Indigenous Voices in Peyote Conservation: Preserving Medicine for Future Generations

By Jasmine Virdi

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small, spineless cactus endemic to North America, growing in the vast desert thorn scrub that runs from the southwestern United States into north-central Mexico. For centuries, the mescaline-containing cactus has been used by Indigenous groups in Northern America as a ceremonial medicine and a religious sacrament considered integral to their way of life. The rapidly growing psychedelic movement has generated a new wave of interest in plant medicines, including peyote, requiring us to tread with awareness for the impact this has on the Indigenous cultures and communities who have long stewarded these medicines.

At present, the peyote cactus is in the midst of a deep conservation crisis. Over the past few decades, wild peyote populations have been rapidly declining due to a convergence of factors including oil and gas development, illegal poaching, agricultural development, and unsustainable harvesting practices. Amongst Indigenous communities, there is a growing need to conserve this quickly disappearing natural resource that is a core element of the Native American Church (NAC), the largest pan-Indigenous religion in the United States. 

Due to growing evidence of the decline of peyote and mounting concern about obtaining their sacred medicine, the NAC commissioned the Peyote Research Project (PRP) in 2013. The first phase of the project (PRP 1) concerned itself with documenting the decline of peyote as well as assessing threats to its natural habitat, while the second phase (PRP 2) focused on identifying conservation strategies, including “securing sovereign land” to protect the Peyote Gardens and building relationships with landowners to lease space for replanting and harvesting.

Sandor Iron Rope, former President of the Native American Church of North America, current president of the Native American Church of South Dakota, member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate (Oglala Sioux Tribe), and Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) board member, reflects that “supply and demand have always been an issue, and when we started looking at it through the lens of the PRP, we found out many issues were in the forefront of the longevity of supply.”

The research activities of the PRP showed that peyote was under threat, both in regards to its populations and quality of the plant. As the need to conserve peyote became more pressing, the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC) called for the establishment of the IPCI. “The coalition of the NCNAC were involved in PRP 2, and the collective decided that conservation itself needed to be addressed. Hence, IPCI was born in 2017,” says Iron Rope. “The Church is a religious, spiritual organization, however, peyote is a cactus that needs its own attention as far as its conservation status.” IPCI is not a religious organization, but a conservation center focused entirely on supporting the broader NAC community in North America. It is led by a Board of Directors controlled by NAC leaders from across the United States.

In late 2017, the NCNAC secured 605 acres of peyote habitat in southern Texas, often referred to as “the 605” on behalf of IPCI, with the help of the RiverStyx Foundation. Later that year, IPCI was formally established with the aim of empowering Indigenous communities across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to conserve and regenerate peyote for generations to come. IPCI operates as a non-profit, officially becoming a 501c(3) organization in 2018. In early 2019, IPCI held its first peyote harvest on the 605, educating children alongside their families on how to harvest in an ecologically and spiritually respectful way. 

Unlike other conservation initiatives, IPCI is a cooperative Indigenous-led initiative, and is employing a range of biocultural strategies in order to conserve, as well as facilitate spiritual reconnection with peyote. Beyond purchasing land allotted for peyote conservation, they are also building alliances with local landowners, and developing a system of harvest and distribution that is in line with their values. 

IPCI considers the rancher community in south Texas an important ally in its efforts, and its members have established an ongoing relationship with landowners from whom they lease land for biocultural harvesting and replanting. “Sharing our perspective as practitioners with the ranchers, we were encouraged to seek our own land and regain sovereignty over our medicine,” shared Iron Rope. “Most ranchers that we spoke to had a lot of issues concerning poaching, and lack of respect for their land making them fully supportive of our cause.” 

 Lophophora williamsii  - Peyote
Lophophora williamsii – Peyote

How and When Did Peyote Become Endangered? 

For decades, Indigenous cultural practices and peyote ceremonies were suppressed across the U.S., with peyote ceremonies being illegal in many states where peyotists practiced. It wasn’t until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed in 1978 (and further amended in 1994 to expressly include peyote) that the NAC was finally granted exemption on a religious basis, allowing federally recognized tribes to use peyote as a ceremonial sacrament. The possession, transportation, and use of peyote by persons who are not members of federally recognized tribes remain illegal under federal law. 

The endangered status of peyote is by no means a new problem. According to Dawn Davis, a Shoshone Ph.D. candidate at the University of Idaho and an Indigenous researcher studying the peyote habitat, researchers and scholars have been talking about peyote’s endangerment since the 1960s, when so-called “hippies” became aware of its “psychedelic” properties. 

In the heat of the 1960s countercultural revolution, peyote was brought to public attention, gaining worldwide popularity through the works of Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda. Their writings generated a newly sparked interest in the psychoactive properties of the plant and resulted in an influx of eager psychedelic tourists traveling to Texas and Mexico to seek out the famed cactus in its natural habitat.

To some extent, this trend continues today as we find ourselves in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, and interest in the therapeutic potentials of visionary plants continues to grow. Such “psychedelic tourism” has inevitably impacted the availability of peyote for Indigenous groups. In fact, it was the countercultural movement of the 1960s and the corresponding interest in psychoactive substances that resulted in the U.S. government enacting The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classified peyote as a Schedule I substance. 

Due to improper harvesting techniques and overharvesting, peyote populations were left decimated, and it was declared an endangered species in Mexico as early as 1991. Currently, peyote is listed as “vulnerable” as populations in the wild continue to decline. “The International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed peyote on their red list as a vulnerable species in 2009 and the next level after re-evaluation of the population, it could move to endangered status,” says Davis. “It is also important to acknowledge that within the United States, in Texas, peyote is considered an endangered species at the local level.”

