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The Systemic Culture Problems of the Psychedelics Industry

The Systemic Culture Problems of the Psychedelics Industry

It’s 2020, and white men still dominate psychedelics conferences. If you’ve been in this scene for a while, you probably already know that. But this is not the whole story, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I recently wrote a reported news story about the racial and gender homogeneity of several psychedelics themed conferences which took place virtually since the Covid-19 outbreak. The responses to the article have been split between people resonating with it and sharing their own stories and reflections, and others who have expressed dissonance and even vitriol.

While some of the critiques expose the fragility of some readers when faced with the realities of longstanding inequity and oppression, and also the range of opinions that exist among members of psychedelic communities, there are other, valid critiques to be made. One particular view that rings true for me is that the article could have gone much farther in its critique of the psychedelics space. In my opinion, there remains much more to be addressed when it comes to some of the core shortcomings of this multifaceted psychedelic movement.

I believe that it is not enough to simply look at the statistics and numbers on race and gender alone. While organizers and presenters of conferences do tend to be primarily white and male, a diversified speaker panel is not the be-all and end-all solution to an atmosphere that is male-dominated, increasingly corporatized, capitalistic and white supremacist. These are systemic issues that have been brewing both in the larger culture and in the psychedelics sphere for years. Until they are appropriately addressed, down to the subtleties, there will remain many who do not feel safe and welcome – and the space will not embody the lessons of unity and healing that psychedelics themselves offer.

Efforts to bring diversified voices into the conversation are important, but representation alone is not going to solve the problems of inequity and oppression. Without a core shift in the overall aims, economics and power-dynamics at play, psychedelics communities will not cease to be toxic and harmful for many who inhabit them. What is needed is an upheaval of the basic operations and ways of doing business, which have long served a small few while overlooking many.

Looking Beyond Blanket Diversity

Even in speaking about simple representation, most psychedelics conferences have ample space for growth. There remains a lack of representation of neurodiversity, gender and sexually diverse individuals, people with disabilities, immigrants, non-native English speakers, fat people, and many others (and for those who don’t know me, “fat” is not a pejorative term in my vocabulary, nor should it be in yours). 

In a speech at University of South Carolina in 2015, Angela Davis spoke to this issue of over-emphasis on “diversity” while overlooking equity: 

“I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity… is a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way it functioned before… It’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference.” 

Tokenization and mistreatment of people from historically oppressed identities is a rampant issue in the realm of psychedelic events and spaces. Trying to select BIPOC, women and/or non-binary folks in order to make one’s event look diverse is the definition of tokenizing. It’s equally harmful to expect or assume that a BIPOC can, or should have to, be responsible for educating on race or speaking to issues of racism; that an LGBTQIA+ person should speak on topics of gender and/or sexuality; that a person with a disability will speak about disability; etc. Historically oppressed groups have expressed repeatedly that they are tired of having to spend their time educating everyone else, especially while ample, comprehensive information is readily available.

In response to my reported article, some readers suggested that pointing out the existing racial and gender disparities creates more divisions within the community. Kufikiri Imara spoke to this during the Horizons’ panel about the film Covid19, Psychedelics and Black Lives when he said: 

“There are times when I’m in a space and my identity as a Black man is the aspect that is singled out, and there are times when I’m in a space that I relate to others through different aspects of my identity. There’s a need for spaces where my racial identity and those experiences coupled with it are recognized and valued, and there’s a need for spaces where I am not defined by race. 

When someone says, “I don’t see color,” then what they are effectively doing is bypassing my racial identity so they don’t have to deal with those struggles that are a part of my racial identity.”

The “I don’t see color” argument is addressed in more detail in a recent Oprah Magazine article. 

