon deforestation, and at ClearLight, she met famous opera singers and artists. But there were “lots of lonely days,” she said. “I was still feeling kind of lost and not sure what to do.”

The answer finally arrived in a conversation with Aaron Paul Orsini, a founder of the Autistic Psychedelic Community. He and Lakey, who is a self-diagnosed autistic, were talking about how difficult it can be for introverted, shy or neurodivergent people to navigate psychedelic conferences and connect with others. As a solution, they decided they would organize their own conference at ClearLight.

Held in September 2022, the Psychedelic Assembly attracted prominent names in the psychedelics community, including Pickard. It was such a success that Lakey decided to keep the momentum going by creating a psychedelic community center. She put together a PowerPoint outlining her vision to house a center at ClearLight and pitched it to Dupler.

“I didn’t think twice about it,” Dupler said.

He cut her a deal on the rent: $5,000 a month with no security deposit. His one condition was that she keep his sprawling collection of “Alice in Wonderland” memorabilia on display, including a framed sheet of LSD blotter paper featuring Alice crawling through the looking glass.

In February 2023, the Athenaeum opened its doors with the launch of the new edition of ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna’s 2012 memoir about his brother, Terence, “Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss.”

“I was just amazed at the way Kat has gathered this energy to herself and attracted a lot of helpers and people who share her enthusiasm,” McKenna said.

The Athenaeum has hosted around 60 events this year, and its collection of books stands at more than 1,500 titles and growing — including rare and obscure texts like “The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy,” a collection of conference proceedings published in 1959, and “The Shulgin Index,” an 811-page reference volume for psychedelic phenethylamines and related compounds that retails online for more than $800 used.

“It’s turning into a showcase for thinkers and doers in the psychedelic space,” said Pickard, who is now a research affiliate in psychedelic law and regulation at Harvard Law School. “Titans of industry, socialites, rappers and cellists — all sorts of fantastic characters come through.”

On a recent Thursday evening, some 50 attendees packed into the living room-like space. Nothing about the crowd stood out in particular — not a single tie-dye shirt was in sight. Rather, the people gathered that evening appeared to be a random assortment of New Yorkers. All had come, though, because of a shared interest in psychedelics.

Speaking that night was Charley Wininger, a psychoanalyst and author of “Listening to Ecstasy,” and his wife, Shelley, a retired critical care nurse. The couple, both in their 70s, were there to discuss annual group gatherings they’ve been organizing for the past 15 years in Prospect Park, at which participants ranging in age from their 20s to 80s take MDMA together.

“For me, personally, MDMA has made getting older a lot easier,” Wininger said. “I have so many friends — people I can trust and depend on in any age group.”

Many attendees took notes as Wininger described harm-reduction strategies, including services that will test drugs for adulterants, and offered tips for those interested in organizing their own group MDMA sessions.

As the talk continued into the night, most attendees probably didn’t notice Lakey — an unobtrusive figure in the back who was tinkering with the screen projections and adjusting the sound system to make sure everyone could follow the conversation.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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