Other threats to peyote populations are largely a result of exploitative land management practices, including mining, oil and gas development, the construction of wind turbines, rancher root plowing, cattle grazing, and poaching. “Over the last ten years, wind turbine development within peyote gardens has had a huge impact on peyote populations, completely extirpating large populations of cacti from the natural range,” says Davis.

 Lophophora williamsii  - Peyote
Lophophora williamsii – Peyote

Another less obvious threat to peyote lies in the ongoing debate between Indigenous groups and the decriminalization community. Earlier this year, IPCI and NCNAC leaders produced an official statement in response to Decriminalize Nature Oakland’s resolution to decriminalize all plant medicines, including peyote. Although those working with Decriminalize Nature (DN) might have been well-intentioned, NCNAC leaders felt disappointed in Decrim’s failure to consult with Indigenous peoples, as well as their oversight of the cultural and religious history of peyote and the plant’s endangered status. The NCNAC’s statement requested that Decriminalization initiatives should not include peyote in their efforts to decriminalize all plant medicines, with the concern that it would provide citizens with a false sense of legality. Indigenous leaders fear that the decriminalization of peyote could unintentionally cause damage to populations by serving to “increase interest in non-native persons either going to Texas to purchase peyote or to buy it from a local dealer who has acquired it illegally and unsustainably in Texas.” 

Very recently, Decriminalize Nature Santa Cruz issued a formal apology to the NAC for not consulting with them prior to proceeding with the resolution to decriminalize all entheogenic plants and fungi. DN Santa Cruz’s apology was accepted, and both the NCNAC and IPCI have stated that they “look forward to building a continued relationship based on unity, solidarity, and allyship.” DN Santa Cruz hopes other Decrim efforts will follow their lead, building a respectful relationship with Indigenous peyote practitioners. 

A licensed distribution system was established in Texas as a regulatory companion to the federal exemption for Native religious use of peyote. This system employs licensed dealers, also known as peyoteros, to legally harvest and distribute peyote to NAC members, however, not all peyoteros necessarily consider Indigenous values of spiritual and ecological sustainability.

There have been issues with over-harvesting and improper harvesting by the current licensed dealers. When harvesting is done sustainably, the top of the root hardens and is able to produce more peyote pups in the future. Peyoteros (and black-market poachers) sometimes sever the root, causing the entire plant to die. 

Iron Rope expressed IPCI’s intentions of being inclusive of and working with existing peyoteros, wanting to build relationships with them and start a dialogue about sustainable harvesting techniques. “The IPCI are a new family in the neighborhood,” he says. “We come as friends, as neighbors, as partners, and we don’t want to engage in any type of conflict.” However, IPCI also wants to take a step towards sovereignty, training Indigenous distributors so as not to rely solely on current suppliers. 

“As Indigenous practitioners, it is important for us to reconnect in order to gain the full spiritual benefit of our medicine,” Iron Rope shared. “We are learning how to sustain our peyote for generations because a lot of our tribes have never harvested medicine and we have become lazy in a sense, relying on the non-practitioner distributors to send it to us in the mail.”

At the beginning of this year, there were four licensed peyoteros. According to Davis, the process of becoming a licensed peyotero is both time-consuming and costly, involving submitting an application to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Up until last year, peyoteros were licensed through the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). However, the law has changed and the DPS regulatory program was dissolved, making it only possible to acquire a license through the DEA.

“The stringent process of becoming a licensed peyotero involves annual application fees and thorough background investigation, but as far as harvesting protocols and regulations, there are now none,” adds Davis. “This has contributed to a lot of the issues that peyote is having in regard to propagation, because distributors aren’t necessarily harvesting ecologically. “If you look at pictures taken from peyote harvests, you can see that a shockingly high percentage of peyote are harvested unsustainably.”

Even if harvesting protocols and regulations were implemented through the DEA, Davis is doubtful that they would be effective, in that peyoteros operate in sparsely populated areas and such regulations would be hard to monitor. She also fears that increasing regulation would push distributors out of the business, making it more difficult for tribes who don’t have a connection to landowners in Texas to access their medicine.

“I feel that there is a more organic way of resolving this than relying on western law,” says Davis. “Rather, NAC practitioners could prevent these issues by educating fellow peyote practitioners about what a properly harvested peyote button looks like, encouraging them to buy sustainably harvested peyote.” Demanding properly and spiritually harvested peyote is the first step to bringing about lasting change.

 Lophophora williamsii  - Peyote
Lophophora williamsii – Peyote

How Can The Psychedelic Community Respect Indigenous Traditions?

As the psychedelic renaissance continues to unfold, it is increasingly important that we learn from the mistakes of the past, and make efforts to avoid another wave of colonial entitlement when it comes to peyote as a plant medicine. 

Despite being given such reverence by Indigenous tribes and the NAC, peyote traditions have been extremely misunderstood by outsiders for centuries. From the persecution of peyote traditions beginning in the early 1600s by Spanish colonists in Mexico to the 19th and 20th-century legal suppression of peyote practices in the U.S., Indigenous people have had to undergo countless struggles to ensure the continued use of their sacred medicine. 

Rather than feel entitled to peyote, the psychedelic community can serve as an ally to Indigenous communities by listening and choosing to support them in the ways that they wish to be supported. “It starts off with respect. Those that want to help can do something as simple as supporting Indigenous initiatives such as IPCI,” offered Iron Rope. “Indigenous people know what is best for them for the most part, and allowing them to take lead on certain matters is important.” 

Beyond this, Davis expressed that one of her biggest concerns as a practitioner and a researcher is that non-Indigenous people should try to understand the history of peyote and what Indigenous people have endured in order to access and use their medicine. “Peyote went back underground until the passing of the AIRFA amendments in 1994, and now we have this movement pushing for peyote to be a sort of ‘free for all,’ and completely negating the historical struggle of Indigenous people’s use of peyote.”

