Even under brief examination it is clear that in the demographics of the modern psychedelic medicine movement, there is a significant underrepresentation of people of color. Most of the plant medicines that are being discussed are indigenous to non-European cultures, and traditionally used by Latin American, African and other cultures. However, the positions of power within organizations, the panels of speakers at conferences and events, and the research and participant positions in psychedelic therapy studies, are predominantly filled by people who are white. This does not accurately reflect the racial diversity that exists within North America, and the rich cultural history of plant medicine use. This ethnic imbalance in public figures makes it more difficult for people of these minority groups to feel a sense of belonging in the movement and can result in the medicines being more difficult to access for the groups who may need it the most. So why is this? And how can we as a community address this situation in a way that leads to a shift towards a more balanced representation?
In conversations about the War on Drugs, the fact that it was largely started for the criminalization, incarceration, and discrimination on minority groups, largely goes unstated. “The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s were directed at black men in the South. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican-Americans. Today, Latino and especially black communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.”
Although the statistics of white people and minority groups using or selling drugs are quite similar, there are far more black and latinx people convicted for drug related crimes. This biased conviction rate has had a devastating effect on these communities resulting in increased prison times, criminal records, and death rates, which has further contributed to generations of trauma and socio-economic disadvantages to these already vulnerable populations. The struggle continues today, with disproportionate addiction and crime rates in these ethnic groups, and racism still rampant within the law enforcement and legal systems.
These realities shed some light on why there are less members of these communities at the forefront of the current psychedelic movement. Factor in considerations such as higher risks for people in these minority groups to openly speak out about the use of these illegal substances, and family values around these substances that tend to be more conservative due to cultural associations with drugs, and you can see how the psychedelic community’s current bias towards Caucasians has evolved.
Furthermore, the financial cost of being involved in psychedelic research studies, both as therapists and participants, can be quite high. Training programs to become facilitators in these studies cost thousands of dollars, while research participant positions are usually unpaid, and require significant investments of time, which can lead to a participant’s hampered ability to work, making these opportunities less accessible for marginalized groups. People within these marginalized groups also have already higher rates of trauma, PTSD, addiction, and can benefit significantly from these therapy treatments.
So what are some ways that the psychedelic movement can create more ethnic balance in the community? One place to start would be to include more dialogues honoring the cultural roots of these sacred medicines, acknowledging the racist history of the War on Drugs, and discussing the current racial imbalance in the community. By bringing awareness to the elephant in the room, we can start to improve the situation by taking diversity into consideration when selecting speakers at events and leaders in organizations, and also finding ways to make education and research therapies more accessible. Having public figures representing different ethnic groups, and facilitating accessible and open discussions on the topic, creates a safer space for those in ethnic minority groups to feel invited and welcome to participate in the psychedelic movement and its diverse array of related events.
It is crucial for the psychedelic medicine movement to strive towards a more ethnically balanced representation within its leadership roles and members. By creating more diversity and bringing awareness to racial and cultural context of psychedelics and plant medicine, it opens up space for people of marginalized groups to have more opportunities to contribute, participate and grow with the movement.
Image: Perry Grone