The push to legalize psychedelics has ignored Indigenous communities

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On April 6, the California Senate approved a bill to decriminalize psychedelics including psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, ibogaine, LSD, and MDMA. The legal changes reflect a growing awareness in the world of Western medicine about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. A number of recent studies have found substances like mushrooms, LSD, and MDMA to be beneficial for issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and state and local governments around the country have recently made efforts toward decriminalizing or outright legalizing plant-based psychedelics.

However, psychedelics as healing agents isn’t a new concept. For centuries, Indigenous people have used psychoactive plants in ceremonies for emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. Native American tribes Indigenous to the U.S. have primarily used peyote in these contexts, while tribes in South America have worked with other plants like ayahuasca and San Pedro.

Decriminalization would mean police could no longer arrest people for possessing or using these substances — but the assumption that this would be a positive thing for Indigenous communities belies the issue’s history and complexity.

The movement against decriminalizing peyote

Despite its inclusion on several recent psychedelic decriminalization bills throughout the country, peyote is already decriminalized under federal law for Indigenous people, explains Sandor Iron Rope, President of the Native American Church (NAC) of South Dakota, National Council NAC representative, and Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) board member. The 1994 Amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) provides that “the use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States.”

Iron Rope

In other words, Native Americans have the right to practice their traditions on the grounds of religious freedom — and many feel that decriminalizing peyote would allow non-Native Americans to infringe upon these traditions by using up valuable resources and turning the plant into a commodity. Last year, the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC) and the IPCI released a statement requesting that peyote not be included in decriminalization legislation, citing a need to preserve the plant, as well as the sacred tradition it belongs to.

Mirian Volat

“There have been multiple studies done that show the size of peyote has diminished, that the quantity has diminished, that the habitat is at risk,” Miriam Volat, a conservation expert serving as the IPCI’s interim executive director, tells Mic If everybody were allowed to use peyote, it’s possible the plant population would be further depleted.

But it’s not just the conservation of the plant itself that concerns activists. “It’s the plant, the land, and the cultures that rely on them and are deeply entwined with them that actually work together and need to be conserved,” Volat says.

For Colleen Roan, a Navajo Nation member, Native American Church of North America member, and peyote practitioner, it’s a matter of respect for white people to keep their hands off of peyote. “Indigenous communities have traditional peyote ceremony and ritual passed down through generations,” Roan says. “Our people survived the campaign of genocide, the extinction of distinct groups of people Indigenous to the land, and peyote is embraced as medicine for healing and not to be used recreationally, experimentally, or as an economic resource. Decriminalizing peyote would open the doors for peyote to be subject to recreational, experimental, and economic use.”

The whitewashing of the decriminalization movement

The current movement to decriminalize psychedelics has been largely dominated by non-Native Americans advocating substances like psilocybin mushrooms for purposes outside Indigenous ceremonies. “The original decriminalization movement started too quickly without securely thinking about the network of interconnected relationships with plants and indigenous communities,” Iron Rope says, explaining that politicians began listening to Native Americans only after psychedelic decriminalization laws were already underway.

Iron Rope believes the OKing of these substances without cultural context is at the root of the problem. “The tactics of the original decriminalization movement are no different than the colonial mindset of manifest destiny,” he says. “We voiced to the decriminalization movement to leave peyote out of its literature and documents. Some have complied, others not. A real slap in the face to say ‘we support you’ and yet do things contrary to the ask.”

The California decriminalization bill’s sponsor, Senator Scott Wiener, excluded peyote from the state’s list of decriminalized drugs due to input from indigenous people. However, Oakland, Calif. and Ann Arbor, Mich. both decriminalized peyote, and Santa Cruz, Calif. initially did — but after receiving opposition from Native American groups, the organization Decriminalize Santa Cruz released an open letter apologizing to Indigenous people and amended the resolution to exclude peyote from their list of decriminalized substances.

Jeff Hayner, the sponsor of the Ann Arbor decriminalization bill tells Mic the Indigenous people he consulted didn’t express resistance to the resolution. “A few Indigenous people who are residents of my ward weighed in and supported our actions from a holistic medicine, natural healing, and social justice perspective,” he says.

