Words By Susan Salas, email@example.com
All Photography courtesy of Native Coalition
“Protecting our medicines from colonial psychedelia
Stewards of Indigenous Medicine and ways”
Psychedelics Legalization – The New Frontier
The new hot thing in the herbal medicine community is psychedelics legalization and legislation. Many states within the US and many countries around the world are attempting to legalize or decriminalize psychedelics, basing their advocacy on the hundreds of recent clinical trials. Psychedelic medicines are now going through a marketing upgrade, from their place as a leftover hippie bastion to a medical miracle. They are even being considered a cure-all for otherwise incurable conditions.
But there is a battle brewing. Not between the right and the left, or the conservative versus the liberal. No, it’s between the liberal and the indigenous. Let’s talk about it.
Background – Legalities of Psychedelic Plant Medicines
Have you ever been to an ayahuasca retreat or wanted to go to one? Or, maybe you know someone who has? These retreats offer self-healing and permanent bonding and connection to “Mother” – as ayahuasca is known. It’s an aged, enduring relationship to nature and the universe; we learn the tough love of the plant-based elders known as “Mother” (ayahuasca) and “Niños” (peyote), and other plant medicines.
Colonization of Psychedelic Medicines
Often led by indigenous shamans with long roots and traditions associated with the medicine, ceremonial healing rites are a sacred space in the indigenous culture that have been protected –along with the medicine itself—for centuries of generations.
What started in indigenous communities – whose specialized teachers, shamans, and principals have carried these medicines and traditions for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years – is now being left out of the new psychedelics legalization efforts and replaced with “corporadelics”: the profit caravan that will remove these natural healing plant guides from their protected communities and create corporate farms and labs. Further, the laws remove all access by indigenous communities by eliminating any sovereign rights under religious protections. Haven’t we actively surpassed that behavior in 2023?
Thus, the entirety of the ceremonial, spiritual, medicinal, and foundational use of these plant medicines is on the verge of being co-opted and removed from its primordial connection; to be planted and farmed by highly regulated and governed corporate bodies; and used to promote the current Western medical complex. Furthermore, its use, as proposed in legislation, is based on widespread yet random clinical trials that are often paid for by the same corporations that will benefit from psychedelics legalization.
Raising Awareness, Sensitivity, and Inclusion
This leads to the most important point in this entire debate: the new legislation and laws surrounding the use of medicinal psychedelics and other traditional plant medicines offer no carve-out for or deference to indigenous communities and uses – the same and singular communities that have nurtured, protected, and provided ingress for its use today.1
And this neglect is intentional.
Native Americans have been neglected and ignored, if not entirely vilified, by the United States government and all the current governments throughout the Americas – from Canada to Chile. Indigenous people are relegated to specific regions and are segregated with no voice, no representation, and no power in the prevailing government bodies.
Until now, and only for psychedelic plant medicine, very few people have crossed the lines into “Indian Territory” for any reason whatsoever. The one thing that was held in abeyance were the closed practices and rites associated with traditional ceremonies. And now, perhaps finally, that is being forcibly removed by those who seek an immediate and possibly even a fun cure to their (fill in the blank here) with legalized psychedelic plant medicine.
While there is nothing wrong with that, the indigenous owners and protectors of these plant ancestors seek to preserve their sovereign right to officiate the proceedings. And why shouldn’t they?
Sovereign Access & Popular Availability
Thus the problem takes root. Psychedelics legalization affects these indigenous plant-ancestors and will separate them from their respective generational caretakers and create a corporate complex around them.
Indigenous communities do not seek to remove the availability of these plant medicines from the modern landscape, nor do they desire to close off these modern uses. They only seek recognition and a voice in protecting their use by indigenous communities, traditionally and ceremonially worldwide, as it has been for millennia.
That is the stake. They want to be heard, consulted, respected, and protected by psychedelics legislation, not ignored and further stolen from.
Indigenous communities have led in the knowledge and ceremonial use of plants and plant medicines long before recorded history. Every variety of plant is optimized in indigenous communities for ceremonies and common daily uses. But psilocybin and psychedelic medicines – from at least 5,000 BCE to the present day – are currently at the forefront of a battle for legalization that many people would agree sounds like a great idea.2, 3 After all, if a natural herbal remedy can cure many ailments, it should be legal and widely available.
However, there are plenty of valid reasons to keep government control away from these plants in particular, and this article will explore them.
Psilocybin and psychedelics have gone from being considered psychedelic drugs to psychedelic medicines and are now touted as full therapy in the span of just a few years. Psychedelics legalization efforts lobby for the widespread use and availability of these treatments but ignore indigenous communities as keepers and protectors of the plants and their knowledge. Thus, legalizing psychedelics threatens to remove these plants from their learned caretakers completely in order to bring their healing to the masses. Which begs the question whether the healing comes from just the medicines or from the caretakers, shamans, and rituals.
