Latest posts by Charlotte Walsh, MPhil (see all)

I want to consider the question: If the prohibition of plant medicines were to end, what do we want to come in its wake?

First, I think it’s important to be clear about what we want to avoid, and why. It’s crucial to remember that what change looks like will be strongly influenced by how the case for such change is made. Given this, it’s somewhat worrying to me that drug policy reformists often call for change by implicitly buying in to the lie at the heart of prohibition; namely, that the state has the right to control what we ingest, with their rhetoric that, “yes, drugs are potentially harmful, but prohibition is only making matters worse, so we need to replace it with a system of stringent regulation.”

Of course, if we break these hypothetical regulations in the future, we’ll still be breaking the law, so we’ll have ended up with little more than a watered-down version of the current approach. It’s important to be careful what you wish for: We don’t want to wrest control from the hands of the powerful, simply to hand it straight back. We need to avoid jumping straight from the frying pan into the fire, transitioning from criminalization to a system of strict governmental legal regulation. Accordingly, we need to resist any framing of the narrative that tacitly suggests that prohibition is an acceptable model and any retraction of it is some kind of favor to us; rather, let’s have as our foundational principle an unapologetic assertion that the drug laws are draconian, unsuitable for any civilized liberal democracy, that they need razing to the ground, with a new system built from scratch, rooted in the fundamental recognition of our right to cognitive liberty, to alter our own consciousness.

A lot of people who currently perform incredible work may be frozen out by a system of strict regulation if its requirements are prohibitively expensive or exceptionally tricky to comply with.

If we don’t stake this claim, we need to recognize that, even if prohibition were to end, all the underground plant medicine healers will most likely not simply be able to emerge blinking into the light of legality, continuing with their work as before, minus the looming threat of criminalization. A lot of people who currently perform incredible work may be frozen out by a system of strict regulation if its requirements are prohibitively expensive or exceptionally tricky to comply with. Indeed, we’re seeing this dynamic in action already in the US, with corporate players from Wall Street making a killing out of the legalization of cannabis in some states, as they have the means to abide by demanding governmental regulations, while those from marginalized communities who are still being imprisoned for selling the exact same plant, don’t. Not only is this a potent example of social injustice, but it leaves us in the unpalatable situation where people who see cannabis as a commodity are reaping the benefits from legislative change, whereas those with a longstanding relationship with what they often consider to be a sacred herb continue to be persecuted. We don’t want to repeat this pattern.

Or, how about the fact that, under a system of strict regulation, some sort of license will doubtless be needed in order to distribute plant medicines? This raises interesting questions, such as: who’ll be in charge of the licensing system? what will it entail? Traditionally, in indigenous cultures, training in plant medicine work is bound up with what’s often conceived of as a divine calling, with strong lineages and lengthy apprenticeships, all of which is a far cry from completing a certifiable course in shamanism. Further, many of those who hold ceremony in the UK are visiting, often indigenous, medicine workers, and how they would fit in to any regulatory system is something that will need to be resolved. Suffice it to say that any model that excludes the originators of this work due to a different Western conception regarding what constitutes legitimacy would be profoundly problematic. Issues of power and of authority are palpable here.

The plant medicines make for an uneasy fit in the medical model, and we need to think very carefully about whether or not we want them to

Another very real danger is that the prohibition of plant medicines will end, only for them to then be medicalized, falling under the strictures of that system. The plant medicines make for an uneasy fit in the medical model, and we need to think very carefully about whether or not we want them to. Lest we forget, the reason so many of us are turning to alternative shamanic modalities to help with issues such as depression, addiction, and so forth, is because Western medicine—for all its undeniably incredible achievements—isn’t very good at dealing with malaises of the mind.

The plant medicines are not medicines in the sense in which that term is typically understood in the West; they’re perhaps best understood as healing for the soul, and thus don’t fit easily in to a system where the very idea of the soul has been largely dispensed with. Yet, it’s perhaps this dispensation with the soul that’s the reason behind Western medicine’s failure to deal effectively with mental health issues, most of which, I believe, are ultimately rooted, in a spiritual disconnection, and thus require this spiritual dimension to be addressed in order to be resolved. To put it another way, you can’t expect to successfully medicalize your way out of an existential problem. The plant medicines can open our hearts back up; hearts that we’ve shut down and armored off in response to trauma—in response to life!— and it’s this reopening to love that leads to true healing, not just the suppression of symptoms, such as is effectuated by antidepressants.

