In this episode – with the 2024 edition of Vital announced and applications officially open – we’re launching another series of Vital Psychedelic Conversations, with David hosting Jasmine Virdi: Vital instructor, writer, educator, and activist who works at Synergetic Press and volunteers for Fireside Project; and Tabata Gerk: Vital student, psychotherapist, and facilitator.
As always, they discuss what they think the most vital conversation should be right now, largely expressing concerns over the medicalization of psychedelics and the idea of a ‘traumadelic culture,’ where psychedelics are often only seen as healers of trauma and not doorways to mysticism and new ideas. And they point out another concern: the romanticization of Indigenous culture and not recognizing that these are contemporary cultures that are affected by the same Western, capitalist paradigms that affect us all.
They also discuss the concept of epistemic injustice and needing to respect other ways of knowing; hyper-individualism and why we became so reductionist as a society; the role of money (who defines the problem and the solution?); concerns over who decides who is allowed to use these substances; the power of small steps of change; and, through talking about Gerk’s recent Amazonian ayahuasca experience, they dig into what it is about these experiences and surrounding communities that make them so special. Could we take some of that and effectively incorporate it into our Western models?
“In this day and age that we exist in, I think there’s a medicalization of psychedelics, and they’re really kind of honed in on for their ability to treat different mental health and behavioral disorders. And I think that they’re so much more than that.” -Jasmine
“I think that there’s a lot of romanticization of Indigenous cultures as well, and through that, there can be an active erasure of those cultures. Indigenous cultures have been evolving alongside Western, industrial, globalist culture, so they’re not peoples who are stuck in time, and I think that the Western mind, a lot of people want to perceive those cultures as kind of like, ‘Oh, they kept something pure, and we’re going to go back to these people because they have this purity that they’ve maintained over time.’ It’s like perpetuating this idea of ‘the noble savage.’ I think that Indigenous people also are contemporary, so I think it’s really important to recognize that. …These cultures have problems, these cultures are evolving, and these cultures are influenced by modern Western, industrialized, globalist culture, [and] capitalism as well.” -Jasmine
“Plant medicine was one of the things that brought me healing there. We have three ayahuasca ceremonies, we have Kambo ceremony. But it was not only that. Everything that I saw, every conversation that I have with them was a part of the healing I received there. Not to mystify the Indigenous community, [but] their healing doesn’t come only from plant medicine. It comes from daily basis. It comes from the way they work, they relate. They are connected on a daily basis.” -Tabata
She talks about graduating college and going straight to Esalen, where she had little concern over therapy or integration, and how, after 20 years of ayahuasca experiences, she learned to see psychedelic-assisted therapy and ceremonial, transformational experiences as very different things. She discusses her ayahuasca journeys; a surprising MDMA experience; what having an ongoing relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca means; Ann Shulgin’s concerns over going through death’s door while in a journey; what true integration is; how psychedelics can help prepare for death, and more.
And she talks about her new book, Swimming in the Sacred, which collects the stories, unique perspectives, and wisdom of 15 female elders who have been working in the underground for at least 15 years each, and how their experience has led to a somatic-based intuition and ‘know it in their bones’ feeling that so many new practitioners and facilitators need – and can only come with time.
“I kind of want to say to the newly-hatched psychedelic therapists: ‘Well, get this experience,’ but it’s very hard. And they’re not going to wait six years before practicing, so there’s such a need for them, and I can’t, in every podcast, (I mean, you’ll laugh at this), I can’t say, ‘Go do a lot of drugs,’ right? I’m trying to be more elegant about this, but that’s part of the elder women’s experience, is they really know the territory.”
“I know you’ve done a real apprenticeship, and I really respect that. And, yes, it’s very hard to find them, but that is the way people learn. So, what’s the best way to become a psychedelic therapist? It’s to be a patient with someone who’s a very experienced psychedelic therapist.”
“My priority was to work on myself and to grow and evolve. And so I always think of integration as part of a whole life: it’s not something that happens in a couple of sessions. But after these experiences, then what do we do with our lives and how do we live a more integrated life? And how do our lives unfold?”
In this episode, Joe interviews Stéphane Lasme, a former professional basketball player from Gabon who is now a partner at SteddeCapital, a private markets investment platform investing long-term capital into U.S.- and Africa-based opportunities across sports ownership, infrastructure, technology and plant medicine.
Lasme speaks of his childhood, growing up in Gabon with more traditional Catholic values while journeying deep into the jungle to visit his Grandmother every summer. It was there that he embraced the cultural aspect of Gabon and community, and first learned of iboga, which he had a profound experience with at age 12, and would later revisit in his basketball days. He discusses the drive and passion that led him to become the first person from Gabon to play in the NBA, and the subsequent pressure, stress, cultural differences, and “ok, what now?” moments that came at the end. He talks about Gabonese traditions; how iboga improved his stress relief and mental focus; how embracing yoga and Buddhist methods of self-discovery improved his life; scientific reductionism vs. the magic of mystery and trying to define an experience; and more.
While Gabon allows for the export of iboga, Lasme’s goal is to build a lab and treatment center in Gabon and share the power of Gabonese culture with people – so they can experience the medicine in its own country, with its traditional rituals and music. He has begun the fundraising process, and through his investment and facilitation work, is working to get African athletes to invest back into Africa and make Gabon a major destination for iboga.