Further, Davis also urges people to stay clear of harvesting wild peyote populations anywhere throughout its range, suggesting that one of the most important things that allies can do for peyote is to take the position that they will refuse to harvest wild populations while encouraging others to do the same. “Whether it be in Texas or Mexico, people who are truly respectful of this medicine- this plant, this way of life, will not harvest any wild populations because of peyote’s status as a vulnerable species with potential for future extinction.”

As we traverse the developments of this renaissance, it is crucial for our community to be aware of the impact we have, not only on mainstream culture, but also on Indigenous communities who have so frequently been left unheard. There are several steps that we can take to support peyote conservation, including sharing information about peyote conservation issues and educating oneself on the ethical considerations to be made when choosing to buy or use peyote outside of a bona fide NAC context, which must include awareness for the socio-historical baggage specific to this plant medicine.


About the Author

Jasmine Virdi is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. Since 2018, she has been working as a writer, editor, and social media coordinator for the fiercely independent publishing company Synergetic Press, where her passions for ecology, ethnobotany and psychoactive substances converge. Jasmine’s goal as an advocate for psychoactive substances is to raise awareness of the socio-historical context in which these substances emerged in order to help integrate them into our modern-day lives in a safe, grounded and meaningful way.

Does Salvia Divinorum Have Therapeutic Potential?

hierve el agua cascadas petreas oaxaca mexico

By Michelle Janikian

Like many teens in the mid-2000s, I took a bong rip of Salvia divinorum extract in a group of laughing friends, and didn’t feel the need to touch the plant again. The 5 to 10-minute trip completely took me out of my mind, body, and surroundings in what I’d still, to this day, categorize as one of the most intense psychedelic experiences of my life. In the dreamlike state, I was walking on clouds and then found myself stuck in a cave where I had to move boulders aside to escape. As the cave slowly faded away and I drifted back to reality, I found that I was on my hands and knees in the corner of my best friend’s room, moving scissors and other art supplies around. I looked back to see my wide-eyed friends still sitting on the bed, bong in hand, staring at me, simultaneously giggling and relieved to see that I had returned.

When Psychedelics Today co-founder, Joe Moore, asked me to look into salvia for my next article nearly 15 years later, I laughed out loud, recalling that cave and the thrashing, ripping-apart-of-the-body feeling that salvia can give in high doses, and said something along the lines of “that shit is crazy.” But through researching this piece and talking to experts, I’ve learned there’s so much more to Salvia divinorum than smoking that weird black extract that was easier to get than booze or weed when I was 17- that there are people both in indigenous communities in Mexico and psychedelic societies in San Francisco who are developing deep and healing relationships with this purple flowering plant that contains the strongest naturally occurring psychedelic on our planet.

The oldest standing Salvia divinorum tradition is held by the same indigenous community that still practices magic mushroom ceremonies, the Mazatec of Oaxaca, Mexico. “For us Mazatecs, salvia is very sacred,” says Inti Garcia Flores, Mazatec professor and archivist. Over WhatsApp, he explains to me the Mazatec legend of the origin of Salvia divinorum, or “La Pastora” (Spanish for “the shepherdess”) as he refers to it during our conversation. Essentially, salvia was one of the first three plants in existence. Tobacco was the first plant, who is a male spirit and the father. Then came salvia, who is a female spirit and the mother. Lastly, the mushrooms were born, who are the children.

Oaxaca highlighted in map of Mexico

To prepare for such a powerful encounter, part of the Mazatec tradition is a 40-day cleansing period before the actual ceremony. When it’s time for the ceremonial encounter with La Pastora, prayers are said while leaves are picked from salvia plants that grow around the Sierra Mazateca mountain range. Notably, it’s the only region in the world where this psychedelic strain of sage grows, and it has likely been propagated by indigenous people of the land for hundreds of years and possibly longer.

Salvia Divinorum

Salvia is consumed in ceremonies which are held at night, in the home of a curandero (Spanish for “healer”), and in front of an altar that typically faces the west. Then, the leaves are either chewed and swallowed in pairs, or drunk in what’s called an agua de salvia, but the plant is never smoked. Mushrooms are also consumed in pairs in Mazatec ceremonies to represent the duality of life: the masculine and feminine energies- a necessary balance, which, as I understand it, is a core concept in their spirituality. Garcia tells me that approximately 40 leaves are eaten for a Pastora ritual, sometimes more. It really depends on the curandero and the purpose of the ceremony. “Every curandero has their own style,” explains Garcia.

And to my surprise, ceremonies last about four to five hours, approximately the same amount of time as the effects of mushrooms. Then, the ritual is to be followed by another 40-day cleansing period. As far as the purpose of these ceremonies, healing and divination are two of the main reasons for seeking out La Pastora, and it’s especially common to use salvia when mushrooms aren’t in season (mushrooms only grow in the rainy season in Mexico, which is generally May through September. Garcia tells me that salvia, on the other hand, grows year-round).

Learning about the sacred power of La Pastora got me thinking about the bad rap salvia has gotten in the west as a crazy and unpleasant, short-acting psychedelic. By smoking it, especially in extracted form, are we disrespecting the delicate plant spirit, and therefore missing its healing potential? But not everyone outside of the Mazatec community are teens like my friends and I were, tricking each other into smoking salvia. In fact, there are some folks using Salvia divinorum in a ritualized manner for healing trauma and other psycho-spiritual matters, like spiritual emergence coach and marriage and family counselor, Michelle Anne Hobart.

For Hobart, who’s also the author of Holding Sacred Space, salvia came to her in a time of need. She was recovering from trauma when she was guided to salvia, and the plant had a message for her: “Let go of all other practices for a year and work with me alone.” So that’s exactly what Hobart did. She formed a relationship with salvia in its tincture form. “She was very specific with me that I was only to take it in sublingual tincture form and not smoke it,” Hobart tells me over the phone, referring to salvia with feminine pronouns, just as Garcia had done.

