A Conversation about Intersectionality in the Psychedelic Community

By Leia Friedman|July 19, 2018

A conversation between two (white) activists to further the dialogue around inclusivity in the field of psychedelic research and culture.

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Leia:  How about that psychedelic movement huh?

Adele: It’s wild how much is going on right now. The movement is buzzing in so many directions.

Leia: It’s all over the mainstream media.

Adele: But I have feelings when I look around at the homogeny in the community— it could be the tickle of white guilt, it could be a more profound longing for inclusivity—as usual, can’t be too sure. But it comes up, because I know how progressive the values within this movement are, but there is this  major disconnect from other progressive movements as far as representation goes.

Leia: You’re not alone. I’m sure you’ve read the ton of articles and attended workshops run by community members who are actively pursuing answers and solutions to this issue. I feel like awareness has been brought to some of the issues in the psychedelic community, especially in the past year. Like privilege, and how that affects safe access to psychedelic therapy.

Adele: Yes! To psychedelic therapy, and also to festivals and conferences where psychonauts are gathering and playing.

Leia: Retreat centers, too; it’s expensive to travel to drink ayahuasca in the Amazon basin where its use originated, and can cost even more to find someone in the US that leads ceremonies… not to mention illegal and potentially immoral, unsafe…

Adele: Right. And those Westerners with that level of economic privilege, heading down to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, or to Gabon to do Iboga, or to Mexico to sit with mushrooms, without necessarily having the knowledge or awareness to approach those traditions with deep respect and curiosity can lead to cultural appropriation or worse, exploitation.

Leia: Pass me your lighter? Yup, cultural appropriation AND the perpetuation of a consumerist culture that accelerates the already irreversible damage to the rainforest while further marginalizing the people who live there, who these medicine traditions come from.

Adele: Right.. there is a lot of hustle and bustle right now around ibogaine as a sort of magical antidote to opiate addiction. People headed to centers all over the world treating addiction with it. And then equal-parts shade thrown in it’s direction from the temple of Western Medicine, scoffing and leering at it. In a way it’s not surprising at all that the West would go seeking quick fixes for it’s crises elsewhere, exploiting others’ resources to try and solve our problem, commodifying it, overloading the source.

Leia: Extractive economy..

Adele: Even though our movement employs, for the most part, some very out-of-the-box thinking, it is still impacted by these same old values and trends that the Western World operates by.

Leia: Like, how we still have issues with sexual misconduct and abuse? Perhaps because many of the people in power are this limited demographic of the cis-white hetero able-bodied male.

Adele: …with financial and social capital. What did you is say the percentage of principal investigators on the psychedelic research studies who are male?

Leia:  Katherine MacLean said at the Psychedelic Patriarchy event that 95% of the directors, board members, advisory board members, and PIs are white men. Let’s also not forget that Michael Pollan’s new book totally glosses over key women players in the psychedelic history. Failing to include these major women, such as Mary Cosimano, who I believe has conducted more legal psilocybin sessions than anyone else on the planet , is not only journalistic laziness—it perpetuates the myth of these lone male superheroes.

Adele: But this doesn’t really reflect psychedelia in wider culture. The origins of a lot of this research lie in the practices of indigenous communities, with women and men healers. And Jimi Hendrix singing about butterflies, zebras, moonbeams and fairytales is still, for many, the prototype of psychedelic rock. The psychedelic landscape is as wide and diverse as all of history is.

Leia: So do the representation issues really lie in this contemporary Western psychedelic medicine movement?

Adele: Yes, and…my personal experience has been that that community is very open, accepting and supportive of folks who want to get involved and be a part of it, no matter their background. We’re  just not making strong-enough moves to combat the other things blocking access to the psychedelic movement.

Leia: How can we ensure that people from all walks of life feel safe getting involved in the psychedelic movement? How can we expand our principles and shift our activities to support communities who don’t have full access right now? How can we ensure our work treating trauma and advocating for freedom and cognitive liberty is a service to society and not the privilege of a few?

Adele: It reminds me of the bell hooks quote “the bridges must be built in all directions.” We need to look at ways that we relate with and can support other movements, work together to reach shared goals.

Leia: Yes! I think we share a lot with other movements. I mean, psychedelic research is booming more than anything because studies show promise for relieving trauma. Childhood, multigenerational and sexual trauma are priorities in other movements because of the high risk of abuse and harm inherent in poverty, oppression, and marginalization. We could work to support research and activism that targets more specific communities and the way they are impacted by and managing trauma.

Adele: For sure. I’m looking forward to full studies on psilocybin for transition anxiety, or MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for sexual assault survivors once the treatment is legalized.

Leia: Our leaders have a responsibility to legalize these medicines for treatment and research. Until these substances can legally be used, their reach is limited. As more and more studies show clear positive results, and some of the hurdles to psychedelic research are lifted, there can be more work done to identify places this therapy can fit to support specific movements, and access can be prioritized for marginalized people.

bell hooks

Adele: There are other bridges, too- the War on Drugs being the most obvious. It was created and perpetuated to keep many different groups of people in check.