“Deep inside, I wanted to be the first basketball player from Gabon to get drafted in the NBA. I never advertised this as a kid. I never advertised it to anyone. Even while I was at UMass, I never talked about it. But I know there is a relation between me going through that culture, that traditional experience, and me deciding to be that person. That’s why I say ‘me deciding who I want to be’; I think there is a big connection. And I can’t tell you or explain to you where the connection started, what triggered me thinking that way, but I just know it’s connected.”
“We have to believe in ourselves. Our stuff here, whatever we have in Gabon, is actually the shit. It’s actually the stuff that’s going to help everyone. Everyone is going to run towards us to look for solutions, so we should be prepared. We should be working on a better environment for people to come and just witness what kind of a great thing that we have going on in Gabon. This is the motivation I have today: really building this company, building this network, this ecosystem, this network of people in the states and in Gabon around this plant. That’s the main thing that motivates me.”
In this episode, David interviews Dr. Rosalind Watts: famed clinical psychologist, former clinical lead on Imperial College London’s first Psilocybin for Depression trial, and Founder of ACER Integration.
She discusses the awakening she had after having a child; her work at Imperial College and realizing the importance of staying in touch with patients; the challenges of balancing her work with being a mother; her ACER integration model and the interconnectedness of trees in a forest; how the Watts Connectedness Scale works (and David fills it out); and how much the outside-the-hype surrounding pieces matter – the therapy, the therapeutic relationship, the lessons learned, and the work done to integrate it all.
And she talks about another moment of awakening, at last year’s Psych Summit conference, where capitalism’s obsession with profit-over-care frameworks and “magic bullet” and “brain reset” narratives was on full display, which fully enforced what she hopes for in the future: a world where we embrace non-clinical, ceremonial, and nature-based practices; with healing centers (psychedelic and non); supportive communities; infrastructure around conflict resolution and restorative justice; and a shift towards collectivism and collaboration – and how that all starts by finding our psychedelic elders.
“I’m a tourist. I’m listening, I’m learning, but I know that I don’t have deep roots and that there are people that do. So it ties into that thing about finding the elders: as we find our elders for conflict resolution and for therapy and for healing and for psychedelic healing, I also hope we find the elders who are deeply rooted in Indigenous traditions, from Indigenous traditions all over the world, and that they can teach us and teach me, if they will, those stories and those ways, and that then, my daughter: if she can learn through her life, she can grow up with it in a way that I didn’t – so she can have deep roots in that tradition.”
“When we’re on the riverbank and we’ve had our cup of tea and we’ve warmed by the fire, we can look upstream and think: all the people that are coming down the river, what might they need? And then we can kind of run and chuck them the blankets or a chocolate biscuit or the things that they might need, or just shout to them and say, ‘Hey, you’re doing great. It’s crazy out there, there’s a riverbank soon. You can come and sit and join us.’ So it’s like, it’s also about thinking of what’s next for us, but also thinking of all the people that are coming and how we can support each other on the rapids as well.”
In this episode, David interviews published researcher, social entrepreneur, and internationally recognized Indigenous rights activist: Sutton King, MPH.
In New York City alone, 180,000 people identify as Indigenous, Native American, or Alaskan Native, and this community is facing a disproportionate prevalence of mental health disparities, poverty, suicide, and PTSD due to intergenerational trauma from attempted genocide, forced relocation, and the erasure of culture and identity via boarding schools. Her purpose has become to bring light to what Indigenous people are facing due to being forced to live under a reductionist, individualistic Western approach that is in direct opposition to their worldview.
She talks about growing up being instilled with the importance of ancestry and tradition; why she moved to New York; how psychedelics helped her move through the trauma she felt in herself and saw so commonly in her family tree; and capitalism: how we need to move away from our private ownership, profit-maximalist, extractive model into a steward mentality inspired by the Indigenous voices and principles that have been silenced for so long.
“One of the principles that I always was taught is that Indigenous peoples were always taught to be humble and not to be proud and not to be loud. But I have always felt like that was a way to keep us stagnant, to keep us complacent. So I would say I’m definitely a disruptor of this generation.”
“We are dealing with a burden of poverty, we’re dealing with so much chronic morbidity and mortality, as well and our chronic health. There is a number of different issues that we’re facing as Indigenous peoples. However, I’d also like to highlight how resilient we are as well. To be able to survive genocide, forced relocation, boarding school, and the poor socioeconomic status that many of us face [and] our families face, but continue to be a voice for our communities; continue to be on the front lines, advocating for missing and murdered, advocating for the protection of our land and demanding land back – I see a resurgence.”
“When you look at that skyline of that concrete jungle in New York City, I love to remind folks that it was the Mohawk ironworkers who risked their lives on that skyline, to be able to create the world we see around us. The paths that we walk today [and] the rivers that flow have always been used by the Indigenous peoples who came before us.”
“When we think about the economy and this market, it’s not capital that creates economic growth; it’s people. And it’s not this reductionist, individualistic behavior that’s centered at the core of economic good; it’s reciprocity, and being able to make sure that we have a market and an economy that’s inclusive; that’s bringing in all voices, that’s also considering all voices, all of the different parts of the ecosystem – not to silo people, but to bring everyone together, I think, will be the opportunity of a lifetime to really be able to really enact change.”
