What is an Appropriate amount of Appreciation?
In 2022 Double Blind published: “Why the ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’ is just Colonialism by Another Name.” The premise is that by co-opting indigenous medicines into our colonial container, we only perpetuate the very problems seeking salvation – replicating historic and systemic injustices. But what does it mean to ‘decolonize’ the space and to what extent is this possible?
Under a neo-liberal lens, developments in psychedelic healthcare are considered significant advances to multiple fields from toxicology to psychology. But this tale of ‘progress’ is also a story of extraction, appropriation, and colonization. These take many forms: the re-packaging of a culture for commercial benefit without regard for ontology, a concerted effort to subject alternate practices and epistemologies to the logic of Western science (in the form of clinical trials and highly regimented biomedical research), and absorbing private refuges of emotion and communal experiences into marketable systems of control and behaviour management.
As mental health conditions such as depression both perpetuate and emerge from socio-economic problems, the idea of its treatment being extracted from highly traumatised populations to benefit the current economy indicates an ethical oversight. In questioning whether these motives extend beyond profit, we are forced to enquire into whether these treatments are truly accessible to any but a privileged few; and to what extent this simply masks the symptoms of something more systemic.
Colonial Cancel Culture
Transcending the boundaries of “us” and “other” – the Euro-American narrowing of mental states and the regulation of psychoactive substances can be traced back to historical events with lasting repercussions, including European imperialism, forced Christianisation, the persecution of traditional healers and so-called witches, the European Enlightenment, positivism, and the Inquisition; all instances wherein the practices and knowledges of particular social groups, including their use of plant medicines, were banned and demonised.
This is not to take away from the present issues, but to highlight the complexity of “our” implications within them, alongside the power dynamics and structures that affect us all. Indigenous Nations are rightly concerned that they are being excluded from psychedelic spaces that threaten their intellectual property by detaching these medicines from their spiritual contexts. In addition, international demand is driving people to unsustainably harvest plants such as Iboga, Ayahuasca and Peyote; Many burgeoning retreat centres that offer psychedelic therapy often charge thousands of dollars for experiences that culturally appropriate traditions yet share few benefits with these impoverished communities.
However by denying other possible ways of knowing, being, and relating in the world – which are often provoked by psychoactive substances, the wider ‘War On Drugs’ makes each of us at once the beneficiaries and the victims of our culture’s particular selection. Recognising our ‘colonial shadow’ is a first step in the reflection on the persistent exploitation and suppression that forms part of the history of the ‘psychedelic renaissance.’ One suggestion is to disrupt the dualist power structures that favour dogmatic approaches to, and forms of, knowledge production; contributing to a ‘de-colonial future’ in which narratives may be democratised, accessibility widened, and greater equality established.
The suffering caused by colonial and commercial systems of oppression tracks onto our understanding of how our social and cultural environment can affect mental health. In other words, non-consensual extractive for-profit ventures based on intellectual property regimes can cause intergenerational distress and suffering in a way that actively perpetuates mental illness, detrimentally affects social relations, and exploits the benefits derived from lost and living heritages.
Managing Modern Maladies
Anja Loizaga-Velder, a German-Mexican clinical psychologist, believes that honouring indigenous context and establishing reciprocity are pivotal to shifting from neo-colonisation and cultural appropriation, towards a greater cultural appreciation and better way of life for all. As well as asking what we can learn or acquire, we must find ways to give back. This attitude is embodied by many spiritual traditions, where an offering is made before a request.
As Author and Anthropologist Mario Blaser suggests, “when we treat difference as cultural, we are sneaking up and advancing a particular ontology, which does not do justice to the ontological difference that might be at stake.” Synthesis advocates for taking Indigenous philosophies and the aspirations and agency of Indigenous Peoples seriously. To that end, they offer the following suggestions to help those working with psychedelics re-orient their approach to including Indigenous perspectives and peoples.
- Reconsider Relationships: slow down and take the time to consciously consider the perspectives of plant and fungi medicines deeply. Australian Indigenous knowledge keeper Tyson Yunkaporta, and Murruwarri Elder Doris Shillingsworth, suggest protocols for being relationally responsive: Respect, Connect, Reflect, Direct. The same applies to any kind of relationship you want to form and could help to achieve a better understanding of the interconnectedness between human beings and the rest of the natural world.
- Engage Indigenous voices and spiritual leaders regarding key issues in the psychedelic sphere, acknowledging their perspectives informed by lineage, community and experience.
- Establish an Indigenous ethics watch organisation: these deal primarily with government and university-based research that involves Indigenous Peoples or data.
- Establish funding mechanisms to support Indigenous aspirations: including Land Back facilitation and access to various opportunities afforded by legalisation or decriminalisation measures.
- To avoid ‘biocolonialism’ it is necessary to reframe and discuss, from a cross-cultural approach, the international intellectual ‘property’ rights regarding Indigenous knowledge on psychedelic plants and fungi, recognising the local expressions of property.
- For-profit pharmaceutical companies can also provide medical supplies for Indigenous Peoples, as well as funding and supporting education programs for the communities, and sharing the profits of successful health treatments approved for commercial purposes.
- Legal pluralism is crucial to achieving fair agreements that go beyond the Western legal conceptual framework. One example is the establishment of special courts that would consider Indigenous claims on their own terms.
- In order to be successful, recognising Indigenous ontologies is the first step. For this reason, a goal of the Synthesis Institute is to disseminate Indigenous philosophies and epistemologies to a larger audience.
There are suggestions that the space can never truly be ‘decolonised’ given the capitalist and neo-colonial manifestations inherent to the prevailing paradigm. The ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’ embodies the challenges inherent to creating new systems and structures while operating within the confines of the current one. But when the intellectual property derived from naturally occurring compounds is the prior art of indigenous people, we are obliged to explore the ethics of shareholders reaping the financial benefit from them.
Learning requires unlearning. Reflecting on these ethical dilemmas may offer frameworks to understand and solve for the ongoing harm of extractive economics, perhaps even pointing the way towards reciprocal and reparative arrangements with stewards of medicines and molecules more globally.
“We told people that it was in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son, but in reality it is in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger…” – Decolonizing Ayahuasca