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Women On Psychedelic Leadership: A Roundtable Discussion

Women On Psychedelic Leadership: A Roundtable Discussion

All over the country, women are taking the lead in the psychedelic decriminalization movement. Despite the usual pressures to ignore their feelings and put their heads down, they are utilizing their natural strengths as women (eg: intuition, emotional expression) as assets in furtherance of their work, and seeing positive results.

In January, Lucid News brought together a group of women on Zoom to discuss being bossy, psychedelic policy, SSRIs, and the power of storytelling. The conversation was moderated by Hadas Alterman, a Founding Partner at Plant Medicine Law Group LLP. 

Participants: 

Charlotte Blocker was the Political Outreach Director of Measure 109, Oregon’s psychedelic-assisted therapy initiative. She is currently serving as the Board Treasurer for the Oregon Womxn’s Campaign School, a non-partisan, volunteer-led nonprofit which trains reproductive champions to run successful political campaigns.

Julie Holland, MD is a psychiatrist specializing in psychopharmacology, with a private practice in New York City. She is the author of several books, including Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, The Sleep You’re Missing, The Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy; Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection, from Soul to Psychedelics; and ECSTASY: The Complete Guide. 

Melissa Lavasani is the Founder, Chairwoman, and Executive Director of Plant Medicine Coalition. Prior to founding the Plant Medicine Coalition, Melissa was the proposer of Washington DC’s successful 2020 ballot measure Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act. 

ON BEING BOSSY

Hadas: Dr. Holland, in your book, Moody Bitches, you describe a study of women’s performance reviews that shows how words like “bossy” and “abrasive” are consistently used when women are leading. The same studies also shows that when women are objecting to something, we see words like “emotional” and “irrational.” You also note that SSRIs generally reduce aggression, and irritability and promote cooperative behavior.

Julie: As does estrogen, by the way,

Hadas: Right. So, Charlotte and Melissa, I’m curious if this resonates with your experiences working on your respective campaigns. Did you feel like your colleagues would have preferred a more, metaphorically, “SSRI-ed” version of yourselves? 

Melissa: I’m sure there were moments when people wanted that. But I, quite frankly, didn’t care. I knew that we had a goal, an extremely difficult goal. Then the pandemic amplified all of the challenges of a regular campaign, which I’m sure Charlotte can relate to. My entire life was out there for the public to evaluate and pick apart. I made it clear on the campaign that I have final say over the decisions being made. Not in a micromanaging way, but we had to carefully package our messaging, and who we are as [an organization], in a specific way. I was very careful about it. Everything was extremely thought out, down to the most minute detail of our materials that [were mailed] to people’s homes. When you’re going into situations like that you are in a leadership position, and you have to have some tough skin. When there are those in the room that object to you, it’s just a friendly reminder that, you know, this is the system that we created, and this is what’s going to get us to that win. So it didn’t really bother me if anyone didn’t like me. I know that’s kind of a weird thing to say. But our colleagues either got it,or they didn’t. And the people that got it understood that we were working for a greater good, and there was a reason why things had to be done in a certain way. I knew going into this I was not only going to have some people not like me on the campaign, but there might be people in the public who think I’m a bad person for taking drugs and exposing my family to drugs. You know, all the scare tactics and paranoia that people have surrounding drugs. I just had to accept that as a part of this entire journey. 

Charlotte: Well, I have to say, as a long-time taker of an SSRI, I don’t know if everyone I’ve worked with would agree that it reduces my aggression and promotes my cooperative behavior. One thing that comes to mind is that Vice President Harris had a great quote where she said that there are always going to be people who tell you that you’re out of your lane. They’re burdened by having only the capacity to see what has always been, instead of what can be. But you can’t let that burden you. That’s always been my approach to working on campaigns. Progress is always made by challenging a status quo. You have to challenge that status quo at every level you possibly can to make the best amount of change you can, especially in campaigns that cater to this very patriarchal society. From all the way across the country, I read Melissa’s story and I knew what was going to happen in DC. But I only knew that because Melissa went out there and put her story front and center. And her story isn’t an uncommon one, right? So many families deal with the same issues. As an advocate you have to be willing to put your story out there. You don’t have to be comfortable with it, but you have to recognize that you’re not alone.

