How the Psychedelic Movement Can Support Black Lives Matter
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The principle of oneness is central to the psychedelic ethos. It’s among the criteria that scientists use to qualify the “mystical experience” that may be occasioned by entheogens like psilocybin. This sense of psychedelic unity is said to lay the foundation for a greater connection to the earth, to a higher power, and to other people—but for all this talk about oneness, the psychedelic space has some work to do “concerning racial justice and health equity,” as therapist Sara Reed, director of psychedelic services at Connecticut-based Behavioral Wellness Clinic puts it: “People of color are pushed to the margins in the psychedelic movement.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the police brutality protests around the U.S., and the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s hard not to look more critically at the psychedelic community and ask, What are we actually doing to bring about justice? How can we better serve and empower Black and Brown communities?
“We are going through a collective traumatic experience,” says Reed. “The killings of innocent Black folx have catalyzed conversations in my close circles about other instances of racial trauma we’ve experienced: my family sharing stories of police brutality, workplace discrimination, and the damage that comes from having your stories and experiences be devalued and dismissed.” With civil rights undermined and lives lost, many POC healers and activists have come forward during this time to offer free weekly support. “We need to find a way and time to grieve,” she says. And now, more than ever, is where the promise of psychedelic healing comes in—to serve POC especially.
While psychedelic plants and fungi have been in use among indigenous communities since the beginning of humanity, the image of today’s “psychedelic renaissance” that began in the mid-20th century, has told a different story. “The psychedelic movement has been mostly affluent white people, who have not considered the impact of the War on Drugs on people of color and the inequitable policing system that leaves Black people incarcerated or dead,” says Dr. Monnica Williams—clinical psychologist and a researcher in MAPS’ MDMA for PTSD trials—who’s spoken out about the need to train more therapists of color in order to better address race-based trauma.
To address injustice within the psychedelic space, she recommends amplifying Black voices within the movement, putting more people of color in leadership positions, and holding anti-racism retreats with the “conscious intention of personal growth and insight into how we all participate in a racist system.” But anti-racism as a psychedelic principle and practice goes beyond simply checking off the necessary action items; it requires a paradigm shift to decolonize our minds from systems of oppression (in which we identify with a dominant class—if we’re white or white-passing—or, otherwise, a marginalized class) and to revolutionize the mentality that got us here.
Indeed, psychedelics have the power to motivate activism—that is, if the values they inspire are integrated after the trip and put into practice in daily life. Wheezy Salem, an Egyptian-born programmer, who helped organize a police brutality protest in Oakland last week, credits shrooms, DMT, ayahuasca, and LSD with influencing his activism—having helped him come to a place of “self-liberation and self-healing,” while teaching him to identify outside his own circumstances in order to “stand on the right side of history with people who are discriminated against and have lived different experiences than me.”
It’s that psychedelic-inspired intersectionality that’s so valuable, and crucial to activate the psychedelic movement in historical moments like the one in which we’re living now. At the same time, the conversation around psychedelic therapy, especially for treating PTSD, has inspired us to pay more attention to the pervasiveness of trauma stemming not only from devastating events, but also from intergenerational oppression and identity politics.
Somatic practitioner and artist Camille Barton, director of the Collective Liberation Project, recounts an episode from the 2002 British TV documentary Century of the Self, in which filmmaker Adam Curtis captures footage of an argument between the folks at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and the Black Panthers. You just need to liberate your mind, the white folks told the Black folks, to which they responded, You’re coming from a place of privilege, you’re not wanting to see the privilege and benefits you have under this current system.
Unfortunately, elements of this outdated conversation have crept into the mainstream of today. “Black people are continuing to try to vocalize the experiences we’re having, the daily injustices taking place, and the psychedelic movement at large is doing a lot of spiritual bypassing, suggesting we’re all one and that talking about these differences is the problem—rather than focusing on issues of systemic violence and injustice,” says Barton. “We need you to acknowledge it so we can systematically dismantle it. It won’t go away by love and light, or ingesting entheogens.”
