Will Psychedelic Companies Embrace Indigenous Reciprocity?
As the psychedelics industry matures, many companies in the field are being rewarded by the market with significant investments at impressive valuations for their efforts to medicalize, patent and mass produce psychedelic therapies.
A small but growing number of these companies are now launching programs to give back to the indigenous tribes whose traditional uses of psychedelics have been critical in shaping and influencing contemporary approaches to psychedelic substances. The ayahuasca sessions of the Amazon, the mushroom velada rituals of the Mazatecs, the peyote circles of the Huichols—these practices are sampled and remixed, consciously or not, by psychedelic retreats, microdosing classes, and clinical trials that push psychedelics toward governmental approval as doctor-prescribed drugs.
“The psychedelic movement has extracted Indigenous knowledge since its very beginning,” says Bia Labate, co-founder of Chacruna. “The wealth and benefits that originate from indigenous knowledge must be shared with them.”
And something is being paid. Not a lot yet. But a growing handful of companies are donating money, intellectual property, or company equity to Indigenous groups to benefit their communities. These companies are distinguishing themselves from the pack of psychedelic startups through social programs, just as companies in other industries have introduced environmentally-friendly packaging, employee-friendly labor practices, or fair-trade supply chains.
One leading effort is the Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative, sponsored by the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicine. More than $60,000 has been raised from a handful of companies and foundations prominent in psychedelics, including Atai, a biopharmaceutical company, Synthesis, a psilocybin retreat in the Netherlands, and Dr. Bronner’s, a soap company whose CEO is a major force working toward the end of prohibition. The money is going to Indigenous-led nonprofits in the Americas working on reforestation, food security, clean water, and education. One of the recipients in the Peruvian Amazon, the Alianza Arkana, promotes the planting of medicine gardens, small pharmacies in folks’ backyards.
Efforts at reciprocity have started rippling out. “‘Indigenous reciprocity’ is becoming something of a buzzword,” says Joseph Mays, the initiative’s program director.
“At psychedelic industry events and gatherings, this type of conversation is coming up more often,” says David Champion, CEO of Maya Health, a psychedelic therapy measurement platform that recently hosted a fundraiser for the Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative. “There’s the invitation for Western corporations and organizations to allocate a portion of our energy, resources and attention to topics of respect and awareness that are not directly linked to success and profit.”
Beyond donating money, some companies are finding creative legal ways to share the benefits of the psychedelics industry. Several are dedicating a portion of their company equity to indigenous reciprocity. Perhaps the most ambitious effort of this kind is by Journey Colab, which recently secured a $12 million funding round, and is developing synthetic mescaline into an FDA-approved treatment for alcoholism. Ten percent of Journey Colab’s founding equity is being put into a trust pledged to Indigenous communities to be used for funding healthcare or environmental causes like peyote conservation.
“Other large players don’t center any ethics,” says Sutton King, a health advocate from the Menominee and Oneida tribes who is head of impact at Journey Colab. “We want to show up, and bring people into wealth creation who have been alienated.” The more the company is worth, the more the trust is worth. But if the company flops, of course, the trust does, too.
Peyote circles sustained many tribes during the darkest days of the Native American genocide and displacement from their lands. Some Native people recoil at the idea of whites using mescaline for their own healing, and often tribal members don’t trust white efforts at reciprocity. The distrust is especially strong when there are caveats or contingencies, or promises that the money is coming “later.” Many indigenous people would prefer to see reparations come before reciprocity.
“When I sit and have conversations with folks from the psychedelic industry, it’s always either about them or money,” says Troy, the co-founder of Sia, a Comanche organization that preserves tribal heritage, including sacred eagle feathers. Troy’s tribal name is Kwihnai Mahkweetsoi Okweetuni, “He who saves the eagle from the water.” “Companies, the first thing they say is, ‘We want to give back, we want to help.’ And then the very next thing they say is, ‘Could you tell us how you do your ceremonies? Because then we could use that in our protocols.’ I truly want to have consultations so they can understand who we are, what our needs are, and how we can find this path together.”
At this juncture, it seems that companies working with medicines based on mescaline are especially interested in collaborating with tribes and sharing benefits. Panacea Plant Sciences is developing and patenting sustainable sources of mescaline. Panacea has announced that it is granting 16 percent of its equity to Sia and 16 percent to the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, which was started by the Riverstyx Foundation and Dr. Bronners to connect tribes with historical practices using psychedelic plants to businesses researching them. “Sacred plants helped me deal with my own personal health,” CEO David Heldreth says. “Finding a balance between protecting indigenous resources and increasing access for the rest of the world drives everything I do.”
