Decolonising Psychedelics by Amplifying Indigenous Wisdom

Decolonising Psychedelics - GCI Content Hub - Global Cannabis Intelligence

The recent upsurge in psychedelic research resulting from the liberalisation of psychedelic compounds has created unprecedented global interest in the therapeutic potential of these powerful plant medicines. Various tensions arise which highlight the need to bridge the knowledge gap between traditional pharmacology and Western science. How do we diversify and decolonise the psychedelics industry to honour the indigenous wisdom from which psychedelic plant medicines originate?

In light of the psychedelic renaissance revolutionising mental health treatment worldwide, a panel of experts at GCI’s latest Summit discuss indigenous wisdom through the lens of diversity and inclusion within the psychedelics industry.

“Science has these blind spots because everything is measured and quantified.” – Buki Fadipe

The psychedelics industry suffers from a lack of respect for indigenous wisdom, explains Buki Fadipe, writer, educator and psychedelic practitioner in training. “There is a huge gap between the scientific, biomedical model and indigenous practice, knowledge and wisdom,” she says. Because indigenous wisdom of these healing plants is passed down through generations and isn’t divulged in an objective way, “science has these blind spots because everything is measured and quantified.” Dr Miyabe Shields, Chief Scientific Officer for REAL Isolates points out that while psychedelic plants have been utilised for healing in non-Western cultures since time immemorial, pharmaceutical science is, comparatively, “a toddler,” being just “a couple of hundred years old.”

Marrying science and indigenous wisdom

The tension between traditional and Western pharmacology is palpable in the psychedelic field. Traditional pharmacology is an ancient practice covering plant sciences and natural, indigenous medicine (including psychedelic plants). This school of thought is not solely concerned with physical chemical interactions of a substance in the brain, but with the “overall aspect of how that affects your spiritual path, your relationship to the plants and the other living things that you share the planet with,” explains Dr Shields. Meanwhile, “science tends to devalue faith. Even though science is a form of faith – it’s a faith in the only thing that you can prove.”

While the indigenous perspective acknowledges our holistic complexity, science suffers from a reductionist approach in its one-dimensional concern with the objective, biochemical impact of a substance. By only attributing merit to that which can be measured and quantified, science fails to make space for qualitative human experience and acknowledging the “value in the unknown,” Dr Shields reflects. Modern science “values one type of information more than any other,” she says.

“Science tends to devalue faith. Even though science is a form of faith – it’s a faith in the only thing that you can prove.” – Dr Miyabe Shields

To ameliorate this knowledge gap, Dr Shields explains that modern pharmacology needs to explore the concepts of “mysticism” and “oceanic boundlessness.” Although still in their infancy in scientific literature, terms like these allow room for science to become more comfortable with viewing the nature of things “for what they are,” without necessitating a clinical evaluation. Ultimately, Fadipe explains, Western pharmacology does not need to be concerned with measuring mysticism, but with understanding that “spiritual emergence is what really acts as a catalyst for overall healing.”

Diversity and inclusion as drivers of the psychedelic industry

Increasing indigenous representation in the psychedelic industry is also necessary to address this knowledge gap in modern pharmacology. “I think that by inviting more indigenous voices, voices from a broader range of cultures, we will bridge that gap,” says Fadipe. Rachel Kann, devotional poet and ceremonialist adds that “it’s about sitting down and listening and learning and respecting the indigenous wisdom – and this is a great time for that.” Furthermore, genuine representation and diversity will actually lend itself to generating the insight which will help the industry to “shift the paradigm” around mental health and psychedelics, explains Fadipe.

Foundational changes are required from the psychedelic industry because “the system as a whole [is], by definition, exclusive,” says Dr Shields. This is because marginalised communities are persecuted by the state and imprisoned for consuming the same substances which the psychedelics industry is profiting from selling. Kann reminds us that “we still have people in jail for very minor offences.” BIPOC have endured generations of oppression at the hands of colonial structures like the War on Drugs, and so are subject to a “double stigmatisation” when it comes to psychedelics.

Therefore, a top-down framework is necessary to establish diversity and inclusion in the psychedelic field. “There’s a privilege that comes with being able to be part of something that is emerging and cutting edge and that has associated risk with it,” says Dr Shields. Because Black and Brown people are more at risk of being criminalised for drug use and association with illegality, it’s important to acknowledge this systemic disadvantage by making education and science more accessible.

When you decolonize the psychedelics industry, you find the dissolution of the “hierarchical framework” which acts as a barrier for marginalised communities to industry. Fadipe advocates “decolonising the lens we use to look at this work.” The industry can restructure itself by acting on the unifying understanding that “all of our voices are important.” Because the Eurocentric equation of science with truth is colonial, decolonising education within the industry would allow qualitative experience and ancient wisdom to stand on equal footing with modern science and academia. “We need more POC scientists on the ground,” she says.

Postcolonial psychedelic therapy

Accessibility to high quality psychedelic therapy is crucial for the diversification of industry. In order to ensure psychedelic therapy is accessible, practitioners must be trained to support BIPOC. “There isn’t enough geocultural nuance being implemented in these courses,” says Fadipe, a practitioner in training. Kann reflects on the importance of addressing race-based trauma in psychedelic fields: “what we really need to lean into is empathy,” she says. Education that equips psychedelic therapists to acknowledge the historical and intergenerational trauma caused by systemic oppression is paramount for individual and collective healing.

“It’s about sitting down and listening and learning and respecting the indigenous wisdom – and this is a great time for that.” – Rachel Kann

To ensure BIPOC and marginalised groups have access to psychedelic therapies, privileged individuals and companies in the space have a duty to implement schemes that subsidise these costs. Fadipe highlights the positive role of group psychedelic ceremonies as a way of reflecting and honouring indigenous practices. Traditionally indigenous communities underwent psychedelic therapy together “as a tool for unification, for unifying the community and unifying themselves with the land.” Furthermore, group ceremonies are a cost-effective way of distributing these medicines.

Bridging the gap between science and indigenous wisdom is crucial for ensuring that the world benefits from the full potential of the paradigm shift in mental health which the psychedelics industry has the potential to bring forth. In order to do so, the industry must amplify and uplift the voices of indigenous healers by being open to listening and learning from qualitative human experiences and ancient wisdom on equal footing with scientific papers and clinical trials. This is necessary in order to address and prevent the unjust misappropriation of ancient knowledge and substances which have historically been used to oppress and marginalise the indigenous communities from which these healing traditions emerged.

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