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Psychedelics and race

Envision a club-wielding Fred Flintstone tripping out on psychedelic drugs - bizarre, right? But according to archaeologists, that’s exactly what cavemen might have been getting up to. Research undertaken by Dr Elisa Guerra-Doce at the University of Valladolid in Spain drew up a paper on the archaeological evidence that proves stimulants and psychoactive substances have been used by our early predecessors for thousands, if not millions of years... and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that without Netflix and reading material, we can hardly blame them.

 Today, we might be quick to associate psychedelics with 1960s hippies, trippy albums like Chance the Rapper’s 2013 Acid Rap or Brad Pitt’s spaced-out trip on Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Gwyneth Paltrow told the New York Times that psychedelic healing is “the next big thing” in wellness, but these plant medicines have been an essential “thing” for communities of colour for a long time and continue to serve as tools of healing for indigenous people today. Unlike Gwyneth’s Goop staff who can fly off to Jamaica for a whimsical whitewashed psychedelic-healing ceremony, people of colour continue to face stigma for drug use, feel the toll of drug tourism in their areas and some even face incarceration and deportation for possession. As psychedelic-assisted therapy begins to slide its way into the mainstream, people of colour are at risk of being left behind.

As 4600-year-old skeletons would tell you (if they could), drugs are old news. Teeth-stains on human bones from 2600 BC have been attributed to a plant called betel. The leaves of the plant are a stimulant and induce euphoria. Elsewhere, pollen traces of the San Pedro cactus, used today as a hallucinogenic ceremonial drug in the Andes, were found in a cave in Peru's Callejón de Huaylas valley (dating back as far as 8600 BC) and mushroom stones dating from 3000 BC were found in ritual contexts in

Today, we’re much more likely to think of illegal drugs as man-made substances. That’s stuff like LSD, which was made in a lab in 1943 or MDMA (known in pill form as Ecstasy) patented in 1914. But in fact, psychedelics have a rich, cultural history. When I called Bristol-based psychiatrist and author of The Psychedelic Renaissance, Dr. Ben Sessa, I was expecting more of a lesson in science, than one in cultural history. But, he quickly explained that “humanity has always evolved alongside rituals and ceremonies used to alter consciousness.”

For many indigenous people, they’re a respected part of spiritual practice. In Gabon, West Africa, hunters traditionally ingest Ibogaine, a drug made from plant bark. It works as a stimulant and is used as a performance enhancer while hunting. Today, larger doses of the drug have found a new purpose in treating addiction issues. Tourists come from around the world to the African continent to take part in Ibogaine treatments. The results can be extremely positive, but the unregulated nature of treatment centres and the lack of medical expertise on-hand has resulted in hospital admissions and loss of life.

“In cultures that have a shamanic approach, drugs are used as medicines and as sacraments. They’re part of a spiritual experience”, says Dr. Sessa. He added that they “have a strong communal effect when taken in a good setting” and likened the cohesiveness felt by indigenous communities using them to the oneness western drug users may feel at a rave or festival. “They bring people together in a shared experience, which is very powerful.”

The next thing Dr. Sessa revealed, immediately invoked the cynicism of my Catholic school upbringing. From Judaism to Christianity and Buddhism to Hinduism he said it’s “highly likely” that psychedelics were present at the birth of the world’s religions. When he explained how this could work from a biological perspective, it became clearer. “They induce a spontaneous experience of spirituality. It makes much more sense intuitively that early humans sitting around some campfire in a cave didn’t just intellectually come up with God. Most major shifts in consciousness or development of humanity have had some kind of physical or biological catalyst.” Certainly the eye-rolling bible stories of my childhood like the burning bush in the book of Exodus and the many visions of angels (I’m looking at you, Mary) were starting to become a little more understandable. If this is true, it seems ironic that it’s religion that has played one of the biggest roles in psychedelic suppression.

Business owner and activist, Fabiola Santiago, grew up in the United States but was born in Oaxaca, Mexico. Growing up, she had her share of trauma. As a young, undocumented migrant in California, she experienced abuse, fell out of love with the church and felt distanced from her parents both emotionally and physically, as by the time she was in college, her mother had been deported.

