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  • Writer's pictureAlaina M. Jaster

The Psychedelic Renaissance: What is Going On? Part 2

A recent article titled The Psychedelic Evangelist from the NY Times dropped a few months ago, which inadvertently reignited a fire within me. This article, among many other recent thoughts, inspired me to write up my second installment of “The Psychedelic Renaissance: What is Going On?”


If you missed the NY Times piece I’m referring to, it largely discusses the potential issues surrounding increased emphasis on religion, spirituality and mystical experiences within the studies done at Johns Hopkins University. It points out the set and setting of these offices and clinical trial sites, noting that they contain some interesting components. For example:


“...the laboratory looked like a living room, with a couch, a selection of spiritual and art books and a shelf holding a Buddha statue.”

“...delivered the psilocybin pill or a placebo to participants in a chalice-shaped incense burner from Mexico…”

These unique artifacts and some anecdotes from others, have brought criticism to these trials suggesting that there is a hyper-religious influence in these trials that is causing bias within the mystical experience results. While these issues can be discussed at length, I think one thing remains clear: more transparency about the ongoing studies is necessary. If someone wants to study religion/spirituality/mystical experiences there is no issue with doing that using set and setting, but don’t claim your study is investigating a different primary endpoint or outcome.


The Psychedelic Renaissance

This movement of psychedelics being called The Psychedelic Renaissance is quite on the nose if you think about it. Renaissance comes from the French word meaning rebirth, and this period in history was a period of cultural change, more specifically the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. What is interesting about the original renaissance is that it focused largely on humanism, with one of the core characteristics being the increased use of observational learning, reasoning and empirical evidence. Further, one of the purposes of humanism was to create a universal man – aka the renaissance man – whose combined intellectual and physical excellence would make them the most prototypic human being. 


So fast forward to now to The Psychedelic Renaissance where it seems the humanitarian reasoning and concept of rebirth is alive and well (and maybe some of the hyper fixation of ancient Greece and Rome), we are now moving into dangerous territory where the new renaissance man is someone who is spiritually enlightened by psychedelic-assisted therapy. Where if you kill off your ego, you will have this perfect storm of intellect and emotional excellence to get you through the rest of your life. Some believe this will be attained in part through action involving the inner healing intelligence, where “surrendering” to the inner healer is the therapeutic aspect. This concept has yet to be empirically tested or evidenced, but yet many in the psychedelic field subscribe to this type of thinking. Can the inner healer be tested in western medical models? Is this concept hyper-spiritual or religious, and if so, should it be allowed in a clinical trial?


Instead of The Psychedelic Renaissance, I find it better to call it The Second Wave of Psychedelic Research. And unfortunately, not dissimilar to other second wave movements like second wave feminism, this psychedelic wave has been largely led by white folks in high places with enchanting personalities, a thick rolodex, and lined pockets. And while maybe they had good intentions from the beginning, wanting to understand these powerful mind-altering drugs and support a rebirth, this shifted to the healing of the masses rhetoric, and now we see large focuses on being one-stop shop curatives, ways to improve energy and performance, and optimizing your mind to better serve capitalism. The problem? All of this ongoing research is aimed at one thing: fix the individual. This individualistic mindset of western medicine that the problem is within a single individual, takes away from the overall needs of the collective. 


If psychedelic research is only focusing on the question of the individual and only allowing these well-off white men to define specific medical paradigms, then how are we as a field supposed to move forward in understanding things outside of that medical framework? The deeper I get into the field, the more I realize psychedelics don’t fit here exclusively.


I want to highlight that empirical evidence is important (hello, I have a PhD), but how can we utilize a system that wasn’t made to measure these profound experiences - or lack thereof in some cases. Can’t there be a way for spiritual and medical inquiry within the psychedelics field? Why are we so focused on favoring one over the other? This system is clearly not working for this second wave. We cannot function within a broken system and psychedelics are not proving to fix this broken system. This is obvious from the NYT article. 