In fact, Hobart’s salvia ritual had some similarities to the Mazatec tradition. She practices a pre-ceremony cleansing period where she only eats vegan and refrains from smoking or drinking (a practice that has now become a lifestyle). She also consumes La Pastora in front of her own altar with much prayer and meditation involved. For Hobart, this protocol has helped her reconnect with herself and her body, and she feels the short psychedelic experience (taken sublingually, she reports the experience lasts about 90 minutes to 2 hours) is very manageable and “integratable” for her as a highly sensitive person who is recovering from trauma.

Hobart spent much of her monogamous year with salvia working in low dose ranges that gave her a more spacious quality to her meditative practice. She explains that for those with trauma, even meditating or connecting with the body can seem like “a daunting, almost impossible task.” But by working with different levels of salvia and titrating her dose to cautiously work her way up to a higher dose range, it became more manageable. “If there was anything I learned in my experience of healing trauma with salvia, it’s that I don’t have to go to the top plateau to do the work. There’s work at every level and you can be gentle and compassionate with yourself and your nervous system. And honestly, you can integrate better when you titrate.”

That was especially interesting to me as someone who went straight to a smoked high-dose salvia experience. Are there really other levels to this medicine that are less intense? Hobart definitely thinks so, and when I ask her about the uncomfortable feeling in the body at higher doses, she reports that with her tincture protocol, she doesn’t find that to be the case. She explains that she views a salvia trip as having 3 phases: the clearing phase, the resourcing phase, and then the re-embodiment phase. At higher doses in the clearing phase, she can have visions, which she interprets as a cleansing that’s connected to the trauma she holds in her body. Then, in the resourcing phase, she can experience a type of ego-loss where she becomes one with the earth, which helps her release the trauma that can come up during the clearing phase. “It helps me realize I’m more than this body,” she explains.

Then in the re-embodiment phase, she returns to herself, “clean and free of that trauma.” Hobart specifies that she’s not completely free of trauma though. “There’s always more work to do. But in that moment, for that piece of work that needed to be done, I can re-inhabit my body in a safer way than I ever have before.” In that year of regular practice, Hobart was able to clear a lot of trauma, which, in turn, helped her anxiety decline. “I was able to return to my own sovereignty and empowerment through the understanding that this story is mine to tell,” she says.

Cloud forest of Southwestern Oaxaca

Christopher Solomon, who is a somatic salvia guide, went down a similar path with the plant that started over 10 years ago. He had smoked salvia a handful of times as a teen in the early 2000s and found the experience pretty bizarre and unwieldy. “It just didn’t really make much sense,” he tells me over Skype. But one day, as he was loading his bong with salvia, he received a “download” from the plant. “Out of nowhere, there was a feeling inside of me that just said: ‘Wait. Meditate first.’” Even though he didn’t have much of a meditation practice at the time, he took 10 deep breaths before inhaling the salvia, “and it was just completely different… it was a lot smoother and more gentle on my system,” Solomon explains. “It was more grounded. Instead of me being taken elsewhere or torn apart, it was more like this other reality unfolded gracefully in front of me.”

Now, over ten years later, he’s also developed a very intimate relationship with the plant and its many levels of psychedelic experience, and he’s even started to guide others through salvia journeys. Like Hobart, Solomon also sees a lot of benefits in working in lower dose ranges. In fact, he’s theorized the salvia experience has about 10 levels, and a lot of the most therapeutic work is done in levels 1 through 7. Solomon explains that levels 1 through 3 are almost sub-perceptual. “It’s very akin to being taken [to] a very, very deep, still place in meditation. One’s breath becomes deeper and there’s a feeling of grounding down and opening up. It’s not opening up to [the] world around one, it’s more as if one’s body is opening up to itself, like an internal opening. There’s a sense of slight physical tingles that come on the body and then the chattering mind gets a little bit less chattery. It can be summed up as being taken to a place of quiet, deep stillness.” He adds that finding this place in regular meditation practice can be very difficult for a lot of folks, echoing a sentiment Hobart expressed about how daunting it can be for those with trauma to try to reconnect with their bodies. But according to Solomon, in levels 1 through 3 of salvia, focusing on one’s breath feels pleasurable and comfortable, even euphoric. “It really increases your ability to remain attentive to whatever you put your concentration on. With the quieting of the mind comes a greater ability to concentrate on one’s own embodied self and be very present.”

This is a key concept in somatic therapy, in which Solomon is certified. “One of the main premises of any sort of somatic work is coming back to what is in the present,” he explains. “And instead of getting caught up in stories, expectations or memories, it’s about coming to the present moment- to the now, and seeing what’s right in front of one and seeing what we think.” When it comes to the salvia experience, the sense of presence that the plant insists on can be very healing. For Solomon, the lesson has been very clear- that learning to be present in the current moment is key to living a healthier, happier life. Salvia taught him: “Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about the past. Just be here now, and engaged, and aware, and playful. And then everything else kind of works itself out.”

These messages from salvia often come in the next dose range, in levels 3 through 7, where the feeling in the body becomes more intense (sometimes called “salvia gravity”), and visions, entities, and being taken to a new reality are more common. However, Solomon notes, the best preparation for these higher dose experiences is working in levels 1 through 3 first and getting comfortable there. But many of us don’t know about this preparation or don’t bother, and are shot straight to levels 9 or 10 on our first trip of smoking a bowl of 20x or 50x extract, and in turn, are completely turned off by the intensity of the salvia gravity sensation.

