Monnica T. Williams, Ph.D., ABPP

Exclusion, oppression, mass incarceration, research abuses have become barriers to the ancient wisdom of healing processes we need and deserve.

Black people living in Western culture may feel the impact of racialization, cultural trauma, and racism. We know that oppression and inequality can contribute to psychic distress at individual and collective levels and this is enhanced and compounded for people who exist at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.

Recently, there has been much discussion about the potential of psychedelic medicines to address a broad array of mental health conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, end-of-life anxiety, and other conditions. In fact, several top universities have even started centers for psychedelic research—including Johns Hopkins University, Imperial College in London, and the University of Toronto—and educational programs are now being developed to train clinicians to deliver psychedelic-assisted therapies.

our voices have not been part of the conversation as these medicines move into mainstream mental health care.

There seems to be a vast potential for psychedelics to help heal many types of psychological difficulties and move people toward wholeness. But this potential is unrealized, especially for Black people who are part of the African diaspora.  As an African American clinical psychologist and researcher, it has become evident that we have not been meaningfully included as research participants or researchers,1 and our voices have not been part of the conversation as these medicines move into mainstream mental health care.

In my own community, African Americans tend to be wary of psychedelics, due in part to the stigma attached to illicit substances. Back in the 1980s, the Black church was motivated to find solutions to the widespread use of crack and so it aligned itself with the Reagan-era “War on Drugs” as a potential solution. But, at every level, the criminal justice system is heavily biased against Black people compared to Whites; from racial profiling, arrests, and sentencing onward.2 So, the War on Drugs became an excuse for the mass incarceration of Black Americans accused of drug infractions.

early era psychedelic research (1950–1985) unduly rested on the backs of African Americans and other vulnerable populations.

In addition, there is evidence that the risks of early era psychedelic research (1950–1985) unduly rested on the backs of African Americans and other vulnerable populations. In my lab, we have been examining these early studies, comparing the treatment received by White research subjects to what was experienced by people of color. The Addiction Research Center (ARC) in Lexington KY, run by Dr. Harris Isbell, shared the campus with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The research subjects were inmates; one-third White, a third “Negro,” and a third “Mexican.” Many have heard of the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis,” but few know about the facility dubbed the “Narco Farm.”

Sacred Garden Community in Oakland: Bob Otis, Nicolle Greenheart, and Kufikiri Imara

One study describes two groups that received LSD; one was “Negro” males convicted on drug charges who were recruited from prison and provided coercive incentives (heroin) to participate in dubious LSD experiments, and the comparison group was professional White people at Cold Spring Harbor, living freely, who were not coerced, but given LSD in the lead researcher’s home “under social conditions designed to reduce anxiety”.3 Knowing the profound influence of (mind)set, setting, and intention, I guarantee people in these two groups had very different experiences.

There were over 500 published studies that came out of ARC from 1935–1975, testing the limits of human tolerance for psychedelics, opiates, and amphetamines on prisoners. Dr. Isbell’s studies included dangerously high and prolonged doses of LSD on his subjects. In the 1970s, ARC moved to Baltimore and became the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) after a nationwide ban on the use of federal prisoners as research subjects. But NIDA has never renounced these studies, although they violated well-established guidelines for the ethical conduct of biomedical research (e.g., Nuremburg Code, Declaration of Helsinki, Belmont Report).

So, between the barbaric research conducted on captive African Americans and mass incarceration justified by the War and Drugs, it’s no wonder so many Black people are uninterested in psychedelic medicine today. They may not know the details of the crimes committed against us, but the cultural memory remains. I hope that somewhere in the recesses of our cultural consciousness there still exists some memory of the valuable psychedelic traditions cultivated by our African ancestors, and nature’s many gifts that have been lost somewhere between North America and the Middle Passage.

The city of Oakland, just east of San Francisco, has traditionally been an African American enclave, though it is now experiencing shifting demographics and gentrification. Nicolle Greenheart is a trained facilitator for Sacred Garden Community in Oakland, where she works with diverse communities within the ceremonial entheogenic healing space. Nicolle is also a co-founder of the Decriminalize Nature movement, the non-profit organization responsible for decriminalizing psychedelic plant medicines in Oakland.

my people could benefit from this kind of therapy but are being left out of the psychedelic renaissance

I had the pleasure of meeting Nicolle on a recent visit to the Bay Area, and I was impressed by her dedication and commitment to psychedelic healing. She also understood the reluctance of Black people to engage in the work. “I could completely relate to the belief that psychedelics were just White people hippie drugs tied to the wild and crazy 60s,” she noted. “They definitely held a stigma for me. But then I did my research and starting working with the medicine and discovered for myself the life-transforming and healing benefits of it. It also immediately became clear to me that my people could benefit from this kind of therapy but are being left out of the psychedelic renaissance that is unfolding. I know what it’s like to be the only Black person in the room talking about the healing power of plant medicine and wondering how I can get more of us not only in the room but also truly benefiting from the medicine in a way that feels safe and honors our own ancestral roots.”