In this episode, Joe interviews Miriam Volat, MS and T. Cody Swift, MFT; Co-Directors of The Riverstyx Foundation: a charitable organization focused on funding psychedelic research and ensuring integrity and reciprocity in the psychedelic space.
Volat and Swift cover a ton of ground in this conversation; from philanthropy, research, and the hurdles of funding in the psychedelic space, to the unintended consequences of the quest for holistic healing (e.g.: iboga & peyote over-harvesting), to plant medicine biocultures and the Good Friday Experiment, to changing our relationship with waste with green funerals. They discuss psilocybin’s ability to ease distress related to cancer and death, toad conservation efforts by the Yaqui; the true sacredness of peyote amongst Native Americans, and Indigenous-led structures for future biotechnology companies.
They talk about the ever-present reality (and ripple effect) of the decimation of the Native American way of life, and break down the critical considerations for the survival of Indigenous culture; looking at the Nagoya Protocol and how sustainable harvesting structures, better relationships with the land and surrounding communities, benefit-sharing, and, most importantly, partnerships with Indigenous leaders can help to ensure a culturally respectful and informed future for the psychedelic field.
“Sometimes in the psychedelic space, people are just focused on this organism or brew or something, and that’s the focus. But really, for thousands of years, those things aren’t separated from a way of life or a cultural container that guides many things through a territory, through language. So that’s why we’re really using that term, ‘bioculture,’ so as not to dissect these things into little parts that are actually very interconnected.” -Miriam
“If we arrive in a psychedelic future 20, 30, 50 years from now and we haven’t done our work to empower those communities to survive and stay strong and stay rooted in their own traditions, we’ll be at the same place of not knowing where we came from: What were the original ways of holding these medicines? What were the original songs? What were the original protocols? And once again, [that] will have been lost. And that’s not healing, that’s more disconnection.” -Cody
“White cultures, especially on the West coast; we’re blessed with …so many amazing medicines from MDMA and LSD and ayahuasca and 2C-B, and all the 2Cs, and 5-MeO, and just– it’s incredible. And the Native American communities have, at least in this country, they have peyote. They do not regard it [as] a psychedelic. This is a sacred, sacred plant medicine. And they have no interest (from all the leadership that we’ve talked to); absolutely no interest [in other drugs]. It would be a sacrilege to consider the other pathways. All they have is Peyote. We really need to keep that in mind.” -Cody
Miriam Volat, MS, serves as Co-Director with Cody Swift of the Riverstyx Foundation, Interim Executive Director of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, Director of the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, and she is on the Board of Directors of MAPS Public Benefit Corporation. The RiverStyx team undertakes deeply engaged relational philanthropy supporting social justice; ethical and innovative integration of the psychedelic movement into broader society; addressing mental, spiritual, and ecological crises through biocultural responsibility; and respectful allyship with Indigenous traditional knowledge holders. Miriam Volat works personally and professionally to promote health in all systems. Her background is as a complex systems-facilitator, soil scientist, educator, and community organizer. Her work aims to increase broad-based community and ecological resilience through supporting high leverage initiatives at the intersection of biological, socio-cultural, and psycho-spiritual diversity.
About T. Cody Swift, MFT
T. Cody Swift, MFT is a philanthropist, qualitative researcher, and licensed psychotherapist. Through the Riverstyx Foundation, he has collaborated extensively on projects addressing healthy society through working with stigmatized populations and issues – those most likely to be overlooked for funding and support. Since 2007, he has helped to fund over 20 psychedelic research trials. He has served as a therapist-guide in the Johns Hopkins psilocybin and cancer-anxiety study, and has conducted dozens of qualitative interviews with study subjects into the subjective aspects of their experiences with psilocybin and MDMA. He has a passion for reinvigorating religious traditions through psychedelics, and has also worked for over 7 years supporting Indigenous communities in the conservation of their sacred plant medicines, such as the Native American Church in the preservation of Peyote and the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund.
Grechanik tells his story and digs deep into the rich history of shamanism, herbalism, and Indigenous spiritual traditions that span the globe from Siberia and India to Peru. The unifying theme rests on bridging our cultural commonalities; recognizing the fundamental truths consistent across cultures and acknowledging how this seemingly lost knowledge has been kept, guarded, and passed down through epochs of change.
He unfolds the many layers of ayahuasca medicine work; examining plant intelligence, plant dietas, ways of seeing beyond yourself in the world of spirit, and how deep ayahuasca work can inspire gratitude and humility. And he discusses how group containers exemplify universal oneness; the value in both Western and Indigenous medicine; critiques for the current psychedelic renaissance; the power of breathwork; and the debate between traditional plant medicines and newer lab-derived substances – how everything has a spirit, even a mountain.
“I think it’s always really important when we’re talking about these experiences to also realize that they’re extremely personal; that there’s certainly archetypal experiences that these plants can invoke, but they’re very personal as well. And for some people, what they need is the opposite of that. They need to see beauty and love and their own self-worth and to have a very gentle experience. And then other people need to be thrown into the abyss to kind of shake themselves out of something. And I think that’s where that idea of plant intelligence comes in.”
