With the Decriminalize Nature movement happening in Ann Arbor and other cities around the country and the birth of psychedelic research centers at major universities like Johns Hopkins and UC Berkeley, it seems as if the United States is entering a new wave — what some are calling the psychedelic renaissance.
While both new research and ancient wisdom continue to point to the healing potential of entheogenic medicines for mental and physical ailments, the question remains: To what extent are psychedelics just assimilation of old medicine? If we are to create a healthy and sustainable relationship with these substances in years to come, we must not turn a blind eye to their history, both dark and light.
When colonization of the Americas began in 1492, so did the commodification of plants like tobacco, cacao and coca by moneyed interests. Once regarded and used as sacred medicines, these substances were at first feared, then eventually watered down, processed and commodified for European markets, losing their cultural and medicinal value in the process. While it may be true that cigarettes, chocolate and cocaine are addictive, it should be recognized that their plant derivatives, as they were used before colonization, were not.
As the tobacco, chocolate and cocaine trade have since blossomed into multibillion-dollar industries, so have societal illnesses of addiction and incarceration; from the dire health consequences of cigarette use, to the chocolate industry’s reliance on child labor, to the drug war’s brutal impact on Colombia, the way in which U.S. citizens consume these substances today is both dangerous and counterproductive.
While the U.S.’s solution to addiction has largely been to enforce stricter drug laws, it is clear now that this policy is not only ineffective but also dangerous, costly and racist.
Since the 1960s, politicians have argued that stricter drug laws are the solution. Yet a top adviser for the Nixon administration even admitted that the war on drugs began as a political tactic against antiwar leftists and Black people. Indeed, drug laws have been enforced more harshly for Black and Latinx communities than for white communities. Today, people of color, despite equal rates of use, are 13.4 times more likely to be imprisoned than white people due largely to current drug laws; additionally, the number of Black men in prison today (792,000) equals the number of enslaved men in 1820. The war on drugs itself has even been referred to by the American Civil Liberties Union and others as “The New Jim Crow.”
Despite its disproportionate and harmful impact on communities of color, the war on drugs has been a failure as far as addiction rates go. Of the nearly 21 million U.S. citizens living with at least one addiction today, 9 in 10 will not receive treatment. Of the people who are able to afford and complete rehab programs, only about 30% will have success in treating their addiction.
Given this low access and quality of treatment, U.S. citizens are being increasingly drawn outside of the country in search of other options. In the realm of psychedelics, one of the most notable options is Ibogaine therapy, which, though originally used as an ancient and sacred medicine in West Africa, has emerged as a glimmer of hope for its potentially risky, often unregulated, yet powerful use in treating serious addictions to substances like heroin and opium. On one hand, success stories boast of its compelling ability to address the root causes of addiction through a psychedelic journey inside one’s self. On the other, evidence is still largely anecdotal; a deeper look into success rates reveals that relapse still poses a challenge to long-term recovery.
In this light, while our new cultural awareness of psychedelics may represent hope, our attitudes also point to a long history of colonization. Had the sacredness of these medicines been considered at the beginning of the colonization era, perhaps the harmful commodification and addiction patterns we see today could have been avoided. Additionally, as we proceed with the new science of psychedelics, we must also recognize that these new discoveries are in many ways rediscoveries of ancient medicines which have long been sacred to indigenous communities.
In the meantime, as we continue to explore potential treatments like Ibogaine for addiction, it is worth looking into a deeper understanding of how traditional use could improve not only the efficacy of treatment but also our relationships with the people who have used these medicines for thousands of years.
As we move forward, we should keep in mind that if we do not acknowledge our past and act differently, we may only be bandaging wounds that require much deeper healing.
Lily Cesario can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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