Privilege and Safety in the Psychedelic Community

By Natalie Ginsberg|November 30, 2016

I feel safe openly advocating for the beneficial use of illicit substances because I have never been stopped by police without legitimate cause.

The is part 3 of The Psychedelic Diversity Conversation.
Read: Intro | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker

As the Policy and Advocacy Manager of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), I spend my time speaking with inspiring people who are passionate about psychedelics’ role in healing humanity. I find myself surrounded by our beautiful and brave psychedelic community in spaces ranging from academic conferences, to the United Nations, to Burning Man. Collectively, we are comprised of people who feel safe enough to speak publicly, and build our career around, illicit and deeply stigmatized substances.

So, it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of this community is white. Even researchers working with plant medicines of indigenous peoples tend to be white. Occasionally an indigenous representative will attend a lecture or a conference, but I am hard pressed to think of a psychedelic organization led by a person of color.

My Privilege and My Work

As a white cis-gender Jewish woman, my work has never made me feel unsafe. I hope this will not change under Trump’s administration. Already, I benefit from privilege in post-election America, as I can walk down the street without fearing for my physical safety while my queer friends, and friends of color, are experiencing hate crimes at increasingly alarming rates. However, as a woman and as a Jew in Trump’s America, I definitely feel less safe than before. Identities are always deeply intersectional, and I have discovered power in understanding the varieties of my privileges and oppressions. Consequently, this consciousness allows me to leverage my power.

As Audre Lorde writes: “To acknowledge privilege is the first step in making it available for wider use. Each of us is blessed in some particular way, whether we recognize our blessings or not. And each one of us, somewhere in our lives, must clear a space within that blessing where she can call upon whatever resources are available to her in the name of something that must be done.”

For example, I feel safe openly advocating for the beneficial use of illicit substances because I have never been stopped by police without legitimate cause. I benefit from the privilege of my Ivy League degrees, as I feel them provide a layer of protection when I publicly discuss ‘controversial’ topics and question the status quo.

This awareness of my privilege allows me to be more intentional, and therefore effective, in my work; while simultaneously allowing me to consciously resist injustice and oppression in its many manifestations. We will continue to unintentionally perpetuate the white-supremacist patriarchal society that unavoidably shapes us, unless we actively work to dismantle it among ourselves on both an individual and community level. Psychonauts understand that psychedelic consciousness involves self-work and awareness, and similarly, racial consciousness requires deep personal reflection.

How Can a Criminalized Community Be Privileged?

Psychedelic users certainly face significant challenges – the United States government still views psychedelics, including cannabis, as Schedule I substances, meaning they officially possess the highest potential for abuse and have no recognized medical use.

Privilege and safety are relative and intersectional. We can lament the horror of people serving time in prison for psychedelics, while simultaneously recognizing how small of a percentage of psychedelic users, compared with other illicit drug users, encounter the police. Privilege doesn’t mean that we don’t still face stigma and risk losing our jobs, or even our children, for being open about psychedelics; but it means recognizing that far more people feel safe enough to speak openly about their psychedelic use, without consequence, than of any other illicit substances. We must acknowledge and understand our privileged position in the broader movement for drug policy reform in order to work most effectively, and to avoid unintentionally recreating dangerous, stigmatizing structures.

Set, Setting, and White Privilege

The privilege necessary to access an adequate psychedelic set and setting also contributes to the whiteness of psychedelia. A psychedelic experience demands a large chunk of time and a space in which one feels safe enough to be vulnerable. Most Americans simply do not have the opportunity to spend six to twelve hours free from responsibility. And finding a comfortable, safe space to enjoy a psychedelic journey poses an impossible barrier for many, especially those living in urban environments. Eighty percent of black Americans live in cities, with very limited access to nature. Privacy, for many, is a privilege.

While many white Americans find psychedelic refuges at festivals or concerts, people of color cannot feel the same level of safety indulging in illicit substances in public spaces. According to the NAACP, black Americans are ten times more likely to be arrested for a drug offense than white Americans. Further, a person of color may not feel the same sense of comfort as her white peers at a predominately white festival or concert. The author of Transcending Boundaries: Identity and Oppression within Psychedelic Culture writes: “As a person of color, I can honestly say I do not feel like I am welcome, or a part of, psychedelia, and this deeply saddens me.”

I know our community, united by principles of oneness and love, can do much better. As a culture committed to mindfulness and self-awareness, we must first start by reflecting on our whiteness and privilege, and the subconscious ways in which we may be perpetuating racist systems, if we ever hope to change.

As we work to expand our collective awareness around race and privilege, our work to elevate psychedelic consciousness will blossom as a powerful tool in the movement for healing and justice.

Read part 4: Psychedelic Inclusivity: Hopes and Challenges

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Natalie Ginsberg

Natalie Ginsberg is the Policy and Advocacy Director at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.