For anyone seeking to embody the realization of our oneness and unity as a global family, the first step is recognizing one’s own privilege and the benefits reaped from systems of oppression that are still operating today. It doesn’t make anyone a bad person to have privilege. You may not have had any control over the privilege you possess. Even if you do, there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to live with comforts, even excess. But to resist acknowledging that others do not have equal access, ability and experiences is alienating for those people, and undermines the greater understanding that we are all one. If we are in this together, the first step is to acknowledge one another in our unique life journeys, struggles and joys. 

Core Problems: Corporate Interests, Commodification, Profit and Power

Before trying to simply diversify speaker lineups and leadership teams, it’s necessary to take a closer look at the underlying issues. It’s time to address the complexity of identity and representation at psychedelics conferences, and how that relates to commodification, profit and power in the psychedelic movement. 

In the same way that psychedelics can help us to look at the core of an issue or trauma, rather than just the symptoms, we have to look more deeply into why it is that over 90% of presenters at most psychedelics conferences this year have been white. What is at the core of this disparity?

Note: There are many wonderful articles already written on this subject, so without fleshing it out too much, the following is my brief summary, and some great resources for learning about the systematic oppression that leads to disparities in representation.

It’s 2020, and I live in a society where access to healthcare, education, housing and truth is limited. Where I live, and in most of the world, exploration of one’s consciousness is stigmatized and criminalized. My experience in public education, pre-K through postgraduate, taught me lies about or completely omitted any mention of the genocide of indigenous peoples, the original keepers of these medicines, in the Americas and around the world from ancient through to modern times. 

This is an era where the president slashed environmental protections in favor of profit for big corporations. Even since before Covid-19, getting out of the city to explore and connect with the natural world is increasingly in effect becoming a “privileged few” experience, rather than the human right and necessity that it is. These dystopian realities make me think about power and access to psychedelics. Who has the power to make decisions surrounding these tools? Who will those decisions serve? And who will have access to these ancient healing allies? 

The reason there are issues of power and access in the first place boil down to inherently oppressive systems that dominate much of our current society: white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism and eurocentrism. These systems operate under an ideological hierarchy that assumes one color of skin, gender, racial and/or cultural identity is superior, or at least the norm. 

Many people are raised in societies that are inherently white supremacist, colonial and eurocentric, and so they operate under those assumptions without realizing they are doing so. One step further from this underlying, exclusionary attitude is the active theft from and exploitation of people who don’t fit into the dominant paradigm. To name a few disparities, Black, indigenous, and people of color, especially womxn, are paid less than their white counterparts; farm workers who grow the food that feeds the nation are routinely forced to work in hazardous conditions for unlivable wages. Covid has been exposing those underlying inequities and systemic issues even more clearly. 

Patriarchy and rape culture create particular division and separation in psychedelic ecosystems. They create the conditions that keep certain voices quiet while other voices are permitted to bellow above the rest. They create the conditions that lead to platforming individuals as speakers and panelists with associations that have led to a few raised eyebrows. 

In his bio for the 2020 PsyTech conference, for example, Christian Angermayer, one of the co-founders of ATAI Life Sciences, noted that he is a member of the Presidential Advisory Council of Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda. Kagame has been repeatedly flagged by Human Rights Watch for numerous human rights abuses. ATAI has helped fund COMPASS Pathways and other companies developing psychedelic therapies. I reached out to Angermayer for comment, but was not able to contact him. 

Whether it’s intentional or not, subtle dynamics amount to an imbalance in power in psychedelic communities, even today. Some examples that come to mind are the sexualization of womxn’s bodies, cognitive bias toward the perceived expertise of the white male, the norm of referencing the work of one’s male counterparts while not consulting or referencing the work of womxn, the unfortunate fact that even despite accusations of sexist or inappropriate behavior, some men are still given a platform, and their right to speak defended, often at the cost of the people who they harmed.

