Why Indigenous Protesters Stopped a Global Psychedelic Conference

    Early this summer, the Psychedelic Science conference brought 12,000 people to Denver, Colorado, to participate in a dizzying array of sessions, as I reported for Filter. But on the final day, June 23, a protest stopped this global event in its tracks, as activists blasted the psychedelic movement over Indigenous representation and rights.

    Conducting interviews elsewhere, I missed the whole thing. But a Youtube video shows what went down. Attendees were gathered in the giant theater for a closing speech by Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the conference host. 

    MAPS is a nonprofit research group with a separate, for-profit business arm, and plays a huge role in psychedelic science and the movement. It is perhaps best known for its research on MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, now in its third and final phase of clinical trials before it could become an FDA-approved treatment.

    “Can we get your attention? This is not a revolutionary movement if you are leaving people out of the conversation.”

    Just as Doblin took the stage to thunderous applause, a small group of people seated near the stage stood up, chanting and beating a drum.

    “Can we get your attention?” a woman called. “This is not a revolutionary movement if you are leaving people out of the conversation. I want you to join me in naming the people who have violated you. Like Rick Doblin.”

    Noise burst out as she spoke, and tensions boiled. In another video shot from the perspective of a protester and reviewed by Filter, some audience members are seen glaring at the group or heckling them. Others voiced their support or look confused or indifferent. As the protesters neared the stage, some people tried to block them, standing in their way. Some in the crowd started a counter chant to drown out the protesters: “Let him speak!”

    Doblin paced along the stage, appearing anxious. He tried addressing the protesters directly, but was interrupted. Finally he said, “How about this—if I give you one minute to say what you want to say, then let me speak. Would you like to do that? Come on up.”

    A total of five individuals spoke. The first was Angela Beers, a visiting instructor at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, who has Indigenous Mexican (Zacatecas and Coahuila) heritage. She criticized MAPS for its conduct in planning the conference, saying that a program she helped organize to feature Indigenous speakers wasn’t given sufficient financial support, forcing her and others to pay to transport them to the event.  

    Beers slammed what she described as “tokenism” of Indigenous representatives in the psychedelic movement. She also defended the right of Indigenous communities to “gatekeep” peyote from “white people coming to take it.”

    “If you don’t liberate the people who are most marginalized on their own lands, sovereign nations, you can’t liberate anybody,” she said. “Nobody owns healing, you don’t own our culture. You can’t take it from us. We deserve respect. Where are the investors investing in land back, water rights?”

    Kuthoomi Castro, who identified as a Meztizo-Indigenous wellness professional and medicine person originally from Ecuador, currently in Boulder, argued that plant-based psychedelics, an ancient tradition in many Indigenous communities, should be treated wholly separately from synthetics like LSD or MDMA. The plants, he said, should not be bought and sold as commodities.

    “You’ve been deceived and you’re going to continue to be deceived,” he told the crowd. “In 20, 30 decades from now you’re going to see the medicines harming you. Because they’re living beings and they don’t like to be abused.” 

    “I know everyone here wants healing for the world … The way to do that is to look at those who have been oppressed and listen to them, and invite them in.”

    Jayson Paulino, a New York-based, Black and Indigenous educator and creative director of Black Girls Smoke, described a failure of psychedelic science and policy to consider the needs of people of color. “I come from the ‘hood,” he said. “People in the hood don’t get the healing they need. They can’t afford even to attend this kind of conference. We’re the ones that need to be here, we’re the ones that need the healing.”

    “We need to let the Indigenous lead,” said Kelly Thomas, another of the activists. “There’s so much promise here and I know everyone here wants healing for the world … The way to do that is to look at those who have been oppressed and listen to them, and invite them in.”

    The action ended when the fifth speaker, Lira Godoy, stepped aside and embraced Doblin. The protesters left the stage and Doblin continued his address, discussing MAPS’ history and the evolution of its strategy to get psychedelic therapy approved through the FDA.

    On June 25, two days after the conference ended, a group called Native Coalition of Colorado posted on Instagram. “If anything became more and more clear this week during and after Psychedelic Science 2023 …” it stated, “the Elders and Native people of the Peyote and Indigenous medicine ways want MAPS, Chacruna, New Approach and Decriminalize Nature to leave our medicines alone!” 

    It added: They have MANUFACTURED CONSENT, which is colonization.

    Chacruna is a psychedelic and plant medicine research institution. New Approach is a political action committee (PAC) based in Washington, DC that has supported drug policy reform ballot measures, including Measure 109 to legalize psilocybin for healing purposes in Oregon and Proposition 122 to legalize and decriminalize psychedelics in Colorado. Decriminalize Nature is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that has worked to support city-level resolutions decriminalizing plant- and mushroom-based psychedelics in over a dozen cities nationwide.