The use of psilocybin mushrooms in the pueblos (towns) of her home state is rooted in a deep, indigenous practice. At 33, coming out of a difficult relationship and following the traumatic birth of her first child, she made the decision to journey with her mother to the hometown of famous shaman Maria Sabina. “I found it really hard to feel safe when I was in labour. I felt a lot of anger and resentment towards my former partner… there was a lot of self forgiveness that I wanted to do.” Travelling with her mother to accompany her, Fabiola went to Oaxaca, driving eight hours out into the countryside to reach the pueblo in which she, and her mother, would have their velada (psilocybin mushroom ceremony).

For four days beforehand they had to swear off alcohol, sex, red meat and black beans. On ceremony day, Fabiola and her mother arrived and the velada began at 10pm. Herbal powder was placed on the inside crease of their arms and on their foreheads in the sign of the crucifix. “Before starting the prayer, we ingest the ninos santos [holy children]. They have the cap and the stem and they still have a bit of dirt on them,” she tells me, adding that they’re still humid and taste fresh. “They have little buckets sitting around for when people need to expel anything, some people throw up, some people poop, there’s diarrhea, there’s sweat, and they believe it’s the body getting rid of anything that doesn’t serve us.”

Fabiola was surprised to find that while she was hoping to mend her relationship with her child’s father, she actually came away from the experience having healed her relationship with her mother. It helped the pair to air out feelings of unease that had been lying dormant for many years, “That I’m very grateful for because I feel like catholicism has taught her [Fabiola’s mother] to just internalise and suppress a lot of her feelings.” The experience also drove Fabiola to get more professional help when she got back home, saying “it geared me to be more proactive in therapy.”

While there were advantages, Fabiola found the journey a painful one, because religion was at the heart of the experience. While her mother agreed to participate in the ceremony, she faced some resistance at first. Speaking on the way that religion has found its way into traditional shamanic rites, she says, “the intent to colonize has worked because now there’s a lot of shame and stigma around using what was, and is, our plant medicine.”

If psychedelics did help birth the world’s religions, by the time the conquistadors and their Christian dogma rolled into South and Central America, that role had long been erased. The Spanish invaders imposed Catholicism on the locals and suppressed pagan challenges to their authority, the impact of which is still felt heavily today. Before colonisation, psilocybin mushroom ceremonies were big public affairs and the central figure was akin to Mother Earth. Nowadays, they’re much more private and have a tendency to place God at the centre.

Ancient pagan beliefs are now intermingled with Christianity and create a unique cultural crossover in places like Oaxaca. Some indigenous cultures in Mexico claim that magic mushrooms sprouted up from the ground where Christ’s tears dropped from the cross and the Aztecs named it teonanácatl, meaning ‘God’s meat’. This mixture allowed for the survival of psychedelic rituals, but in many societies, stigma and prohibition runs deep.

If you were a student in the 1950s or 60s, you might know LSD as the latest in cutting-edge, biological psychiatry. By the end of the 1960s, it could land you a prison sentence. “The drug was leaked from a medical context and became a recreational drug, which resulted in it being banned, ending all medical research,” explains Dr. Sessa. By the time it was criminalised, around 1000 research papers had been published and over 40,000 patients had been treated in clinical trials. But the so-called “War on Drugs” was ready to explode, and there was no place for a drug-fuelled counter-culture.

“It was all about putting laws in place to control people. In particular, there was a desire to control a lot of hippies because they were taking these substances and then they didn’t want to go and fight in wars. This was one way to punish them for that. But even worse was the association to people of colour. It was used as an excuse to invade communities of colour, search people and to sentence them to prison,” says Dr. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist, CBT therapist and researcher. She specialises in improving cultural competency and reducing racism and explains that “from the beginning it’s been about incarcerating black and brown people to destroy their communities. It’s never been about the drugs.” From the opium laws targeting Chinese workers in the 19th century, to the imagined associations between black people and cocaine that spurred crackdowns in the 1980s, historians and academics agree that this is sadly true.

Even though people from all racial backgrounds participate in drug use, a recent ACLU report showed that black people in the United States are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, and injustices in drug offence prosecutions have been highlighted in the UK too. There is a huge amount of shame and stigma surrounding drug use and “this is even harder for people of colour who are already being judged just for being black or brown,” explains Dr. Williams. “Stereotypes make it even harder for them to think a little differently about how some of these substances may actually be really useful in treatment and healing and growth.” Ultimately this alienates them from the psychedelic movement and from reaping the potential benefits.

