The ancient origins of psychedelics used by humans are well known. For thousands of years, various indigenous people from all parts of the world have used psychedelics for certain ceremonies, medicines, and recreational purposes: Ayahuasca by the indigenous people of the Amazon; Psilocybin by the Aztecs; Peyote by Native Americans in the west; Ibogaine by indigenous people in west-central Africa.
But as the so-called psychedelics renaissance movement takes hold, there emerges a commonly held belief that, while the scientific progress and clinical promise of this movement owes much of its success to the history of indigenous healing practices, the work of indigenous people, ethnic and racial minorities, women, and other disenfranchised groups is often not supported or highlighted in the mainstream narrative of psychedelic medicine, according to a study calling for more indigenous and ethnic minority inclusion in the psychedelics industry.
“Unless the predominantly White Western mainstream field of psychedelic medicine recognizes its role in cultural appropriation, the perpetuation of systemic inequities, and the limitations of current treatment protocols for ethnic minority populations, it is poised to not only repeat the mistakes of the past, but is also at risk of severely limiting the dissemination of this novel treatment modality,” the study concluded.
Understanding the past, creating access for more diversity, with better science and better mental health treatment for everybody as a result—all are goals that an inclusive psychedelics industry is poised to pursue today.
It’s a well-known fact that psychedelics are more likely to be accessible in White communities in the United States. One study found that participants who reported lifetime use of any psychedelic were more likely to be young, White, single men with somewhat higher income and more education. Twenty percent of participants who reported having used a psychedelic substance were White American, and only 4 percent were African American.
The problem with equal access always needs to be balanced with an historical reference from the ongoing effect of the War on Drugs. African Americans are more likely to be arrested, receive harsher punishment, and face longer sentences than Whites, although they use drugs at roughly the same rate, according to an article in the New York University Law Review. African Americans are also incarcerated across state prisons more than five times the rate of Whites and at least 10 times the rate in five states: Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
An article in MAPS about race-based trauma stated that given these circumstances, “psychedelic treatments such as MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and psilocybin are often unfathomable concepts for many African Americans and people of color more generally.”
Ironically it’s this group that needs psychedelics therapy most. The MAPS article noted that one key factor in understanding PTSD in ethnoracial minorities is the impact of racism on psychological well-being. Racism continues to be a daily part of American culture, and racial barriers have an overwhelming impact on the oppressed. “Much research has been conducted on the social, economic, and political effects of racism, but less research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color,” according to the MAPS article.
Perceived racial discrimination was associated with increased mental disorders in African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, suggesting that racism may in itself be a traumatic experience, according to the article.
Although millennials of color may be more open to recreational psychedelic use, such as MDMA, aiming for their participation in psychedelic clinical drug trials may be difficult because history is not on their side.
Injustices committed against people of color in the name of medical research are not easily forgotten or forgiven. For example, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male was one of the many harrowing displays of unforgivable abuse and exploitation of minority research subjects at the hands of predominantly White researchers and government. It alone accounts for an immense amount of fear minorities still feel about participating in research today, according to a study on the inclusion of people of color in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Minorities’ fears related to being administered drugs may be even more intense when the treatment involves controlled substances, given historic and current inequities in the criminal justice system for drug-related offenses. In addition to fear of criminal actions, minorities may be wary of the physical and mental consequences associated with psychedelic use, including impaired control and cognition increased. “While any participant may experience concerns about how their bodies will react to a psychedelic substance, the added mistrust of researchers from people of color likely exacerbates reluctance to participate in such studies,” the study concluded.
The same study reported on a methodological search of psychedelic studies from 1993 to 2017 to evaluate ethnoracial differences in inclusion and effective methods of recruiting people of color. Of the 18 studies searched, 82.3% of the participants were non-Hispanic White, 2.5% were African-American, 2.1% were of Latino origin, 1.8% were of Asian origin, 4.6% were of indigenous origin, 4.6% were of mixed race, 1.8% identified their race as “other,” and the ethnicity of 8.2% of participants was unknown.
So what can be done?
There are new programs to help balance the inclusion of a more diverse base of people in the psychedelics space that may help encourage an expansion of more participants of color.
One of the more recent undertakings is a fund that provides scholarships of up to 100 percent to access the newly launched 12-month intensive certificate program from Psychedelics Today. The program’s curriculum is made up of five core modules, two electives, six experiential retreat options (one required), and a final integration project.
All classes, which begin April 19, 2022, are remote to accommodate a global student population, with webinars and lectures. The funding is reserved for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, military veterans, those serving marginalized and underserved communities, and students of financial need, according to a press release.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) puts on the Psychedelic Medicine and Cultural Trauma Workshop and the MDMA Therapy Training for Communities of Color. A MAPS board member—the first person of color to join the board, Vicky Dulai—along with staff members, established a working group focused on diversity and inclusion, called Psychedelic Allies for Intersectional Navigation and Transformation (PAINT).
So for now, it appears to be grassroots activists who can help drive the necessary systemic change and engage people of color and ethnic minorities who are needed by the industry.
Psychologist Monnica Williams, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut, speaking February 25, 2020, as part of the Chacruna Institute Community Forum Series, San Francisco, said that she has talked to many 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,” she said. “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.”