Photo of salvia packaged for retail sale

But when you prime your body first by titrating your dose and starting in lower, sub-perceptual dose ranges, “the pushing feelings do happen in your body, but it doesn’t feel as aggressive or foreign. It feels a lot more controllable instead,” says Solomon. And this is where things get really interesting and hard to explain. But through his deep practice with the plant, he’s learned that you can control those pushing and pulling feelings, or “energies,” and direct them towards parts of your body that need healing. Solomon’s most profound example of this is also the experience that led him to pursue sharing salvia with others as a somatic guide. Essentially, a few years ago, he had a swollen lymph node in his neck for months that he tried everything to cure, including three courses of antibiotics and diet and lifestyle changes. “But no matter what I did for months, there was this big swollen lymph node in my neck. It just didn’t go away.” At the time, he consulted with a couple of doctors who both said he needed to have his tonsils removed.

Before having the surgery, he decided to turn to salvia for the first time in nearly 2 years. “I smoked a bowl of 20x extract,” he says, “and usually when I do, I feel this pulling and pushing sensation on my body coming from outside, or it feels like I’m being moved through time and space.” But this time was different. “I felt all this energy tingling, kind of like little ants rushing up from every extremity of my body. And it all went straight to where the swollen lymph node was. This energy was congregating around the swollen lymph node and a thought came to me: ‘Oh, well, let me just heal myself.’” He says his hand “automatically picked itself up,” and he began pressing on his swollen neck like he had done many times before. But this time, as he rubbed his lymph node in a circle, “I felt it split in half,” he recalls. As he kept rubbing, it kept splitting. “It got smaller and smaller and smaller. It felt like tiny little grains of sand. And then those split even more, and it kept dividing until I couldn’t physically feel it anymore. Then all that energy that initially rushed to that part of my neck rushed over the rest of my body.” He reports that he laid there for about ten minutes until coming to, and his swollen lymph node was totally gone, and has remained absent ever since.

Kathleen Harrison, famous ethnobotanist, writer, psychedelic elder, and co-founder of the Botanical Dimensions library in Northern California, told a similar story in a talk at the Entheogenesis Australis conference in 2018. She sought out a Mazatec curandero who specializes in salvia healings and had a traditional ceremony in the highlands of Oaxaca. At the time, she was experiencing a lot of heart trouble and doctors told her that the only way forward was lifelong medication to manage her condition. But in a ceremony with salvia, she felt a female presence wave a hand right through her body and physically take her pain away. “A little door opened in my heart. It blew open like a sudden breeze had come, and I just saw this hurt fly out and dissolve. And my heart was better. I never had another problem with it,” Harrison describes in her talk. When she got back to her California home, medication was no longer necessary.

These healings are hard to explain in terms of what’s happening in the brain, even though there are psychedelic researchers looking into Salvia divinorum at Johns Hopkins and other universities. Formal research began in 1994, when ethnobotanist and researcher Daniel Siebert first isolated the psychedelic compound in Salvia Divinorum – Salvinorin A – and published his findings. Since then, Siebert has become salvia’s champion: he founded the salvia information vault, Sagewisdom.com, which includes a salvia safe-use guide, and he ended up piquing the interest of psychedelic researchers and run-of-the-mill psychonauts alike.

Today, salvia is still legal in about 20 states, which makes it easier than psilocybin or MDMA for researchers to study. In 2010, Johns Hopkins University conducted the first controlled human study of salvinorin A, and their team is still looking into how salvia works. That’s partly because salvia is unique in the way it affects the brain, and so offers researchers a novel opportunity to study other psychedelic (and potentially therapeutic) mechanisms of action. Essentially, most classic psychedelics, like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, mostly bind to the serotonin 2a receptors, and that action is thought to be responsible for most of their psychedelic effects. Salvia, on the other hand, has no affinity for the legendary 2a sites, and instead focuses the majority of its attention on the kappa opioid receptors.

Salvia laws in the United States (may not be fully up to date) – Source 
Red – Jurisdiction where salvia is illegal.
Orange-  Jurisdiction where salvia is decriminalized.
Yellow – Jurisdiction where salvia is legal with age restrictions.
Blue – Jurisdiction where salvia extracts are illegal but the plant itself is legal
Green – Jurisdiction where salvia is legal.

Yet, oddly enough, according to Manoj Doss, a postdoctoral scientist at the Hopkins Psychedelic Research Center (who is the lead on analyzing the latest salvia brain scan data), even though the receptor action site is different, the overall effects on the human brain are very similar to classic psychedelics. “We essentially found the same pattern [that Robin Carhart-Harris found with LSD],” Doss explains. “We got decreases in functional connectivity within network connectivity, so these networks are communicating less within themselves… [and] decreases in Default Mode Network connectivity, [which was the strongest effect]. And, we have increases in connectivity between areas that don’t usually communicate with each other as much.” However, although the effects were “quite similar” to other psychedelics, Doss believes more research is needed. “There are a few more caveats that are going to require a study with a larger sample size,” he says.

To folks like Solomon, while research is exciting, it’s not necessary towards understanding how salvia works for healing. “It’s very somatic medicine,” Solomon says. And it’s inspired him to complete a certification at the Hakomi Institute and provide guided somatic salvia sessions to clients. And unlike other traditions, Solomon’s clients smoke salvia, but not all in one go. In fact, Solomon has invented (thanks to a message from the salvia plant herself) an entirely new smoking apparatus for consuming salvia, aptly named “the salvia pipe.” The contraption has five separate bowls into which he sprinkles just a couple of flakes of salvia for clients. The idea is to titrate the dose to make the experience more similar to a chewed fresh leaf ceremony, which he admits is his preferred method of consumption, but isn’t very accessible unless you grow your own salvia. And so, his clients only smoke a very small amount at a time, then they meditate together for five minutes between each bowl to gradually work up to a level 3, 4, or 5 experience that they can manage and are comfortable in.