“When people think about the hippies, the stereotypical image is this white teenager with bell-bottom trousers and flowers taking drugs. It seems very harmless and benign and a little bit romanticized... a lot of those hippies are now our professors.” Just flick on your telly to see that this is a long way from portrayals of black or brown drug users.

When she was just four years old, Ifetayo Harvey’s father was sent to prison for cocaine trafficking in South Carolina. He was released when she was 12, but immediately deported to Jamaica and she wouldn’t see him again until many years later. “When you send someone to prison, you’re also sending their family away in a sense too, because you’re separating them,” she tells me. Propelled by her personal experiences, she forged a career for herself in drug policy reform and by the age of 21 had just completed her first internship. A few months later, she was invited to speak at an international conference on behalf of the Drug Policy Alliance. “I was finishing my senior year at Smith - and that’s when I got diagnosed with depression.”

Ifetayo had experienced an ongoing struggle with her mental health since childhood, but the diagnosis hit her hard. As she closed in on the end of her studies, she was finding herself feeling increasingly worse, struggling to complete her university work and unable to find the energy to get involved with extracurricular activities. It was at the work conference she was attending that she first encountered the idea of psychedelics as medicine. “I had heard of psychedelics, my mom experimented back in the 70s and some of my friends in college were playing around with them but it wasn’t ever something I was super drawn to… at the time, I didn’t know much about psychedelics being used in a therapeutic setting.”  When she heard about the promising results that LSD was having for terminally ill patients suffering with end-of-life anxiety, her mind was made up. She was convinced that trying psychedelics would be better than succumbing to the antidepressants prescribed by her university psychiatrist.

My discussions with Dr. Williams and Dr. Sessa informed me that both here in the UK and in North America, we have a testy, if not exploitative, relationship with the pharmacological industry. People suffering with mental health conditions are prescribed treatment plans for daily drugs like SSRI [antidepressants], antipsychotics and stabilisers. Dr. Sessa says, “It’s a big cash cow for the pharmaceutical industry because they can sell lots of products that you have to take every day. With psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy you can have a ten week course of therapy, take a psychedelic maybe once, twice or three times in that time and you’re better and you can come off all of your maintenance medications.”

After years of prohibition, psychedelics are starting to see a resurgence in popularity. And while in most places they are not legal, Dr. Sessa explains they are effective, safe drugs that have helped his patients overcome chronic mental illnesses. They’ve also been touted as a more humane method of treatment. When speaking with Dr. Williams I found out that many therapists avoid exposure-therapy for PTSD. It involves a person recounting their trauma in as much detail as they remember, over and over again until it’s no longer harmful.

“It’s a long and painful process… and it can even be vicariously traumatizing for the therapist.” In contrast, she adds that with MDMA therapy, “the brain is really healing itself and often that level of excruciating and painful detail around the trauma is not necessary for the person to get new insights or new perspectives on what’s happening to them.”

Armed with the science, Ifetayo returned home from the conference. She got hold of psilocybin mushrooms and with a sober friend on hand for assistance, headed out into the woods. After about twenty minutes of walking through the trees, the effects started kicking in, beginning with visual hallucinations; “the plants are breathing, everything is glistening, I see the pond water sparkling.” In total, the trip lasted almost seven hours but the impact it had on her health lasted much longer. “I felt amazing for the first time in a long while. I felt alive and it reminded me of how much beauty and life I'm surrounded by in the world.”

Without the experience, Ifetayo is convinced she would have fallen deeper into her depression. She even credits graduating on time to the healing experience she had with mushrooms. “It was mostly about feeling joy and happiness in a way that I just haven’t - it also allowed me to release some emotions that I was holding on to.” Subsequently, Ifetayo co-founded the People of Color Psychedelic Collective.

People around the world are looking to seek out experiences like Ifetayo’s and not all of them are able to access psychedelics at home. For this reason, the drug tourism industry has been growing exponentially over the past few decades. But as Fabiola explains, “It leaves those of us who have always been connected with these ways of living, with no option but to commodify it.” In places like Oaxaca this has resulted in overharvesting - meaning fewer mushrooms, and rocketing prices for locals.

