Alicia in Wonderland
Who are you? said the Caterpillar Alice replied: I hardly know, Sir, just at present. At least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.
I first heard the term California Sober a few years ago. I was talking to a close friend, let’s call her Diane. Or Jane. Actually, let’s just go with DJ. I hadn’t seen DJ in about a year, and I was excited to catch up on all.the.things. As I began ceremoniously opening a bottle of wine, DJ, with a please don’t hate me look on her face, remarked,
“Oh, no wine for me. I’m California sober these days.”
California or Cali sober, I have since learned, is a term that people with enough self-awareness to know no one really cares *that much* about their curated crystal collection, use to describe quitting all substances, except cannabis and psychedelics. If you are finding yourself already rolling your eyes, you should probably stop reading now.
I learned from my friend DJ that about 6 months prior to our hang, she decided to go on a detox from alcohol. Like many a Cali sober soul before her, as DJ entered her late twenties, a night of drinking guaranteed a horrendous hangover, increased anxiety, profound sadness and just an all around feeling of shitty-ness.
To be honest, DJ said in a hushed tone, I don’t think I’ve ever really liked drinking, but I never gave my feelings much weight before. In college it felt like basically everyone was drinking, as a rite of passage, and it continued to be such a big part of my social life in my early twenties. At a certain point, it became second nature to basically drink whenever, just because…
This concept of drinking whenever, just because really resonated with me. At some point between college graduation and 12 hours ago, drinking whenever, just because, has been like the friend that I love introducing to other people (she’s so FUN!) but after about twenty minutes, she’s somehow managed to offend everyone and their deceased grandma. Drinking whenever, just because is the friend that makes exclamation point-filled promises we both know she is not going to keep!!! Me and drinking whenever, just because are not ready to fully admit to each other that we’re drifting apart, but we definitely are.
** Quick note for anyone who is still besties/acquaintances/colleagues/family with drinking whenever, just because and has no plans to break off the relationship any time soon: Do You, Boo! I am not here to judge your choices or preach some holier-than-though substance use manifesto. I still very much drink alcohol socially and regularly. But since this is a place for complex feelings, here are mine.
More and more people have been turning away from alcohol and towards cannabis and psychedelics as tools for self-actualization, growth and deeper connections with others. Edit: more and more white people have been turning towards cannabis psychedelics as tools for self-actualization, growth and deeper connections. BIPOC have been using plant and fungi medicines (a.k.a entheogenics) for healing benefits since literally the beginning of humanity.
The image of today’s Cali sober psychedelics user, like my friend DJ, consists of mostly affluent, White people, many of whom are unaware of or would prefer not to discuss the immense impact colonization and the War on Drugs has had on BIPOC communities. When colonization happened, plant medicines were stolen from indigenous communities and many were no longer allowed to enjoy rituals or practice spirituality. This laid the foundation for further drug prohibition, from marijuana – used to incriminate Mexican immigrants and Black artists alike —to opium, which was associated with Chinese immigrants. As Camille Barton, somatic practitioner, artist, and director of the Collective Liberation Project, states:
“I don’t think we can accurately and holistically talk about the psychedelic renaissance without understanding the way drug prohibition has been weaponized as a tool of social and racial control.”
The current global pandemic has made it painfully clear that the residual effects of colonialism play out in the healthcare system as well. BIPOC communities experience disproportionate rates of trauma, and meanwhile often receive inadequate healthcare. In the U.S., according to recent studies, Black people are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white peers.
We should not be even the slightest bit surprised that the disparity in healthcare quality plays out in psychedelic medicine too. In the psychedelic ethos, there is a central principle of oneness. 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. However, with all of this talk about oneness, the psychedelic space has a lot of work to do regarding racial justice and health equity.
In other words: BIPOC have also been pushed to the margins of the psychedelic movement.
Shortly after entering my graduate program in clinical psychology, I came across a research article published by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Founded by Dr. Rick Doblin in 1986, MAPS focuses on the legitimization of psychedelics as medicine. The organization has driven the research of psychedelic use in therapeutic settings and believes legalization of psychedelic treatment is the future of mental health services. Digging deeper into the world of psychedelic treatment combined with clinical psychology, I found more and more groups of dedicated researchers, healers and activists who not only supported the legitimization of psychedelics as medicine, but advocate for more therapists of color to get involved in the movement.
