Psychedelic drugs can evoke deep, intangible feelings of oneness with the universe, with those around us, and with humanity. This ethereal togetherness opens our eyes. It reveals to us that we are all one– a sentiment that is mirrored by indigenous cultures and that has influenced the culturally, ethnically, and racially diverse history of psychedelics.
Since Western culture has got hold of psychedelics, this story has been painted one colour. As the white-dominated field of psychedelic medicine flourishes, drug prohibition continues to disproportionately target minority ethnic groups. It is a blatant contradiction of the ‘togetherness’ that defines the psychedelic experience.
Psychedelic medicine is being whitewashed.
Psychedelic history: from indigenous healers to weaponised drugs
It’s time to stop crediting the 1960s counterculture movement for the birth of modern-day psychedelic medicine. Although hippie culture does have a prominent part to play in the history of psychedelics, psychoactive substances and their healing power have influenced indigenous cultures for thousands of years– long before the hippie heyday.
Ayahuasca has a long history of use amongst indigenous communities of the Amazon basin. As do psilocybin-containing ‘magic mushrooms’ by Mazatec Shamans and Iboga root within the spiritual discipline of Bwiti. Psychedelics have been used as indigenous healers for generations.
Though soon after LSD became a symbol of the counterculture, these substances fell victim to the war on drugs. Bureaucratic systems labelled psychedelic drugs a societal notoriety, belittling the historic use of these substances in indigenous culture.
After psychedelic drugs were outlawed in the US, the UK introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. LSD, psilocybin, ecstasy, and other psychedelic drugs are categorised as Schedule 1– the most strictly controlled class of ‘hazardous’ drugs– and imprisonment rates soared.
Drug prohibition upholds longstanding systems of racism. Despite hippie culture being dominated by the white and middle-class, this is not reflected in drug-related prison sentences; the war on drugs has resulted in the incarceration of predominantly Black citizens.
In the US, the rate of imprisonment for Black people grew from about 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000, whereas this only increased from 103 per 100,000 people to 242 for white people. Black Americans are 6x more likely to be imprisoned with drug-related charges, despite rates of drug use being similar to those of white people. The disparities are clear.
Psychedelic medicine is re-emerging
In the last few years, Western medicine has begun to recognise the healing power of psychedelics. LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA, when administered in conjunction with psychotherapy, have shown immeasurable promise in the treatment of PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, and more; they hold the potential to revolutionise psychiatric treatment.
The uncomfortable irony is that ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups have been omitted from psychedelic research, despite the cultural significance of psychedelics in indigenous cultures– all whilst drugs continue to be weaponised against racial minorities. These are colonialist patterns that leaders of the field should strive to end.
The racial imbalance in psychedelic research
Senior psychedelic researchers are predominantly white men; as the science progresses, this imbalance in race (and gender) cannot be dismissed any longer.
What is causing these racial disparities? Perhaps there is an understandable reluctance from Black researchers to work with psychedelics due to the unjust racial history of drug prohibition. Or perhaps this is yet another example of how systemic racism impacts education and representation in science. In the UK, white men constitute 65% of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, whereas ethnic minority women make up only 4%.
If nearly all researchers pioneering psychedelic research are white, this field of psychiatry will inevitably neglect the needs of ethnic minority groups and will therefore result in unequal access to these potentially life-changing therapies.
We are already seeing this happen. A research article published in BMC Psychiatry in 2018 showed that, out of 18 US psychedelic trials since 1993, 82.5% of the participants were white. Only 2.2% of participants were Black American, 2.2% were of Latino origin, 1.5% of Asian origin, and 4.7% were Indigenous.
A person’s racial and ethnic identity, and the impact of the current social climate, cannot be overlooked if psychedelic therapy is to succeed. Race has a powerful influence on the physical, psychological, and social environment that shapes an individual’s psychedelic experience– known as the set and setting. So, patient and practitioner diversity is a necessity.
How psychedelics could heal racial trauma
In the UK, Black adults are the least likely ethnic group to receive medication, counselling, or therapy for their mental health. Despite rates of depression being higher amongst Black and ethnic minority groups than in white people, there are more barriers– stigma, unconscious bias, and discrimination– that fuel this unequal access to treatment.
Mental health services have been crafted with a Eurocentric approach that does not consider how race and ethnicity impact mental illness. As a consequence, racial trauma has been ignored in the UK’s psychiatric support system for far too long.
Racial trauma is the cumulative impact of racism on the mind and body. According to the authors of a paper published in PTSD Research Quarterly, racial trauma ‘can include individual acts of racial discrimination combined with systemic racism, and typically includes historical, cultural, and community trauma’.
Experiences of racial trauma are permanently etched into the minds of Black and ethnic minority communities; it requires unique psychiatric treatment. But if psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy can help people to recover from PTSD, why has the racial influence on trauma not been explored in psychedelic research?
Dr. Monica T. Williams is one of the few Black researchers in psychedelic medicine. She is a clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Williams and her team of Black women therapists are trialling the use of MDMA therapy in the treatment of racial trauma, particularly for women of colour.
This work aims to bring intersectionality to psychedelic psychotherapy. Dr. Williams is paving the way for future psychedelic clinicians by detailing important considerations for future trials. These include, ‘diverse study staff, purposeful training in cultural competence for therapists and raters, targeted outreach for recruitment, meaningful incentives, a comfortable setting, and competent assessment of racial trauma’, as outlined by her team in a paper published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies.
Sara Reed, one of the therapists in Dr. William’s research team, shared her experiences of her own MDMA therapy session. She writes:
“Me—a young, black woman, free. No longer bound by the constraints of my political realities, I set sail on a journey that allowed me to reconnect and rest in a place saturated by grace, mercy, and love; I call that place home.”
The psychedelic industry needs to change
Psychedelics have been mishandled by drug law for decades, but now that psychedelic research is on an upwards trajectory, the narrative is changing.
But the history of psychedelics cannot be lost along the way. Drug prohibition has wrongfully targeted ethnic minorities; psychedelic medicine has built upon contributions from indigenous communities. We must acknowledge this history and use it to reshape the future of psychedelic medicine.
The science itself may still have far to go, but the therapeutic promise of psychedelics should not overshadow the lack of diversity in this field of research. Achieving racial equity in psychedelic research should be a far greater priority than it is right now.