The outcomes of psychedelic plant use as medicine are manyfold – from healing depression and anxiety to obesity to Alzheimer’s disease. Lawmakers and lobbyists seek psychedelic legalization as a form of political snake oil. This effort is following in the recent footsteps of marijuana legalization and historically, of morphine, opioids, cocaine, and even tobacco.
All these plants were sacred and healing plants throughout indigenous communities. All were lobbied to be used as modern Westernized medicines. And now, all but tobacco and marijuana have been rendered completely illegal as addictive substances and all but extinct as indigenous healing traditions. Ironically, many of the clinical trials claim that psychedelics help addictions to these very substances.4
The effects of the current effort to legalize psychedelic medicines is history repeating itself, and its effect on indigenous communities will be incurable.
The Modern Battle to Legalize Psychedelics
The legalization of sacred psychedelic plant medicines has been exploding in the past few years for either medicinal or recreational use. The United States National Institute of Health, the world’s largest biomedical research operation, has been funding research initiatives on psilocybin.5, 6, 7
Other countries are following suit, including Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and the UK. These are just a few among the first world nations that have created legal access to psychedelic plant medicines for governmental control and corporate profit.8
Psychologist Alex Belser has called psychedelic medicines “medicine in search of a condition” due to the onslaught of studies being performed with them.9 Psychedelic plant medicines have been the subject of clinical trials for their use against depression, anxiety, PTSD, allergies, eating disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, addictions, and much more.
Let’s begin by looking at some of the general logistics of psychedelic medicines.
What – The Subject of Psychedelics Legislation
The primary psychedelics being researched both privately and by government agencies are MDMA, DMT, ibogaine, LSD, ayahuasca, mescaline, peyote, and psilocybin.10 Thus, the trials study both lab-created psychedelics and natural plant medicines. Most of the studies do not have long-term results, nor are they long-term studies.
However, they are broad in their reach, despite their lack of depth or continuity, and cover almost every health concern imaginable, from pain reduction to mental conditions, emotional conflicts, neurological health, traumatic injuries, and late-life brain deterioration.
The studies have all yielded phenomenal results in achieving help and treatment for the participants. As such, psychedelics legalization efforts have been backed by a magnitude of recent scientific research performed by the world’s foremost powerful health organizations.
Governments would be remiss to evade what is best for the people in providing them easy access to a remedy for their pain and ailments. Corporate sponsorship, often publicly owned pharmaceutical companies, has provided much of the financial backing for these studies and the paid participation of patients.
Once positive results are received in self-evaluation from these participants, these studies can be used to prove that psychedelic medicines are the cure that science has been looking for. The continued criminalization of these medicines is a harm to the public, while psychedelics legalization or decriminalization can – with appropriate controls – be both revolutionary and profitable for states, countries, and governments.
Let’s take a look at some of the other benefits that are being promoted with these measures.
In the U.S., Philip Morris has applied for a patent to use psychedelic medicines in e-cigarettes. Thus, the idea is to provide psychedelic micro-dosage not just daily but all day, similar to a THC vape pen. The patent application cites treatment results for conditions as far-reaching as hair loss, periodontal disease, weight loss, and food allergies.11
Other startup research companies include CaaMTech and Compass Pathways, both of whom have begun multi-million-dollar campaigns, are leading the current round of research and clinical trials using psilocybin and other psychedelic medicines alongside THC.12 These patents, when granted, can sell for millions of dollars once psychedelics legislation is passed.
However, a very important sidenote is that sacred plant medicines used in elder-led ritual ceremonies on indigenous lands have been handed down traditionally for very specific and pointed healing for each individual. They are not considered property for everyday, unguided use, which further removes the traditional ancestral wisdom of the plants – and those who have nurtured this wisdom from precolonization until today.
Yet, according to the trials, natural psychedelic medicines like psilocybin, ayahuasca, San Pedro, and others achieve very good results in healing almost any condition against which they are tasked.
Here we have the conundrum. How can we promote true healing from mental conditions, anxiety, PTSD, neurological disorders, depression, and even balding and gingivitis, but still protect indigenous traditions and access to it?
Today, under current religious freedoms and protected indigenous ceremonial rights, any person can interact with shamans and participate in religious ceremonies that utilize the medicine to help relieve their symptoms or sometimes the sickness itself or to pursue other spiritual insights into their lives.
This is unregulated and voluntary, and only the shamans know the amount of medicine each person should receive as they are evaluated individually and treated in a professional and courteous manner throughout the healing process, in line with ancestral traditions and knowledge.
Illegal drug use is a scourge on the world stage under modern laws. It is often associated with criminals, thugs, and organized crime that prey on people in precarious circumstances. It can lead to addiction, insanity, overdose, or death.