I know that organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and Drug Policy Alliance are working against the profound misery the drug war has inflicted on the U.S. and the world at large, and disproprotionately suffered by people of color, the queer community, women and children.

Leia: Those organizations are key players in the psychedelic movement.

Adele: They are. But I can tell you a story about Psychedelic Science conference in Oakland in 2017. Camille Barton, founder of The Collective Liberation Project, held a community forum called “White Allies and Anti-Racist Practice in the Psychedelic Community.” Ten points to MAPS for incorporating that panel in their programming. But it was held in a tiny room, and only about fifty people fit inside. There was a giant line outside to get in! Most people who wanted to see the discussion couldn’t.

Leia: I remember that. While it’s good to see that there was so much engagement, it’s unfortunate that expected interest was grossly underestimated.

A panel discussion about intersectionality at Psychedelic Science 2017

Adele: Next time, that panel can clearly be held in the same giant hall that Ann Shulgin spoke in later. I don’t know for sure why they undershot— perhaps it was a community forum and not a lecture. Either way, notes were taken…

Leia: People of color, although they have disproportionately higher rates of trauma, are still underrepresented in the researching body, amongst participants, and in outward recreational drug culture/the movement for legalization/decriminalization. And it’s not like its gonna be as simple as including more people of color and calling it a day.

Adele: Are we looking at this wrong? Maybe the question is why we prioritize the promotion of psychedelics, as opposed to material investments, social betterment through co-operative movements, and ending the drug war’s systemic racism.

Leia: *Snaps fingers*

Adele: There are lots of ideas in the psychedelic world about how there is this next-level plane where we are all One, all in a symbiotic relationship with each other and everything else. And while we may all be waves in the same giant sea, while we may all be particulates gyrating rhythmically to the beat of same drum or whatever, there are plenty of people out here trying to survive in a much more striated material world.

Leia: Did you just say gyrating rhythmically?

Adele: Ya

Leia: I can see how it could be offensive or alienating for someone who feels like their ability to soar freely is restricted down here on earth. We do not treat each other as though we’re all One.

Adele: And this pronoia concept, that somehow if we just open our hearts enough or get as authentic as we can that the universe will be the wind beneath our wings to bring us to fulfillment…

Leia: …doesn’t fly in the harsh realities of our economic and social structures. And I can see why people out here ridicule and disdain against some of these airier concepts that show up in the psychedelic movement.

Adele: All you need is love, man. But seriously… I just want to sing that german poem and Brazilian Girls song, Die Gedanken Sind Frei— “Thoughts are free.” Cognitive liberty is a huge part of my motivation to work in this movement. And I believe that affects all of us equally at some level. And that may be my nasty privilege rearing her head.

Leia: Right. And yeah, that’s true. It’s just that on our material plane of existence in the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, we are not all One. Cognitive liberty is a concern, but for people facing exponential rates of incarceration or deportation, there are other liberties at stake. We do not all have the same access to freedom.

Adele: And there is even more striation within drug use itself– both real and perceived. As a society, we differentiate “fun, party drugs” from “dirty, criminal drugs,” largely based on the social status of the people perceived to be using them.  There is always stigma in drug use, but in mainstream society we see both the silly, ridiculous, “look at my hand,” ungrounded in “reality,” dirty-hippie-who-needs-a-job stigma, and the dangerous, bath salts, tear-your-face-apart-with-your-fingernails-cos-you-think-you-have-bugs-all-over-you, attack-people-in-a-haze-of-insanity stigma. And everything in between haha.

Leia: In terms of social perception of drugs, there is what Nick Powers, (who may actually be rife with reputation issues of his own), calls the “Umbrella of White Safety.” Privileged people are more likely to be stigmatized in the first way than the second way. I think it could be fair to say that someone who is already viewed as threatening in society (for example, a black man) would be more likely to be viewed as even more threatening (out of control) if on psychedelics, whereas a white person might be viewed as more silly or docile, childlike than usual.  

Adele: Natural Born Killers aside, this is way too true. And coming out of the psychedelic closet is already pretty difficult for most white people, without even being held to crippling racial stigmas regarding drug use.

Leia: Reminds me of how one reason to criminalize cocaine was  “increased murder and insanity amongst lower class blacks because they have taken to “sniffing” since deprived of whisky by prohibition”

Adele:  Stigmas and fearmongering aside, there ARE some folks who can use drugs more safely than others, for real. I would argue that the psychedelic movement is on the hook for keeping its glorification of mind alteration as magical or medicinal in check in wider culture. Set and setting, mental health status, and trauma history are all extremely important factors in how drug use can affect someone.

Leia: Creating safe spaces for psychedelic exploration for people from all backgrounds, then, should be a priority for the psychedelic movement?

Adele: I think so! I mean, they are- that is the mission at the Zendo– to reduce harm associated with freedom of expression at events where folks come to alter their perceptions. To keep people out of the hands of law enforcement and other institutions that may not be designed to serve them or to meet them where they are. The problem right now is that it’s super hard for all kinds of people to get into those safer spaces!

Leia: Is anyone in the psychedelic movement talking about access and accessibility?