Psychedelics were used in Biblical times to anoint priests and kings, and they have also been used for thousands of years in African cultures.

There has been much written about the indigenous use of plant medicines from Mexico and South America, but psychedelics have been used across cultures and eras. Psychedelics were used in Biblical times to anoint priests and kings, and they have also been used for thousands of years in African cultures. During slavery, Yoruba women from West Africa  performed healing roles using their knowledge of plant medicines derived from Africa. And, in current times in Ethiopia, all plants are believed to possess some degree of medicinal usefulness, and medicinal plants occupy a central place in their traditional healthcare system. Many plants are bred and conserved in community sacred gardens, and families also keep small home gardens. This includes an array of flora for medicinal purposes and important psychoactive plant medicines for psychological and even spiritual problems.4

There has been much interest in the West African shrub iboga, a powerful psychoactive plant medicine that is the source of ibogaine.  It has been used for centuries in healing ceremonies and cultural rites by traditional communities in West Africa; for example, among members of the Bwiti religion in Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Congo.5 In the West, it was discovered that ibogaine can significantly reduce withdrawal symptoms from opiate dependency and eliminate cravings. This has resulted in several noteworthy clinical trials and thriving international ibogaine treatment centers for opiate addiction – Africa’s gift to the world.

In southern Africa, there is widespread reliance on ubulawu as psychoactive spiritual medicine used by indigenous people groups, such as the Xhosa and Zulu, to communicate with their ancestors and to treat mental disturbances.6 Ubulawu, an ancient African plant medicine, is composed primarily of the roots of several potent plants that are ground and made into a cold-water infusion, churned to produce a healing foam.  Scientists in the West are now trying to ascertain how this traditional African medicine can open self-knowledge and intuitive capacity. The Bushmen of Dobe in Botswana use the hallucinogenic plant kwashi (Pancratium trianthum) for spiritual and healing purposes. It is not known how many psychedelic plants can be found in Africa, but as of 2002, over 300 plants with psychoactive uses have been identified in South Africa alone,7 many with psychedelic properties.

our people have benefited from psychedelic plant medicines for a very long time.

There is such a rich tradition of plant medicines in Africa that it is clear our people have benefited from psychedelic plant medicines for a very long time. At my mental health clinic in Connecticut, we have started providing culturally-informed psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy as a means of treating racial trauma. We don’t have access to any of our ancestral plant medicines, and most psychedelic chemicals are not yet available outside of clinical trials. But we do have ketamine, which has been shown effective for certain mental health problems, and it can be used effectively for psychedelic psychotherapy. I have spoken to a multitude of Black people who have been wounded by large and small blows from discrimination accumulated over a lifetime. Many are fearful of a psychedelic medicine and the vulnerability that comes with being in an altered state. We know that, certainly, these treatments can be unsafe without skilled providers or caring therapists to guide them on the journey. But these medicines are part of our cultural birthright, and I believe we lose more when we step back and choose not to engage. It is true that it has not always been safe for us, but I hope we can come together as a people, create our own safe spaces, and become empowered to reclaim psychedelic healing for ourselves, our loved ones, and our community.

To this point, Nicolle Greenheart says, “Now it’s part of my life’s work to do what I can to help educate my people and create safe healing spaces for us by us. Given the cultural climate we’re living in these days and the historical trauma we’ve endured, we truly need safe spaces to heal together in community.”

Note: This article was taken in part from a lecture given at the Diversity, Equity, & Access in Psychedelic Medicine event on February 25, 2020, as part of the Chacruna Institute Community Forum Series, San Francisco, CA.

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References

  1. Michaels, T. I., Purdon, J., Collins, A. & Williams, M. T. (2018). Inclusion of people of color in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: A review of the literature. BMC Psychiatry, 18(245), 1–9. doi: 10.1186/s12888-018-1824-6
  2. Beckett, K., Nyrop, K., & Pfingst, L. (2006). Race, drugs, and policing: Understanding disparities in drug delivery arrests. Criminology, 44(1), 105–137.
  3. Abramson, H. A. (1960). Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25). XXXI. Comparison by questionnaire of psychotomimetic activity of congeners on normal subjects and drug addicts. Journal of Mental Science, 106, 1120–1123.
  4. Doffana, Z. D. & Yildiz, F. (2017). Sacred natural sites, herbal medicine, medicinal plants, and their conservation in Sidama, Ethiopia. Cogent Food & Agriculture, 3(1), 1365399. doi: 10.1080/23311932.2017.1365399
  5. Brackenridge P. (2010). Ibogaine therapy in the treatment of opiate dependency. Drugs & Alcohol Today, 10(4), 20–25. doi: 10.5042/daat.2010.0724
  6. Sobiecki, J. (2012). Psychoactive Ubulawu spiritual medicines and healing dynamics in the initiation process of Southern Bantu diviners. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44(3), 216–223.
  7. Sobiecki, J. F. (2002). A preliminary inventory of plants used for psychoactive purposes in southern African healing traditions. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 57(1–2), 1–24.

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