“It’s not that far-fetched to think that these medicines were ancient, and that they were guarded even through apocalypses and catastrophic events and colonization. They kept these things, but why did they keep them? They kept them because they were seen as not only important, but actually something that was inseparable from humanity.”
“All of these things; there’s a time and a place for it. There’s benefits to certain things, there’s some drawbacks to certain ways of doing things, but ultimately it’s: what is going to be best for the patient? And that’s also something that’s fundamental to any holistic medicine, is realizing that there’s no panacea for everyone. We’re all different. We all have different body types, we have different stories, we have different physical ailments, [and] different mental stories. So how do we find the medicine that’s going to be best for us in this moment?”
Jason Grechanik’s journey has led him around the world in search of questions he has had about life. Early in his twenties, he began to develop a keen interest in plants: as food, nutrition, life, and medicine. He began learning holistic systems of medicine such as herbalism, Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and nutrition. That curiosity eventually led him to the Amazon where he began to work with plants to learn traditional ways of healing.
Jason came to work at the ayahuasca healing center Temple of the Way of Light in 2012. After having worked with ayahuasca quite extensively, he began the process of dieting plants in the Shipibo tradition. In 2013, he began working with maestro Ernesto Garcia Torres, delving deep into the world of dieting. Through a prolonged apprenticeship and training, involving prolonged isolation, fasting, and dieting of plants, he was given the blessing to begin working with plants.
In this episode of Vital Psychedelic Conversations, David interviews philosopher, clinical psychologist, Grof-certified Holotropic Breathwork® facilitator, and long-time mentor to Joe and Kyle: Lenny Gibson, Ph.D.
They talk at length about shamanism, Greek mythology, tribal cultures, and the overlapping themes across them. They discuss how religion became but a shadow of the ancient wisdom these cultures held; the commonalities between physics and poetry; how Holotropic Breathwork is a shamanic technique appropriate to 20th century western culture; and the battle between attainable knowledge and the vice of ignorance.
Gibson discusses the “dying before dying” that took place at Eleusis; how practices like meditation and breathwork can help us in recovering what in Zen is called “original mind;” achieving mystical enlightenment by studying mathematics; and the philosophical parallels between Plato, Kurt Vonnegut, Alfred North Whitehead, and the ancient Greeks.
He also shares how LSD has reshaped shamanism along with a fun story from the first time he met Albert Hofmann. When considering the most vital conversations people should be having, Gibson encourages us to return to the origins; to study the lineages that embodied the mystical wisdom discovered through non-ordinary states – something he believes our modern culture is missing. In the words of Leon Russell, “May the sweet baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind!”
“Lao Tzu says, ‘The secret awaits the vision of eyes unclouded by longing.’ The secret is in plain sight. All one has to do is step back and pay attention.”
“Conformity and deep understanding don’t go together.”
“I try to discourage the focus on substances because one of the most important means in Greek culture was poetry. Homer may or may not have been a person identifiable, but his poetry survived as a body. …The Greeks gathered in large festivals and they would recite the poems of Homer, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, and get thousands of people together chanting the same poems – a huge rave!”
“The absolutely most impressive thing about Stan Grof’s discovery …that if you empower people in accessing their deepest Self, you will get more than you could get by having a psychoanalyst talk to them about themselves.”
Leonard (Lenny) Gibson, Ph.D., graduated from Williams College and earned doctorates from Claremont Graduate School in philosophy and The University of Texas at Austin in counseling psychology. He has taught at The University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He served a clinical psychology internship at The Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and trained in Holotropic Breathwork with Stanislav Grof. Most recently, he has taught Transpersonal Psychology at Burlington College. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he conducts frequent experiential workshops. He is a founding Board member of the Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region. As a survivor of throat cancer, he has facilitated the Head and Neck Cancer Support Group at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Lenny is President of Dreamshadow Group. He raises vegetables, fruit, and beef cattle on a homestead in Pawlet, Vermont, and plays clarinet in local bands.
Morisano was researching the small percentage of people who experience negative effects from cannabis dependence, but in 2013, her boss retired to pursue ayahuasca research around the same time she was reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, and she wondered: Is there a tangible future here? She discusses the emergence of psychedelic medicine and the importance of reciprocity and inclusivity, pointing out how we often lump very different traditions together under the umbrella of “Indigenous.”
Three years in the making and planned as a one-time event, she considers the “From Research to Reality” conference to be a state of the union of the field of psychedelic science, where people from all fields in psychedelia will meet and discuss what we know, what the future could look like, and how we can get there. Each presentation was submitted and reviewed by a committee of peers, and will largely feature new research. The conference takes place May 27th to May 29th in Toronto, and a virtual option is available, with a special “Saturday night special” featuring David Nutt, Rick Doblin, Monnica Williams, and others. Check out the website for more details!
“We can’t just pick and choose what we want to gain from Indigenous knowledge. It has to be gifted to us. It has to be given freely. And if people want to incorporate Indigenous practices into their modern Western clinical practice, I think it should be done in consultation with multiple folks across different groups of different nations, and done with reciprocity in mind.”
“One person can’t speak for everybody. Three people can’t speak for everybody. 10 people can’t speak for everybody. But the more we listen to different perspectives of people coming from different nations, the more we will learn. And we includes everybody. It’s not just like we’re in one group and they’re in another group, it’s like we’re all having conversation together, hopefully learning from each other.”