Adele: I know there are participants out there, like Mobility Camp at Burning Man, that focus on building physical accessibility and make it possible for all people to attend events. You’ve been on some retreats out of the country. Are those accessible?

Leia: In a lot of ways, no. Accommodations in other countries are not the same as here in the US; Someone with a physical disability might have trouble getting from place to place because of poor road conditions, no sidewalks, etc. And most ayahuasca places won’t let you come if you’re on any psychiatric meds.

Adele: Both using psychedelics in ritual and partying is much safer for some people than it is for others. At the Zendo, we see guests too often who have compromised their medication management to use drugs or let loose, and are experiencing some harsh realities about how their minds and bodies react. And of course, financially-speaking, accessibility needs work. Many of these psychedelic events like festivals and conferences come with high ticket prices and expensive, difficult travel, shutting out anyone who doesn’t have the free time or incomes to get themselves there.

Leia: Well, at least there are volunteer opportunities to gain a free ticket, like volunteering for Zendo. Bridges!

Adele: For sure. Zendo takes care of its volunteers. But also last year for Psychedelic Science, volunteers still had to pay over a hundred dollars to attend right? That’s why you didn’t volunteer?

Leia: Yup. And, I mean, there are lots of perks to just chilling in the free marketplace.

Adele: There certainly are. I met the Erowids in there last year. And saw you speak at the Psymposia Stage!

Leia: Build a bridge over this way- I feel for the people who have experienced sexual assault, harassment, or other unfair treatment, and then come to these events where their abusers are.

(R to L) Leia Friedman and Nese Devenot speak about being the Cosmic Sister’s Psychedelic Feminism Grant Recipients at Psychedelic Science 2017.

Adele: Right, and if they publicly out their abuser, they may face backlash from the community at large. The psychedelic movement has its own microcosm of #metoo… sigh

Leia: I simply can’t wrap my head around it, how people would rather protect the reputation of someone they’ve never met than empathize with and support a survivor coming forward with their story.

Adele: I’ve heard it rationalized that accusations should be kept quiet because if these sexual misconduct cases get picked up by mainstream news, it will look bad for psychedelics…mostly in my own head, I’m sorry to admit.

Leia: Apparently people haven’t taken enough psychedelics for us to realize that this way of handling issues of harassment and abuse does not work. Keeping people safe must be a high priority, especially with the sensitive and vulnerable nature of the psychedelic landscape. If a person comes forward with a story of mistreatment or abuse, I hope that anyone would respond with dignity and compassion, whether you want to believe their story or not. I’m sad to say that that’s not what I’ve seen.

Adele: Right, weren’t you at the event in NY that got interrupted by an action raised against two of the speakers?

Leia: Yeah. The experience itself was a collective, difficult trip I’d say. After three amazing talks about Psychedelics, Therapy, and People of Color, the Q&A was just beginning when a young woman of color activist leading #metoo work named Oriana Mayorga led a chant declaring that the two male speakers “hurt women sexually” and called upon them to leave. They refused, and after a few rounds of the chant, the room started to crumble. Mostly into people telling the protesters to get out. One of the speakers tried to start his own chant against the protesters, shaking the maraca at them.. People didn’t join in. The harsh response from many in the crowd reminded me of the way I’ve heard people respond to Black Lives Matter protests, by defending police and denouncing the more extreme actions BLM has used to protest the cause.

Adele: Like closing down the highway on the bay bridge? People were like, “I get it, but, traffic in the bay area is already so terrible. Like, people are just trying to get home.” And I’m like, “yeah, some people are just trying to not get shot by the police.”

Leia: Omg. Ya. One purpose of protest is to disrupt the normal flow of life or shut things down so we can address them. It makes something that we shouldn’t ignore unable to be ignored. How do we expect people to act respectfully when harm is going on that is incomprehensible?

Adele: Still, it sounds like shit was intense to witness. What was the outcome?

Leia: The action was successful in that the protestors chanted the two men out the door of the building. It remains a controversial event. I’ve heard of “calling out,” and its sweet little sister, “calling in”.. I prefer to roll with “calling into accountability.”

And I hear a clear call to action for the psychedelic movement to hold itself accountable to looping people from all backgrounds in safely. The power to heal the world really does rest in each of our hands.

Adele: Psychedelics taught me that. 🙂

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the “White Allies and Anti-Racist Practice in the Psychedelic Community” forum was organized by SSDP. The forum was organized by Camille Barton of the Collective Liberation Project. 

Adele Meower is a cultural activist based out of San Francisco. She works to dismantle the white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy and build nurturance culture through conflict navigation, harm reduction, careful crisis response, and creative resistance.

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Leia Friedman

Leia is a teacher, writer, and connectress. She is the cofounder of Boston Entheogenic Network, host of “The Psychedologist: consciousness positive radio,” the integration resource list volunteer coordinator for MAPS, and a permaculturist. Her work focuses on phenomena related to the human experience of consciousness through the lens of social and environmental justice. Leia is exploring ways to bridge the diverse and multidimensional intersections of psychedelics and ecology while residing at Happy Acres Farm in Sherman, CT.