The late ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna was a firm believer in the power of psychedelics to heal humanity’s ills, including problems of drug dependency and addiction. “Only a recovery of the relationship that we evolved with nature through use of psychoactive plants before the fall into history,” he wrote, “can offer us hope of a humane and open-ended future.”
Treatment with psilocybin, an active ingredient found in several genera of mushrooms, has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in patients with cancer.
Indeed, psychoactive substances—also called entheogens—have shown remarkable therapeutic potential. For example, treatment with psilocybin, an active ingredient found in several genera of mushrooms, has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in patients with cancer. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is also being studied for its potential to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, anxiety, and, recently, grief related to COVID-19.
On November 3, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin therapy with the approval of Oregon Measure 109. The state also decriminalized non-commercial possession of controlled substances with Measure 110, which is predicted to reduce convictions in the state for drug possession from 4,057 in 2019 to about 378 annually.
Oregon appears to be embracing the psychedelic renaissance and moving to match some of the most progressive drug policies in the world. These statewide measures are widely regarded as a major victory for the decriminalization movement. But they have not made these drugs available to all who may benefit from them.
Carlos Plazola, the chair of Decriminalize Nature, an activist group that opposed Oregon Measure 109, says it “legaliz[ed] a clinic-based framework, which creates access for people who can afford and who are comfortable with clinic-based access. It didn’t create access for the most marginalized members of society.”
While Decriminalize Nature is not against the medicalization of entheogens, Plazola would like to see entheogens available in clinics, medical facilities, community-based ceremonies, and permitted for growing at home. But because clinical, medical, and pharmaceutical models are embedded into our capitalist society, he noted in an interview, they win out at the ballot box.
“The community-based ceremonies are more difficult to protect because they’re not based on profiteering,” Plazola says. “Individual access [is] difficult to protect, because when you create individual access through decriminalization without limits to how much you can grow, gather, or gift, then you’re creating abundance. And abundance lies counter to the scarcity model which corporations and pharmaceutical companies prefer.”
Under the medical model, psychedelics are often hailed for their medical and therapeutic value without including all drugs in decriminalization efforts. But this doesn’t address the issue of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts communities of color. While Oregon did decriminalize all drugs with Measure 110, this isn’t the case for all of the jurisdictions currently working on decriminalizing psychedelics.
The medical model also lends itself to exploitation by pharmaceutical companies. Psilocybin mushrooms, for example, can be found in nature and grown at home. But the medical model puts these medicines behind a paywall, with artificial limits on supply.
Psilocybin mushrooms, for example, can be found in nature and grown at home. But the medical model puts these medicines behind a paywall, with artificial limits on supply.
“When you create a special class of permits or permit-holders, inevitably they benefit from scarcity of whatever product they’re selling,” Plazola adds.
Journalist Hamilton Morris raises another issue with the medical model. Ketamine, he explains, has been found to be effective in treating depression. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but only by a slim margin, and there are doubts among psychiatrists as to whether or not it’s safe. Even though he thinks that ketamine should be available, he acknowledged that the results of the trials “were not especially impressive.”
“My fear is that something similar might happen with psychedelics, that we’re all so excited that we’re going to just put all of our eggs in the medical basket,” Morris said in 2019. “And then the moment one of these trials fails, then we’ve invested everything in the idea that they’re medicines when maybe that really wasn’t the purpose.”
Psychedelic research burgeoned in the 1940s following Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD. But according to sociologist Michelle Corbin, early studies of psychedelics by American and European scientists began in the 1930s, inspired by psilocybin mushroom use among Indigenous communities in Mexico and South America.
In a 2012 paper, Corbin argues that “psychedelic substances served as a doorway through which spirituality entered the scientific laboratory.” Though perhaps inevitable and even beneficial, Corbin contends that this had the effect of subjugating Indigenous knowledge.
Embedded in the introduction of psychedelics into contemporary society are issues of biopiracy, which occurs when corporations use patents to privatize nature and restrict its use. This doesn’t just pose problems for Indigenous access to entheogenic plants; it is interwoven with policies that threaten their land and cultures.
More recently, scholars Amanda Pratt, Anny Ortiz, and Alberto Vargas presented a paper at a 2020 conference on social justice detailing how the exploitation of the endangered Sonoran Desert Toad, a source of the potent psychedelic compound 5-MeO-DMT, is taking place alongside threats to Indigenous water rights and a mental health crisis in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico.
“Any process of ‘new’ psychedelic knowledge creation should begin by acknowledging and validating the theories of knowledge and existence that Indigenous psychedelic cultures center,” the scholars write. “The Indigenous values of relationality and reciprocity with the Earth are philosophies emergent from psychedelic experiences themselves, and taking them seriously would advance what should be the more basic and important goal of empowerment.”
Clinical psychedelic science and decriminalization initiatives can affect Indigenous people in myriad ways. Sometimes, divisions arise out of scarcity.
For example, the National Council of Native American Churches and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative released a statement in March requesting that peyote be omitted from decriminalization initiatives. A 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act legalized the use of peyote among Native Americans as a religious sacrament. But Indigenous practitioners fear that decriminalization will thwart conservation of the already endangered peyote cacti.
Indigenous access to peyote is already tenuous, but the continued criminalization of any drug runs contrary to decriminalization initiatives’ efforts to end mass incarceration.
It’s a tough line to walk. Indigenous access to peyote is already tenuous, but the continued criminalization of any drug runs contrary to decriminalization initiatives’ efforts to end mass incarceration.
The interests of those fighting the war on drugs, pursuing justice for Indigenous communities, and furthering the psychedelic renaissance aren’t necessarily antithetical to one another.
If anything, their interests are often intertwined, even compatible. But there are good ways and bad ways to decriminalize, and as psychedelics approach another heyday, understanding the roots of the divisions between these movements is key.