Several company insiders tell Lucid News that aligning their companies with indigenous reciprocity costs money and time in the short term, but it also attracts the type of value-driven, impact-seeking investors, employees, and partners who might be key for long-term success.
“Our investor set is skewed toward more responsible investors,” says Jesse H. Hudson, chief legal officer at Woven Science, which funds and builds therapeutic psychedelic companies. Woven has dedicated 10 percent of its company equity to a nonprofit, El Puente, that aims to act as a bridge between North and South. El Puente supports a community workshop in Peru where Shipibo-Konibo people make traditional kene, the cloths patterned after ayahuasca visions. “Indigenous reciprocity is an idea whose time has come,” Hudson says.
As more companies and investment funds promise part of their companies’ profits to Native people, some advocates are hoping to create an alliance of ethical psychedelic companies to counter the dominance of the companies they see as unethical, several company officials told Lucid News. The more companies make pledges toward Indigenous reciprocity, the more reciprocity may become a norm.
Indigenous users of psychedelics often distinguish between those who use the medicines in a way that is consistent with traditional lineages from those who do not. “There are risks here to the mind of humankind,” says Hudson. “People can use psychedelics to do harm, as they have throughout history, and we need corporations using psychedelics to be better people.”
In corporate psychedelics, too, mindset, setting, and intention matter, and some advocates suggest that psychedelic experiences provided by companies motivated by pro-social outcomes like reciprocity might send a positive vibration that affects the user experience, and result in better outcomes. “Is a company’s ethics and brand part of set and setting? Yes, absolutely,” tweets Brad Burge, founder of Integration Communications and former spokesperson for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies.
Indigenous reciprocity may always remain a fringe thing. Most psychedelic companies don’t give anything, despite deep coffers.
“We’re always shocked with the amount of money pouring into this field, and the little amount that goes to indigenous people,” says Bia Labate, co-founder of Chacruna. And Labate is challenged by the reluctance of many companies in the field to give back. “We have an expression in Brazil, ‘You got a snake in your pocket?”
It’s common to hear psychedelic companies boast about discovering new compounds. But most psychedelic substances are inspired by predecessor compounds found in nature. LSD, 2C-B, and MDMA, for instance, are based on folk medicines like ergot and mescaline. In their press releases, psychedelic drug development companies will sometimes mention the indigenous origins. Just as often, they’ll treat the indigenous use as a lucky happenstance, a quirk of discovery that now allows the smart chemists to take over and produce drugs that doctors can prescribe. The indigenous phase of drug development is over, goes the thinking.
Indigenous people who live close to the land have an ongoing relationship with the living world that continues to be of value. Joseph Mays points out that these folks claim they continue to speak with living things; they discovered psychedelics with plant and fungal help. Amazonians, for instance, say tobacco told them to drink ayahuasca. Ayahuasca tells them which other plants to use. You can dismiss claims of inter-species communications as hallucinations, but indigenous people have discovered so many useful medicines that their wildest claims are not wisely dismissed, according to Mays.
If we have people who talk to living things, and we need healthy living things to be healthy ourselves, we’d be wise to take care of our translators. Ayahuasca is far from the last useful medicine that will come from indigenous people.
The number of companies that try to care for, learn from, and reciprocate with Indigeous tribes seems likely to grow. As the psychedelic industrial revolution widens, advocates hope that consumers will grow wiser and understand the growing range of options available to them. They point to the recent trend of consumers wanting more ethical options, and anticipate that the market will reward psychedelic clinics, therapists, retreats, and coaches who give something back to the tribes from which so much comes, and from whom so much was taken. On the flip side, advocates hope that, with an educated populace, companies that ignore the trend toward indigenous reciprocity will face a penalty in the market.
“There’s this huge transfer of wealth going on, ” Mays says, “we’re just trying to funnel some to indigenous communities.”
Psychedelic users can donate to the Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative, and support ayahuasca, iboga, and mushroom retreats in the Global South with deeper links to the indigenous people who pioneered the medicines.
You don’t have to take a plane to Gabon or Iquitos to participate in reciprocity, Joseph Mays likes to remind people. “Wherever you are now is indigenous land,” Mays says. “And there’s an indigenous community with a deep connection to that land and those plants, and you can engage with them and connect to them. It might take some effort. The communities in your area may be very marginalized and small. But I encourage people to do that and try to change the way they look at where they are. And try to carry those lessons and those insights into your life and your relationships in whatever way you can.”
Image: Agência de Notícias do Acre