What else is obvious? That there is a blatant lack of involvement of Indigenous experts in the mainstream psychedelic field. Who is being consulted when these studies are being designed? Who is having discussions about how to measure the hard-to-measure like spiritual outcomes associated with psychedelics? Who is working towards the healing of the individual or and who is working towards the healing of the collective? 


Ceremonial Hijacking 

All of this conversation around the NYT piece has led me back to something I talked about in Part 1 of this thought-piece, ceremonial hijacking. This refers to the co-opting of indigenous knowledge, ceremony, and tradition for personal or professional gain that does not have any benefit or collaboration with the groups from which these traditions are derived. Basically, cultural appropriation in psychedelic research which is not new.


The reason I came back to this concept is because let's face it…psychedelics have been westernized. Within this second wave, as I mentioned above, these western medical models tend to ignore things that cannot be empirically quantified including profound mystical or spiritual experiences. What is quite interesting to me is that medicalization/westernization is such a large critique of the psychedelic field overall, but when Hopkins attempts to preserve some sort of tradition and ceremony within their studies, they are hounded for being too spiritual. So what is the middle ground, if any? Or is there a different underlying issue in this new age psychedelic spiritualism?


I think something stinks. One commenter of the NYT article put it, “This article smacks very hard of epistemological imperialism.” 

While everyone is busy arguing over the internal drama of Hopkins and what is the correct way to study psychedelics, I’m left wondering: where is the critique of how some of these attempts to “preserve the ceremonial ritual” are really just appropriating specific pieces from Indigenous traditions that researchers find intriguing, giving these studies a performative aspect that make everyone feel better about co-opting indigenous culture? 


If these studies want to investigate aspects of ceremonial use, religion and spirituality surrounding psychedelics, why aren’t they including Indigenous Peoples in their study design or on their grant applications?


Benefit-to-Risk

It’s not just about inclusion. It’s about benefits coming back to the communities, protection of intellectual property, preservation of tradition and sacred medicines. In an article titled Ethical principles of traditional Indigenous medicine to guide western psychedelic research and practice, Dr. Yuria Celidwen and colleagues discuss many concerns including consent, protections and more.


In case you were like me and weren’t aware, there is something called the Free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) is a specific right that pertains to Indigenous Peoples under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to the FPIC, before an action can take place that would affect Indigenous Peoples, positively or negatively, the person or community must give approval for the activity to move forward. Consent must be based on the full information regarding the activity, before the activity begins and without pressure or coercion; otherwise, the consent is meaningless.


Unfortunately, FPIC has not been historically honored or understood in the context of western medicine. For example, the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona gave blood to researchers for what they thought was diabetes research, but instead the University of Arizona gave samples to others for DNA research unrelated to the original research outlined in the informed consent. This betrayal and several others have disproportionately affected black and brown communities for decades, and yet folks still wonder why clinical trials have a hard time recruiting non-white individuals.


In addition to issues with policy covering consent of Indigenous Peoples, there is currently no policy that has been designed to address Indigenous traditional medicine’s commercialization within the western medicine world. There are attempts at protections of intellectual property that vary by country, but despite many efforts to protect various Indigenous manifestations of knowledge, international consensus has not yet been reached on indigenous peoples’ rights to the protection of cultural knowledge systems, either within an intellectual property regime or through some other over-arching legislative or policy framework.


In the above mentioned article, the consensus group has outlined eight interconnected ethical principles concerning traditional Indigenous medicines used in Western psychedelic research and practice. These include:


Reverence, Respect, Responsibility, Relevance, Regulation, Reparation, Restoration and Reconciliation.

How Can We Fix It?

These core principles remind me of the discussion from the Plenary of Indigenous Leaders back at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in the Gila River Indian Community. One of the questions that was given to the panel at Reform was, “What does indigenous culture teach us that applies to this work?”


The work being referenced here was to drug policy reform and harm reduction, but can apply directly to the psychedelics field. Using psychedelics for healing should include the core principles and values in which their use started and by taking those out of the equations were white-washing another part of history. How as a field are we preaching collective healing when we don’t even have a basic understanding of what it means to be a collective? 


