The historical history of the encounter of the conqueror Hernán Cortes with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma is the one that is often shared to explain the origins of the European colonization of America. Moctezuma showed great hospitality to the Spaniards, crowning Cortés with wreaths of flowers and filling him with gifts and gold necklaces, only to be betrayed and brutally murdered for profit. Native Americans were reduced to slaves, working to collect gold and bring it to the Spaniards so that their lives could be saved. The conquest of the Spaniards helped to accumulate a great wealth for Spain through the devastation of the indigenous communities.
A new type of gold has been “discovered” once again by whites, extracted and turned into hidden benefits in their indigenous origins: psychedelics.
Because marijuana has been decriminalized statewide in much of the United States, there are now ongoing initiatives to extend drug decriminalization to psychedelics. Oregon decriminalized small possessions of all drugs in 2020, including the chemical magic of the “magic mushroom,” and the California Psilocybin Legalization Initiative may appear on the ballot as a state statute initiated in November 2022. , California State Senator Scott Wiener is working to pass it. Senate Bill 519 to decriminalize psychedelics. The movement is gaining momentum as scientific studies emerge suggesting that psychedelics are relatively safe to use and promise as treatments for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. .
The historical roots of psychedelic drug use, however, are often overlooked. Indigenous communities have been using psychedelic plants for medicinal and cultural purposes for millennia. María Sabina was an example of a highly respected Mazatec healer who performed traditional psilocybin mushroom ceremonies at Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca, Mexico. His mistake that led to the destruction of his people and his reputation was to trust a white man.
In 1955, Sabina reluctantly introduced American Robert Gordon Wasson to the sacred mushroom ceremony. Wasson broke his promise to keep the ceremony a secret and completely revealed the Mazatec ritual in a Life magazine article titled “Looking for the Magic Mushroom.” The serious consequences of the article should serve as warning tales that influence the deployment of psychedelic decriminalization, which could be followed by legalization, in order to protect indigenous interests.
An immediate consequence was the ruin of the traditional community. Wasson’s article prompted Dr. Timothy Leary to try psychedelic mushrooms while on vacation in Mexico. His later research and promotion of psychedelics in the United States helped fuel the counterculture era of the 1960s. Scientists and hippies traveled to the village of Huautla de Jiménez to meet the mushrooms, disturbing the indigenous community and disrespecting their rituals. Increased use of psychedelics also endangers sacred organisms; today several species of psychedelic mushrooms, including those used by Wasson, are classified by authorities as endangered, threatened, or under protection in Mexico. The psychedelic peyote is at risk of being partially endangered due to drug tourism, poaching, mining, and the invasion of agriculture. Endangering these plants through extractivism diminishes the ability of native peoples to maintain their own traditions.
Another consequence was cultural appropriation. Two years after Wasson’s publication, psilocybin was isolated and synthesized. Shortly afterwards, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz patented its extraction process, which then sent doses to research institutions around the world, effectively disconnecting the drug from its indigenous roots. Today, the field of psychedelic medicine is dominated by white people, with only a fragment of prominent figures who are people of color. The boards of major funding organizations, as well as scientific teams, are composed primarily of white men.
“Given the devastating history of psychedelic extraction, the decriminalization of the substance and its subsequent legalization must not be rushed until the rights and protections of indigenous peoples are guaranteed.”
Cultural appropriation makes white entrepreneurs the main beneficiaries of the psychedelic industry. Biotechnology companies and venture capitalists are delighted with the opportunity to benefit from psychedelic therapies. In 2021, the psychedelic drug market was valued at $ 4.29 billion and is expected to reach $ 10.35 billion by 2028. However, the industry has no intention of compensating original users. None of the developers who own the 24 patents registered for psilocybin have made any reparation agreements with the Mazatecs or any other indigenous community.
A third consequence of psychedelic money laundering has been the exclusion of people of color from psychedelic medical research. A 2018 study found that 82.3 percent of participants in psychedelic research studies were white, even though minorities experience psychological distress at rates similar to or higher than those of non-Hispanic whites. In addition, people of color often have poor mental health outcomes and more lasting consequences. The cruel irony of it all is that the conditions that are marketed to cure psychedelic therapies are often caused by the reckless development of these therapies. The destruction of indigenous ways of life through exploitation and marginalization has led to higher rates of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, among Indians around the world. Exclusion will lead not only to a general lack of treatment effectiveness for minority groups, but also to a lack of access to treatment.
Given the history and current circumstances surrounding drug use in America, decriminalization is likely to be applied unevenly. The 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 legalized the ceremonial and traditional use of peyote for Native Americans. Although it was intended to protect them from imprisonment for cultural practices, it did not prevent Native Americans from becoming victims of the racist criminal justice system. In 1996, a member of the Ojibwe tribe in Washington was arrested for possession of peyote and spent 60 days in prison. Decriminalization is not guaranteed to protect Native Americans if law enforcement is racialized.
Although peyote is not included in California Senate Act 519 to reserve it for Native American communities, it may not be possible to prevent the commercialization of other psychedelic substances for non-traditional white use. The decriminalization of drugs is unique in its ability to transcend conservative and liberal political divisions. The confluence of conservative support for their therapeutic ability to treat trauma veterans and progressives for their ability to move away from imprisonment could turn standard psychedelic use into an American reality.
So how do we move forward? Given the devastating history of psychedelic extraction, the decriminalization of the substance and its subsequent legalization must not be rushed until the rights and protections of indigenous peoples are guaranteed.
Pharmaceutical companies must return financially to indigenous communities. Developers with patents on psilocybin and other compounds from indigenous communities should seek genuine indigenous representation, ensure restorative agreements, and ensure that treatments are affordable for communities of color. Legalization projects must be approved in conjunction with excise legislation to ensure that certain percentages of profits go to indigenous communities.
There also needs to be more cultural inclusion and racial diversity within the psychedelic research community. In addition, indigenous ethnomedical systems should be valued as another valid framework of medicine. The Western medical framework that has often ruled out the spiritual aspect of psychedelic rituals can benefit from seeing it holistically. Therapies that incorporate mystical and natural aspects into the psychedelic experience can lead to long-term positive changes in mental health.
Wasson’s betrayal harmed Maria Sabina, whom the Mazatec community blamed for marketing its traditions and bringing great misfortune to its people. She was imprisoned, her house burned down and her son murdered. She died in poverty in 1985. The tragic fate of this indigenous woman is the consequence of the normalized exploitation of indigenous communities derived from colonial racism.
To avoid the repetition of colonial history, the inevitable integration of psychedelics into Western society must be done well. Medical interventions involving psychedelics should be equitable, accessible, and reciprocal in returning to Native American communities where psychedelic use originated. There is a need to build trust between these communities and research institutions in order to foster meaningful representation. Decriminalization must be de-racialized to safeguard people of color. It is imperative that protection be prioritized over benefits and that benefits be returned to indigenous communities.