n a sweaty Sunday morning in August of last year, Jamilah George was on the 16th floor of the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville, leading a spiritual service of sorts. George, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Connecticut who also holds a master’s degree in divinity from Yale University, asked the audience to shout out the names of ancestors or people they admired. With each name, George performed a libation ritual, pouring water into a leafy green plant, stationed at the front of the podium, as a gesture of thanks. “Maya Angelou,” called out one audience member. “Mama Lola,” called another. The names kept coming: Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Mahatma Gandhi. Harriet Tubman.
George, who had been part of a team at U-Conn. running the only clinical trial to study the effects of the psychotropic drug MDMA on post-traumatic stress disorder with participants of color, wanted the audience to connect with its cultural lineages before she started her presentation — a bracing call for inclusion and social justice within the burgeoning world of psychedelic healing. It’s a world that holds great promise but is overwhelmingly White and economically privileged. Part of the problem, as George sees it, is that academia has lost its connection to the histories of these consciousness-altering substances (also known as entheogens), many of which have been used by Indigenous cultures for physical and psychological healing for thousands of years.
“It’s up to us to find ways to disseminate resources and stop leaving them at the top, in the most elite research institutions,” she said to the small audience of psychotherapists, who were there to learn how psychotropic substances like methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic (“magic”) mushrooms, could be used to heal mental and emotional distress. “We have to find ways to take this information and bring it down so it’s accessible,” she continued. “MDMA — you can’t even pronounce it! We have to find ways to make this information translatable. It’s like speaking another language.”
The next day, the public part of the inaugural Psychedelic Medicine & Cultural Trauma Workshop ended and the psychotherapist training began. Fifty therapists of color had been accepted into the week-long training, hosted by MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. In the training, therapists would learn best practices for using the entheogen MDMA to treat PTSD in their patients.
MAPS is currently studying MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a method of treating PTSD. The clinical trials are in Phase 3 — the last stage before approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — and MAPS, which has been working toward this moment since its inception as a research and advocacy organization in 1986, has been preparing for a post-approval world. Before the Cultural Trauma workshop in Kentucky, MAPS had trained 285 therapists, with the idea that — while they can’t legally practice yet — they will be ready to open their doors once approval is final. But fewer than 10 percent of those trained were people of color. If MAPS wanted therapists to treat clients of color, they would need to train therapists of color.
Last year, there were at least 20 conferences in the United States covering the latest developments in psychedelic science and medicine. It’s a conference-happy community, which makes sense: Most of the substances discussed at these events are labeled as Schedule 1 or 2 by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, so, outside of clinical research, their use is illegal. (Schedule 1 drugs are considered to have the highest potential for abuse, with “no currently accepted medical use.” MDMA is a Schedule 1 drug, as is cannabis, and is ranked as more dangerous than oxycodone and cocaine, which are both Schedule 2.) Conferences are one of the few places where researchers, clinicians, advocates and the curious public can learn about developments in the field and meet other psychedelic proponents. Compared to a huge event like New York City’s Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference, which has convened every fall in New York for 13 years and last year brought in over 2,800 attendees, the two-day public workshop in Kentucky was tiny, with fewer than 100 participants and very little attention from a media that energetically covers psychedelic developments.
But the gathering — which featured talks on drug legalization and systemic racism, presentations on Indigenous healing methods, experiential group exercises, and even a dance performance — was groundbreaking. It was historic not only because it was the first such training for therapists of color, but because it marked a turning point in the mainstreaming of psychedelics. Many of the organizers and presenters are part of a larger effort to diversify the world of psychedelic healing. They are pushing back against the popular narrative that psychedelics originated in White, mid-century countercultural movements and, perhaps most significant, fighting to ensure that the new field of psychedelic medicine — often touted as a miracle for long-standing and deep-rooted struggles like treatment-resistant depression, addiction, anxiety and PTSD — will be accessible to all. This includes Black and non-White communities that have been historically over-policed and heavily incarcerated for possession or sales of some of these substances. (White people and Black people are equally likely to use illegal drugs, a 2009 Human Rights Watch report found, but Black people are arrested for drug offenses at much higher rates than White people.)
George, who is Black, spoke directly to these inequities at the climax of her talk. While White people might see psychedelic use as edgy or controversial, there is little legal risk in White use of these substances. “Western researchers have taken some of these Indigenous religious traditions, using them outside of their spiritual context … and then take it for ourselves and go to a rave and jump around and flash the lights,” George said. “We go in the mountains and have a self-discovery kind of experience.” Her voice rose as audience members clapped in agreement. “All of that is amazing. Let’s do that. But let’s bring others with us. Let’s find ways for those who have been oppressed for generations to experience the same freedom that some of us in this room have on a Saturday morning because they feel like it. Not on a Tuesday night when they’ve had to take off work and find a babysitter to take care of the kids so they can come to the clinic and participate in this research and pray that it frees them, so they can keep their families and keep their jobs.”
She continued: “Lives depend on us. You see what I’m saying? When you really think about it, when you break it down like that, lives depend on us.”