Arlene Brown, founder of Crossroads Recovery Center and Skoden Native Harm Reduction Services, reminded the room that western medicine was not made for Indigenous People, the healing that is centered in western medicine is very different. Western medicine moves in a didactic course, where all information is coming from the top source, and those who have defined these values are those who will benefit from it. Indigenous medicine is circular, with each aspect being a valuable part and resource within the circle. There are lessons to be learned from more than just the doctor, it’s about listening and being open to the dynamics of existence, not just taking medicine and hoping for the best.


To fix the issue within the psychedelics field, we need to learn from what folks are doing across the harm reduction and drug policy landscape, and focus on what is actually working. For example, Brown partnered with the National Harm Reduction Coalition to create a Native-focused harm reduction toolkit, which addresses needs specific to these communities. By expanding access to resources and creating resources specifically for communities outside the ones clinical trials typically focus on, we can expand the reach and include those who have been systemically left out or hurt.


How can the psychedelic field continue on the same route and profit from indigenous knowledge when there has been intentional systemic and institutional suffering at the hands of westernization? How can the field preach that psychedelics are going to heal trauma and make the world a better place when there is no interest in assisting these broken communities? Everyone tends to think of these atrocities in the past, but they are happening right now. 


As of 2022, Native Americans have the highest rates of substance abuse and opioid overdose, compared to other ethnic groups in the US. These high numbers are also known to be underreported. Despite this, many are left to figure out how to help their own communities instead of receiving any benefit from general research or medicine. For example, there are studies assessing the therapeutic effects of natural psychedelics like ibogaine, ayahuasca and psilocybin on substance use disorders, but the recruitment does not reflect those who are being disproportionately affected by these conditions. They are not in these studies and they most likely will not receive the benefit of them if they were to become mainstream.


When psychedelics are approved, one large concern is that they will be extremely expensive and only able to be used in a specific indication as defined by the western medicine paradigm. This paradigm is typically fitting for the middle to high class, not reaching those who need it most. So, what is the plan for disseminating these treatments to the public? Will they be available to indigenous communities? Will these communities be able to use the medicines in their way or will they have to abide by the western model? 


So, how can the second wave of psychedelic research be true to its word in being a true collective? It is not enough to just say sorry or ask for forgiveness, justice must be restored and something must be done. There needs to be a paradigm shift and I think that frightens people who have benefited from the current system. 


As stated at the Plenary at Reform, “Our culture says we can heal and we can restore, but it may not look the same as when you started.”  

That is what people seem to forget. The shift in culture drives change and change should reflect those who have been participating in the culture. If things are to really change, we can’t sit comfortably; we have to join in on the disruption. This disruption may take different forms, it can be through calling out bad actors, lifting voices of people who have been overshadowed, it can also be in the form of being quiet, letting someone else take a turn and waiting in the other room until you’re called in.


One thing that really stood out was when one of the panelists said: it is a spiritual act to restore First People as first. We have been last for too long.

So what does that look like?

I’m going to refer back to the experts in this topic. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit alongside various experts in the psychedelic field including indigenous South American Medicine Woman: Isa Bolivar. Her practice focuses specifically on ayahuasca and its healing properties. One thing she discussed is how the separation of medical and spiritual is more harmful than helpful. For example, in her community the doctors and shamans work together to provide a fully holistic approach to health. When someone comes with a problem they aren’t just assessed quickly and given medicine, they are spoken to with respect and care from their community. They return to potentially receive the medicine of the ayahuasca, maybe in conjunction with other treatments or with other people or maybe not at all, but there is a larger focus on the mind-body-spirit connection and determining what is best for your health. This relationship between the healers and the seeker (patient) is so important for ensuring positive outcomes in care but it's also important because the seeker feels at ease about disclosing other medications or conditions to the healer that may affect the use of the ayahuasca. This gives the seeker autonomy over their decision to use the medicines rather than follow a western model alone.


How would it look if psychedelic medicine could develop that kind of model? Why do these things have to exist outside of each other? Most importantly: How do we reconcile them in a respectful and restorative way?