Julie: My brain is still stuck on the word “bossy”, which it turns out, I have a lot of shenpa around, because it’s something that I was called so often when I was younger. Do boys ever get called bossy? Why not? What’s up with that? I was a natural born leader. Wouldn’t it have been great if my parents were like, “Wow, you’re a leader”, instead of like, “Hey, tone it down.” And when I was growing up, I didn’t know what “mansplaining” was, but it would have been really good to have that vocabulary. Because I look back now at how many times that happened, where I was being schooled on something I knew everything about, but because I was a woman, it was assumed that I didn’t. Now you could just be like, “please don’t mansplain” but I was in my twenties and there wasn’t a word for it. I just knew that I felt tremendous humiliation and anger. I eventually found my way and embraced that I am bossy. I do like to tell people what to do, and I’m good at it and I can do it in a charming way. I ran the psychiatric emergency room for nine years, two shifts a week. I was in charge. And I got much more comfortable with just being in charge, and if you don’t like it, that’s not my problem. How you feel about me doing my job is not my problem – I’m doing my job. At some point, it became liberating to not be the one that has to carry it. It’s internalized misogyny if I’m carrying it – and again, we did not have that phrase when I was growing up. It took me a long time to figure out that I had internalized a lot of things from my father, who grew up in the Fifties, with the “a woman’s places in the kitchen” kind of thing. I think my mom was secretly nudging me toward leadership roles, and daring to be great. 

Hadas: You mentioned the combination of being bossy and charming. Although “charm” has a positive connotation, the opposite of bossy, it’s also simultaneously taboo for a woman to operationalize charm to accomplish things at work. 

Julie: If I could make a list of all of all the phrases that were applied to me in my evaluations over the years as a medical student, as a resident, there would be many mentions of this issue of knowing. Knowing what was right and saying what was right, even if it was not politically correct, or appropriate. For instance, there was a woman who just had twin boys. And as she was being sewn up by the gynecologist, the father of the children was like, “Hey, throw a couple stitches in there for me, Doc!” And I was just like, “What the fuck? She just had to two children, like two people come out of her vagina, and you’re worried about the next time you fuck her!” The doctor actually stomped on my foot so I would stop talking. But I was incensed. That’s the most I’ve ever spoken out of turn and I got in a lot of trouble for it; they called me a loose cannon. I would probably say that again, just maybe not swear so much. 

ON SSRIs, WOMEN AND PSYCHEDELICS 

Hadas: I have been on and off SSRIs before, and I have, at various points, found them extremely helpful, and then not helpful. The fact is, SSRIs save some people’s lives, and for some people they simply do not work. I find this to be a really touchy subject, and, as an advocate, it can be challenging to navigate it a non-shaming, inclusive way. 

Julie: Not only do SSRIs not always work, but there seem to be situations where they make things worse, where somebody is on SSRIs for decades, comes off of them, and can’t be off of them because they were on them for so long. When we looked at everybody who received MDMA from the phase two trials, the people who had been on SSRIs for years did not respond very well to MDMA, didn’t have big physiological changes, and didn’t have great reductions in their PTSD symptoms the way that people who had never been on SSRIs did. Which implies that maybe these SSRIs are going to get in the way, at least with MDMA. And they’re possibly already in the way; I have tons of patients who are on antidepressants who would like to have ayahuasca or psilocybin or microdose, but they’re on these meds, and the meds are interfering. This is something everybody’s going to have to navigate and figure out. 

That said, I prescribe SSRIs all the time. The bulk of my patients are taking SSRIs with or without other meds. And they do help you not care so much about how fucked up things are. Maybe that sort of, you know, levels the playing field where you’re acting more like a man who doesn’t necessarily care as much about how their actions are going to be received or perceived.

Hadas: I think it’s going to be a particularly interesting phenomenon for women, because we make up such a disproportionately large percentage of the population that is being prescribed SSRIs consistently. 