“This is a place where everybody’s going to come together – government, regulators, policymakers, traditional medicine providers, neuroscientists, clinical practitioners; they’re going to all come together for the conversation. It’s a single track event, so there’s not going to be: ‘The neuroscientists are going to that room, the clinical people are going to that room.’ It’s like: No, everybody’s in the same room at the same time, listening to all the same stuff, and they’re going to learn from each other. That’s the idea. We’re going to learn from each other so that when we’re making decisions moving forward about what works best for people and for us, we’re going to have a lot of different viewpoints in the conversation.”
With the emergence of more and more psychedelic religions, many people are finding themselves in a situation where proving that their religion is sincere is the difference between being able to practice their religion legally or not. Could an International Psychedelic Religious Survey be the answer?
My lord, I suspect an incredible secret has been kept on this planet: that the Fremen exist in vast numbers – vast. And it is they who control Arrakis.
-Duncan Idaho, David Lynch’s “Dune” (1984)
To expand and clarify religious freedom and liberty in the United States and abroad, it is sometimes necessary to seek court rulings. One of the missing pieces of evidence that would prove helpful in most psychedelic religion cases is a reliable data set evidencing the demographics and statistics behind the world’s psychedelic religions. How many religious groups exist? How many members are there? What type of sacraments do they use? How to quantify communities that may not have stable membership? And more? I have gone looking for a reliable resource but have not found one yet. Indeed, I have spoken with some of the lead legal practitioners in this area, and they also lament the absence of this data. And the concern is not limited to lawyers. My friend, Brad Stoddard, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies, points out additional challenges in defining and applying metrics, including:
Some people will identify as spiritual but not religious.
Some people are likely to identify as neither religious nor spiritual but will still engage in practices many would consider religious or spiritual (the so-called “nones”).
Many Native Americans reject the category of religion as something that misrepresents their traditions. They also reject the categories of entheogens and psychedelics as they relate to sacraments like peyote and San Pedro. The politics of labeling these groups “religious” is tricky.
Beyond the U.S., even today, wide groups of people don’t have a category in their native language that corresponds to Western definitions of religion or spirituality, so assessing psychedelic religion in, say, rural India, would be almost impossible without extensive ethnographic surveys.
So, this gave me an idea. I would like to propose that some ambitious Ph.D.-types consider undertaking (as a Ph.D. thesis?) an international survey. For purposes of this article, I call it the International Psychedelic Religious Survey, but it could have a variety of different names. What is important is that the survey be conducted under scientific principles that could withstand court scrutiny, and that the data it procures answers the right sorts of questions.
Why are Psychedelic Religions Secret?
Psychedelic religions are not mainstream, and they are dogged by the omnipresent threat of allegation of criminality. It is therefore natural that psychedelic religious groups and their adherents stay mostly out of public scrutiny. There is justifiable fear of social stigma and risks to liberty, amongst myriad downstream repercussions. But these same forces that keep the psychedelically-inclined underground also serve as a shackle for things to remain so. The existence, nature, and populations participating in the world’s psychedelic religions is not well-documented. Some are out in the open, but most are not.
Why a Survey?
The importance of having numbers and an understanding of the types and varieties of psychedelic religions is helpful in court cases. This sort of data could be especially important in aiding the defense of persons criminally charged for their participation in psychedelic religious practice. Such data could also inform legislatures and other policy makers, increasing their awareness of (and possibly, sensitivity to) psychedelic religions. Indeed, the information could be useful to the United Nations, and could help the UN Office on Drugs and Crime with policy reform.
Similar to how a census counts a population and derives statistics, psychedelic religions might benefit from being counted. My suspicion is that revelation of the true demographics of psychedelic religions is apt to be a lot like Frank Herbert’s Dune – like the Fremen, the numbers of people who participate in psychedelic religions is secret and vast. When it comes to psychedelic religion, there persists popular ignorance and misunderstanding that have dampening effects on how these minority psychedelic religions are treated. Having data, even if it be anonymous, reflecting that these minority religions are not nearly as small as they appear helps to give these religions presence. From presence can flow understanding.
Consider that most psychedelic religions do not behave like more broadly accepted mainstream religious organizations. Out of fear, most psychedelic religions do not have billboards, do not evangelize, do not have television or radio ads, do not seek public donations, etc., and for similar reason, most do not fight court fights. Litigation is often prohibitively expensive, and minority religious groups trying to fly under the radar tend not to have financial means. A survey could provide synergy by which these minority religious groups could gain collective leverage. A survey could change the conversation about psychedelic religions with backed statistics and data. A survey might even move public policy focus away from chemical structures (the metric law enforcement uses) toward purpose and effect (the metric psychedelic religions use). Courts are not presently accustomed to the argument of “it is not how you get there that matters, it is that you get there,” but a reliable data set could further the point.
The Importance of Court Admissibility
If you are sitting in a criminal defense chair, charged for psychedelics but claiming religious exemption, the burden is on you to educate the judge and jury on the nature, basis, and supposed validity of your defense. The probability that the judge and jury are going to be well-educated about psychedelic religion is low. Your burden to come forward with credible, persuasive, court-admissible evidence supporting your psychedelic religion defense is made that much more difficult and necessary.