Solomon even does guided salvia sessions online, which have become increasingly popular since the pandemic, and the first thing he does is send clients a salvia pipe packed with the correct dose (if the client lives in a state where salvia is legal). He says folks come to him for a whole host of reasons: sometimes just out of curiosity, and others to work on self-esteem, physical ailments, or trauma. “I like to think of salvia as ‘the great neutralizer.’ If you’re feeling up, salvia will help bring you back down to a baseline calmness, or ‘groundedness.’ But if you’re down in the dumps, salvia can bring you up… and that is essentially how it incorporates so well into somatic therapy- because a lot of trauma therapy is getting the person to a sense of feeling grounded and stable, as if they have their own resources… it’s like a hard reset- a reboot to the present.”

Regardless of how Salvia divinorum works, it seems it has a lot of therapeutic potential that’s not getting a lot of attention, especially considering that it’s legal in 20 states. But I believe that’s because most of us go on one incredibly intense and off-putting first date with salvia at a young age and are completely unprepared for the experience. Yet it seems by building a relationship with the plant by preparing one’s set and setting, titrating dose, and being mindful of its sacred power, it can have lasting benefits for those who bother to take the time.


About the Author

Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends, and education. She’s the author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms – From Tips and Trips to Microdosing and Psychedelic Therapy, and her work has also been featured in Playboy, DoubleBlind Mag, High TimesRolling Stone and Teen Vogue. One of her core beliefs is that ending the prohibition of drugs can greatly benefit society, as long as we have harm reduction education to accompany it. Find out more on her website: www.michellejanikian.com or on Instagram @michelle.janikian.

What is Psychedelic Therapy? Common Trends, Practices, and Foundations in the Field

What is Psychedelic Therapy? Common Trends, Practices, and Foundations in the Field

By Sean Lawlor

Now that millions of dollars are being invested in psychedelics and platforms ranging from Fox News to Bloomberg are reporting positively on them, it’s safe to say that psychedelic therapy has entered the mainstream. But mainstream news tends to highlight catchy elements while glossing over other details, often resulting in an unbalanced portrait of the whole. For psychedelic therapy, you’re way more likely to hear about the “psychedelic” than the “therapy.”

No surprise there. Reports on people healing complex PTSD by taking the “party drug ecstasy” while wearing eyeshades and listening to music in a cozy office are more gripping than reports on the months of talk therapy that follow (ecstacy is not always MDMA, it sometimes contains other dangerous compounds). So, perhaps this article on the therapy side will not be as gripping as an Anderson Cooper 60 Minutes special, but I hope it will prove informative for anyone who desires to learn more about how psychedelic therapy is currently being practiced, and the complex elements beyond the administration of a substance that go into achieving the astounding improvements in depression, addiction, and PTSD that have now been so broadly reported.

The Importance of Staying Humble

I’ll kick this off by recognizing it is not possible to “capture” psychedelic therapy in any sentence or article or doctoral thesis. There are as many approaches and strategies as there are practitioners, and eliminating the potential for exploration and breakthrough through a prescriptive definition would be an insult to psychedelics themselves, which have exploded understandings of phenomena for centuries.

“There’s a lot of impression about what psychedelics are, how they should be treated, and what the optimal therapy is,” explains Dr. Matthew Johnson, Associate Director of the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University. “We need to keep humble in terms of how much we don’t know, rather than fooling ourselves into thinking something is cemented in.”

While the future is ripe for exploration, there are several trends in approaching psychedelic therapy. So, this article is simply a glimpse into these trends, rather than a concrete definition of the whole.

Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy

“Psychedelic therapy” is more accurately termed “psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.” This distinction is critical, because the psychedelic is an adjunct to the therapeutic process, rather than a replacement for the process itself. So, when I refer to “psychedelic therapy,” I am simply abbreviating “psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.” And there are far fewer psychedelics being used in therapy than there are psychedelics in general.

Psilocybin and MDMA are the two predominant substances currently being researched in psychedelic therapy, and each has been granted “Breakthrough Status” by the FDA in separate clinical trials, which basically means even the government recognizes how promising they are in therapy. Other substances used in psychedelic therapy are ketamine, a legal medicine throughout the U.S., and cannabis, which is still fully illegal in only eight states.

Interestingly enough, only one of these substances—psilocybin—is a classic psychedelic. The other three are all noted as having psychedelic properties, but ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, MDMA is an entactogen, and no one can seem to agree on what cannabis is. 

Other psychedelics, such as LSD, ibogaine, ayahuasca, and 5-MeO-DMT, are being researched, yet none appear close to becoming legal. However, research into LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the ‘50s and ‘60s, especially as spearheaded by Dr. Stanislav Grof, provided foundational elements for common frameworks implemented with other substances today. But LSD’s stigmatization remains heavy, and its unpredictable effects are particularly long-lasting, so it has not re-emerged to the forefront of psychedelic therapy. So, the “psychedelics” of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy of interest in this article will be psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, and cannabis.

A Framework of Preparation and Integration

Psychedelic therapy is not as simple as administering a substance and Voila! Depression defeated! The psychedelic sessions—interchangeably referred to as “medicine” or “dosing” sessions—take place in a broader framework of preparation and integration therapy, neither of which involves the administration of a substance.

The ratios of preparation/integration sessions to medicine sessions vary widely and depend on many factors, such as dose size and financial limitations. The most widely-documented framework currently being practiced comes from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the organization behind the FDA-approved trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD. MAPS’ MDMA therapy involves three 90-minute preparatory sessions, a first MDMA session, three integration sessions, a second MDMA session, three more integration sessions, a third MDMA session, and three final integration sessions. In total, that’s three medicine sessions, and twelve preparation/integration sessions, a cycle that lasts about five months.