Melissa: I personally have never been on an SSRI. I was prescribed an antidepressant when I was pregnant with my son, but I didn’t take it. I had a couple of really close friends who had been on antidepressants, SSRIs and others, and just seeing how their lives progressed on the medication, and actually losing a friend that was trying to wean off who took his own life – it scared the shit out of me. That’s when I decided to not get on anything and power my way through my depression, which I failed at miserably. But I acknowledge that on the campaign. The message can’t be that antidepressants are bad, and that traditional therapy is bad. Ultimately, antidepressants have saved people’s lives. We just need to be talking about the fact that it’s not the only option, and ask how can we change the current structure in this country for dealing with mental health? How can we incorporate psychedelics, which, the research is showing, are effective therapies? But it’s a delicate dance, because you’re talking about people with mental health issues and the relief that they’re finding. I saw an article entitled “The War on Antidepressants” and I clicked on the comments, which you should never do, but I did it because I was curious what people were saying about it. It was all these people defending SSRIs and how that medicine saved their lives. We can’t be the movement that’s like, “Well fuck all this shit that’s already here!” We have to speak to everybody. Not that psychedelics are for everybody. But we can’t just alienate large swaths of the population who are getting relief from traditional therapies. 

ON STORYTELLING, YIN ENERGY, AND DECRIMINALIZATION 

Hadas: Melissa, you set a precedent for these campaigns. Your campaign was narrative-centered, and it was centered around the emotional experience of a woman who had just given birth, and then used plant medicine to heal. There’s so many pieces of that that are taboo. You talked about all of it, and it worked. 

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Melissa: I knew that for DC, the message would have to be a little different. It was really important that we led with the heart and the soul of this entire experience. Initially, I thought what I would bring to the table was political connections that me and my husband had from working in government in DC. I in no way wanted to be the spokesperson for any of this, because I thought it was way too risky. But when we were planning everything out, I came to the realization that it had to be me. I actually backed out of it the night before we were supposed to submit the paperwork. I said, “I can’t do this. My kids are at school here and the parents are gonna ostracize them, and no one’s gonna speak to us. And then I’ll have to move.” I was doomsday-spiraling out of control the night before. But my husband and I talked for two hours that night. And it was one of those moments. I felt like this was the right thing to do, and that people would understand this, and that I should move forward and give it a try. Thank god it worked. 

See Also

Hadas: Back in September I was talking to Measure 109 Campaign Director Sam Chapman about how things were going in Oregon and he said something about how soccer moms just loved the campaign, and they were winning over all the moms. And then we have Melissa’s motherhood-centric narrative. Do you think that there’s something about feminine energy that made the general public more comfortable with something that would otherwise scare them? 

Julie: For a lot of people, when they hear about drugs, they’re just afraid. It’s fear of the unknown, fear of the unexplainable, the mysterious yin energy. It’s not straightforward the way yang is. But I also think that, because these medicines are so heart opening, people who have a lot of experience with them are willing to be very open hearted, and not so rigid. The yin energy is all about receptivity. The four of us may be more yang than yin when you get down to it. But you know, we still have both. And we can learn to juggle both. I’m very yang and I’m very results oriented and driven, and I have a list and check things off of it. Yang is like having a vector, while yin is about being open and receptive. Reflective, integrating things, figuring out things and reflecting back, and not projecting onto other people. But that is very hard when you’re dealing with something scary. And two yangs coming at each other is just friction and chaos. So you want that blend. 

These medicines are so heart opening, and they get us in touch with our yin energy, our receptive energy. When you’re tripping you learn how to be open to things, and then you try to teach other people how to be open to things. The fact that these are neuroplastic medicines that help people rewire their circuitry and refigure things out means that they need to be contained in something like a holding environment. It’s like being a therapist; you create a holding environment, and then the person feels comfortable to change. If you have a therapist who’s like, banging you over the head and being too yang, you just kind of close down. You need somebody to be open and receptive to your fears. It may be that women are inherently more soothing and less threatening than men. People love a good story that they can connect to; obviously Melissa experienced this, and whenever I’m writing about psychedelics for a women’s magazine, or an Op Ed, they always want you to start with a human interest story and a hook. You can’t just say, this is how this medicine works, and this is what’s going on with drug policy. You need a story because that’s how you get the empathy and yin heart-opening experience. There’s this great line: “People resist what they’re told, but they never resist what they conclude.” You just want to give them enough information that they think they came up with it themselves. I honestly think that women are better at laying down the groundwork. Maybe we’re more emotionally manipulative. That’s how we’ve learned to be. But with something so scary and big, and hard to define and deal with, you have to come at it from the edges and not head on.