The key is court admissibility. To have a jury or a judge consider data, it needs to be admissible. It also needs to be relevant and authenticated. The most compelling and relevant evidence is meaningless if a court will not admit it. Hence, the need for a scientifically-run survey that considers all the details: who will gather the data, how that data will be gathered, what form of survey will be used, what questions would be posed in the survey, the types of answers permitted, etc. The survey will also need to be verifiable and be able to demonstrate things like chain of custody, all encapsulated in a report that can be admitted within a hearsay exception or over a hearsay objection.
Religion is not national. Indeed, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution would find the notion of national religion abhorrent, and no court in the United States could rule a religion “un-American.” Rather, at most, a court could rule an organization altogether not a religion, or a person’s observation thereof insincere, but a court could not weigh the merits or values of a religious group. Rather, under Constitutional principles, court inquiry is limited to examination for the trappings of things commonly associated with religion – concepts like contemplation of the imponderables of existence itself, contemplation of the source of all things, the nature of spirit, etc. Neither nationality nor nation of origin are relevant points of inquiry.
Pragmatically, it is a lot harder to claim religious exemption when the court knows nothing about, has had no life experience with, and is questioning the validity of your religion or the sincerity of your practice. The benefit of having a court-admissible survey demonstrating that you are far from alone, but are acting in conformity with possibly millions just like you, is manifest. Likewise, one of the greatest challenges that many of us entheogen lawyers are hoping to crack is the multi-sacramental conundrum, or the wholesale legal transcendence of relevance of sacrament. Along with the many holes in appellate precedent, there is no high-level appellate decision that has affirmed multiple psychedelic sacraments as acceptable religious practice. But that case can be made, and it can be made better with better evidence.
Although the United States Constitution contemplates a variety of religious expression, it would still be dangerous in court to ignore that Abrahamic lineage dominates in the United States. Statistically, it is more probable that the judge and jury in any psychedelic religion case will be most familiar with concepts of a revelatory religion that is manifested in scriptural texts, and whose members meet in some form of congregation and group worship, employing scripted prayers and relying upon faith. Many psychedelic religions look like this. Many do not. And getting that point across in a meaningful fashion to a court can make the difference between winning or losing a psychedelic religion case. An International Psychedelic Religious Survey can help demonstrate that minority adherents in one country may not be as minority as they seem, when taken in a global context, and could likewise reveal trends in the spread of psychedelic religions around the world.
Content and Manner of the Survey
The precise execution of the survey is admittedly at the edges of most lawyer’s skill sets. I imagine this project calls for a Ph.D. or aspiring Ph.D. theology student, or a professor excited to take on one of the most significant projects of their career (not to mention perhaps a couple qualified statisticians). I also offer that while we won’t do the survey ourselves (again, not our skill set), I and fellow entheogen attorneys, Greg Lake, Ian Benouis, and Dan Peterson are happy to contribute, particularly regarding framing survey questions that would be helpful for court admissibility. Brad Stoddard, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College, is also available to assist and welcomes contact. Anyone interested in picking up the mantle and running with it is invited to reach out to any of us. My friends and I hope this article inspires one or more of you to take on this very important task.
In this episode of the podcast, Kyle sits down with Joe Tafur, MD, for the first episode in our new weekly series, “Vital Psychedelic Conversations.”
Vital is the name of our new 12-month certificate program launching in April, and each episode of Vital Psychedelic Conversations will feature one of the teachers we’ve been honored to be able to include in the program. While the official announcement with all the important details is coming next week, we’re pretty pumped about Vital and wanted to start this new series today!
Joe Tafur, MD, is a family physician and author who was trained in ayahuasca curanderismo at the Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual in Peru. He also is a co-founder of the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, which is currently pursuing legal protection for ceremonial ayahuasca use.
He discusses the frustrating application process for the church; the idea of the substance only being a part of the experience; how a truly transpersonal moment seems to make people start asking about the sacred; the scientific community’s struggles with the transpersonal; soul retrieval; the interconnectedness of all things; and he makes an argument for allowing religious tokens in therapeutic containers. And he talks about what we can learn from Indigenous tradition and their holistic and health-focused mindset, connection to nature, relationship with substances, and embrace of spirituality.
Through the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, Tafur is running a webinar series to speak to and learn from Indigenous elders called “Wisdom of the Elders.” The first is next week, January 27th, and features Diné Elder Josie Begay-James.
“People are with this kind of direction: they’re partying, they’re having a great experience, maybe making some big memories, maybe they are shifting, some people are growing, maybe not. But then, on this other side, you have this high percentage of people really turning around decades-old mental health issues. So that’s a big, big difference. So what’s going on in those sessions? And what’s going on around those sessions? The focus has been the substance, the substance, the substance, the substance. They think they can sell it, whatever they want to do with it. But that other meat of what’s happening with people – there’s a lot of mysterious elements in that space.”
