Magic Mushrooms may become a successful treatment for racism. But when?
Written December 21, 2021
Evan Coleman swore off psychedelics and started collecting sweater vests after his dad was first arrested in 2015 for misdemeanor drug possession. Evan’s high school in Oakland, California was tight-knit (his graduating class had 73 students) and “white enough” for him and two other Black classmates to be “featured in every diversity photo on the school website.” The sweater vests he collected from TJ Maxx and Walmart were Evan’s attempt to portray himself as, in his words, “J.Crew, not jail time.”
Among friends, Evan was well-known for his aversion to using drugs and alcohol, and equally well-known for “bending over backward to fit in,” making Evan an ideal candidate when three preppy, white classmates needed a Trip Sitter (like a babysitter, only instead of babies, you’re watching over psychedelic users). Evan had never trip sat before, let alone used psychedelics himself, but he was eager to please his classmates, so he read the Wikipedia page “Trip sitter” to prepare. With Costco packs of water bottles and Cheez-Its stocked in his trunk, Evan drove his classmates to a deserted clearing in the woods, all the while trying to forget his mom’s vehement warnings to “keep his ass far, far away from any and all drugs.” After his classmates ingested magic mushrooms, Evan monitored and fed them Cheez-Its for four hours. Their thank-you gift was a baggie containing 1.5 grams of ‘shrooms.
But in Evan’s mind, using psychedelics was synonymous with police and prison. “I’d trip sit, but I wouldn’t use,” Evan told me. “I imagined myself taking the ‘shrooms out of my pocket and opening the bag, just to hear police sirens coming to get me like they were magically alerted I’d committed a crime.” The “thank you ‘shrooms” remained stashed away in Evan’s sweater vest pocket, crinkled cellophane swaddled in crumpled cashmere that he had outgrown.
Evan’s fears are dissonant with today’s “psychedelic renaissance,” as psychedelics like Ecstasy, ketamine, and psilocybin mushrooms are heralded as a new frontier in spirituality or as a promising advance in mental health treatment. In fact, five years after his dad’s first arrest, Evan’s friend told him about a research study looking at psychedelics as a treatment for racial trauma. Evan’s initial skepticism evolved into curiosity when he read the 2020 study, published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, where Black and other minority participants self-reported decreases in trauma symptoms from racism after consuming psychedelics. Evan found the study intriguing, especially given the lack of mental health treatments specifically for racial trauma.
Racial trauma, or Race-Based Traumatic Stress, is distinct from other forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because it is typically caused by an accumulation of traumatic encounters, such as racial bias, discrimination, and hate crimes, rather than a singular event. Additionally, patients don’t have to directly experience or witness a stressor event to manifest symptoms of race-based traumatic stress: historical oppression and media depictions of racism, such as police violence against unarmed Black people, may also trigger racial trauma symptoms. Like most Americans, Evan followed the widespread media coverage of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths in Summer 2020. And like many Black Americans, Evan experienced traumatic-stress symptoms triggered by the constant exposure to cases of police brutality and racial discrimination. Now 21-years-old, Evan had intermittent insomnia; multiple times a day, he experienced debilitating panic attacks. After reading the study on psychedelics for racial trauma, he wondered, could psychedelic therapy be the solution?
“The idea that these same drugs could be used to treat trauma from policing in Black communities? Crazy,” Evan said. He had previously read research articles about psilocybin for depression but noticed psychedelic clinical trials consisted of mostly white patients: 77% of participants in one famous Nature Medicine study of psychedelic-assisted therapy for PTSD were white. “It took a lot more Google searching to convince me that there could be space in the psychedelic world for people like me.”
Six years after his first trip sit, Evan and four Black friends drove out to the same deserted clearing in the woods, in a truck still stocked with Cheez-Its. Evan thought about the first trip sit, his dad’s arrests, and the racial trauma research. Then, cupped hands drawn to cracked lips, Evan swallowed some ‘shrooms.
