For Psychedelic Healing to Flourish, Diversity is Essential

 

By Sonali Sadequee

Plant Medicine Integration Coach

Sacred Space Holder

Relational Justice Advocate


The ever-expanding field of ancestral plant medicines and psychedelic science holds immense promise for revolutionizing mental health treatment and offering spiritual insights that have the potential to transform lives and the world. However, as we embark on this journey of discovery and healing, it’s crucial to confront the inequities that have long plagued the healthcare systems and that extend into the psychedelic sector today. Therefore, a critical conversation brewing—one that addresses the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the psychedelic sector.

 


“We, people of color, have to step into this path and no longer feel less-than. The plant medicines come from indigenous regions and by nature, we are connected to these plants. These medicines have guided us from the beginning of time and we are the original medicine carriers. Unfortunately, we have come to believe that medicine does not belong to us. We think we don’t know the medicine, and yet it is in our DNA. We must bring it without diluting the wisdom and information of these plants.” –Ndine Drame, Ancestral Medicine Carrier who has been practicing for 20yrs & currently residing in Cherokee and Muscogee land, presently known as Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 2024

One of the disparities within the psychedelic research community is the lack of representation of black, indigenous, people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ people in leadership positions and as research participants. Despite the integral role that diverse perspectives play in fostering innovation and addressing the complex needs of diverse populations, the psychedelic sector has struggled to prioritize diversity and inclusion. This failure limits the generalizability and applicability of psychedelic therapies to communities that are not included in the research. By centering discussions on diversity, equity, and accessibility, the issue aims to enable systemic change within the psychedelic sector, ensuring that the benefits of psychedelic medicine are accessible to all individuals, regardless of race, age, gender, faith, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status or background.  


Three reasons we need Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the psychedelic sector:

1. Including indigenous wisdom keepers and healers can teach the psychedelic sector about how to be in “right” relationship with the medicine, mother earth, and society

2. Centering communities of color can help to more broadly and justly transform drug policy

3. Including diverse people can enhance therapeutic efficacy


In a groundbreaking special issue of the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, guest editors Monnica Williams, PhD, and Beatriz Labate, PhD, shine a spotlight on the pressing need for diversity, equity, and accessibility in psychedelic medicine. At its core, the psychedelic science movement is rooted in the healing traditions of indigenous cultures from around the world, who have long revered plant medicines for their profound therapeutic and spiritual properties. Yet, as these practices are increasingly adapted to Western models of healthcare, there is a risk of perpetuating colonial dynamics and erasing indigenous wisdom, voices, and perspectives from the narrative.


1st Reason: Including indigenous wisdom keepers and healers can teach the psychedelic sector about how to be in “right” relationship with medicine, mother earth, and society.

The use of plant medicines/psychedelics in indigenous cultures is deeply rooted in millennia-old traditions and spiritual practices, representing a profound relationship between humans and the natural world. Indigenous communities around the globe have long revered plant medicines for their healing properties and spiritual significance, viewing them as sacred allies in their quest for physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.  In my training with Plant Spirit School and studying with teachers Pilar Hernández-Wolfe, Ph.D. and Lorna Liana in the Fall of 2023, it was made clear that the resurgence of interest in psychedelics in Western societies has brought with it a host of complex challenges and ethical considerations regarding the appropriation and commodification of indigenous knowledge and practices.

Thus, it’s essential to recognize that indigenous cultures have a deep understanding of plant medicines that goes far beyond their pharmacological properties. In the book How to Change Your Mind author, Michael Pollan, explains how for indigenous peoples, psychedelics are not merely substances to be consumed but rather, sacred tools that facilitate connection with the divine, ancestors, and the natural world. These practices are often deeply embedded within cultural rituals and ceremonies that serve to honor and uphold traditional knowledge systems and values while facilitating deep mental, physical, and spiritual healing.

However, the increasing demand for such plant medicines in Western societies has led to a surge in tourism to regions where indigenous ceremonies take place, such as the Amazon rainforest for ayahuasca ceremonies. This influx of outsiders has not only disrupted local ecosystems but also placed strains on indigenous communities, leading to concerns about cultural appropriation, exploitation, and commodification. Additionally, the commercialization of plant medicines has raised questions about intellectual property rights and equitable benefit-sharing for indigenous peoples, who have historically been marginalized and violently exploited by colonial powers.


As Western societies increasingly embrace psychedelics for therapeutic and recreational purposes, there is a risk of further marginalizing and erasing indigenous voices and perspectives from the narrative. In light of these complex dynamics, it is important for the psychedelic sector to approach the engagement with psychedelics in indigenous cultures with humility, respect, and reciprocity. This means actively engaging with and including indigenous medicine keepers and communities as partners and collaborators, rather than mere suppliers of plant medicines or exotic experiences. It also requires acknowledging and redressing historical injustices, including land dispossession, cultural genocide, and environmental degradation that continue to negatively impact indigenous peoples today.

Ultimately, indigenous plant medicine wisdom offers valuable insights into alternative paradigms of healing, spirituality, and interconnectedness that have much to teach us in the Western world. By forging respectful and collaborative partnerships with indigenous peoples, the psychedelic sector becomes more equitable, connected, and reciprocal.

In a podcast interview on Psychedelic Spotlight in 2021, Steven Huang, a DEI consultant at MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies), a nonprofit research and educational organization, underscored yet another reason why DEI is not just desirable but essential for the flourishing of the psychedelic landscape – the transformation of drug policy.

2nd Reason: Centering communities of color can help to more broadly and justly transform drug policy.