When we think about solutions, it is important to remember that it's not only intellectual property and dismantling oppressive systems, it’s also about the medicines themselves. Widespread interest in psychedelics has brought the spotlight on plant medicines such as peyote (lophophora williamsii) and ayahuasca (banisteriopsis caapi), for example. This heightened interest in these psychedelics from pharmaceutical and biotech companies is becoming increasingly problematic for preservation of the ecosystems in which these plants thrive, as well as availability of these medicines for traditional use. 


The commodification of these Indigenous traditions through false or ‘plastic’ shamanic practices and retreats, cultivation with large carbon footprints - see what happened with cannabis - and companies looking for a quick buck is not just inherently morally wrong, but it’s also so far removed from the whole point of these traditional practices. Another thing that was important to discuss was the use of specific plant medicines, such as ayahuasca outside of these indigenous communities. Ayahuasca takes at least 10 years to grow in natural conditions to be ready for harvest and made into ayahuasca tea. If the vine is cut and harvested earlier or improperly, the plant no longer becomes viable for ceremonial use.


Taken together, this all comes back to some of the concepts I mentioned earlier. These ideas are representative from a variety of sources including personal conversations, the paper above mentioned, and attending talks on the topic.


Reverence - for the medicine and for the earth it comes from (specifically in terms of naturally occurring psychedelics)

Respect - of Indigenous knowledge, practice, and tradition

Responsibility - in understanding what is right and wrong; being responsible for harmful practices

Relevance - of learning and listening to Indigenous folks; decolonizing psychedelic medicine

Regulation - of specific use of plant medicine, leaving it alone for Indigenous people

Reparation - credit where credit is due including cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property; Give back to Native communities if you are researching/developing their plant medicine

Restoration - of Indigenous leadership across the psychedelic field

Reconciliation - First People First.


I want to point out that there is work being done in this area, it’s not all pessimistic. Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines has an Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas. This is a “community-led biocultural conservation program consisting of a network of 38 different Indigenous groups in 20 partner organizations engaged in different projects involving food & water security, agroforestry and environmental health, fighting for land rights, and building economic and educational support.” They also include a highlight of Indigenous Peoples involved in the Psychedelic Renaissance on their website which can be found here.


Still Learning, Still Growing

I’m going to end with a personal anecdote. For those who don’t know, I'm a white girl from the suburbs in MI. I went to school at Central Michigan University which sits right on the land of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, which is when I realized the disproportionate health adversity, though admittedly I unfortunately never got involved in learning or doing more beyond just being aware. I’ll be the first to admit that sucks. 


So fast forward, I’ve become heavily involved in the psychedelic space as someone who is interested in the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics. Being in this field, I realized I have another opportunity to be involved in learning and doing more. 


So recently, I was given the privilege to organize a psychedelic-related panel for local organization Mushroom Mania, which was titled The State of Psychoactive/Entheogenic Plants and Fungi, which you can find the recording here.


Now, being tasked with choosing participants I started with my own contact list, which as I soon found out, included a lot of non-indigenous white men (a reflection of the field as a whole). Tapping into a diverse psychedelic community as an academic is difficult, even more difficult to reach and befriend folks who have been betrayed by the system in multiple ways. In my search, I really didn’t know where to start so I started with asking my co-host and moderator if they knew anyone, I posted on social media and asked my friends. While I knew my intentions were pure, I’m still learning how to navigate being an accomplice. 


It is not enough to give a seat at the table, but we must form genuine relationships with the community in which we aim to include, and this must be of pure heart not just to have a token presenter. As my close friend pointed out, knowledge is a privilege not a right. And even though I wanted to be able to include someone in the conversation to whatever degree they saw fit (and I wanted to pay them damnit!), there are some things that we are not meant to know, some conversations that we are not meant to share. 


In the end, after being extremely annoyed and frustrated at the lack of any form of diversity in the psychedelics field (especially on the east coast), I was able to put together a really exciting panel with a little help from my friends. This story isn’t about me, this story is to highlight that even with the best intentions, we (white folks in the field of psychedelics) need to earn trust. 