Evan is a rare member of the psychedelic community. Not because of the four-hour Cheez-Its sessions or the ‘shrooms in his sweater, but because he is a middle-class Black man participating in a movement that skews mostly white and wealthy. And Evan’s initial reluctance around psychedelics is not unusual in Black communities, where psychedelic use is associated less with spirituality and more with stigma, suffering, and arrest. As renewed focus on racial discrimination and imminent FDA approval of psychedelic therapy for trauma coincide, psychedelics may be particularly valuable for communities of color, providing pathways for community healing and treating racial trauma. But to deliver on this therapeutic promise, the psychedelic community has a long way to go and will need to bring in more people like Evan. So, why is the psychedelic renaissance so white, and what can be done to change it?
“Do you still have the original ‘shrooms baggie?” I asked Evan when we connected on Zoom recently. A 22-year-old graduate student today, he’s dressed in a pearl-white sweater vest, freshly pressed and freshly steamed, like he’s never come close to spilling ketchup on himself. The stark white fabric contrasts against Evan’s dark skin, just like his arched cheekbones contrast with the straight, bushy eyebrows that hardly move as his facial expressions shift.
“No, but maybe I should’ve framed the bag and put it on my nightstand,” Evan answered. “Since that’s what kickstarted the entire ‘magic mushrooms for mental health’ thing.”
Evan and I met shortly after I learned about psilocybin as a potential treatment for racial trauma. Psychedelic-assisted therapy had been on my mind — and on T.V. screens, social media feeds, and front-page news — for months. My interest was initially piqued by the groundbreaking Nature Medicine clinical trial on MDMA (also known as 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or Ecstasy) as a safe and effective treatment for PTSD. In light of this powerful tool to treat trauma, and given the pandemic’s exacerbation of trauma symptoms, psychedelic treatment seemed like a game-changing intervention for mental health.
Interestingly, psychedelic researchers haven’t reached a consensus on exactly how and why psychedelics work. Some psychedelics, like MDMA, release neurotransmitters that induce feelings of trust and comfort among patients, making it easier for patients to approach trauma. Another popular hypothesis is that psychedelic compounds influence neuroplasticity, or how the brain can be molded (almost like Play-Doh) and therefore healed. Conditions like depression or suicidal ideation — both symptoms of racial trauma — limit the brain’s ability to change and adapt to an environment, and oftentimes, the brain is not receptive to traditional psychiatric medications. Patients can be treatment-resistant. That’s where psychedelics fit in: they increase the brain’s capacity to change and therefore a patient’s capacity to heal. Psychedelic-assisted therapy promises an innovative solution to previously untreatable traumas.
So, why not use psychedelics for racial trauma? In fact, there are no empirically supported treatments designed specifically for racial trauma, according to a pioneering study led by Dr. Monnica Williams, the Canadian researcher whose work inspired Evan to try psilocybin. Racial trauma, which often manifests symptoms of anxiety, severe depression, and hypervigilance or paranoia, affects over 60% of Black Americans but remains woefully misunderstood from a clinical perspective. According to Dr. Williams, who serves as the Canada Research Chair for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa, it’s partially because there’s a paucity of research on race-based mental illnesses, but also because racial trauma is not based on a single traumatic event but on many sources: overt discrimination, like race-based hate crimes or employment discrimination, but subtle emotional assaults too, like “you’re smart for a Black guy” and “but where are you really from?”
Dr. Williams and her colleagues set out to fill the research gap. They recruited a group of 313 Black, Indigenous, and people of color participants from Canada and the United States, each of whom previously reported taking a dose of a psychedelic drug that they believed contributed to “relief from the challenging effects of racial discrimination.” Participants recalled the severity of trauma symptoms linked to exposure to racial injustice in the 30 days before and after their experience with psychedelic drugs. The researchers found pronounced decreases in traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety after a psychedelic experience.
Before reading Dr. Williams’s study and plunging into psychedelics, Evan had unsuccessfully tried three brands of anti-anxiety medication to manage his panic attacks. He describes his first ‘shrooms trip as a “mystical wandering,” gliding past memories he’d shoved into the deepest caverns of his mind. He grasped at one memory of his 15-year-old self being taunted by a white classmate during a soccer game. “The guy asked me whether my next family reunion was going to be in a prison,” Evan says, remembering the original event. “I didn’t say anything back at the time.” But during the ‘shrooms trip, Evan relived the memory, this time screaming in his classmate’s face and calling him racist. “It was less about yelling ‘screw you, you racist!’ and more about reclaiming the moment and conquering the trauma from it.”
