Three researchers discuss the possibilities and problems arising as psychedelic plant medicines, held sacred by many Indigenous communities, move into the global mental health and tourism industries.
from SAPIENS, May 17, 2023
by Keridwen Cornelius
Artwork in Mexico likely depicts María Sabina, a Mazatec shaman who preserved traditional knowledge of psilocybin mushrooms for healing.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
MANY COUNTRIES AROUND the world are in the midst of a psychedelic revival, and it’s changing as fast as a time-lapse video of mushrooms sporing.
For millennia, Indigenous peoples have been the caretakers and knowledge keepers of psychedelic plant medicines. These communities tend to see such plants and fungi as sacred family members who are central to their spirituality. Now, thanks to their potential mental health benefits, these perspective-altering substances are taking over clinical trials, retreat centers, news headlines—and Netflix.
Though most psychedelics remain illegal almost everywhere, places such as Oregon, Colorado, and Australia are decriminalizing or legalizing certain psychedelics in facilitated settings. But as these substances rapidly enter the mainstream in cultures that do not have a long-standing tradition of psychedelic use, numerous experts warn that the hype is outpacing safety concerns. And many worry that psychedelic research and commercialization are repeating patterns of colonialism and exclusionism.
Take psilocybin mushrooms. Numerous scientific studies have shown that psilocybin in combination with psychotherapy is a powerful treatment for depression, addictions, and existential distress in terminally ill patients.
Yet a key reason researchers and patients outside of Indigenous communities can access psilocybin therapy is because Mazatec people in Mexico developed medicinal and sacramental uses of this mushroom. They then shared their knowledge with a U.S. writer who betrayed their trust in 1957. As a result, Mazatec cultural and religious practices were devastated by the monetization of “magic” mushrooms.
Meanwhile, fascination with the traditional Amazonian drink ayahuasca is peaking around the world, in part because of its potential to enhance well-being and alleviate PTSD. But ayahuasca tourism is disrupting ancient knowledge systems among some communities in the Amazon. (at left: Ayahuasca is often made by pounding the Banisteriopsis caapi, or yagé, vine and combining it with the Psychotria viridis, or chacruna, shrub.)
These controversies were discussed at Breaking Convention: Worlds Collide, a psychedelics conference in London. SAPIENS editor Keridwen Cornelius interviewed three speakers: psychologist David Luke, anthropology and clinical trial methodology researcher Tehseen Noorani, and anthropologist Gabriel Amezcua. They spoke about their hopes and concerns for the psychedelic revival.
The interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
In 2022, the Wixárika Caravan for Dignity and Conscience marched to demand the return of their land from businesspeople and cattle ranchers.
Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing/Getty Images
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LUKE
David Luke, a co-founder of Breaking Convention, is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Greenwich who has conducted fieldwork with Indigenous communities in Mexico and South America.
KC: Can you talk about how psychedelics could potentially change the ways individuals relate to one another and to nature?
DL: The research tends to show that as people take psychedelics, there’s a shift toward more nature relatedness. People feel more connected with nature. They feel more concerned about nature. That extends into changes in behavior—people engaging in more ecologically oriented activities.
KC: What are the potential benefits of psychedelics opening opportunities for engagement between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples?
DL: There’s a lot “Western” people can potentially gain here, not just from the use of psychoactive substances, but through what we can learn from the practices and beliefs of Indigenous people who make use of psychoactive plants and fungi.
When you have psychedelic experiences in nature with Indigenous people, there is a connection immediately to the environment in the context of their cosmology, which has a relationship of reciprocity with nature embedded within it.
I think if we can develop those relationships, that can be beneficial because we’re so atomized in the “West.” Urbanization, alienation, disconnection, and loneliness are problems. Once we realize we are a part of nature, not apart from nature, that is going to be better for the human species and the environment.
KC: Indigenous communities who use psychedelic plants are facing threats to their land and culture. What tensions are developing in the communities you work with, such as the Wixárika in Mexico?
DL: The Wixárika have been in an ongoing battle with the Mexican government, which wanted to hand over desert to mining corporations. That would destroy one of the most unique and abundant cactus habitats in the world, where the Wixárika [and their ancestors] have been using peyote for probably thousands of years, based on archaeological evidence.
