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How to Amend the Colonial Expedition for Magic Mushrooms

Original illustration by Hannah Chang

The historic tale of conquistador Hernán Cortes’s encounter with Aztec emperor Moctezuma is one often shared to recount the origins of European colonization of the Americas. Moctezuma showed great hospitality to the Spaniards, crowning Cortés with wreaths and showering him with gifts and golden necklaces—only to be betrayed and brutally killed for the sake of profit. Native Americans were reduced to slaves, laboring away to collect gold and bring it to the Spaniards so their lives could be spared. The Spaniards’ conquest helped amass great wealth for Spain through the devastation of Indigenous communities.

A new sort of gold has been “discovered” by white people once again, extracted and made into profits hidden from its Indigenous origins: psychedelics.

As marijuana has been decriminalized at the state level in much of the United States, there are now current initiatives to expand drug decriminalization to psychedelics. Oregon decriminalized small possessions of all drugs in 2020, including the “magic mushroom” chemical psilocybin, and the California Psilocybin Legalization Initiative may appear on the ballot as an initiated state statute in November 2022. Additionally, California state Senator Scott Wiener is working on passing Senate Bill 519 to decriminalize psychedelics. The movement is gaining momentum as scientific studies emerge suggesting psychedelics are relatively safe for use and promising as treatments for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

The historical roots of psychedelic drug usage, however, are often forgotten. Indigenous communities have been using psychedelic plants for medicinal and cultural purposes for millennia. María Sabina was an example of a well-respected Mazatec healer who performed traditional psilocybin mushroom ceremonies in Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her mistake that led to the destruction of her village and reputation was trusting a white man.

In 1955, Sabina reluctantly introduced American Robert Gordon Wasson to the sacred mushroom ceremony. Wasson broke his promise of keeping the ceremony a secret and fully disclosed the Mazatec ritual in a Life magazine article titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” The grave consequences of the article should serve as cautionary tales that influence the rollout of psychedelic decriminalization, potentially to be followed by legalization, in order to protect Indigenous interests. 

One immediate consequence was the ruin of traditional community. Wasson’s article prompted Dr. Timothy Leary to try psychedelic mushrooms while on vacation in Mexico. His subsequent research and promotion of psychedelics in the United States helped fuel the counterculture era of the 1960s. Scientists and hippies alike traveled to the village of Huautla de Jiménez to encounter the mushrooms, disturbing the Native community and disrespecting their rituals. Increased use of psychedelics also endangers sacred organisms; today several species of psychedelic mushrooms, including the ones used by Wasson, are categorized by authorities as endangered, threatened, or under protection in Mexico. Psychedelic peyote is at risk of endangerment partially due to drug tourism, poaching, mining, and agriculture encroachment. Endangering these plants through extractivism diminishes the ability of Native peoples to sustain their own traditions.

Another consequence was cultural appropriation. Within two years of Wasson’s publication, psilocybin was isolated and synthesized. Soon after, it had its extraction process patented by Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, which then sent doses of it to research institutions around the world—effectively disconnecting the drug from its Indigenous roots. Today, the field of psychedelic medicine is dominated by white people, with only a fragment of leading figures being people of color. The boards of the primary funding organizations, as well as the scientific teams, are primarily composed of white men

Cultural appropriation makes white businessmen the primary beneficiaries of the psychedelic industry. Biotech companies and venture capitalists are enthralled by the opportunity to profit off psychedelic therapies. In 2021, the Psychedelic Drugs Market was valued at $4.29 Billion and is expected to reach $10.35 Billion by 2028. The industry has no intention of compensating the original users, however. None of the developers who own the 24 registered patents for psilocybin have made any reparational agreements with the Mazatecs or any other Indigenous community.

A third consequence of whitewashing psychedelics has been the exclusion of people of color from psychedelic medical research. A study in 2018 found that 82.3 percent of participants in psychedelic research studies were white, even though minorities experience psychological distress at rates similar to or higher than non-Hispanic whites. Furthermore, people of color often have poor mental health outcomes and longer lasting consequences. The cruel irony of it all is that the conditions psychedelic drug therapies are marketed to cure are often caused by the reckless development of these therapies. The destruction of Indigenous ways of life through exploitation and marginalization has resulted in higher rates of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, among Indigenous people all over the world. Exclusion will result not only in a lack of generalizability for treatment efficacy for minority groups, but also a lack of access to treatment.

Given the history and current circumstances surrounding drug use in America, decriminalization will likely be applied unequally. The 1994 Amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 legalized the ceremonial, traditional usage of peyote for Native Americans. Despite being meant to protect them from incarceration for cultural practices, it did not stop Native Americans from becoming victims of the racist criminal justice system. In 1996, a member of the Ojibwe tribe in Washington was arrested for possession of peyote and spent 60 days in jail. Decriminalization is not guaranteed to protect Native Americans if application of the law is racialized.

While peyote is not included in California’s Senate Bill 519 in order to reserve it for Native American communities, the commodification of other psychedelic substances for nontraditional white usage may not be preventable. Drug decriminalization is unique in its ability to transcend conservative and liberal political divides. The confluence of support by conservatives for its therapeutic ability to treat veterans for trauma and progressives for its ability to move away from incarceration might make normalized psychedelic use an American reality.

So how do we move forward? Given the devastating history of psychedelic extraction, the substance’s decriminalization and subsequent legalization should not be rushed until Indigenous rights and protections are ensured.

Pharmaceutical companies need to give back to Indigenous communities financially. Developers with patents for psilocybin and other compounds first sourced from Indigenous communities should seek out genuine Indigenous representation, secure reparative agreements, and ensure treatments are affordable to communities of color. Legalization bills should be passed in tandem with legislation on excise taxes that ensure certain percentages of profits are directed towards Indigenous communities.

There also needs to be more cultural inclusivity and racial diversity within the psychedelic research community. Furthermore, Indigenous ethnomedical systems should be valued as another valid framework of medicine. The Western medical framework that has often dismissed the spiritual aspect of psychedelic rituals may actually benefit from viewing it holistically. Therapies that incorporate mystical, natural aspects into the psychedelic experience can result in positive long-term changes in mental health.

Wasson’s betrayal harmed María Sabina, who was blamed by the Mazatec community for commercializing their traditions and bringing great misfortune to their village. She was jailed, her house was burned down, and her son was killed. She died in poverty in 1985. The tragic fate of this Indigenous woman is the consequence of normalized exploitation of Indigenous communities stemming from colonial racism. 

In order to prevent the repetition of colonial history, the inevitable integration of psychedelics into Western society must be done right. Medical interventions involving psychedelics should be equitable, accessible, and reciprocal in giving back to Native American communities where psychedelic use originated. Trust needs to be built between these communities and research institutions in order to foster meaningful representation. Decriminalization must be deracialized to safeguard people of color. It is imperative that protection be prioritized over profits, and that profits be returned to Indigenous communities.