Like Sara Reed, director of psychedelic services at Connecticut-based Behavioral Wellness Clinic, who had the opportunity to participate in a Phase 3 MDMA-assisted psychotherapy clinical trial conducted by MAPS. This week-long study allowed therapists-in-training to experience the therapy treatment from the perspective of the participant, gaining somatic insight on the subject effects of the drug and how to maximize the potential therapeutic benefits of those effects within psychotherapy. In the MAPS article “Health Equity in Psychedelic Medicine,” Reed shared about the experience and some of the ways the racial wounds from her past resurfaced during the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy experience:
“So, there I was, with my two (White) therapists, the drug, and my wounds, trying to make sense of a new reality; a culture my body knew in a language my mind did not.
As a Black woman, I have had to learn the language of this White American world, the mannerisms, and the performance. I’ve straightened the coils from my hair and denied parts of myself just to feel like I belonged. Those defenses that became a necessary part of my social development and helped me survive in the only world I knew no longer worked. With my mind attempting to translate these embodied-stories, I felt lost, confused, and despondent, not having the skill set to process such complexities.
My personal reality told me that I was beyond my race, gender, and traumas from the past, but my political reality demonstrated something different. These moments were difficult for me and my therapists to process. Strict adherence to the protocol, and limited cultural sensitivity, hindered my ability to process my personal and political realities. This experience ultimately led me to think more critically about how to advance health equity for people of color in this clinical research.”
As a woman of color training to become a therapist who has also experienced some of the profound healing properties of psychedelics myself, I wholeheartedly believe in the immense potential for a therapeutic application of psychedelics. Mixt Feelings feeling #87: it feels both liberating and terrifying to share this statement here.
Through my professional and personal experiences, I have come to recognize that race immensely organizes our perceptions about the world and the social realities in which we exist, and I understand how essential it is for clinicians to be culturally competent while working with people of color.
As Reed notes, in psychedelic-assisted research trials, participants are required to be in very vulnerable states as they attempt to process some of the most difficult memories of their past. If clinicians are not sensitive to the landscape of a participant’s cultural experience, they can easily misinterpret, dismiss, or ignore critical information that is necessary for a participant’s therapeutic process.
These past four years of graduate training have led me to become increasingly curious about the role our sociocultural identity factors, such as race, gender and other markers, show up in the therapy room. In order for psychotherapy and psychedelic medicine to advance health equity for all groups, we must think through an intersection lens to address systemic issues and not perpetuate them in practice.
Reed reports, people of color are not represented equitably as therapists or participants in the current psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy research trials. Luckily, there are a group of people trying to change that. One of those people is Will Siu, M.D., DPhil.
During his psychiatry training at UCLA, Will spent time learning from both classical Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analysis. Both of these therapeutic approaches helped Will integrate Western medicine and Eastern philosophies. In his private practice in Los Angeles, he provides individual therapy, medication management, and psychedelic-assisted therapy. While Will can and sometimes does prescribe medication, most of the clients he treats are not on medications. Will views the therapeutic relationship as the agent which leads to lasting change, while medications can be helpful in the short term.
Don’t @ me, but I first came across Will Siu’s work while watching episode 2 of Gwyneth Paltrow’s netlix series, Goop Lab (I know, I knoooow). Feeling in a mood about the whitewashing in mainstream “wellness” spaces, my original intention for watching the show was to judge the shit out of it. In Episode 1, some of the Goop team fly to Jamaica to take magic mushrooms and experience psychedelic psychotherapy. While entertaining, I wasn’t buying it. That was, until Gwyn and her bff/assistant? Elise Loehnan interviewed Will Siu. I was struck by the fact that Will was a therapist of color who was speaking openly and confidently about the scientific application of psychedelics within psychotherapy.
Despite growing curiosity and experience with psychedelics in mainstream culture (read: Goop, Michael Pollan’s best-seller “How to Change Your Mind,” and Ayelet Waldman’s “A Really Good Day,”) there is still a void in the medical model. Most mental health professionals are not adequately equipped to help clients – who may be experimenting with psychedelics on their own time – integrate their often profound experiences into mundane life.
Will Siu recently taught an introductory course to Psychedelics for Clinicians over zoom that I had the opportunity to take. The goal of the course was to help clinicians and clinicians-in-training understand the foundations of psychedelics and how to help patients who are thinking comfortably and practically about using them or who want to process prior experiences they have had.
As Will made abundantly clear, the class was NOT a course to teach us how to do psychedelic therapy with our clients, as this remains widely illegal. More than the class content --which was extremely informative and thought-provoking-- I was impressed by Will’s warmth and candidness while sharing parts of his personal mental health struggles. In other words, he was human with us, in a way few instructors in my four years have been. I left the class feeling inspired and energized to dive deeper into my own understanding and experiences with psychedelics and their potential application one day within many clinical and therapeutic settings. And I’m excited to share that I will be co-facilitating the next installment of Will’s Psychedelics for Clinicians 4-week introductory online course!