Of course, we’re well along the path towards psychedelics being subsumed into Western medicine, and I’m not saying there’s no place for the medicalization of certain psychedelic substances; indeed, that may be the ideal system for some people to access them, and I’m in awe of and support the incredible work done by MAPS and similar initiatives in the UK moving towards this. However, this is not, and should not be, the only way. While psychedelic psychotherapy is a great improvement on the incumbent model, and seems to work terrifically, with, for instance, MDMA and psilocyn, this clinical approach with synthetic substances is not what some people need, and neither is it the appropriate setting for the plant medicines, the effects of which are inseparable from the context in which they’re taken. The magic of ceremony is about the medicine, but it’s also about so much more: the intention of the individual in drinking; the relationship between them and the healer; the sense of community with others in the circle; the transportive soundscape; and on and on. Unlike with most Western medicines, this isn’t a passive process—sitting back and waiting for the pill to work its magic—but, rather, it takes effort, and we need to do the work. Plant medicines are part of a process that continues as we integrate the lessons we’ve learned from them. Benefits unfold over time in ways that are often difficult to trace, that are perhaps surprising, as energetic systems are reconfigured as part of a journey that lasts a lifetime.

As another illustration of the incompatibility of the shamanic model with the medical one, Western medicine is rooted in an expectation of predictability of dosage, whereas the plant medicines are inherently unpredictable on this front. What we’re witnessing here is a clash of paradigms, with the brewing of ayahuasca, for instance, viewed as a healing art form from the perspective of plant medicine practitioners, with plant spirits very much part of the process; consistency is not what’s being aimed for. This illuminates an even more profound conflict between materialistic and spiritual paradigms that cannot be ignored, with those who ingest plant medicines typically perceiving themselves to be in relationship not just with the plants, but with plant spirits, and beyond. Plant medicine work cannot be forced into the same box as Western biomedicine, as there are entirely different cosmologies at play here. Let’s not distort the beauty of ceremony in an attempt to fit it into a model that doesn’t work, wrenching these ancestral plants from their necessary context of chaos magic and neutering their inherent wildness in a misguided attempt to render them more palatable. And let’s acknowledge that, in resisting this, we’re likely to be met with some resistance in return. The medical profession has spent many years establishing a monopoly over the right to provide medicines, wresting this power away from traditional healers, and it’s not going to hand that power back over without a struggle. However, rather than approaching this as a fight, let’s acknowledge that there are benefits to both models, that we can learn from one another, creating a truly holistic approach to health, using that term broadly, encompassing the notion of all of us flourishing to our full potential. Compounding these concerns about over-medicalization, recently, we’ve witnessed what some view as a worrying trend towards the commodification of psychedelic medicine and knowledge by venture-backed companies, with somewhat suspicious links to some of the most harm-producing institutions of mainstream society; such companies surely have the plant medicines in their sights.

This leads us to the bigger question of whether we want the plant medicines to be co-opted to take the edge of late-stage capitalism—arguably helping to perpetuate it—or, instead, to fundamentally challenge these systems of injustice that are, in large part, responsible for the traumas we’re trying to heal.

This leads us to the bigger question of whether we want the plant medicines to be co-opted to take the edge of late-stage capitalism—arguably helping to perpetuate it—or, instead, to fundamentally challenge these systems of injustice that are, in large part, responsible for the traumas we’re trying to heal. Fortunately, I don’t think the plant medicines are so easy to co-opt or commodify; they’re more tricky than that, and will doubtless seep beyond the boundaries people try to erect around them. They can help us to reconnect with ourselves, to recognize the illusion of separation from others, to connect with nature, with the sacred, with love; in doing so, they teach us to find succor from within, rather than endlessly trying to fill that gaping void inside with meaningless objects. As such, they’re always, ultimately, going to be a threat, not an ally, to the purveyors of such meaningless objects. Similarly, in showing us that we’re united, they’ll always pose a danger to those who seek to divide us. Let’s not forget, more broadly, the motive for criminalizing psychedelics on a global level was, at least in part, due to their impact on political consciousness; now, more than ever, we need to effect social and political change, to come back to love and connection at a time of hatred and division, to recognize our inseparability from nature as environmental cataclysm draws ever nearer, to call on the divine to give us strength to deal with these existential crises.