The findings from Dr. William’s study, alongside anecdotes from patients like Evan, gleam with therapeutic innovation and immense hope for healing. But “psychedelics for racial trauma” hasn’t received much attention or many resources. Racial discrimination is now more commonly recognized as a risk factor for mental illness, but Race-Based Traumatic Stress remains difficult to diagnose with the standard Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale, which requires clinicians to identify one primary trauma that induced a patient’s traumatic stress. Racial trauma, usually the result of a lifetime of events, not one, doesn’t fit neatly within these guidelines.
“I’ve attended a few conferences and lectures on psychedelics, but I haven’t heard about those substances being used to treat the effects of racial prejudice,” one psychologist who studies stigma informs me. A graduate student in Clinical Psychology affirms that, “If you do a quick search, Monnica Williams is the only researcher you’ll find who's interested in psychedelics and race-based trauma.”
Why? If treating trauma is one of the central purposes of the psychedelic renaissance, why isn’t racial trauma front and center in current psychedelic research?
One reason is that additional clinical studies are needed to strengthen the empirical basis for believing psychedelics can alleviate racial trauma. Williams’s original study is entirely observational, based on self-reported recall from participants. For clinical findings to gain widespread attention and credibility, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials are the gold standard, says Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
Doblin is the type of person who could plan his own surprise party and still be surprised. His innate enthusiasm radiates from his crooked smile and his voice when he tells me he “likes to get high on marijuana and strategize with people!” at MAPS. He’s just as sparkling when he describes MAPS’s wide-ranging initiatives in psychedelic research, including its second Phase 3 clinical trial on MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. Doblin is hopeful that MDMA will become an FDA-approved prescription treatment by 2023. Is MDMA therapy for racial trauma on the horizon as well?
According to Doblin, scientific institutions and federal agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are unlikely to prioritize racial trauma as a target for psychedelic-assisted therapy. To obtain approval for a new medication, the FDA requires PTSD, which encompasses Race-Based Traumatic Stress, to be measured with the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale. If a patient cannot identify a singular event that induced their traumatic stress, which is common among cases of racial trauma, they are ineligible for clinical trials.
“We actually had some people who were African American with PTSD who failed to qualify for our study because they couldn’t pick one event they would anchor on for all their evaluations,” Doblin says about the patient recruitment process for MAPS’s most famous study on MDMA and PTSD.
Essentially, to obtain funding and credibility, psychedelic treatments for racial trauma need additional clinical studies; to conduct clinical studies on psychedelics for racial trauma, researchers need additional funding and credibility. This Catch-22 may be reinforced by the racial blindspots in psychedelic studies for other mental illnesses, like depression and general anxiety.
Speaking generally about the current crop of psychedelic studies, Doblin, grimacing, admits
“They’re really white.” Non-Hispanic white patients make up more than 80% of participants in major psychedelic studies from the last 30 years. That blindspot is certainly problematic from a clinical perspective. “It could be that different people with different genetic backgrounds or different cultural backgrounds respond differently,” Doblin explains simply. “If you don’t do studies in diverse populations, you’re not sure how people will react to the treatment.”
He also offers several explanations for this seemingly glaring gap in psychedelic research. For one, psychedelic consumption requires a patient’s willingness to make him or herself vulnerable, surrendering to the psychedelic experience. Many minorities, and specifically Black Americans, simply don’t feel safe enough in their bodies or in clinical surroundings to drop their defenses and take that leap. One good reason for that is history: from 1932 to 1972, the Centers for Disease Control conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which 600 Black men were told by researchers that they were being treated for “bad blood” when they were instead being observed to understand the progression of untreated syphilis. This infamous study and other ethically abusive scientific experiments have generated deep distrust among minority communities and, Doblin hypothesizes, may explain their unwillingness to participate in psychedelic research.