The therapeutic technique Will is teaching clinicians is known as Psychedelic Integration. In Psychedelic Integration, clinicians help clients make sense of their psychedelic insights, including challenging emotions that were stirred up by trips, both in short term or even several months – years later. This is about having meaningful conversations with clients following their psychedelic experiences, as many clients may have heightened anxiety or attempt to medicate or write off their psychedelic insights as simply “drug experiences,” which may further pathologize their symptoms.
As psychologists Gorman and Nielson reiterate, psychedelic integration is an inquiry process that allows patients to find their own truths – but working with a trained integration therapist may help guide patients toward making their own meaning. A lot of the healing, however, as is the case in more traditional psychotherapy, comes down to empathy: breaking down the ego, recognizing another person’s experience, and connecting to it with a point of action.
In the wake of the police brutality protests around the U.S. and the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement, many activists within the psychedelic and mental health community have spoken out about how imperative it is to look more critically at the psychedelic community and ask how, as practitioners, we can better serve and empower Black and Brown communities. Camille Barton notes:
“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. It won’t go away by love and light, or ingesting entheogens. We need you to acknowledge it so we can systematically dismantle it.”
One organization that is attempting to dismantle the system is Decriminalize Nature. The mission of Decriminalize Nature is to improve human health and well-being by decriminalizing and expanding access to entheogenic plants and fungi through political and community organizing, education and nature.
Unlike statewide cannabis legalization campaigns, Decriminalize Nature’s vision focuses on individual communities, with independent chapters all over the country lobbying city councilors to set these banned natural substances as the lowest law enforcement priority. This means that they won’t necessarily be legal and regulated, but that police will pursue all other crimes before they go after someone for growing, possessing or sharing these plants and fungi.
I recently got involved with the Decriminalize Nature Decrim Nature DC chapter – a campaign organized by DC residents to lower the law enforcement priorities for entheogenic plant and fungi medicines through Initiative 81. Current DC residents benefiting from entheogens include those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and other traumas, veterans suffering from PTSD, and patients in end-of-life care.
The change Decrim Nature DC is promoting would help thousands of DC residents suffering from anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and depression who currently fear arrest or prosecution for pursuing healing through natural, entheogenic substances.
Quick plug: the campaign needs to collect 30,000 signatures from registered DC voters to appear on the November ballot. If you are interested in learning more, please click here and sign the petition here!
I truly believe that during this pivotal moment of time, we have been given a unique opportunity for a reckoning and reexamination of the current systemic failures. As countless activists have shared, psychedelic commercialization must not reproduce the same power structures that have brought about this moment in our country. North Star Project, a nonprofit working to help center integrity and ethics in the culture of the emerging psychedelic field, says it best:
“It is not just capitalism. It is not just patriarchy. It is white power. Cannabis licenses are being given out in states still holding Black and Brown people in prison for marijuana offenses. Commercial cannabis licensing and policy decisions are not inclusion, with ‘social equity’ programs failing Black and Brown entrepreneurs in major cities like Los Angeles.”
Today the leaders of psychedelic business are mostly white as well. The vast majority are men. It is to this fact that North Star Project points when they say the people with the most structural power have the greatest moral responsibility to make change. Words are not enough. Solidarity must go hand in hand with action. And now, more than ever, is where the promise of psychedelic healings comes in – to serve BIPOC especially.
I’m ending this week’s newsletter with the words of Sara Reed, describing her experience in the MAPS psychedelic-assisted therapy trial for clinicians:
I feel like I’m dying but it’s okay, I say with a smile on my face. As I lie on the couch with two therapists by my side, I feel safe, grounded, and ready to explore deeper truths of my inner world. With my eye shades on, I follow the rhythm of the music and begin my ascend to a peculiar liminal space. Soon enough the drug sneaks past my ego defenses, past my reflexive tendency towards control and protection, and catapults me to a place of dissolution.
Defenses down, I am raw and open, experiencing the world in its Divine essence, and for the first time in my life I felt free.
Me—a young, black woman, free. No longer bound by the constraints of my political realities, I set sail on a journey that allowed me to reconnect and rest in a place saturated by grace, mercy, and love; I call that place home.
I love you,
PS - if anyone wants to learn more information about the Psychedelics for Clinicians course I’m be co-facilitating or how to get involved with Decrim Nature DC, please reach out!
Imara, K. (2019, May). Healing & harm reduction for marginalized communities in the psychedelic renaissance. San Francisco Psychedelic Society, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from http://psychedelicsocietysf.org/event/community-meeting-with-kufikiri-imara/edcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-018-1824-6