The point is: it’s not just a seat at the table whenever you feel like giving it, it’s a seat at the table all the time, whenever a person is ready and able to take it.

The psychedelic field needs to remember its roots. We as researchers need to admit there are many people who know SO MUCH MORE than we do, and be open to learning from them and learning from our mistakes. 


With that, I want to leave my readers with just a few folks I’ve been learning from in the last few years:

Sutton King, Afro-Indigenous and a descendent of the Menominee and Oneida Nations of Wisconsin, co-founder and President of Urban Indigenous Collective

Yuria Celidwen, descendent of Nahua and Maya Nations, researcher of Indigenous Contemplative Traditions

Marlena Robbins of the Diné Nation, doctoral student at UC Berkeley working an access to psychedelic medicines for Indigenous peoples

Sam Rivera, descendent of the Taíno People, Executive Director of OnPoint NYC

Virginia Hedrick, member of the Yurok Tribe of California and of Karuk descent, Executive Director  CA Consortium for Urban Indian Health

Arlene Brown of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, founder of Crossroads Recovery Center and Skoden Native Harm Reduction Services

Gina Jackson of the Western Shoshone and Oglala Lakota Tribes, co-CEO and Co-founder of Return to the Heart Foundation

Isa Bolivar, South American, natural born Shaman and traditional energetic healer  https://www.isabolivar.com/


Please feel free to reach out if you have any feedback on this article. These are expressly my own opinions and do not reflect the actual opinions of my affiliations or anyone mentioned in this article. I am aware that I do not speak for, represent the thoughts, feelings and opinions of several different First Nations and in no way was I trying to do so. 


References:
  1.  Borrell, B. (2024) The Psychedelic Evangelist. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/21/health/psychedelics-roland-griffiths-johns-hopkins.html

  2. Jaster, A.M. (2023). The Psychedelic Renaissance: What is Going On? Part 1. Psychedelic Brain Science. https://www.psychedelicbrainscience.com/post/the-psychedelic-renaissance-what-is-going-on-part-1

  3. Welker, J. (2023). The Religious Science of Johns Hopkins. Psychedelic Candor. https://www.psychedeliccandor.org/p/the-religious-science-of-johns-hopkins

  4.  Hause, S. & Maltby, W. (2001). A History of European Society. Essentials of Western Civilization (Vol. 2, pp. 245–246). Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc.

  5. Evans J., Woolfe S. (2024). The Inner Healer and the Inner Critic. Ecstatic Integration. https://www.ecstaticintegration.org/p/the-inner-healer-and-the-inner-critic

  6. Grof, S. (2006). When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities. Sounds True, Inc. Boulder, CO 80306.

  7. Love, M. (2022). Fellow Travelers: The experience of facilitating MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Dissertation. Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology.

  8. Celidwen, Y., Redvers, N., Githaiga, C., Calambás, J., Añaños, K., Chindoy, M. E., Vitale, R., Rojas, J. N., Mondragón, D., Rosalío, Y. V., & Sacbajá, A. (2022). Ethical principles of traditional Indigenous medicine to guide western psychedelic research and practice. Lancet regional health. Americas, 18, 100410. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lana.2022.100410

  9. Institute of Human Rights and Business (2022). What is free prior and informed consent? https://www.ihrb.org/explainers/what-is-free-prior-and-informed-consent-fpic#:~:text=Free%2C%20prior%20and%20informed%20consent%20(or%20FPIC)%20centres%20on,activities%20undertaken%20on%20their%20land.

  10. Sterling, R. L. (2011). Genetic Research among the Havasupai: A Cautionary Tale. Journal of Ethics, American Medicine Association.

  1. Kaliszewski, M. (2024). Alcohol and Drug Abuse Among Native Americans. American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/addiction-statistics/native-americans

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  3. George, J. R., Michaels, T. I., Sevelius, J., & Williams, M. T. (2020). The psychedelic renaissance and the limitations of a White-dominant medical framework: A call for indigenous and ethnic minority inclusion. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 4(1), 4-15. https://doi.org/10.1556/2054.2019.015

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