She argues that in many ways, this is a cultural theft that is continued through western appropriation of indigenous medicines. “There’s a new wave of colonialism where they’ve extracted the little bit of plant medicine and ancestral ways we have left and are bringing it into a lab without acknowledging its roots and without bringing the people that have been safeguarding this way of living, and without bringing the ancestral knowledge into these conversations.”

The biggest issue? Communities of colour have been largely left behind. Dr. Williams explains, “research subjects for psychedelic studies are overwhelmingly white and it’s a big problem.” When I asked about the researchers conducting the trials, she told me “They’re almost all white men and it’s kind of like the old boys club. If you look back at the whole psychedelic movement in the west this has been the pattern from the beginning. Contributions of women and people of colour have been systematically erased.”

But, including these groups both as researchers and subjects is essential. Not only so we can widen the scope of research, but we can also prevent further harm. In Dr. Williams’ practice, patients have come to her as a result of traumatic experiences that they’ve had with white therapists who haven’t addressed their racial biases. “You don’t want your racism leaking out all over the place while someone is in a compromised state. It’s bad enough when that happens in therapy when people aren’t on a substance but to have that happen when they’re vulnerable is even worse because they can’t get up and leave the session.”

Unsurprisingly, painful situations like this are likely to deter people of colour from becoming involved in the drug trials at all. ”If your experiences with medical professionals have been mostly negative and some really bad, the last thing you’re going to want to do is go to a professional and take a substance that will make you vulnerable so that they can supposedly help you with your trauma.” This mistrust could go some way to explain why research trials so far have had mainly white test subjects. Dr. Sessa agreed that the lack of diversity is a real problem in the psychedelic space and added that when it comes to including people of colour within trials, “we would most likely positively discriminate in order to increase diversity if we could. But we have to recruit whoever signs up.” He does say that it’s important for the psychedelic community to look more closely at why this is and take steps to address the problem.From anxiety, to trauma, depression, grief, PTSD and alcoholism, studies so far yield promising results for how psychedelics can be used to improve our methods of healing mental health. “All the results of all the psychedelic drug therapy research, whether it’s MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, ketamine, all of them have been staggeringly good… they’ve also all been staggeringly safe. There have been no adverse events, no deaths or serious harms to any patients in any psychedelic research studies over the last 20 years. It’s a very bold statement but it's absolutely true,” explains Dr. Sessa.

However, as the field progresses, it’s paramount that the psychedelic movement strives for inclusivity - particularly as people of colour might be able to uniquely benefit from psychedelics as a tool of healing for race-based trauma. Dr. Williams is in the process of publishing a paper on this topic. She also argues that psychedelic therapy could be used by white people and others to unpack their own internalised racism. By making the movement more inclusive, we could also help lift the stigma still present in indigenous communities that have shunned their own traditional methods of healing.

In order to allow those communities to reconnect with their medicines, Dr. Sessa says “let’s have centres for shamanic and psychedelic use in the west and then people wouldn’t need to go to Peru or Mexico and use medicines in those cultures.” Both Dr. Sessa and Dr. Williams argue that the best step toward diversity is taking a community approach with future research. That means having more researchers working on the community-level, informing local people of the work they are undertaking, building trust and including them in the process.

If you’re considering psychedelic assisted therapy, Dr. Williams says “It works best when done with a therapist or facilitator who understands the medicines, who knows how to guide the person safely through their experience where possible… it’s better to have an experienced person with you who can help you make the most of that experience and the imagery and the things that come up.”

Psychedelic-assisted therapy should not be confused with the use of psychedelics for entertainment. LSD’s creator, Dr. Hoffman, expressed concern about the insouciant use of LSD as a party drug, determining that it should be treated with the respect indigneous communities bestow on their plant medicines.

That said, according to psychiatrists, drug-policy advocates and a number of indigenous peoples, these drugs may have the power to help us set rewind on the worsening state of worldwide mental health - when used properly, in an appropriate setting. There is much to learn from indigenous communities and their use of psychedelics. But what is clear, is that in order to achieve the best impact and to include everyone in future progress, communities of colour and indigenous people are a crucial part of the conversation.


Parisa Hashempour is a historian, writer and Brexit escapee (currently hiding out in the Netherlands). You'll catch her writing on the topics of gender, culture, race, health and digital culture. Follow her on Twitter at @helloitsparisa.