“The ones who are doing the psychotherapy with ketamine, I find, over and over again, that they become very curious about the sacred. …Those people want to know about people that have experience with this, from that perspective (from a spiritual perspective), because you can tell them: ‘These molecules did this and these neural patterns did that,’ but they’re not satisfied. It doesn’t answer the questions that they’re seeking, about: ‘What do I do with that?’” “Why does it have to be separate? Why would it be separate? It’s not separate, I don’t think, in sports. I don’t think they try to get people to dissociate from their intuition and their feeling. I think they encourage it strongly. …They’ll say, ‘He’s possessed!’ They’ll say a person is ‘inspired.’ Similarly with music; you wouldn’t have that ‘I’m not going to try to feel into my soul while I’m on stage.’ It’s actually the opposite, is the discussion quite often. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that what sells tickets all over the world? Isn’t that what distinguishes the big ticket sellers in general, that they’re able to tap into something that is transpersonal?”
“We have to deal with the transpersonal, not only for the sake of expanding ourselves and to be better people or to grow, but it’s a matter of health. That’s the reason.”
Joe Tafur, MD, is a Colombian-American family physician originally from Phoenix, Arizona. After completing his family medicine training at UCLA, Dr. Tafur spent two years in academic research at the UCSD Department of Psychiatry in a lab focused on mind-body medicine. After his research fellowship, over a period of six years, he lived and worked in the Peruvian Amazon at the traditional healing center Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual. There he worked closely with master Shipibo healer Ricardo Amaringo and trained in ayahuasca curanderismo. In his book, The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine, through a series of stories, Dr. Tafur shares his unique experience and integrative medical theories. After the release of his book in 2017, Dr. Tafur has been spending more time in the U.S. and with his spiritual community in Arizona, has co-founded the Church of the Eagle and the Condor (CEC). This spiritual community is dedicated to promoting the spiritual unity of all people with the Creator through the practice of traditional Indigenous spirituality and sacred ceremonies. The CEC is currently pursuing legal protection for their practice of sacred Ayahuasca ceremony. Dr. Tafur is also a co-founder of Modern Spirit, a nonprofit dedicated to demonstrating the value of spiritual healing in modern healthcare. Among their projects is the Modern Spirit Epigenetics Project, an epigenetic analysis of the impact of MAPS MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Their first results have now been submitted for publication. He is currently a fellow at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Additionally, he is involved the Ocotillo Center for Integrative Medicine in Phoenix, Arizona. To learn more about his work you can also visit Drjoetafur.com.
In this episode of the podcast, Joe sits down for the very rare multi-guest podcast, this time with four: teacher and author, Ayize Jama-Everett; LMFT, certified sex therapist, owner and operator of Doorway Therapeutic Services, Courtney Watson; LMFT at Doorway Therapeutic Services, Leticia Brown; and activist and facilitator, Kufikiri Imara.
The group has come together to create A Table of our Own: a for-Black-people by-Black-people psychedelic conference and corresponding documentary. While noticing how often it seemed members of the BIPOC community were being used to check off a diversity box for grant money, they decided that before they were another guest at someone else’s table, it was time for them to gather at their own table and figure out exactly what they want out of this “so-called psychedelic renaissance” first.
They talk about why a Black conference is needed and what it could look like; how affinity groups create safety; the ease in communication and connection when having shared experience; the problems with modern, performative-based psychiatry; and why it’s true that when Black people win, everyone wins. And reflecting on some of the recent abuse allegations, they also discuss abuse in the psychedelic space: how abusers always learn from abusers, how communities learn from the behavior of elders, how guidelines for facilitators and therapists are drastically oversimplified, and how we all need to recognize our own ability to cause harm.
A Table of our Own is happy to take donations, but only if you’re in it for the right reasons (i.e. you aren’t filling a quota or need your company’s banner hanging at the event). And if you’re someone who understands affinity groups but the idea of a Black-only event feels like segregation (like many felt when Nicholas Powers talked about a Black Burning Man), definitely check this one out.
“There’s a lot of ‘We want you at our table, we want you at our table,’ but as people of color, we’re not a freaking monolith. We haven’t sat at our table. We haven’t shared our stories, the positive and the negative. We haven’t collaborated on what’s going to do best for our communities. We haven’t had those conversations. And so the conference is about: Let’s just sit together and talk. Where are we at? How are you feeling? What’s going on? What do you need? Do you need a hug? Can you get fed? Can you be comforted? Can I hear your knowledge? Are you willing to share yours? Can we get that back-and-forth going? And then once we have that; well, let’s document that, because not everybody’s going to be able to come to this. What we need to show is: Hey, this is how we do.” -Ayize
“For survival purposes, because of the nature of historical precedents, we have to adjust who we are for the environment that we’re in for survival, understanding that there are those in the same society that expect the environment to change to them because that is the way things have been set up. So when we’re in an environment of a Black experience of people of the African diaspora, understanding that that’s not something we have to do in that space (like the others said, around being policed and thus having to police themselves); there’s a uniqueness around that.” -Kufikiri
“The harm comes in in ways of presenting itself as some authoritative model around good and bad, right and wrong; yet misses so much of the harms that exist in society that are navigated by those in marginalized communities (especially those in Black bodies and Western colonial spaces) that don’t account for that aspect of someone’s identity, but yet is looking to work with someone around what their identity is. So that harm is a very real one. …How do you know your worth and your value in a space if you’re always being compared to someone that does not look like you or does not have your experience?” -Kufikiri
“Black folks, when we’re in spaces together; we’re not all sitting around talking about our trauma. We are often just connecting with each other and laughing with each other and holding each other. So this conference is also a space where we can heal through play and joy and movement and dance and everything about how we navigate the world that brings so much flavor, including the joy. Black joy is a whole other kind of medicine that is always present when we gather.” -Leticia
Ayize Jama-Everett (b. NYC 1974) has been in various relationships with plants, substances, and communities since his birth. Born into the Black Power movement’s conflicts, Ayize comes from the lineage of the Lincoln Detox project, a community organization in Harlem, New York, that taught the formerly incarcerated to use acupuncture to help with heroin withdrawal. At sixteen, he traveled to Morocco and was taken in by the Gnawa and was privileged to join their rituals. Ayize served as the director of Outpatient services for Thunder Road Adolescent Treatment center for three years before joining Catholic Charities of Treasure Island as the substance use and mental health services manager. He’s worked in both abstinence and harm reduction modalities. He also served as a high school therapist for over a decade.