Throughout history, communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by discriminatory drug policies and practices. The War on Drugs, for instance, has had devastating consequences, perpetuating cycles of incarceration and trauma within marginalized populations.  Therefore, people of color bring unique perspectives and insights shaped by their lived experiences with discriminatory drug policies, making them invaluable allies in the fight for decriminalization and harm reduction. Furthermore, by centering the needs and concerns of communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, the psychedelic sector can develop more effective harm reduction strategies that address the root causes of substance misuse and promote equitable access to healing modalities.


“There is a psychedelic exceptionalism where people believe that psychedelics can help both mental health as well as automatically make the world better, and this is not necessarily true. In order for psychedelics to help make the world a better place, there needs to be intentional efforts towards transforming structural inequities and oppressive systems by people directly. Psychedelics will not automatically guide us to dismantle oppressive systems.” Ifetayo Harvey, Founder of People of Color Psychedelic Collective, New York City, Lenape Territory 2024

Ifetayo Harvey, the founder of People of Color Psychedelic Collective (POCPC), reminds us that “we should be broadening our relationship to psychedelics to go beyond simply helping our individual mental health needs. Our relationship to psychedelics needs to simultaneously be about building a just and equitable society.” POCPC, a nonprofit organization of members dedicated to psychedelic healing and education who “work to undo the harms caused by the war on drugs and oppressive systems of injustice” plays a crucial role in addressing the historical inequities and injustices. By providing psychedelic education tailored specifically to people of color and creating inclusive spaces for learning, the POCPC actively confronts the legacy of discriminatory drug policies and practices. Through collaboration and solidarity with such groups and the inclusion of people of color in the psychedelic sector, we not only strengthen advocacy efforts but also pave the way for a more just and compassionate approach to drug policy reform and access. 

3rd Reason: Including diverse people can enhance therapeutic efficacy.

Steven Huang reminds us that the current models of psychedelic psychotherapy being utilized in clinical trials are resource-intensive and likely to remain out of reach for the socioeconomically disadvantaged if approved as medical treatments. Furthermore, the efficacy of these treatments is contingent upon a holistic understanding of the diverse range of human experiences. Without adequate representation and inclusion, there’s a risk of developing therapies that may not resonate with or adequately address the needs of a diverse population. By embracing DEI principles, the industry can ensure that psychedelic therapies are also accessible, culturally competent, and effective for diverse populations. 

“Recruiting diverse samples is crucial for psychedelic research- we know that in psychedelic trials, minoritized groups are significantly underrepresented (Michaels et al., 2018)- this has significant ramifications for the generalizability of findings from these studies. How much can we trust the results to generalize to the broader community if certain communities are not appropriately represented? I think this is also an area of ethics- justice is a core ethical principle within mental health treatment, meaning we need to help all people have access to any treatments that we can offer.”  Jessica Maples-Keller, PHD, Researcher, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University

In their study, George et al. (2020) emphasize the significance of diversifying practitioner expertise and participant perspectives to transcend narrow frameworks and outdated assumptions, thus yielding more generalizable findings. Additionally, they acknowledge that Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) serves as a conduit for cultivating diverse perspectives, offering a platform to amplify various voices and address disparities in participant recruitment, as well as the effectiveness and relevance of findings. Through engaging community stakeholders at all stages of the research process, CBPR generates findings that are more pertinent, meaningful, and applicable to real-world settings. This inclusive approach enhances the likelihood of successful intervention implementation and facilitates the broader application of research findings across diverse populations.

Additionally, George et al. (2020) acknowledge that fostering cultural humility within psychedelic science is essential to prevent perpetuating limiting and unethical practices. Cultural humility is defined as “a process of self-reflection and discovery in order to build honest and trustworthy relationships,” according to this study which looks at its importance for clinical researchers.  By embracing cultural humility, researchers and practitioners can create a more inclusive and equitable therapeutic environment that honors the diversity of human experiences and promotes positive therapeutic outcomes for all individuals.

In conclusion, as we navigate this ever-expanding landscape of psychedelic science and therapy, it becomes increasingly apparent that addressing issues of race, cultural appropriation, and equity is not just necessary but imperative for the integrity and efficacy of our collective healing endeavors. By actively involving diverse stakeholders such as indigenous communities, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and other marginalized groups, we can co-create more culturally informed and responsive approaches to psychedelic research, therapy, and policy. As the field continues to evolve, it’s incumbent upon stakeholders to actively dismantle barriers to access and opportunity, prioritize equity and justice, and celebrate the myriad voices and experiences that enrich the psychedelic journey. In doing so, we can cultivate a more vibrant, just, and liberated ecosystem—one that honors the principles of healing, growth, and interconnectedness that lie at the heart of the psychedelic experience.

Informal References

  1. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, guest editors Monnica Williams, PhD, and Beatriz Labate, PhD. Special Issue on Diversity, Equity, and Access in Psychedelic Medicine, February 6, 2020
  2. Book: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan  May 2018
  3. Podcast: Psychedelic Spotlight with guest speaker Steven Huang, DEI Consultant. 2021
  4. Plant Spirit School 2023: Teachers Pilar Hernández-Wolfe, Ph.D. and Lorna Liana, Plant Spirit School Founder and CEO
  5. Community Organization: People Of Color Psychedelic Collective (POCPC) website: https://www.pocpc.org/
  6. Research Article: 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 Name], [Volume(Issue)], 4–15. Published online: 01 Jul 2019. Publication Date: 01 Mar 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1556/2054.2019.015

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