The idea that the government can control a drug often begins with taking the drug apart at the cellular level and providing only certain parts at a time, which has been achieved with marijuana and the sale of separate parts – TCH, CBD, CBC, CBG, and CBN are each tasked with treating a respective affliction. It is not given or taken in its whole or holistic form as a means to reduce unwanted side effects or sensations.
Meanwhile, indigenous communities have fostered a very close relationship with psychedelic plant medicines and understand their effects, uses, treatments, and potential issues that can arise during a session. Their wisdom pre-dates Western science and synthesizes various elements in ceremonies with traditional methods that offer true healing to the participants.
Thus, the medicines once diluted and divided could easily fail and be considered dangerous and later be rendered fully illegal – but then, even to the indigenous communities that have ancestrally protected and raised them into the medicines of today.
Lastly, laws will provide specific depositories for retail cultivation and purchase to maximize profits and taxable income in each state or country. Safeguards will be placed around farms and warehouses to prevent unauthorized or illegal access or use.
Meanwhile, indigenous cultivation practices include natural farming techniques that are based on ancestral teaching and connection to the plant, like old friends who have known each other forever. Plant medicines are, in fact, considered ancestors to most First Nations groups, and their direct relationship includes family secrets that allow the medicine to provide special healing properties for many of our modern sicknesses.
One of the biggest and most convincing points for individual states to consider when legalizing or decriminalizing psilocybin and psychedelic plant medicine is profit. The effect of having only a few states with full psychedelics legalization attracts new startups to the area, and even more so if the state provides incentives to increase sustainable economic goals for everyone involved.
It sounds like a win-win for everyone. People get healed, states get money, and access is easy, what’s not to love?
It’s a perfect model, yet it isn’t. If you review only the information provided in psychedelics legislation, its legalization is imperative. However, the intentional exclusion of indigenous and First Nations populations from these considerations destroys ancient systems, traditions, religions, and the ancestral connections to the plants themselves. Ultimately, the legislation serves only its purveyors and ultimately destroys the original nature of the medicine in debate.
The ultimate result of ignoring the community of origin of these medicines is colonization by legal means. Upholding or using your own laws to grant yourself the right to something which was never part of your tradition before while ignoring, excluding, and removing the cultures that have kept and obeyed the plant wisdom traditionally and ancestrally for thousands of years, is colonization.
Regardless of its good intent and purpose, if psychedelics legalization efforts continue to exploit an herb or a plant and its closed practice in another culture while shutting out that culture and community, that is continuing colonization. It is the genocide of culture and tradition.
First Nations seek inclusion in psychedelics legislation to continue participating in their healing practices. This is an imperative demand for these communities to be able to continue serving the medicine as guides.
Where – The Landscape of Psychedelics Legalization
In January 2023, the state of Oregon implemented the decriminalization of psychedelics. Two more states in the US – New Hampshire and New York – introduced psychedelics legislation to follow that lead. Several more states, including California, Maine, Utah, Colorado, Connecticut and Texas, have budgeted task forces to research its effects.13
At this time, about half of the state in the US are budgeting money for research and task forces to approve psychedelics legalization or decriminalization.14 The United States Congress has just implemented a federal caucus called Psychedelic Advancing Therapies, or PATH.
The United States is hardly unique in beginning its research towards psychedelics legalization for medical benefits. At this time, psychedelics are decriminalized in Brazil, Jamaica, Nepal, the Netherlands, the Bahamas, and American Samoa. Furthermore, there are efforts across the world in India, Australia, China, Uruguay, Thailand, Portugal, Canada, with many other nations seeking its legalization for medical use.
Why – The Beneficiaries of Legalizing Psychedelic Plant Medicines
Many of the legislators introducing psychedelics legislation in the US are Republican. Republican congressmen from Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Maryland, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Texas are behind the bills and funding for the research. “Why?”, you may ask. Psychedelics may seem to represent a liberal approach to health treatment as they disregard current social norms and traditions that are usually enforced by this same group of people. The answer is two-fold.
First, these lawmakers are attempting to control what was once illegal, disruptive, and considered anti-social. In their efforts to promote psychedelics legalization, the government will have control over its use, disbursement, methodology, applications, and in fact, its creation. The laws will control every aspect of this otherwise free thing that was out of their grasp. This takes us to the second point.
For the second part, psychedelics legalization will also fully control the indigenous populations’ currently unrestricted, traditional, and protected use of these plant medicines. Thus, elder indigenous community members who have used these medicines in their centuries-old ancestral traditions will no longer have access to it in their organic form, nor to their original method of disbursement beyond the scope of these new laws.