    Healing and Repression

    In interviews with two of the protesters, Filter learned that the action was largely spontaneous. Castro said that someone approached him and several others just half an hour earlier, to let them know Doblin was speaking.

    “In that moment we knew we had to come and speak up,” Castro said. “We didn’t want 12,000 people leaving this place thinking it was the best thing ever. So as we’re walking towards this place, we’re talking about what do we do, what do we say; it was right in the moment. We didn’t plan to go up to the stage and speak.”

    Accordingly, the protestors didn’t all present one unified political vision or agenda. But they touched on several issues that have raised controversy in the psychedelic movement for years.

    “My understanding of what happened is that MAPS was the platform where it occurred, but a lot of the topics brought up by the protesters are about larger tensions within the field,” Ismail Ali, MAPS’ policy and advocacy director, told Filter. He believes that the protest wasas much about the larger field, the commercialization, what’s happening in Colorado, that MAPS is quite tangentially involved with—than it was about what happened at the conference itself.”  

    “Constantly you’re seeing so many people just thinking about the money. But let’s think about the care, mind, body and spirit of those who need it.”

    One key point raised by the protestors concerns whether the movement will bring healing to people who need it most.  

    “I started working with plant medicines when I was 16,” Paulino told Filter, “and it did save me and it helped me in my development in life from trauma, micro-aggressions, and [in] understanding how I fit in this world and this system that’s created, and how can I show up for my community.”

    Personally, Paulino supports the research of groups like MAPS, and is in favor of governments regulating synthetic psychedelics like MDMA. What he opposes is regulating and commercializing naturally occurring psychedelics like psilocybin. He wants instead to encourage people to learn how to grow them at home. 

    “We all want the same thing which is healing together,” he said. “But let’s remove the mindset of ‘Let’s make money with this.’ Constantly you’re seeing so many people just thinking about the money. But let’s think about the care, mind, body and spirit of those who need it.”

    Perhaps the biggest question the protesters raised was: Does psychedelic legalization or decriminalization mean taking away or stealing other people’s medicines?

    Plant- and fungi-based psychedelics like ayahuasca, DMT, peyote, wachuma (San Pedro cactus) and psilocybin all have long histories of use among Indigenous societies before Europeans colonized their lands and perpetrated genocide. Often, these same substances were demonized by settlers and used as justification for repression and subjugation.

    Indigenous Americans often have little direct stake in a booming psychedelic industry—whether as researchers, business owners or politicians approving laws.

    It is thanks to the efforts of these peoples to protect and preserve those traditions that, centuries later, American and European scientists were able to study these substances, chemically isolate their active compounds and set the stage for psychedelics to attract academic and pop culture attention throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.

    For example, the German chemist Arthur Heffter first isolated mescaline in 1896 from peyote buttons sent to a colleague almost a decade earlier. Heffter named the chemical after the Mescalero Apache tribe, who distributed the sample to scientists. Decades later, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman isolated psilocybin and psilocin using samples derived from mushrooms collected by anthropologist R. Gordon Wasson, who was invited by Mazatec healer Maria Sabina to participate in a ceremony in Oaxaca, Mexico. 

    But Indigenous Americans often have little direct stake in a booming psychedelic industry, projected to reach over $8 billion in value—whether as researchers, business owners or politicians approving laws.

    And drug policy reforms, alone, have done little to improve conditions for Indigenous people in the United States. Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by overdose, police violence and discrimination, homelessness, poverty and other forms of inequality. Even tribes that vote to legalize cannabis, or live in states that do, risk federal authorities violating their sovereignty to enforce prohibition.


    Peyote and Appropriation

    What, then, will happen to naturally occurring psychedelics as they become more popular—and more importantly, to the peoples who have helped preserve and cherish their use? 

    Such questions have driven particularly fierce debate around the peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, which produces mescaline. Its wild populations, in the Rio Grande region of Texas and Mexico, are rapidly declining, as a result of industrial mining, cattle ranching, real estate development and human harvesting.

    The Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative and the National Council of Native American Churches have publicly opposed peyote decriminalization, arguing that it will encourage more non-Indigenous people to purchase the plant and drive over-harvesting. 

    “To the extent the ‘Decrim’ movement sends a message to local citizens that peyote is ‘legal,’ the collateral and unintended effort could be to increase interest in non-native persons either going to Texas to purchase peyote or to buy it from a local dealer who has acquired it illegally and unsustainably in Texas,” they wrote in a March 2020 open letter. “Both scenarios, we fear, will further foment the peyote black market and unsustainable practices in south Texas and compromise the decades long work on the part of Native American peyote spiritual leaders and allies.”

    Yet Decriminalize Nature, for one, has continued to support decriminalizing peyote, arguing that nobody should face arrest and jail time for using the plant, and that the way to protect wild peyote is to sponsor large-scale cultivation projects.