But Iron Rope is skeptical of politicians who claim they incorporated Indigenous people’s feedback into their legislation but aren’t complying with the NCNAC’s requests. “Some non-Natives feel an entitlement and privilege to step all over Indigenous people and take what they want,” he says. “They will go through the same colonial tactics as to find their own ‘Native American’ and put them on their team and listen to a few ‘Native voices’ to say they heard the Native/Indigenous communities. Those are old tactics still being used today.”

Decriminalization and the protection of Indigenous people

There have been a few rare cases of Indigenous people facing legal repercussions over possession of ceremonial substances. A member of the Ojibwe tribe in Washington, for instance, was arrested for possession of peyote in 1996; he ended up spending 60 days in jail and paying a $1,750 fine due to an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for a drunk driving charge that was discovered in the process. Racism may play a role in incidents like this: Native Americans are historically overrepresented in U.S. prisons, with Native American men incarcerated at four times the rate of white men.

It’s possible that, despite the legal protections available to Native Americans, police who don’t know about them could target this population, Jonathan Caulkins, Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, tells Mic. “If a substance went from being available only for people who have a legitimate religious right to anyone over age 21, that's probably going to make things simpler and avoid the bureaucratic safeguards,” he says.

Martika, Wachan, and Shiqwarkenty Bajiyoperak

But cases like these are increasingly uncommon, as are cases over psychedelic possession in general. “Very few people, Native American or otherwise, get prosecuted at the federal level merely for use [of substances],” Caulkins says, adding that even in places where psychedelics are decriminalized, it would remain illegal for companies to market and promote them.

Roan believes movements in U.S. cities to decriminalize peyote reflect an ignorance of the efforts that have already occurred within the Native community. “Including peyote as a psychedelic for decriminalization attests to the lack of awareness of existing law, as well as exclusion of the Indigenous voice, which is concerning,” she says.

Decriminalization of other substances

Psychoactive plants other than peyote — like the vine-based tea ayahuasca and the San Pedro cactus — are historically most often associated with Indigenous people in South America, though they’re also frequently used by non-indigenous people seeking a spiritual experience. Compared to peyote, there has been less opposition from Indigenous communities to decriminalizing these substances in the U.S., in part because there isn’t already legislation in place protecting their use (though specific religious groups have been granted the right to use ayahuasca).

Martika, Wachan, and Shiqwarkenty Bajiyoperak, who are from the Quechua tribe of Peru and have led San Pedro ceremonies in the Los Angeles area, support decriminalization as long as the traditions associated with these plants are respected. “We are glad that this medicine is available to be honored and shared openly in the way it should be,” Martika tells Mic. “It is not to be used as a recreational drug or for other purposes than to connect with our Mother Nature and her power.”

Some Native American Churches also work with substances other than peyote — which some consider controversial because these substances aren’t traditionally used by Native Americans. Courtni Starheart Hale, a Native American Church member who leads ayahuasca and mushroom ceremonies in New Mexico, considers herself protected on religious grounds even though the substances she works with don’t technically have the same legal status as peyote. “I’m a minister, so [decriminalization] doesn't necessarily affect me personally because I already have a legal right to work with this medicine,” she says.

Hale isn’t against decriminalization of any substance, but she believes people need access to resources for learning how to work with these medicines. “I think we should decriminalize everything,” she says. “It’s healing, it’s beautiful, it's wonderful, but people don’t know what they're doing. They're going to need teachers.”

The importance of Indigenous input

While the issue of how psychedelic decriminalization will affect Indigenous communities may be complex and multi-faceted, it’s clear that Indigenous people’s voices must have a greater role in the movement. Considering these perspectives is essential — not just for the sake of their traditions, but also for the sake of acknowledging the injustices done to them.

“Should groups choose to dismiss the historical context in which the AIRFA amendment came to fruition, then cultural hegemony remains the norm, and the collective Indigenous experience of colonization and the campaign of genocide resulting in intergenerational trauma is irrelevant to the majority proposing decriminalization,” Roan says.

“We are the generational blood lineage shaking off and overcoming near genocide of our people and way of life,” Iron Rope says. “We are the voices of our ancestors; we are the voices of today professing generational responsibility, voicing our concerns to those who want to hear with their inner ear within the heart. Indigenous voices always are ignored, yet we will continue to speak.”