Let’s not underestimate what we can achieve with these plant teachers as our accomplices; let’s not sell them—and ourselves—short. Just as we acknowledge that the value of plant medicines in the domain of healing is that they get to the root of the trauma, it’s important to recognize that this trauma is not just individual but, more often, societally induced; as Krishnamurti so eloquently put it, “it’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” So, the healing we seek needs to go well beyond the individual, lest we simply mirror the lie of individualism at the heart of the neo-liberal project. Having turned inwards, we need to remember to turn back outwards, to become spiritual activists. And, yes, the plant medicines can catalyze healing, but let’s not forget that they’re also visionary materials that help us explore different dimensions, at the very least, of our own consciousness, and perhaps beyond. From these mystical vantage points, we can hopefully reframe the picture of our reality, bringing back wisdom that will help update outmoded and harmful models of existence.

It’s full decriminalization that is being advocated for here, the repeal of all prohibitive drug laws, which effectively equates with legalization, minus the accompaniment of an enforced regulatory system.

For all of these reasons, rather than stringent regulation or medicalization, I’m an advocate of decriminalization. To put it bluntly, our right to be left the fuck alone. Decriminalization comes in two flavors: either full, formal decriminalization, which entails the repeal of prohibitive legislation, or a watered down, informal decriminalization, which is normally effected via a change in policing policy, an agreement not to enforce criminal laws that remain in place, most commonly restricted to those that relate to possession in the realm of drug policy. It’s full decriminalization that is being advocated for here, the repeal of all prohibitive drug laws, which effectively equates with legalization, minus the accompaniment of an enforced regulatory system.

I suspect many people want decriminalization, in their heart of hearts, but are reticent to say so, believing that we have to give concessions in order to get them. In my ideal world, decriminalization would be accompanied by the rise of plant medicine practitioner groups, drawing up their own guidelines, their own protocols, that could then be voluntarily ascribed to: a bottom-up, rather than a top-down model, shaped by those who know what they’re talking about. We need guidance from those with wisdom, not law.

We need a clear vision of what self-regulated best practice with plant medicines would look like, and to live fearlessly into that.

My position here is optimistic, maybe even ideological. I make no apologies for that. It’s important to argue for what’s believed to be right, not simply for what’s believed to be possible. We need a clear vision of what self-regulated best practice with plant medicines would look like, and to live fearlessly into that. If we shrink our vision by second-guessing what those in power are going to “allow” us to do, we’re conceding the game and giving up before we’ve even begun. Of course there’s going to be opposition to these ideas; if there wasn’t, you can guarantee they weren’t ideas worth pursuing. Of course we’re going to be met with the rejoinder that what we’re proposing is impossible; that’s how the status quo responds to threat, by presenting itself as the only viable system, with everything else an impossibility. But what’s actually impossible is to carry on as we are doing. And, decriminalization isn’t just a pipe dream; it’s starting to happen. Earlier this year, grassroots campaigning led to the effective decriminalization of magic mushrooms in Denver, Colorado, and, shortly afterwards, of a smorgasbord of entheogenic plants in Oakland, California.

Furthermore, the world of underground healers is already self-regulating in a disparate way, and more collaborative models of self-regulation exist and are in the process of being developed yet further. Importantly, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here: there are many lessons that can be learned from indigenous societies regarding the cultural regulation of plant medicines. Let’s not do this in a half-assed way, a virtue signaling nod to indigenous peoples. I’m talking about taking their deep knowledge seriously, taking the idea of communicating with plants and spirit realms literally, rather than metaphorically, recognizing that we’ve gone astray, that we have so much to learn in order to get back on the path, and that we need to do so swiftly, before we take ourselves down, and the rest of the planet along with us. And, of course, there’s an ugly legacy of colonialism and repression of these peoples, including of their ancestral medicine practices. Let’s not repeat this with spiritual extractivism. We need to think sensitively about the impact that developments in the Global North are having on the Global South, and what we might best do to mitigate any harms that arise. This will involve thinking really carefully about what true reciprocity looks like.

