Psychedelics are back in vogue. But this time around, it’s different. Gone is the controversial, transgressive, counterculture spin that psychedelics carried in the rebel 1960’s. The current psychedelic revival is pragmatic, goal-oriented, and in many ways quintessentially mainstream.
Whether it’s ballot measures legalizing magic mushrooms, or Silicon Valley tech bros microdosing LSD to boost their work performance, or LA soccer moms embarking on trendy ayahuasca retreats, the signs of a psychedelic renaissance in the United States are hard to miss.
Psychedelic start-ups are the latest venture capital craze, and new research centers at prestigious academic institutions such as Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, Mt. Sinai, and Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital are studying the effects of psychedelics on anxiety, addiction, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life transition, and much more. The FDA has even fast-tracked psilocybin, the psychedelic mushroom extract, for approval as a treatment for refractory depression.
Do a Google search of “magic mushrooms” and you’ll find a vast marketplace with texts on how to grow your own phantastic fungi, T-shirts and pajamas embellished with cheerful red-and-white images of amanita muscaria, and online shops offering hallucinogenic mushroom spores, stealthily payable by Bitcoin – while best-selling books like A Really Good Day by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (now a Netflix documentary series) depict psychedelics as eminently useful for self-exploration, spiritual refreshment, and breaking bad habits.
While it may seem like the recent cultural swerve to normalize psychedelics is long overdue good news, there’s also a disturbing side to all this. For a reality check, we turn to Psychedelic Justice: Toward a Diverse and Equitable Psychedelic Culture, an under-the-radar anthology edited by Beatriz Labate and Clancy Cavnar. Published in 2021 by Synergetic Press in collaboration with the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicine, this book merits serious attention.
Psychedelic Justice kicks up the kind of dust you won’t find in mainstream media. It grapples with difficult questions about discrimination, sexual abuse, and the legacy of colonialism, while advocating for an inclusive, social justice-focused psychedelic ethos.
While all the contributors to this collection deeply respect the transformative power of psychedelics as healing agents, they implore us to think of these substances as far more than catalysts for changing the individual mind. Nor should they be seen as a magical panacea for the ills of the modern world. Psychedelics are really more like mirrors, revealing not only who we are as individuals, but who we could be as a healthy, equitable society.
“Let’s not underestimate what we can achieve with these plant teachers as our accomplices,” Charlotte Walsh writes in the essay, “Beyond the Prohibition of Plant Medicines.” They can help us “to recognize the illusion of separation from others, to connect with nature, with the sacred, with love, and in doing so, they teach us to find succor from within, rather than endlessly trying to fill that gaping hole…”
Diversity in the Psychedelic Space
While several universities and start-ups are conducting studies on treating trauma with psychedelics, Black people with PTSD and other mental struggles are leery of giving it a try, according to writer Monnica Williams. In her essay, “Why Black People Should Embrace Psychedelic Healing,” Williams explains that reluctance among African Americans to join the psychedelic renaissance is partly due to the stigma attached to illicit substances and the long history of drug-related oppression of Black people.
From barbaric LSD experiments conducted on Black prison inmates in the 1950s (see Acid Dreams by Lee and Shlain) to the biased criminal justice system that used the Reagan-era “War on Drugs” as a pretext for the mass incarceration of Black people, African Americans are understandably wary of psychedelics “and the vulnerability that comes with being in an altered state,” says Williams. Despite these barriers, she maintains that Blacks could profoundly benefit from these substances, especially for addressing “racial trauma” and the wounds suffered by “large and small blows from discrimination accumulated over a lifetime.”
In “Hate and Social Media in Psychedelic Spaces,” Beatriz Labate and Nicole Buchanan push back on popular assumptions that the psychedelic community is “welcoming, inclusive and devoid of racism” and that psychedelics are “apolitical, even elevated above politics.” After a backlash against anti-racist social media postings within the psychedelic internet sphere, the authors compiled a list of “Eight Myths the Psychedelic Community Tells Itself” – including the myth that psychedelics will “fix society and bring us enlightenment” as long as we “come together and let them do their magic.” If it were really that simple, who wouldn’t be in favor of spiking the municipal water supply with Lucy or Molly?
“I Am Not a Scientist, I’m an Indian.”
In “My Degree is From the Forest,” Amazonian curandero Leopardo Yawa Bane describes being one of the few Indigenous speakers out of sixty people who were invited to talk at the Psychedelic Science Conference held in Oakland, California in 2017, and how the “doctors, neuroscientists, chemists, and academics had apparently figured it all out and moved on without us.”
Ayahuasca, says Bane, “is not meant to be yet another medicine that gets plucked from the forest to enrich pharmaceutical companies and leave Indians, the true guardians of this sacred medicine, behind.” While traditional Indigenous shamans may not hold PhDs, he says, “the forest is our university.”
In her essay “Colonial Shadows in the Psychedelic Renaissance,” Diana Negrín calls for “defending the lands that sacred medicines are part of while respecting the knowledge of Indigenous peoples who offer generations of investment in understanding these medicines.” She critiques the current commodification of sacred plant medicines and the vast marketplace of retreats, where “the women are sexy, there are sweat lodges and tipis, chanting, eco-villages, yoga, massage, and vegan food, [and] you can rotate ayahuasca, San Pedro, peyote, kambô, and rapé.”
A group of writers associated with the Union of Indigenous Yagé Doctors of the Columbian Amazon (UMIYAC) cut to the chase in “Cultural Appropriation & Misuse of Ancestral Yagé Medicine.” UMIYAC states: “The name of this plague scourging our territories is ‘extractive economy’. This social relationship has historically linked our cultures with the ‘outside world.’ It is the pillaging of resources, fauna, flora, minerals, hydrocarbons, people, and knowledge.”