In addition to a basic culture of patriarchy that looks to men first for expert answers, there is the issue of rape culture and its real-world impacts on members of the psychedelic movement. Sexual abuse, sadly, permeates purportedly healing spaces in the psychedelic world. Lily K. Ross, who survived sexual abuse in the Amazon and victim blaming at home, highlights the discrepancy in some common narratives. When some folks argue that publicly addressing issues of sexual misconduct in psychedelic communities might cast the movement in a bad light, the implication is that the victim/survivors of that abuse are not part of the movement. 

A friend of mine, Rhonda Raven Neuhaus, told me that if society were built to be accessible, there would be no disabilities; the concept of disabilities arises because most societies are built to serve and benefit folks with certain bodies. This concept as a metaphor can be applied when looking at gender inequities, or any instance of unequal representation and hierarchical representation. The way I see patriarchy show up in the psychedelic community is insidious and at times hard to pick up on. The reason for this is that anyone can benefit from and perpetuate patriarchy. 

After recognizing how underrepresented women were in public psychedelic discourse and conferences, a group of women came together in 2007 and formed the Women’s Visionary Congress as a platform for women who work with psychedelics and address safety issues surrounding their use. 

The Women’s Visionary Council (WVC), the nonprofit that organizes the Women’s Congress, calls on their website for acknowledgement of racism and violence against Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and states that women’s voices need to be heard, “especially women of color and indigenous women who have used psychoactive plants for healing and spiritual practices for thousands of years.” [Lucid News founding editor Annie Oak is one of the co-founders of the WVC]

In researching the psychedelic events that have taken place since Covid, I ended up watching some talks I never normally would have seen. In May, PsyTech featured a conference with men as more than two-thirds of the presenters; and, all of the presenters were white.

One of the talks I watched from this conference was with Bruce Linton, former CEO of Canopy Growth Corp. According to an article in The Star, Linton’s self-proclaimed ambition in the cannabis industry was to create a “massive, valuable asset that would dominate the world.” In his talk, titled “The Colours of Psychedelic Investing,” Linton lamented that “probably one of the worst things happening across the planet during Covid is people selling R&D [Research and Development] to help them in their current quarter.” I thought the worst things happening were people getting sick and dying, and losing their livelihoods en-masse, what about you? 

It is concerning to witness this kind of a values system taking hold, especially when it comes to psychedelics. The attention of these conferences is pointed toward matters of money and growth, rather than on the actual forward-looking potentials of psychedelics to heal communities and improve life on this planet. It’s so troubling to watch capitalism take hold, and to watch talks that frame psychedelics as a commodity, or a way to make more money. 

The movement to normalize and destigmatize psychedelics is not one of blind commodification. The psychedelics “industry” is possible because of an underground network of courageous people who have literally been risking their lives, their homes, their freedoms in order to make the truth about their healing potential available. The capitalist commodification of psychedelics disregards that entire struggle, and it also fails to acknowledge the long-term demonization and intentional attacks on indigenous peoples who have always used and protected these medicines. It is an attitude of conquer and destroy. It is the same attitude that has led to the depletion of the planet’s resources and global climate crises we currently witness. And it goes directly against the teachings these plants and other medicines offer. Why are we working to bring psychedelics to the mainstream at all, if so many people who care about psychedelics cannot lead the way to represent forward-thinking, inclusive and compassionate attitudes and values?

What do healers and longstanding members of the psychedelic community have to say about the corporate interest in psychedelics, and its approach?

Omolewa, the Entheogenic Midwife, shared with me the following:

“These corporate conferences are everything that psychedelics do not represent. They are devoid of spirit; when you remove spirit from science, you miss the point. We have to be careful not to follow their bandwagon; we have to keep their practices pure. It isn’t for us to sit in conferences and pay $500 to jack off. There’s a whole bunch of white supremacist masturbation going on and nothing is being created but foolishness.”

Brown Faces, Psychedelic Spaces is a platform, agency and development firm that welcomes diversity and anti-racism education to enrich the budding “industry” of psychedelics. Gabriela Rain, the organization’s director, laments that “the appeal of exponential growth is not championed by practitioners and indigenous space holders… the wave [of interest] is heralded by neo-spiritual and corporate capitalists. Psychedelic seminars, shows and panels are a breeding ground for this lack of understanding and diversity.”

