A thawing War on Drugs, criminal justice reforms, rapid legalization of marijuana, and a wave of clinical research in psychedelic healing have combined to create hope—and opportunity—for many in the United States. But the progress in reversing an anti-drug regime rooted in hysteria and racism has not translated into full equity and justice for women and people of color, who continue to experience disadvantages in new economies like cannabis.
That’s why a group of bold, young activists scattered across the U.S. have formed the People of Color Psychedelic Society. “Our group is comprised of all people of color, women, and queer folks,” says Ifetayo Harvey, Marketing Coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “There is a need for recognizing the work of people of color in psychedelics because we don’t have a large presence in that world. There are many people of color out there who are interested in hearing from others like them about psychedelics.”
Harvey co-founded the Society with Duane David in November 2017. At the moment, it is a young but growing coalition of about 25 members around the country, in cities like Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago. They hold online meetings each month. Last year, the Society took up an important project that sheds new light on the life of a woman well-known to psychedelic enthusiasts, the sabiduria (‘wise one’), María Sabina.
“One of our members Paula Kahn was connected with some folks down in Oaxaca, Mexico, with many archives of María Sabina’s life,” Harvey says. “They have pictures, interviews, and papers about her. We wanted to uncover the deeper story of her life. In the psychedelic world she’s revered as a ‘magical, mystical woman’ who popularized mushrooms. But there’s more to her story than that. She was really taken advantage of and treated like an object by a lot of white American researchers.”
“Sabina died pretty poor and her village still recognizes her as someone who’s really important and special. What’s so fascinating is she used mushrooms to heal from her own abusive relationship and then learned to heal other folks.”
Sabina lived her life in a small village in the mountains of Southern Mexico. She first learned of the powers of psilocybin mushrooms when she was a small girl. Throughout her life she became an expert in their spiritual and medicinal properties.
In 1955, the American anthropologist R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina Pavlona Wasson, traveled to Mexico to take part in a sacred ceremony with Sabina after a local man introduced them. Wasson’s account of this experience, along with photographs and illustrations of mushrooms, were published in his essay, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in the May 1957 edition of Life magazine. It sparked an explosion of interest throughout North America and Europe in mushrooms and the Mexican traditions.
Last year, the Society raised over $5,000 to begin collecting and digitizing the Sabina archive. Their goal is to make the information electronically accessible to the local people in Mexico, and educate people about Sabina’s true contributions to psychedelic science.
The activist group also works to create a support space for sexual assault survivors. “It’s been very unfortunate that there’s been so many accusations and incidents of people in the research community using different psychedelic medications and taking advantage of women sexually,” says Society founding member Soma Phoenix*. “When you start taking substances you’re very vulnerable, which inherently attracts predatory people.”
Another Society founding member, Oriana Mayorga, has spent the better part of the last year supporting sexual assault survivors through her other projects like Psychedelic Sisters in Arms, a series of short stories published by drug media platform Psymposia, where she is also the Director of Community Engagement.
“Last year I took part in leading public awareness campaigns in New York against men who have been sexually violent towards women,” Mayorga said. “I received a lot of backlash, such as blacklisting and ostracism from the ‘psychedelic community.’”
Mayorga emphasized that much of the hostility survivors face actually comes from other women.
“To my surprise, several women whom I expected to be ‘allies’ aligned themselves with these problematic men and the institutions that continue to support them,” she says.
Mayorga knew that many other psychedelic advocates shared similar experiences. “So since then, I’ve spearheaded this project at Psymposia by reaching out to women in the community directly. Sexual abuse and assault are issues of enormous importance as psychedelic therapy becomes mainstream. There are already issues of therapists who have violated ethics and this needs to be addressed.”
Mayorga’s series includes stories about people’s bodies being violated on dance floors and in psychedelic festivals, being ridiculed by academics in a psychedelic conference, and a woman’s attempts to alert her peers about her experience being assaulted in an ayahuasca ceremony in South America.
“I think these survivors’ motivation behind sharing their stories is a desire to demonstrate solidarity with the other survivors who are continuously silenced,” Mayorga says. “Perhaps another motivation is to speak up to encourage those who have not come forward to come out (if and only if, it is safe for them to do so).”
Mayorga, the Society, and some other colleagues also produced the ‘Dismantling Psychedelic Patriarchy’ event in July 2018, in partnership with the D.C. Psychedelic Society. This panel discussion examined issues of sexism, discrimination, and consent in the psychedelic community. “I hope to continue this series next summer,” Mayorga says. “We’ve helped spark a lot of necessary conversations in the broader community. But to this day, no other psychedelic organization has invited us to speak on these issues.”
The lack of people of color and other minorities in psychedelic advocacy and research spaces can often create a sense of loneliness. “When I became involved in the psychedelic community years ago, I didn’t see people that were black like me, that act or think like me,” Phoenix says. “Until I met other people of color and I realized, we’re out here, we’re doing this like everyone else.”
But the dynamic cuts both ways, Phoenix says. She often struggles to make knowledge of these drugs accessible to the urban black communities she grew up in. “When I talk to people from my background, it’s like, ‘What? This is drugs.’ Second, that’s ‘white people shit’. Third, ‘What are you doing? You’re gonna go crazy.’ I want them to know none of the above are true.”
Phoenix wants to both destigmatize people who look like her in the psychedelic community, and psychedelics themselves in her home community. “You can be authentically yourself, from wherever you’re from, and still benefit from this medicine,” she says. “This transcends culture, this transcends different groups of people and ideologies—this is something everyone can benefit from.”
“But we also have to recognize this isn’t for everyone,” she adds. “If this is something you’re inclined to do, you should be free to do it. You know if this is for you or not.”
In 2019, the People of Color Psychedelic Society plans to organize a proper meeting or conference for their members. They want to host talks on anything from psychedelic drug policy to Afrofuturism to cryptocurrency.
Harvey believes this is a critical moment for people to engage with the future of psychedelics as medical research proceeds rapidly. “I don’t believe medicalization should be the only trajectory,” she says.
“I don’t think people of color should just wait around for things to happen for us, we need to be proactive and make sure we have a say in how our government deals with these substances.” Harvey stressed the need to give the right education and safety information to people who use drugs outside of legally sanctioned contexts.
“Our communities are struggling with PTSD and all kinds of problems,” Phoenix says. “This medicine can help so many populations, especially lower income, African American, Latino, and of course white communities. We need more voices to say, this isn’t ‘rich people shit,’ this isn’t ‘white people shit’—this is human shit. This is medicine, for real.”
*Soma Phoenix uses an alias to protect her identity. You may engage with her social media here.