Queers, Shamans & Sexual Abuse
Other essays in Psychedelic Justice confront the exploitation, marginalization, and abuse that women and LGBTQ individuals experience within the community. In “Psychedelics are Queer, Just Saying,” Bett Williams suggests that “queerness exists in a realm larger than identity politics… a realm of being that is personal, political, spiritual even, and like psychedelics, the form it takes is dependent on cultural context.” Queers used to be illegal, just like psychedelics, and queers know how to make community in times of crisis, says Williams. She maintains that the most effective methods for integrating queers and other marginalized groups into the psychedelic space are the tangible ones: include their values, publish their views, give them jobs and funding.
A number of writers in this anthology chronicle the truly harrowing physical and emotional abuse of women perpetrated by male shamans, facilitators, and researchers who wield power within the psychedelic community. In “Dating My Ayahuasca Shaman: Sex, Power, and Consent,” a writer who calls herself “Mary” describes an ayahuasca retreat where the “shaman,” after gaining her trust as a guide through the intense ayahuasca experience, initiated a sexual encounter while she was in a vulnerable state, violating the safekeeping he was charged with and causing considerable confusion and trauma in the weeks and months that followed.
In response to rampant reports of sexual abuse, Chacruna published the “Ayahuasca Community Guide for the Awareness of Sexual Assault.” It details a list of 17 safety precautions for ayahuasca-centered settings, though they could easily apply to any situation where one person “guides” or “facilitates” the psychedelic experience of another. Number four on the list of 17: “It Is Not Necessary for Healers to Touch Intimate Parts of Your Body or Any Area Which You Do Not Consent.”
One would think such obvious ethical boundaries would be a given, especially in government-sponsored trials, but sadly the psychedelic research vector has its share of similar stories. In “Psychedelic Masculinities: Reflections on Power, Violence and Privilege,” Gabriel Amezcua traces the roots of these “toxic masculinities” within psychedelic culture to the unholy trinity of “patriarchy, Western colonialism, and capitalist consumerism, which our society must recognize, limit and ultimately dissolve.”
Mind Expansion Meets Head-Shrinking
In “The Revolution Will Not Be Psychologized: Psychedelics’ Potential for Systemic Change,” Bill Brennan asserts that “much of what comes out of the psychedelic experience is only as impactful as the integration that follows it.”
Clinical protocols geared toward FDA approval are typically administered by psychotherapists who combine psychedelics with Western-style psychotherapy. But, as Brennan explains, the psychotherapeutic slant favors the primacy of the individual over the social arena, thereby promoting “individual-level solutions for many of our systemic problems.”
Brennan argues for “a more expansive model of healing that leaves space for individual experiences to contribute to collective transformation.” For inspiration, he turns to the work of radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who developed a praxis based on “critical consciousness raising,” whereby a patient recognizes and unravels internalized forms of oppression in order to advance sociopolitical change.
Brennan proposes that Freire’s methodology (which was influenced by liberation theologian Ignacio Martin-Baró) could be combined with psychedelic therapy – the desired outcome being that the patient “has not just healed their own trauma but has taken steps to uproot the conditions that set the stage for the traumatic event.”
Tripping for Dollars
In a no-holds-barred essay, “Capitalism on Psychedelics: The Mainstreaming of an Underground,” Erik Davis addresses the schism brewing within the psychedelic community around issues of commodification. He warns that psychedelics are being dragged into “the garish mainstream light” of “capitalism and technology in action,” a toxic amalgam of intellectual property rights, biased corporate-sponsored university trials, professional agencies, the rivalry for status and funds, and a “normalizing discourse that requires the marginalization of earlier and more unruly psychedelic authorities, visions, researchers, and community values.”
Dozens of notables within the psychedelic research community endorsed a “Statement on Open Science and Open Praxis with Psilocybin, MDMA, and Similar Substances” that circulated before a 2018 Chacruna symposium. Davis refers to this statement while illuminating the current tilt towards “for-profit corporate behaviors that have recently been unleashed in the psychedelic space,” which he and others feel don’t jive with the “commitment to scientific integrity, data-sharing, and the spirit of service.”
Consider, for example, the formerly-nonprofit, now-for-profit Compass Pathways, backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, bankroller of far-right racist politicians, immigrant-bashers, anti-abortion absolutists, and anti-science climate-deniers. Compass Pathways’s US Patent # 10,519,175 gives the company ownership of a therapy for treatment-resistant depression using a preparation of crystallized synthetic psilocybin. And the Mercer Family Foundation, a major patron of Donald Trump and Breitbart News, has pitched in a million dollars for MDMA research to treat military veterans with PTSD.
“Today’s dominant culture,” Davis argues, “is not a reality to be accommodated, but an existential threat to be resisted.” The psychedelic community can no longer pretend, he says, “that the process of mainstreaming is a purely positive, hope-for-humanity development that is separate from the larger crises of capitalism, militarism, authoritarianism, and the intensification of control over subjectivity.”
But all is not lost, Davis assures us: “The decentralized web of psilocybin production — so weirdly mirrored in the structure of the mycelium itself — is all the ever-changing tribe of outlaws and freethinkers needs. Magic mushrooms are now in the light, but they will always grow best in the shadows.”
Melinda Misuraca is a Project CBD contributing writer with a past life as an old-school cannabis farmer specializing in CBD-rich cultivars. © Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.
Can scientists convert a super-hallucinogen into a wonder drug?
How one man used psilocybin to treat his anxiety and depression.
Why is psilocybin helpful for treating mood disorders? Is it the drug alone acting on the brain, or is it the subjective experience?