The Problem of Psychedelic Capitalism

How are speakers chosen for conferences and other events? In my analysis of the conferences that took place in 2020 since Covid has necessitated physical distancing, I found that organizers either select people to speak because they want them there, or because investors want them there. Although these different events varied in terms of mission and audience, the representation of BIPOC and other historically oppressed groups, such as neurodiverse folks, gender-queer folks, transgender folks and others, was low almost across the board.

Kitty Sipple, activist and conference organizer, said the following in an email: 

“Psychedelic capitalism forces these conferences into feedback loop silos where the presenters and organizers are speaking directly to their curated audience. That curated audience usually doesn’t include anyone that experiences madness or is a psychiatric survivor because we are the outsiders of the whole movement, with most psychedelic community members grandstanding on the fact that they are not as ‘crazy’ as those other people. 

Those ‘other people’ are us. Ironically, psychedelics let them into our everyday world, not the other way around. Some of us live in altered states all the time, not just while on psychedelics, which means we might actually add to the conversation if they just considered listening to us.” 

Kitty worked as part of the organizing team for Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening: Harm Reduction and Future Visions. This may be the first psychedelic conference that aims to center and uplift the voices of people who are often excluded from other psychedelic spaces. 

Rhonda Raven Neuhaus, who comes from decades of work in disability advocacy and also has a background in healing and plant medicine integration support, said the disability community is also “repeatedly omitted from the conversation.” 

“With the expansion of programming around plant medicine work globally and in the US, it’s critical that all underrepresented groups are not only included as participants but as leaders.” 

How can psychedelic conferences shift to be more inclusive and intersectional, when corporate interests in psychedelics have dictated who is at the podium? Can companies like Eleusis and MindMed, with for-profit motives, meet the access needs of diverse folks when their staff themselves are overwhelmingly homogenous? If you understand the first thing about what psychedelics themselves represent, it stands to reason that speakers in the psychedelic community should be vetted beyond being the CEO of a psychedelic company with potential dollars to invest.

David Nickles, a writer and co-host of the Plus Three podcast, shared his perspective on the lack of vetting for speakers:

 “Not only have some of these conference organizers explicitly stated the purpose of their events is to generate excitement and investment for the nascent psychedelic ‘industry,’ the actual events emphasize investor-focused buzzwords rather than meaningful cultural, scientific, or philosophical content,” says Nickles. 

Platforming individuals as speakers and panelists who have spoken out against drug decriminalization has led to a few raised eyebrows. 

Erica Darragh, drug policy reform advocate said in an email: 

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“These conferences are a public display of the psychedelic movement’s shocking naivety about the intentions of venture capitalists. . . Psychedelic medicalization without decriminalization is a mutation of class warfare, but respected researchers and advocates are distributed among representatives from corporate pillars like ATAI Life Sciences and MindMed. Both of these corporations have stated their intention to privatize psychedelic medicine, and MindMed’s CEO has explicitly come out against decriminalization. Well-meaning people in our movement do not seem to recognize that their participation in these events adds undue and inappropriate legitimacy to the unethical intentions of these corporations.”

Elizabeth Nielson, co-founder of Fluence, has been working with some of these corporations and speaking at conferences, bringing more awareness about the need to help create access for everyone. 

“If you’re a business person or a regulatory person, the more cultural psychedelics conferences (like Horizons, as amazing as it is) are not gonna do it for you. We have to find a way to be part of that conversation.” 

Nielson is hoping that she can bring perspectives about the need for diversity and access to people coming from the corporate scene who may not have been exposed to these narratives before. 

“Having worked with both projects that are nonprofit funded and privately funded, I do see the role for all kinds of people and the benefit of having collaboration and presence of all different kinds of organizations,” she says. “I’m hopeful that what’s happening with the increased business interest is actually going to help people get more of the healthcare that they need.” 