Evan isn’t so sure.
“I mean, I wouldn’t walk into a therapist’s room and think ‘aw damn, what if they Tuskegee me?’” Evan lets out a half-chuckle, half-snort. His smile sobers into a somber frown. “The medical stuff is definitely wrapped up in a lot of messiness, but it’s more than that.”
Maybe the “more than that” has to do with plant medicine’s convoluted and divisive history. Carlos Plazola thinks so.
Plazola is the Co-Founder of Decriminalize Nature, an educational and political campaign that has successfully pushed legislation to decriminalize psychedelics in eight U.S. cities, starting with Plazola’s hometown of Oakland, California. With his slicked-back hair and inquisitive eyes, Plazola starts by asking me questions (Q: Have you ever had your own psychedelic experience? A: No. Q: What’s your racial background? A: I’m Chinese American. Q: Ah! Are you familiar with what happened with Chinese medicine in the United States? A: Also no.) The third question launches us into a general discussion of plant medicine’s history.
Long before the psychedelic renaissance of the 2000s or the psychedelic hippie movement of the 60s and 70s, plant medicines like peyote and ayahuasca were used within Indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Go back far enough and psychedelic history is just as diverse as the psychedelics themselves. Làngdàng, also known as Black Henbane, has served as a famous Chinese herbal, and Bwiti practitioners in Africa have taken Iboga for religious rituals. Yet, despite centuries of experimentation in minority communities, psychedelics are only now acquiring mainstream credibility.
The scientific establishment has essentially commandeered plant medicine in the 20th century, says Plazola. And while he acknowledges that research by Western practitioners is critical for securing FDA approval and promoting psychedelic decriminalization efforts, Plazola also laments what’s been lost in the reductionist science.
According to Plazola, psychedelics “bring you face-to-face with the infinite.” In other words, when you’re on a psychedelic trip, you’re pulled back to look at the full tapestry of life: the threads woven between the molecules in a psilocybin mushroom, God’s breath murmuring in the air, and your pulsating heartbeat. The intricacies and interconnectedness of this ecosystem can’t be fully understood by traditional scientific methods, Plazola insists. Generational cultural knowledge of psychedelic spirituality and side effects is critical.
This long history of psychedelic use by various non-white cultures has been all but lost. At the same time, the American War on Drugs, the burden of which falls disproportionately on minorities, has made the use of all illicit drugs, psychedelics included, much more dangerous for people of color. How we legally classify substances — and the people that use them — directly shapes narratives around psychedelic use in minority communities, argues Dr. Carl Hart, a Columbia University psychology professor and author of Drug Use for Grown-Ups.
In the last five years, initiatives to decriminalize psychedelics have gained traction across the country, from Oakland to Texas to Washington, D.C. But Dr. Hart asserts that these successful campaigns have accomplished little in lifting the racial discrimination built into the War on Drugs. So far at least, measures to decriminalize other substances, like marijuana, haven’t produced the expected effects: Black Americans are still 13 times more likely to be sent to state prisons for drug offenses than other racial groups, despite similar rates of drug use across white and Black communities. So, while white communities deem psychedelics spiritual or ‘edgy,’ Black psychedelic users may face heightened legal risks.
Plazola is also quick to point out these distinct barriers to psychedelic therapy and the justified hesitance in minority communities. “I came out of a Chicano Mexican immigrant community, where my cousins who experimented with PCP, heroin, or psychedelics went to jail or died from addiction,” Plazola draws on his own experiences. “So I originally never gravitated towards psychedelics, even though I spent my whole life, since the age of 12, trying to heal from what I now realize is intergenerational trauma.” His reflections echo Evan’s sentiments.
“I was extremely pissed off when my dad got arrested a second time,” Evan tells me. He was 18-years-old when his Algebra teacher pulled him into the hallway to tell him about his dad’s second arrest. “I guess I hoped…” Evan trails off for a few moments. “No, I expected things would be different, that he’d try everything he could to stay with our family.”
