An open letter to the newly founded Center for Psychedelic Research at Johns Hopkins

By Psymposia|October 9, 2019

With the recent creation of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, we must remember that, while industrialized medicine has never attempted to serve all people, institutional histories vary from one organization to the next.

Photo by Sarah J Hinzman

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First, a few thoughts from the Psymposia Team:

The so-called “psychedelic renaissance” is unquestionably unfolding within the “set and setting” of late-stage capitalism, punctuated by the existential threats of climate catastrophe, U.S. militarism, and industrial consumerism. Amidst a shifting landscape of political decisions and public opinions, “The Man” is looking to get in on a piece of the psychedelic action. Would-be gurus insist on the merits of running retreats pushing psychedelic miracle cures. Venture capitalists seek to cash in on a “virgin market of for-profit psychedelics.” Even the United States military and DARPA are looking to turn on (though, not for the first time), and not just as treatments for veterans suffering from PTSD, but also for hunter-killer drone operators

It is of vital importance to recognize that this moment in time is not a unique aberration, but is intimately tied to that which came before; the past does not pass. This includes the harms that go unacknowledged and the systemic problems that “psychedelic leaders” seem unwilling or unable – as of yet – to address.

In considering the recent creation of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, we must remember that, while industrialized medicine has never attempted to serve all people, institutional histories vary from one organization to the next. In light of Johns Hopkins’ history, as well as some of the funders involved in this new psychedelic research center, there are concerns that cannot go unaddressed by those involved.

Referred to by local residents of East Baltimore as “the plantation,” Johns Hopkins’ history elicits suspicion and mistrust by many in the community. 

Hopkins was the institution that removed cervical tissue from Henrietta Lacks, a black woman suffering from cervical cancer, without her consent. Researchers distributed those tissue samples throughout the academic world; resulting in the publication of her genetic information, thousands of patents involving her cells, and two Nobel Prizes, all without her or her family’s consent. While some sectors of the medical field have attempted to address some issues of consent and medical experimentation, on the whole, the medical profession suffers from blind spots in matters of race, gender and class. Those who believe in psychedelic medicalization must not only acknowledge those systemic realities of medicine at large, but also within psychedelic medicalization.

The reverberating harms of the past that ripple through the present should be understood to be alive and well. Components of the current MDMA-assisted psychotherapy protocol were created to address sexual abuse by therapists, and while these histories go largely unacknowledged (or dismissed as symptomatic of the times), abuse continues. We are witnessing the creation of psychedelic research centers at Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London, funded by a myriad of capitalists, self-help gurus, and questionable entrepreneurs

We must challenge the notion that these institutions and individuals understand (or are reasonably equipped to address) the complex and diverse needs of the numerous communities seeking out psychedelic as medicines compounds. This has never been the case. 

Communal needs have never been freely met by elite actors. Consider the advances of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the labor movement, the abolitionist movement, or countless other struggles for human rights. It should be clear that the victories and concessions they achieved were won through the efforts of ordinary people working together to challenge the systemic oppression of dominant culture.

If we look at funders like Tim Ferriss, whose solution to becoming a “top expert” in four weeks is joining “two to three trade organizations with official sounding names,” [emphasis added] the question that rings clear as a bell is, “Why should we trust you?”

Brian Normand, Erica Darragh, David Nickles, and Brian Pace contributed to this statement. 

An open letter from the Psychedelic Equity Project to the newly founded Center for Psychedelic Research

By The Psychedelic Equity Project

The Psychedelic Equity Project exists to increase opportunities and access for people from marginalized groups who have historically been left or pushed out of the conversation in the “psychedelic renaissance.” As we continue to understand more about the nature of trauma and how it reverberates throughout a person’s life, we believe there is no separating societal health from mental health. And if we’re right about that, there’s no overstating the importance of studying the efficacy of these treatments in special populations.

We’re hoping to hear from you about your level of commitment to providing access to the most vulnerable members of our society. You have an amazing opportunity—as well as a big responsibility—to establish yourselves as a leader, not only in psychedelic research but also as an ally for social justice. Other organizations have had to go through severe growing pains in this area. You have the opportunity to be intersectional and equitable in your work from the get-go.

Historically, this area of research has benefited the most privileged members of our society. What steps are you taking to understand and address the barriers people from marginalized groups face in participating in these kinds of trials? Given the disproportionately negative impact the War on Drugs has had on Indigenous, Black, and Brown Americans, how will you go about educating and connecting with those communities? How will you ensure that people of color will have the sense of safety and resources necessary to participate in the trials? A working-class single parent, for instance, cannot afford to take time off from work to participate in a study. Childcare and transportation must also be taken into consideration. Further, stigmas around mental health care must be addressed with education and access to resources.

More questions to consider:

    • • Where will you be focusing your outreach efforts?
    • • Will you reach out to leaders from disenfranchised communities?
    • • How will members of the LGBTQ+ community be recruited?
    • • Will there be consideration for trans and gender-non-conforming folx?
    • • Will your research facility have gender-neutral bathrooms for participants?
    • • Will your questionnaires be appropriately written to be inclusive?
    • • Will your staff be trauma-informed and trained in dealing with these demographics?
    • • Given the importance of representation, how are you going about staffing the research team?
    • • Does your target percentage of minority representation in staff exceed the federal requirements?

    Finally, please consider ways to undo the legacy of malfeasance underserved communities have experienced in their interactions with the American health care system.

    We look forward to hearing from you. Wishing you all the best in this endeavor!

    Psychedelic Equity Project, Portland, OR.

Hey! Before you go… Psymposia is a 501(c)(3) non-profit media organization that offers critical perspectives on drugs, politics, and culture. We strive to ask challenging questions, and we’re committed to independent reporting, critical analysis, and holding those who wield power accountable.

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