    Ali acknowledged that the question of peyote remains open, with valid points raised by both sides. “MAPS supports a pause on efforts to generally decriminalize peyote at this time.”

    Ali of MAPS shared background that he believes may help explain what prompted the protest. It goes back to 2022, when advocates behind what would become Proposition 122 were writing the measure. It was backed by New Approach PAC, with Kevin Matthews and Veronica Perez the “designated representatives” who filed with the state.

    “There has been a rumor that refused to die … that Prop 122 was going to decriminalize peyote in opposition to the position the Native American Church has repeatedly stated over the years, to please leave peyote out of decrim…” Ali said. “The core thing is, it is not true that Prop 122 originally included peyote; we, as well as New Approach staff, ensured it wasn’t included from the beginning.”

    Kevin Matthews, coalition director for the Prop 122 campaign, stated the same.I’m confirming that we never included Peyote in any drafts of the measure,” he told Filter in an email, “or, said another way, we specifically excluded it when referring to mescaline in order to respect the wishes of the Native American Church and other organizations affiliated with them.”  

    Ali acknowledged that the question of peyote remains open, with valid points raised by both sides of the decriminalization debate. He clarified in an email that “given the unique cultural and ecological considerations related to peyote in the United States… [MAPS] supports a pause on efforts to generally decriminalize peyote at this time.”

    Castro did not comment directly on the peyote issue when invited to do so. But he said he personally opposed Prop 122 in Colorado because it didn’t adequately include Indigenous voices in the drafting and campaigning processes, nor adequate Indigenous representation on the advisory board subsequently set up by the state government to create psychedelic regulations.

    “It’s not just the medicines but it’s our intellectual property. People are taking our songs, ceremonies, rattles, our beautiful instruments, our relationship to nature.”

    More broadly, Castro criticized what he described as a general tendency among many US psychedelic users and advocates to appropriate Indigenous practices and cultures, often distorting and misusing them.

    “We’re looking for ways to protect our medicines … we’re totally unprotected right now, anyone can come and take our medicines,” he said. “It’s not just the medicines but it’s our intellectual property. People are taking our songs, ceremonies, rattles, our beautiful instruments, our relationship to nature, they’re taking everything…Some people are doing it right and beautifully, but the majority of people in the movement are messing things up.”

    Castro personally opposes the efforts to decriminalize psychedelics in the US, though admits it can be done right if governments respect Indigenous peoples’ rights over how they use the substances. He worries that decriminalizing personal and group use of psychedelics—such as in ceremonial and spiritual settings—will enable people to offer “medicine” with minimal training or experience. Many Indigenous traditions, he noted, require people to train for years before they are given the role of shaman.

    “You can offer ceremonies at home,” he said. “And that’s a concern. Who’s going to be regulating people giving ceremonies at home? Right now, without this legalization, there’s already a lot of white, Western people offering medicine. I’ve seen people who have taken medicine 10 times and they say I’m a curandero, or shaman, and I’m going to give medicine.”

    “They still see our medicines as something simple or less-than,” he continued. “They don’t understand these are pure, profound technologies. They still see us from a colonial way, ‘I just give this little medicine to this person and then they heal.’ That’s a lot of the harm we see happening.”

    “Grow your own peyote, don’t poach it from Wixárika lands, that’s really what we’re advocating.”

    However, Carlos Plazola, a founding member of Decriminalize Nature, resists the idea that certain Indigenous groups have a “unique claim” to peyote, referencing how peyote practices have migrated with various Indigenous peoples over the centuries, out of the lands that are now Mexico and across the Rio Grande and into the US Southwest and Midwest regions. He encourages an approach that allows anyone to use peyote responsibly while respecting other people’s access to it and the environment. 

    “My people came to the US because of poverty in rural Mexico, directly related to the Mexican Revolution and being pushed off their lands and looking for a better life,” Plazola told Filter. “When you start to unpack all of that, you realize, shit, does anyone really have claims to own peyote? Or perhaps we figure out a path that doesn’t rely on ownership, but reverence for the plant and people who use it, and respect for the native habitat so it doesn’t go extinct.”

    Plazola additionally worries that whatever federal protection exists for peyote religious use is restricted to members of Indigenous tribes recognized by the federal government. It would exclude, for example, a Mexican-American migrant from Zacatecas with Huichol/Wixárika ancestry, with a cultural history of peyote use but without membership in a US Indigenous nation.

    “Peyote has been criminalized since [1970], and the [plant] numbers keep going down,” he continued. “Clearly keeping it criminalized is not leading to a resurrection of peyote numbers. What would decriminalization do? We don’t know because we haven’t done it. But what if we do it with education? Grow your own peyote, don’t poach it from Wixárika lands, that’s really what we’re advocating.”



    Image of the protest via YouTube/Melanie Rose Rogers, Influential X

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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