ON PSYCHEDELICALLY-INFORMED CAMPAIGNS AND TOKENISM

Hadas: What is a psychedelically informed campaign? What does that look like? How does that operate differently then the garden-variety political organization? 

Melissa: It’s important to have different perspectives here. Our campaign worked with the same infrastructure that the cannabis reformers had here, and Dr. Bronner’s played an integral part in the campaign as well. It was a lot of white people, a lot of cisgendered people. It started that way, but as soon as I got a little bit more press, people who were interested in psychedelics but didn’t fit into that mold or were intimidated by a political campaign, reached out to us. Acknowledgement that there’s a woman running this campaign – she’s a mom, she’s a professional. completely different than anything that they’d seen before. And that attracted the others. By the end of it, I was super proud that we had such a diverse coalition of people supporting us. It was a beautiful thing. Did we still deal with misogyny? Yes. But the system’s not going to change overnight.These little movements forward are important and hopefully it’ll change campaigns going forward. It was intentional. I didn’t want this to look like the cannabis movement. It couldn’t look like the cannabis movement. The activists here were sensationalizing cannabis use, which brought a lot of attention to the issue. We were doing the opposite because, quite frankly, psychedelics are already sensationalized and we needed to normalize them. By normalizing them, we attracted a diverse group of people.

Charlotte: For the Measure 109 campaign, one of the most important things we did was create a Healthcare Equity Committee populated almost entirely by BIPOC leaders from around the country and not the typical cisgendered white male, which I think dominates most other committees like this. And it was powerful in multiple ways. Some of these leaders were able to point out practices that have been done for millennia, by individuals from cultures that have used plant medicine for centuries before the white man ever found it and started using it. They were able to talk about that from experience, and from a culturally enlightened perspective about what that meant. There were individuals who sat on this committee who have been in the cannabis space for a long time, and have seen the corporatization of cannabis, how quickly it went from being the people’s plant to a corporate commodity. I think one thing our campaign did well was to create space for those voices, to listen to those experiences in a serious way. Allowing those voices to steer your campaign is very powerful. 

Hadas: How much was the Healthcare Equity Committee actually able to steer, as opposed to just being there for optics? And was there resistance to the suggestions raised by the Committee members? 

Charlotte: I was on the campaign for 10 days before we went fully remote. At that point, it was myself and our campaign manager as paid staff. That was it. And we literally had to throw the rulebook out the window, and build and rebuild and break down and rebuild this campaign again, and again, and again, because traditional politics, traditional campaigns, as we know them, would not work during Covid. It was a great precursor to creating the Equity Steering Committee, and then actually listening to them. It didn’t really matter what we thought was going to work or what wasn’t gonna work, because we were not able to knock on doors or meet in person. So there was some benefit in totally throwing that rulebook out the window.hen individuals spoke up and said, this is how it is in our culture, and this is why it is, and this is why we think it’s important to continue and go forward in this direction, we were able to actually listen to it because we didn’t have a lot to lose at that point in the campaign. 

Julie: I’ve been in the cannabis space for twenty-something years, on different scientific advisory boards, medical advisory boards, etc, and sometimes I would be at a board meeting, and it was just me and a bunch of men. I’m like, I’m your token woman, and I’m just here because I’m a woman, but maybe you can hear what I have to say, anyway. I would jokingly address it head on: I’m here because I have a uterus. But the bottom line is, these guys didn’t realize that half the adult population has cramps every month and you may want to formulate a cannabis product for these customers. They’re not thinking about these things. So when they saw that I was actually bringing a different perspective, I was valued. I have friends who are women of color and they’re complaining because they’re being used as a token. If I want to be on a board and somebody wants me to be on a board, I know it’s because I’m a woman. But I’m going to go ahead and do a really good job so that they keep asking more women to do it. We have to start somewhere. 

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