That’s five times as many non-medicine sessions as medicine sessions. MAPS’ significant results—i.e. one year after their Phase 2 trials, 68% of participants no longer qualified for PTSD—cannot be separated from this full process. Sara Reed, who worked on MAPS’ Phase 2 trials and is now the Director of Psychedelic Services at the Behavioral Wellness Clinic in Connecticut explains, “The integration sessions are just as important as the dosing sessions, if not even more important.”

Johns Hopkins University’s research in psilocybin therapy also involves far more preparation and integration therapy than psychedelic sessions. Among the many focuses of their Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, Johns Hopkins is researching psilocybin therapy for smoking cessation.

Johnson is the study’s Principal Investigator. Results from the study’s pilot phase, published in 2014, found that after 6 months, 80% of participants had remained abstinent from smoking, compared to the 30-35% success rate of predominant treatment models. In the study’s second iteration, which is ongoing at the time of this writing, Dr. Johnson reports that at the one-year follow-up, 59% of the psilocybin group were biologically confirmed as abstinent, compared to 27% of the group who used a nicotine patch.

While the pilot study involved three medicine sessions, the current study involves only one. Everything else is preparation and integration. “Right now, they have integration sessions for ten weeks after the psilocybin session,” Johnson explains. “These are hour-long, weekly check-ins. With preparation, we have about eight hours across four different sessions.”

Given that ketamine therapy is being widely practiced, and numerous other psychedelic therapy trials are underway, it would take many articles to detail all the protocols being used. The trend to note is that sober preparation and integration sessions are essential to psychedelic therapy, and even tend to involve far more time than the medicine sessions.

A Relational Approach to Therapy

I’m tempted to write a section on what preparation and integration therapy looks like, but this would be impossible. These terms are vague; there is no set way to do them, no script to follow. Yet amidst common components such as intention setting, dose determination, and discussions of the particular psychedelic’s effects, the glue that connects these sessions across countless frameworks is the essentiality of establishing a strong and trusting therapeutic relationship.

“More important than the therapist’s psychological orientation is the rapport with the participant,” Johnson explains. “If you actually care for this human being you’re dealing with, and you’re making a sincere effort, and they get that—that overrides whatever descriptors you use.”

A client-centered, relationship-based approach to therapy arose in the mid-20th century in response to the dominant paradigms of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Back then, therapists were viewed as the “expert” in the room, interpreting and diagnosing clients while remaining emotionally detached. Carl Rogers then theorized that interpretation and theoretical expertise were not essential, or even necessarily helpful; the central element to a client’s healing was the quality of the therapeutic relationship, cultivated in a climate of genuineness, accurate empathy, and unconditional positive regard. This client-centered approach laid the foundation for humanistic psychology.

Whether or not one aligns entirely with Rogers’ framework and disposition, it is widely accepted in psychedelic therapy that the therapeutic relationship is paramount. 

“When you’re getting into psychedelic work, there can be a subconscious pull toward skipping aspects of relationship building,” explains Rafael Lancelotta, who practices cannabis and ketamine therapy at Innate Path in Denver, CO. “That can really negatively affect the process. If you’re going to vulnerable places with someone you don’t trust, your system’s defenses are going to come up and prevent you from moving through a healing process.”

Therapy is already vulnerable; that vulnerability amplifies exponentially when a substance is involved. Imbibing a psychedelic, a client sacrifices control, accepting the heightened uncertainty of where the session may lead. If they do not trust the therapist, the lack of trust will likely manifest in the medicine session and impede the work. 

An important element to a relational approach is respecting and understanding the identities clients hold. Sara Reed is part of several committees devoted to increasing access to psychedelic medicines for underserved populations, and she brings specific attention to the complexities of clients’ social identities.

“I approach ketamine therapy through an intersectional lens,” Reed explains. “I take into account a person’s age, race, sexual orientation, gender, geography, socioeconomic status, education, and what they’ve been exposed to in the world. I’m sensitive to the way they language their experience and the way they experience the world. From that lens, we create treatment plans specific to their symptom presentation and symptom severity to give them a tailored psychedelic psychotherapy experience.”

Reed does not position herself as the expert; she positions herself humbly in relation to the client’s experience, listening to their unique background and needs in order to develop a course of action. This humility, and the trust-building that comes through it, is the essence of a relational approach.

Given that psychedelics often attract people with spiritual and esoteric worldviews, therapists must be prepared and willing to enter and understand a client’s way of seeing. Michelle Anne Hobart specializes in preparation and integration therapy—which, by the way, is a legal therapeutic modality, so long as illegal medicines are not administered. Hobart is a specialist in “spiritual emergence,” which she describes as “a space of people expanding beyond the separate sense of self into a larger understanding of interconnection between other beings and the planet.” This inner awakening can occur through psychedelic experiences and potentially be destabilizing, and Hobart’s specialty allows her to meet her clients in their expansive worldviews.

“It can be helpful to check the astrology transits in preparation for journeys,” Hobart explains, referencing the Archetypal Astrology work of Stan Grof and Richard Tarnas. “It’s making correlations between the type of medicine experience that someone might be having with the overlay of archetypal dynamics at that time. It can be really empowering to know that certain tones might show up in the medicine journey.”

If an astrologically-minded seeker comes to a material scientist whose preparation cannot extend beyond images of entropic brain states and explanations of oxytocin, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, it probably will not be a good fit. A relational approach hinges on meeting clients where they are, and many psychonauts do not view the world through a strictly scientific lens.