After serving one year in county jail for his first offense, Evan’s dad — a psychedelic user and dealer — was arrested again in 2017 and charged for felony distribution of controlled substances, including LSD and Ecstasy. Evan tells me he used to picture the police sirens coming for his dad, bundles of psychedelic drugs encased in plastic pouches labeled EVIDENCE. Then, he’d remember his white high school classmates casually munching on magic mushrooms and Cheez-Its. He thought about the plastic pouch of thank you ‘shrooms he’d graciously accepted, eager to fit in.
“What’s the path forward for the psychedelic world?” I ask Evan. It’s a sweeping question. How can psychedelic studies be more inclusive? How can the barriers to psychedelic therapy in minority communities be dismantled? How can the psychedelic world ensure its promise of transformative healing is accessible to all?
“I honestly have no clue,” Evan shrugs. “Sometimes I wonder whether there is a path forward. Maybe it won’t ever change.”
If it does, the shift toward diversifying the psychedelic world may start with research. MAPS came to this conclusion in 2019 when it kicked off its MDMA Therapy Training program and Health Equity Scholarship initiative. In hindsight, it was obvious, Doblin says: to recruit more patients of color in their studies, they needed more therapists of color.
As of October 2021, MAPS has given out $900,000 worth of scholarships to over 230 aspiring minority therapists, who learn best practices for MDMA therapy during MAPS’s four-month program. Each therapist’s cultural background is critical, explains Natalie Ginsberg, MAPS’s Director of Policy and Advocacy. When a therapist and a study participant’s cultural backgrounds intersect, the therapist can uniquely customize the trip setting to maximize a patient’s comfort. Small touches, like the therapist wearing a head wrap or hanging a Black artist’s painting on the wall of the treatment room, can ultimately be what make minority patients sufficiently comfortable to participate in MAPS’s studies.
Even so, changes to drug laws may be necessary before psychedelic therapy becomes accessible and destigmatized in minority communities. The path forward is twofold, according to Mason Marks, the Senior Lead for Harvard Law School’s Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation. First, conversations about equity need to be explicitly included in legislation for psychedelic decriminalization. “There’s an introductory section of a bill that addresses its background and general purpose. Equity is usually included here,” Marks describes. But clear guidelines for psychedelic inclusion — for instance, how treatments will be made financially accessible in minority communities — should be baked within a bill’s specific mandates. “It can certainly be made clear that it’s more of a priority.”
Marks also affirms that legislative changes will be incremental. “Some groups don’t want there to be psychedelic decriminalization without decriminalization of all substances,” Marks tells me (this is a central argument of Dr. Hart’s Drug Use for Grown-Ups). “But if you just demand an all-or-nothing approach, you may not be very likely to succeed.”
Beyond these large-scale advances in drug laws, there are nascent efforts to use psychedelic treatment for racial trauma in Oakland, the birthplace of psychedelic decriminalization initiatives. These efforts have taken an entirely different form, carried out through communities instead of courtrooms.
Wife and husband duo Mizan Alkebulan-Abakah and Sizwe Andrews-Abakah have led these efforts through their Oakland-based organization SPEARITWURX. The organization works with Black inner-city youth to “inspire intergenerational wellness” through cultural events and community convenings, which can but don’t necessarily involve psychedelic-based healing. Their workshops center around the Radical Healing Model, which focuses on addressing racial trauma’s root causes by engaging culture-specific practices to promote collective resilience and wellbeing. Mizan explains that psychedelic-assisted therapy is commonly portrayed as an individual experience (e.g., Patient A ingested 2 grams of psilocybin and her depression decreased), but true healing requires patients to go back to their communities and build sustained interpersonal relationships — social supports.
I join a virtual SPEARITWURX workshop to experience community-based healing firsthand. This workshop doesn’t involve psychedelics, but Mizan and Sizwe believe that psilocybin could play an important role in group healing by encouraging vulnerability with oneself and others. At one point in the workshop, Mizan and Sizwe guide the fifteen of us in writing an acrostic poem for the word POWER in the Zoom chat, with each letter and its accompanying word embodying our unique understanding of power.