Ayize Graduated from the Graduate Theological Union in 2001 with a Master’s of Divinity. His thesis was on the spiritual use of substances among the homeless youth of Morocco, London, and the Bay Area. Soon after, he began teaching the Course “The Sacred and the Substance,” one of the first survey courses of sacred plant use at the Graduate Theological Union. In 2003, Ayize received a Masters degree in Clinical psychology from New College of California. In 2019, he received a Masters in Fine Arts, Creative Writing, from The University of California, Riverside. He is the author of four books, and his shorter works can be found in The L.A. Review of Books, The Wakanda Dream labs, The Believer, and Racebaitr. As an African-American male, Ayize’s focus has been consistently on underrepresented communities in the sacred plant community.
About Courtney Watson, LMFT
Courtney Watson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex therapist. She is the owner of Doorway Therapeutic Services, a group therapy practice in Oakland, CA focused on addressing the mental health needs of Black, Indigenous & People of Color, Queer folks, Trans, Gender Non-conforming, Non binary and Two Spirit individuals. Courtney has followed the direction of her ancestors to incorporate psychedelic assisted therapy into her offerings for folks with multiple marginalized identities and stresses the importance of BIPOC and Queer providers offering these services. Courtney has received training from the Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research at CIIS, MAPS and Polaris Insight Center to provide psychedelic-assisted therapy with a variety of medicines.
She is deeply interested in the impact of psychedelic medicines on folks with marginalized identities as well as how they can assist with the decolonization process for folx of the global majority. She believes this field is not yet ready to address the unique needs of Communities of Color and is prepared and enthusiastic about bridging the gap. She is currently blazing the trail as one of the only clinics of predominantly QTBIPOC providers offering Ketamine Assisted Therapy in 2021. She has founded a non-profit, Access to Doorways, to raise funds to subsidize the cost of ketamine/psychedelic-assisted therapy for QTBIPOC clients (now accepting donations for our first 100 recipients!!).
About Leticia Brown, LMFT
Leticia Brown (she/her/hers) is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Black queer femme whose practice engages various healing modalities at the intersections of harm reduction, sexuality and social justice. She prioritizes work with BIPOC & QTNBIPOC communities through a liberatory lens that values communual interdependence and affirms the inner healer we all hold within. Constantly exploring ways to decolonize her relationship to healing, she incorporates intergenerational exploration, spirituality, ritual, the use of the body, and reconnection to intuition in her practice, and sees her role as co-creator with those she walks beside on their healing journeys.
Leticia has been trained in a variety of Psychedelic-assisted Therapy modalities, including Ketamine-assisted Psychotherapy trainings with Sage Institute, Polaris Insight Center, Healing Realms and Doorway Therapeutic Services, where she maintains a small private practice. Leticia was also a trainee of MAPS’ first-ever MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy Therapy Training for Communities of Color, in August of 2019. Additionally, she is a therapist with the MAPS expanded access program, using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating severe PTSD. In her harm reduction consulting and training, Leticia encourages both self-introspection and challenging discourse. In her work supporting therapists with engagement of anti-racist and decolonizing practices, she aims to offer a sense of groundedness and purpose to the work. In her work with clients and therapists around issues of sexuality and (other) altered states of consciousness, she holds a sociopolitical lens, and aims to cultivate a safe relationship to the body. In all of this work, Leticia aims to be guided by Fannie Lou Hamer’s mantra that “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free”, particularly in her work with QTBIPOC folx.
About Kufikiri Imara
Kufikiri Imarawas born and raised on Huichin territory of the Ohlone people (Oakland, California). With parents that were involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, he grew up in a family and community that strongly emphasized cultural awareness and social responsibility. He volunteered with Green Earth Poets Society in NYC, bringing poetry to incarcerated African-American youth. He was an early member of the Entheogen Integration Circle in NYC, supporting marginalized communities. He is a friend of Sacred Garden Community as a facilitator. A former member of the Decriminalize Nature Oakland grassroots collective, he went on to head the DNO committee on Outreach, Education, Access, & Integration. He lent his voice to the Horizons Media documentary film “Covid-19, Black Lives, & Psychedelics.” He also facilitates a BIPOC Entheogen Integration Circle with the San Francisco Psychedelic Society. Kufikiri Imara is a voice championing the important issues of access, education, and inclusion within the larger psychedelic community.