Therapists cannot simply assume trust due to the position they hold. They have to earn it, and that process takes time and patience. If that process is not honored, numerous problems can result, including the potential for re-traumatization in the medicine session due to an unsafe container—an issue that Hobart rightly describes as a “shadow” of psychedelic therapy. Like therapy itself, preparation and integration are most effective when relational, adaptable, and responsive to clients’ individual needs. With a trusting relationship established, an “inner-directed” process can unfold.

Psychedelics and The Shadow
Learn more about our course on Psychedelics and The Shadow

Inner-Directed Therapy

Psychedelic therapists often maintain that the medicine helps incite an “inner-directed” healing process, where a client’s “innate healing intelligence” or “inner healer” can emerge from its walled-off container and catalyze the necessary internal movement.

“As a therapist, your therapeutic stance is to trust the process and not get ahead of the medicine, to follow the participant in their journey,” Reed explains. “In essence, you’re just really present with the medicine, the material, the client, and yourself, navigating that liminal space where transformation can happen.”

Again, the client is the expert, and the therapist skillfully cultivates space for a process to organically unfold. Stan Grof created the term “holotropic” for this process, which translates to “moving toward wholeness.” The therapeutic approaches then used in integration can come out of the client’s authentic holotropic experience, allowing for the integration to meet emergent needs rather than place an established framework onto a process.

Psychedelic therapists create trusting, comfortable conditions that allow the client’s inner healer to guide the medicine sessions, and all ensuing sessions by extension. What that clients’ inner healer brings forth depends on other measurable factors as well, such as the size of dose administered.

Psychedelic vs. Psycholytic Therapy

When folks are talking about psychedelic therapy, they are sometimes in fact talking about psycholytic therapy. “Psychedelic” therapy involves high-dose medicine sessions, in which the client may lose contact with the therapist, if not the physical world. “Psycholytic” therapy involves low-dose medicine sessions, in which perceptual doors are opened, but not obliterated completely.

Jason Sienknecht trains ketamine therapists through the Psychedelic Research and Training Institute (PRATI), an organization he helped found. In his therapeutic practice at the Wholeness Center in Fort Collins, CO, he facilitates both psychedelic and psycholytic ketamine therapy.

“In the psychedelic session, we use high-dose ketamine to induce a fully-dissociated psychedelic state,” Sienknecht explains. “They go in very deeply, and the ketamine and music helps them move toward insights about their life and give them clarity and perspective about their struggles.”

This high-dose, non-dialogue approach is used by Johns Hopkins with psilocybin in the smoking cessation study. “We use a high dose of 30 milligrams per 70 kilograms of body weight,” Johnson says. “That generally equates to about 5 dried grams of psilocybe cubensis. So, it’s the classic Terence McKenna ‘heroic dose.’”

In psychedelic sessions, dialogue with the therapist is kept to a minimum—sometimes by necessity, when clients temporarily lose the ability to speak. In psycholytic sessions, on the other hand, clients enter a “low-dose trance state” and stay engaged with the therapist.

“With psycholytic therapy, you don’t dissociate so much that you lose your capacity to sustain dialogue with a therapist,” Sienknecht explains. “You stay in contact the entire time. Some clients I work with really like that, as opposed to me saying, ‘Goodbye, I’ll see you on the other side,’ as we do with psychedelic sessions.”

Each approach has its uses. Some clinicians believe psychedelic sessions are necessary for clients to transgress their self-imposed limitations and open to a more expansive kind of healing. Psychedelic sessions can also be helpful for crisis situations. For example, some clinicians use high doses of ketamine for suicidal clients, as an ego-dissolving experience may be necessary to help the client “break out” of their all-consuming mentality. 

Psycholytic sessions allow for conscious processing of emerging material through direct, intentional work with what arises. Further, these low-dose sessions allow clients to work directly with relational wounds by remaining in contact with the therapist through the non-ordinary state. Again, the significance of this relational element cannot be understated, especially as relationship-building extends beyond the need for trust in the session.

“I find it difficult to think of any form of mental illness that isn’t highly relational,” explains Lancelotta. “I think this work is for healing those core relational wounds.”

In this understanding, the relationship with the therapist is the relationship through which deep relational wounds can be healed. These “core relational wounds” affect people far more than they often realize, playing into numerous mental conditions and existential struggles that cannot be healed in isolation.

Whether a client’s healing will come best through psychedelic or psycholytic therapy—or a hybridization of the two, as Lancelotta envisions—depends on numerous factors, to which therapists must remain sensitive and attuned. A “more-medicine-is-better” mentality can be highly problematic and potentially destabilizing for an already unstable client. Regardless, medicine sessions cannot exist in a vacuum. Without preparation and integration to support the psychedelic experience, psychedelic therapy is no different than peer support, and while this can still be hugely impactful, it will undoubtedly diminish the potential for lasting transformation.

Bringing It Home

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is an umbrella term that is far more complex than someone taking a drug in a calm and comfortable room. It is an extensive framework involving a significant amount of “regular” therapy that adapts to clients’ unique struggles and needs. As much as mainstream news may want to convince you otherwise, psychedelics are not the “magic pill” panacea that will quickly and easily make all your problems go away. Yet psychedelic experiences can bring profound insight and meaning, and a growing body of psychedelic therapists use tried and tested methods to enhance these substances’ transformative potential, so that a revelatory trip can truly change a person’s life. 


About the Author

Sean Lawlor

Sean Lawlor is a writer, certified personal trainer, and Masters student in Transpersonal Counseling at Naropa University, in pursuit of a career in psychedelic journalism, research, and therapy. His interest in consciousness and non-ordinary states owes great debt to Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, and Hunter S. Thompson, and his passion for film, literature, and dreaming draws endless inspiration from Carl Jung, David Lynch, and J.K. Rowling. For more information or to get in touch, head to seanplawlor.com, or connect on Instagram @seanplawlor.

Navigating Psychedelics for Clinicians and Therapists