I write P: Pride in your work and your community, and read the other responses flitting across my screen. Peace, Purpose, Persistence, Possibilities. I’d thought the acrostic was hokey at first, but watching the messages flood the Zoom chat ignites a desire to reflect and revise my definition of POWER with the rest of the group. Together, we reflect on our collective struggles (several of us have been asked variations of “where are you really from?”) and celebrate our shared agency (we can jointly advocate for local policy changes). Mizan and Sizwe emphasize that psychedelic therapy must be combined with these types of vulnerable conversations, not just with therapists but with peers, to progress from merely coping with to actively resisting racial trauma.
I introduce the POWER exercise to Evan the next time we meet. He’s wearing an oversized Looney Tunes shirt — Tweety Bird’s right eye is blotchy, blue vinyl smeared in a blotted dark red (a ketchup stain?). “So what’s your acrostic?” I ask Evan. “Definitely not P for Psychedelics,” Evan replies immediately. “And not just because of the silent P.”
We’re going through the other letters when Evan suddenly says, “My dad is getting out on parole next month.” He confesses that the news resurfaced anxieties for him, although he’d known his dad’s early release was a possibility for months. I ask Evan whether he’s been using psilocybin to cope. “Yeah. But sometimes, I’m scared I’ll scream in my dad’s face when I see him again,” Evan admits. “And I don’t think 1 gram or 150 pounds of ‘shrooms could change that.”
Without skipping a beat, Evan holds up the notepad where he’s been scrawling his acrostic. “What did you say for R?”
“Respecting yourself and others,” I answer. “What would you say?”
Evan pauses. “Release,” he says. Releasing trauma. Releasing anxiety. And releasing anger, at his dad for leaving, at his white classmates who taunted him with racist jeers, at himself for holding onto the anger in the first place.
Our conversation harkens back to Mizan and Sizwe’s vision for psychedelics and interpersonal healing. Their vision is centered around POWER: O for open conversations. W for welcoming new experiences. E for empathy. Maybe R can be for reform. In any case, the path forward involves more than just ‘P for Psychedelics.’ It needs OWER too.
Psychedelic therapy is commonly touted as a magic bullet: ingest MDMA, talk with a therapist, and your trauma symptoms disappear. Yet, the very model underpinning psychedelic therapy assumes trauma, and therefore treatment, occurs at an individual level. But racial trauma is by definition group-based, which means the psychedelic world is missing large pieces of the puzzle for healing. How can the psychedelic community fill those missing pieces?
“Therapists that look like people.” That’s the first step, according to Doblin. Public education about psychedelics in minority communities comes next. And advocating for insurance coverage of psychedelic-assisted therapy is critical to ensure patients of all cultural backgrounds can access these new treatments.
“Treat plant medicine like food.” Plazola is adamant that plant medicine and its history transcend regular regulations. His vision starts with decriminalization initiatives but ends in a world where psychedelics are treated like herbs, accessible to whoever needs them. The legal threat that inhibits people of color from considering psychedelics simply evaporates.
“Culture. Agency. Relationships. Meaning. Aspiration,” Sizwe and Mizan agree. CARMA. It’s a simple acronym that encompasses the complex model of healing. And it has important implications for psychedelic treatment. In short, the psychedelic world first has to recognize that people heal as communities, not just as individuals.
In my trip to answer how the psychedelic world can change, I’ve been pulled back to look at the full tapestry, the thick threads connecting psychedelic studies to decriminalization to cultural communities. But I think you have to zero in on skinny, singular strands too — a person like Evan. His apprehensions and anger, but also his hopes for healing in the psychedelic world, both now and in the future.
What is Evan’s path? It begins with the research and discovering the potential for psychedelics to treat his racial trauma. Then, it passes through the War on Drugs — his dad’s arrests and the anger, embarrassment, and guilt that came with them. Ultimately, though, Evan’s path forward involves recognizing that ‘shrooms are only the first step in psychedelic treatment for racial trauma: conversations with his family and healing within his community are next.
“I’m bringing my dad back home,” Evan says. “Then, I can really heal.”