Instead, the governments will control, restrict, limit, and guide the use of psychedelic plants in every country and nation, and ancient practices will be lost. These practices have been carefully preserved among the First Nations, and they have never been restricted by these wards: anyone may access them in a ceremony or ritual.
All have been welcomed. Yet, no one is protecting this status in the new psychedelics legislation and this should become a priority before it becomes yet another future apology for the total irreparable loss that is in the making.
There is a third answer to this query as to why the United States GOP is spearheading and pursuing the legalization of psychedelics, and that is the profit margin.
One of the primary bases that a state legislator provides as a selling point for the legalization of psychedelic drugs is the low cost of factory farming, with low overhead costs and high yield profits, alongside its overwhelming popular interest.15
How – Including Indigenous Communities in Psychedelics Legislation
The psychedelics legislation that is being proposed and passed into law regarding psilocybin and other plant-based or lab-created psychedelics follows the efforts that went into legalizing marijuana several years ago.
However, marijuana is just one plant, as was tobacco, coca, and opium. Compared to psychedelic and psilocybin medicines, whose plants range from mushrooms to ayahuasca to peyote to San Pedro and possibly more, psychedelics legalization efforts include the full array of different plant varieties, all of which effect indigenous communities far and wide, all over the world.
Thus, the efforts to instill governmental controls and corporate management over these plants alter every territory where indigenous First Nations have been utilizing these varietals for thousands of generations. Throughout Central and South America, the indigenous communities have conducted vision quests and healing ceremonies without any legal repercussions. The new psychedelics laws will ultimately damage every ancient culture that offers these healing rituals if no exceptions are made for them.
MAPS and Naturopathic Healing
Lately, in North America, Europe, and parts of Asia, where marijuana is now mostly legal or decriminalized, plant medicine activists have changed their aim and raised their goals toward the next big issue. Groups like MAPS have created a safe space to lobby for psychedelic medicines towards a new understanding of its use, taking it from criminal status to a potent healing option.
Founded in 1986, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, was created to research psychedelic medicine in the treatment of mental health patients.16 Since that time, MAPS has participated in many legal battles aimed at prohibiting the use of psychedelic healing medicines. However, to indigenous communities, MAPS is diabolical because it is both useful and detrimental.
Initially, MAPS focused on man-made psychedelics, like MDMA and LSD. However, during the past ten years, MAPS started to conduct its own studies and publish its own research results on ayahuasca in patients battling addiction, PTSD, and mental health issues. MAPS has consistently avoided any connection or commentary regarding indigenous communities and the powerful knowledge that has been guarded by them and is now the subject of so much corporate interest.
MAPS is one of the most visible organizations at the forefront of the battle to legalize psychedelic substances, now with ayahuasca as its spearhead medicine. Yet they have not reached out to recognized indigenous tribes but has only sought to commodify ayahuasca. Some individuals from indigenous communities support MAPS in its efforts, and MAPS has carefully aligned with those individuals rather than seeking a full partnership with official tribes and communities.
Thus, at a recent MAPS conference in Denver, Colorado in June 2023, a small group of indigenous from several recognized tribes protested for their inclusion, seeking a carve-out provision in all future legislation and advocacy for their sovereign cultivation, access, and use of their plant ancestors. As powerful and productive as MAPS has been, their resistance to partner with and protect the indigenous perspective with sovereign carve-outs is questionable.
Psychedelic medicines and psilocybin are valuable commodities for the healing of individuals who suffer from a wide array of issues. However, plant medicines are also valuable commodities to the ancestral communities and cultures that have inherited and protected them and their uses for millennia: those who developed their healing properties in the first place.
One resolution is to lobby and support the carve-out provision to preserve indigenous sovereignty in growing, cultivating, using, and preserving native strains of these plants in ceremonies and in regular uses that are known only to them.
Utilizing the legal system to protect and continue indigenous sovereign rights is the foremost solution that the First Nations seek.
However, another viable option exists, which is to promote legalization of man-made psychedelic medicines for legal or decriminalized use – MDMA, LSD, and other lab-created components offer the same beneficial uses without endangering the long-standing cultures and cultivation of psychedelic plants, or access to them.
The plant-based indigenous systems would still be accessible and available. However, legalizing only manmade psychedelic medicines may carry the same danger of eventually criminalizing the chemical compounds in any form (even natural plant-based forms) by any community, should government gain full control over them.
The indigenous groups affected by these decisions today may not be the same groups affected in the future. By defending and protecting the sovereign rights to these plants, the steps we take today can protect the long-standing traditions that were put into place more than 7,000 years ago, and continue on for future generations.
If you would like to learn more or offer help to your local indigenous communities in their fight for inclusion in these laws, your work will be profoundly appreciated. Check out these pages:
1 An example of proposed legislation: https://www.shroomer.com/colorado-psychedelics-legislation-bill/