I was at the World Ayahuasca Conference, organized by ICEERS, in Girona this Spring, and the overwhelming message that came from the indigenous people in attendance was that they needed our support in holding out against the land grabs by corporations in the Amazon that constitute a form of genocide and a form of ecocide. If the plant medicines teach us anything, perhaps it’s, through the felt experience of oneness, to expand our circles of concern, leading to a genuine eco-consciousness that respects life in all its forms. Indeed, even operating from a perspective of pure self-interest, this shift needs to happen. The time frame might be different, but we can no more survive without the Amazon Rainforest than the people who live in it. To believe otherwise is recklessly delusional.

In practice, of course, great difficulties will emerge in formulating any such codes of practice. There are markedly different approaches to holding ceremony, for instance, and we’ll quickly bump up against exceptionally sticky issues. To illustrate the sensitivity of such matters, consider that, from a Western perspective, it might seem uncontroversial to assume that pregnant women and children will be prohibited from drinking ayahuasca; however, this is certainly not the case in many indigenous ceremonies or the syncretic churches that have emerged from them, who use them in these cases without evidence of deleterious effects. What about people with mental health issues? There’s a strong argument to be made for robust screening practices; though, who to screen out, and who decides this, are very complex questions. Plant medicine ceremonies, almost by definition, tend to involve those with issues in this realm, to greater or lesser degrees, if only by virtue of the fact that they’re attended by humans.

         So, coming up with models of self-regulation isn’t going to be easy; but that’s life; it’s a never-ending process of negotiating tricky situations. Suffice it to say that any codes that are devised would need to have a fluidity, a non-specificity to them that allowed for contrasting worldviews by being pared down to first principles.

Fundamentally, we need to create support structures whereby people have access to the best possible knowledge about the plant medicines, where there’s skillful preparation, ceremony, integration, and so on. We need to ensure that we’re always acting in ways consistent with our ethics and with our broader vision for the future, and to hold others to account to behave accordingly.

Indeed, a big question for any collective of practitioners is how to deal with the rogues that inevitably emerge in every field, and are perhaps especially dangerous in a setting where they’re giving powerful psychoactive materials to (often vulnerable) people. Where these individuals breach the law—in terms of sexual assault, for instance—there are criminal prohibitions in place to deal with this. Where the breach is more in the moral realm, such as not abiding by an agreed-upon code of ethics, there’ll be the option of the wider group first engaging with the individual in question, maybe following the principles of a progressive model of transformative justice, and, perhaps, ultimately, excluding them from the collective if they remain non-compliant. Under the recommended voluntary system, this wouldn’t stop these providers from holding ceremony should participants still choose to drink with them, but the absence or presence of support from the collective would help the decision of who to drink with to be a more informed one, with those involved more cognizant of the risks.

Risk is inherent in life, and there has to be a point at which personal responsibility comes into play in order to ensure freedom.

Of course, individuals may choose to ingest plant medicines alone, or informally with friends, which may (perhaps) be inadvisable, but should certainly not be prosecutable. To put it another way, attempts can be made to provide an appropriate container in which to take the plant medicines; but, should either practitioners or participants choose to step outside that container, that shouldn’t invite prosecution, unless, of course, it involves otherwise unlawful acts. Risk is inherent in life, and there has to be a point at which personal responsibility comes into play in order to ensure freedom.

It’s worth emphasizing that models of self-regulation merit developing both in anticipation of change in the future legal status of plant medicines, and regardless of whether or not such change ever occurs. This is it, right here, right now. not in some imagined future. Indeed, it’s always worth reminding ourselves that it’s by no means necessary to wait for permission from above to effect positive change from below. Never underestimate the power of underground movements; they change the world. The existence of the plant medicine underground, in all its glory, is testament to this fact: a vast network of—on the whole—advanced souls, doing miraculous work, helping to guide people into the light. I want to end by offering heartfelt thanks to all of those who, under the current prohibitive system, risk their freedom so that we might be free.

To continue the conversation around decriminalization of psychedelic plant medicines, join us at Psychedelic Liberty Summit

Note: This paper was presented at Breaking Convention, Greenwich University, London, United Kingdom,16–18 August, 2019. It expands on the author’s previous publication in Chacruna, “How Should Plant Medicines Be Regulated?”

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