With all of the excitement about psychedelics that is brewing, perhaps we will see more conversations about how to hold the so-called industry to a standard that embodies psychedelic values, has more intersectional representation, and guarantees access – especially for the people who need it most. 

Yarelix Estrada, harm reduction researcher and organizer, spoke to the complexity of some of these issues of inclusion and culture.

“Even if there are POC included [in psychedelic conferences and the larger movement], if they’re not being transparent and calling out these power structures, they’re just doing the exact same behavior of hoarding capital and not trying to change things so it’s more equitable or liberating for everyone. That’s all internalized colonialism.”

To Vet or Not to Vet Psychedelics Speakers

With so much white male privilege at the (Zoom) podium in psychedelics conferences this year, some have suggested conferences where everyone who wants to speak gets a platform to do so. 

Marik Hazan, founder of Psyched2020, a virtual conference with over 100 speakers, said that their booking criteria included, “people who have made a meaningful contribution to the space, bring positive energy, and are always looking to grow in their views and perspectives.” 

While the idea seems to come from a good place, opening up the platform to anyone who wants to speak can lead to complications. Two controversial men, with multiple allegations of unsafe and in one case abusive behavior, were removed from the speaker lineup after a loud response from the community. Psyched2020 at first motioned to include the men on a panel with a moderator, but ultimately bent to the pressure of 10 or more people asking them not to include these folks at all. 

“We’re hoping to continue supporting conversations between folks with different perspectives and hope that all parties involved might be open to dialogue in the future,” Hazan said in response to an email asking him to share more about the decision to not include these two individuals. “Suppressing open dialogue and conversation, especially regarding difficult topics, will only continue to build polarization and endanger seekers of psychedelic experiences the world over, in my opinion.”

I question whether giving a platform to the men would in fact mean less endangerment of psychedelic seekers. Those two men weren’t flagged because they have unpopular opinions; they were flagged because of concerns around their safety records as psychedelic journey facilitators.

Mike Margolies of Psychedelic Seminars says:

“Newcomers to the psychedelic space bring their enthusiasm and also, oftentimes, lack of context and experience of where this movement has evolved from. . . To a lay-audience, the people on stage are viewed as trusted experts. As in any other field, it is not appropriate to indiscriminately platform anyone who wants to speak into this role.”

Margolies argues that giving the platform to someone can implicitly promote them, and that the potential problems of not vetting can range from spreading bad information all the way to physical or psychological harm when unsafe providers are staged.

“Being a responsible educator requires rooted experience, knowledge and relationships. Even when well-intentioned, unintended harm can be caused by moving too fast in an unfamiliar space,” says Margolies. 

Margolies asks that all aspiring psychedelic event producers first ground themselves in the existing community. 

“Not everyone will make the same assessment about who should or should not be platformed, but this decision should at least be made from an informed perspective,” says Margolies. 

I may be naive, but I never thought this day would come. Celebrities are gushing about their psychedelic trips on Netflix; biotech and pharmaceutical companies are developing methods of synthesis, extraction, and administration for drugs many of us have always received in a sandwich baggy; there are more psychedelic events happening on a weekly basis than any one person could attend. While exciting, it can also be truly scary to see the rise of conferences and companies that are so disconnected from pre-existing psychedelic communities. 

Britta Love, educator and activist, told me that “our psychedelic communities were already struggling with organizations appropriating the fight for social justice and equity while perpetuating hierarchies that embody white supremacy, colonialism and patriarchy. It truly feels like the only way forward are strong, horizontal community-based efforts informed by trust, relationship and a willingness in each and every one of us to do the work to examine our piece of the collective shadow.”

While the path forward may not be clear, and may not be one path but many, psychedelics and the people who use them will remain a force in shaping the future of humanity. May this be a good trip.

Image: Jason McHuff

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