They go on a pilgrimage every year to find peyote, and their use of peyote is the epicenter of their cosmology and culture. They managed to get a high court injunction to keep mining at bay, but it’s still under threat. And now increasingly huge swaths of that cactus biome are being gobbled up by farms and plantations.
KC: What role is global demand for psychedelics playing in this?
DL: The threats of mining are coupled with peyote tourism—people going out daily from the local towns and harvesting peyote in an unsustainable way. When the Wixárika harvest peyote, they do it in a sustainable way. They do it with reverence and offerings and rituals. So they maintain this agreement of reciprocity with nature.
Fundamentally, the problem is a clash of worldviews. Be it the mining, the plantations, or urban psychedelic tourists, it’s that Western perspective of seeing everything as a resource to be consumed rather than a relationship that has to be maintained.
KC: What would Wixárika people like to see happen with tourism and peyote?
DL: Their perspective is that they’ve communicated with their spirits, and it’s time to try to wake up Westerners to a different relationship with the environment and with other people. They believe if they can make Westerners see their way of life and how they are in relationship with the environment, they’ll maybe stop trying to mine their sacred lands and destroy the environment and their culture.
They don’t want to travel to Europe or the States—or wherever—and educate people. They also don’t want people to come to Mexico to be educated.
They want people from those countries to do the work themselves, to work with their own indigenous psychoactive flora, fauna, and fungi—and to remember our ways of being in right relationship with nature and one another.
INTERVIEW WITH TEHSEEN NOORANI
Tehseen Noorani is a senior lecturer in clinical and community psychology at the University of East London and an honorary fellow in the department of anthropology at Durham University. He researches clinical trial methodology and ways of making sense of altered states of consciousness. Noorani also co-founded the Psychedelics, Madness, & Awakening Conference.
KC: What are your concerns about psychedelics research?
TN: A lot of studies are riddled with issues, like small sample sizes and the narrow demographics of the people being studied, whether in terms of race/ethnicity, class, or health status, and lack of co-morbid health conditions.
So, I start by being quite tentative in evaluating and moving forward with the kinds of claims that are coming out of psychedelics research. The way people say psychedelics cure PTSD or depression and therefore need to be urgently approved and deployed globally, I find really problematic. It’s hubristic, profiteering, and colonial.
KC: In what ways is it colonial?
TN: It uses a reductionist lens to focus on an individual compound—such as psilocybin—and frame it as the key to curing a problem we hold within us. Then it seeks to own, scale, and export ways of administering these compounds, including administering them to the people from whom the original knowledge and plant medicines were taken.
Some people frame psychedelics as offering the potential to break the colonial knowledge system. But the emerging psychedelics industry is falling prey to the seductions of colonialist practices.
KC: Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people advocate bringing Indigenous knowledge systems into psychedelic clinical trials and mental health clinics. What are your thoughts about how this could happen in the future?
TN: For me, the more exciting conversations are about the potential of reciprocity and decolonizing, rather than improving therapeutic methods. If you were to bring Indigenous consultants to a clinical trial, you could be doing a lot more than simply applying their knowledge to improve the protocols.
KC: How exactly?
TN: There’s all this potential to build a substantial collaborative engagement. But that’s really hard to do because it requires time and the building of trust. Ultimately, it’s about forging new communities by identifying what individual and collective problems everyone brings to the table and working with these problems in all their specificity.
KC: How do you think the psychedelics space can move toward a goal of inclusivity?
TN: I’ve been mostly interested in how the rise of interest in psychedelics in the West could enable new bridges with groups that have been historically pathologized for their non-normative states of consciousness, such as neurodiverse people and the Mad Pride movement. And how interest in psychedelics could challenge the denigration of states of consciousness that Western psychiatry is ironically increasingly seeking to induce through psychedelics.
But I’m not so comfortable with thinking of the goal as inclusivity.
TN: Inclusivity can simply equal market expansion. It’s easy to get traction on a goal like making psychedelics accessible to everyone. It’s straightforward and reinforces the idea that psychedelics are a much-needed magic bullet. But I think there’s loads of ways in which that could be really problematic.
If there’s a sudden explosion of access to psychedelics coming at the same time we have this excessive hype over how they will cure us of everything under the sun, I think we might see a lot of adverse experiences and distress, particularly for folks who don’t have access to ongoing forms of therapeutic or social support.