To work toward dismantling oppression within the psychedelic space, at least, Barton has a few suggestions. For starters, that means recognizing the impact of colonization and the War on Drugs. “When colonization happened, indigenous communities were removed from the traditional uses of plant medicine and were no longer allowed to enjoy rituals or practice spirituality,” they say. This laid the foundation for further drug prohibition, from marijuana—used to incriminate Mexican immigrants and Black jazz musicians—to opium, which was associated with Chinese immigrants. “I don’t think we can accurately and holistically talk about the psychedelic renaissance and leave out the War on Drugs, without understanding the way drug prohibition has been weaponized as a tool of social and racial control,” they say.
The residual effects of colonialism play out even in the healthcare system. African American and indigenous communities experience disproportionate rates of trauma, and meanwhile often receive inadequate healthcare. For instance, in the U.S., Black people are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. “Black bodies ending up in hospitals are not receiving the same treatment,” says Barton. “They’re not being seen as human enough to receive dignity of care in those moments.”
The disparity in healthcare quality plays out in psychedelic medicine, too. “Do our practitioners have an awareness of racial trauma, let alone how to treat it? Do we consider the medicine being accessible to diverse communities, or understanding the barriers they might have due to the War on Drugs or colonial wounds or experimentation on Black and Brown bodies?” they ask. “Not a lot of research has been given to understanding how to serve all people, as much as this movement is supposedly about connecting to oneness.”
To help alleviate the inequities and microaggressions that Black people are subject to in the medical system, Barton suggests that health clinics cultivate more POC talent, create programs to train or mentor physicians in cultural competence, offer a sliding scale or free treatment for individuals coming from communities targeted by the Drug War, and amplify the voices of folks who are doing work on racial trauma and embodiment to make sure their teachings are being developed and woven into future work, psychedelic or otherwise.
Moreover, they add, psychedelic harm reduction materials should better accommodate the needs of POC, many of whom have very different experiences with law enforcement than some of the white people putting out these materials. “I don’t know if I have come across harm reduction materials that are applicable to the working class, young, Black queer person, who maybe doesn’t have a house where they feel safe and comfortable taking psychedelics or time off work to create integration containers,” Barton says. “It’s not safe for everyone to hang out on the street because they may be harassed by police.”
For white folks who want to use psychedelics as a tool for social change, then the intention going into the experience, the container for the experience, itself, and the planned integration afterward are all critical. On a somatic level, Barton points out, white people can ask themselves, for instance, what or who their triggers are, and then take active steps toward unlearning those triggers. “Psychedelic and plant medicines won’t do anything for you if you already come to the table believing you’re not part of the problem,” they say.
A lot of the healing, however, also comes down to empathy: breaking down the ego, recognizing another person’s experience, and connecting to it with a point of action, such as what Wheezy Salem has done with his own psychedelic experiences and activism.
“There’s a lot to grieve and I don’t know if people fully understand the heaviness that many Black people are feeling right now,” says Barton. “It’s not just a random person who died, who happened to be Black. For many of us, it is a sibling, or relative who experienced police brutality or received improper care. It feels very personal. It feels like a trauma pressure cooker for many African heritage folks right now."
As much as we’re in a “psychedelic renaissance,” we’re also in what psychedelic advocate Kufikiri Imara prefers to call an “entheogenic emergence” because what’s emerging, he says, are opportunities where work still needs to be done, which can reflect the spirit of these medicines put into action. The same ills of society at large permeate the psychedelic community, he says.
From protesting in the streets to gathering petitions to getting involved in urban agriculture, members of the psychedelic space can take action outside the ordinary scope of what might be expected: “Coming from the psychedelic community, we think our help is through psychedelics,” he says, but there’s an opportunity for outward messaging, to build relationships with the greater community—similar to what Colin Kaepernick did in the sports sector. “Whatever action I do, or wherever I lend myself,” says Imara, “I do so for the progress and benefit of the broadest impact possible.”
Building relationships outside the expected framework of the psychedelic space is a process and an opportunity to use psychedelic values as a jumping off point to advance equity and justice in other facets of society: That, in and of itself, may be the lesson of psychedelic intersectionality.