KC: What might be done to help prevent that?
TN: Dominant ways of living in the U.S.—or the U.K., where I am based—are so atomized and disembodied that we need to build collective harm-reduction structures for the mass integration of non-ordinary states of consciousness. For example, I’m an ambassador to The Fireside Project, a free support line that offers emotional assistance to people during or after psychedelic experiences. I think we need to build a lot more of this kind of support.
KC: How can the conversation shift away from problematic views of inclusion?
TN: There are also injustices around the idea of inclusion being a way of claiming that “we” do something the right way, and “they” need to be brought into our way of doing things.
What about making the goal collective liberation instead? Where the point of normalizing psychedelic experiences is not for everyone to have them but to build new alliances across marginalized communities?
That might include people already using psychedelics, or those finding non-ordinary states of consciousness in other ways, or individuals involuntarily experiencing such states of consciousness.
INTERVIEW WITH GABRIEL AMEZCUA
Gabriel Amezcua is a Berlin-based Mexican anthropologist specializing in mental health, psychedelics, and harm reduction.
KC: What are you hearing from Indigenous peoples about their hopes and concerns for the psychedelics revival?
GA: What I’ve realized as an anthropologist is there is no singular “Indigenous peoples.” Each Native Nation thinks in a very different way. For example, I’ve done work with some Native American peoples who use peyote as a sacred medicine. Their focus is on preserving their traditions and letting them grow again.
Right now, under U.S. federal law only members of the Native American Church are allowed to take peyote. So, when there was a movement in the U.S. to legalize or decriminalize psychedelics, the Native American Church said, “No.” They are scared that if you make peyote legal to everyone in a country where most people have a very merchandising way of thinking, people will probably go to the desert to take peyote from Native cultures.
KC: How about the communities you work with in South America?
GA: In the Amazon, you find a completely different panorama. Each tribe has very different ways of thinking and very different needs. Some have been attacked by paramilitary forces and other groups that want to exploit their ancestral lands.
Their focus as ayahuasca healers is on reconstructing their traditions and healing their communities, and they don’t deal a lot with the commercialization of ayahuasca. Some want to become friends of the West and travel with their knowledge of ayahuasca, so they care more about reciprocity. Some are very secluded people who follow traditions of shamanism that go back centuries, and they usually want to be left alone.
So, I believe one of the most important things we should do is differentiate each community and try to understand their needs.
KC: To what extent do you think Indigenous peoples and perspectives should be involved in developing psychedelic-assisted therapies?
GA: A lot. This is not about if; it is about how. I think [Western] clinicians need to go to Indigenous communities. Then they will understand that the shaman’s method of healing is completely different from what [Western practitioners] understand about medicine and disease.
In the Indigenous perspectives I’ve encountered, there is no such concept as a mental health disorder. Mostly it’s about disconnection from nature, from the community, and from your body.
KC: What are your biggest concerns about the psychedelic revival?
GA: I think the most dangerous thing is the commodification of psychedelics. Most people say psychedelics create an ego death, but that’s not necessarily true. On the contrary, I see young people building websites to advertise [commodified] psychedelic experiences and calling themselves healers and teachers. So, what I am really scared of is a society that uses psychedelics as a delusional tool that actually enhances individualism and makes us believe we’re getting better without doing the work.
KC: Still, you have hopes for the psychedelics revival sparking cultural shifts. How do you envision that could happen?
GA: As an anthropologist, I’m educated about the nuances of cultural change. So, I am very aware that psychedelics won’t change the world in this generation. But I do believe psychedelics have the potential to change how we understand mental health, because of the possibility to rewire our brain and revisit traumatic experiences and navigate them safely.
I also believe we need to start talking about psychedelics as a preventive medicine. People could take substances and go through social rituals with trained shamans or facilitators that help enhance our lives. This could catalyze a new culture in which we become more aware of the necessities of other living beings and have an appreciation for life, death, and the experience of the present.
Isidro Lucitante, a Cofán healer, conducts an
ayahuasca ceremony in Ecuador’s Amazon region.
Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images
Keridwen Cornelius is a freelance journalist and editor based in Berlin. Her writing has appeared in Scientific American, Science, Outside, The New York Times, Medscape, The Atlantic, BBC Travel, and National Geographic Adventure, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @keridwen77.