12 May 2023

The Psychedelic Superhighway

The Psychedelic Superhighway

By Joseph McCowan, Psy.D.

MAPS Bulletin: Volume XXXIII Number 1 • 2023

If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles, one thing you can’t miss flying in or driving in is the city’s vast network of highways. They’re the city’s mycelium, dissecting and interconnecting the many neighborhoods and communities comprising our sprawling sun-drenched metropolis.

I grew up in the coastal town of Santa Monica, a beautiful and dynamic city, sitting on the westside of Los Angeles, hugging the Pacific Ocean. Diverse racially, but with a long history of racism and housing segregation, my hometown was a harbor for both great wealth and wealth inequality (King, 2021).

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As you pan out, what stands out is the Santa Monica Freeway, the city’s most prominent structural feature. A symbol of the city’s pride, as well as the city’s divide. A system developed to help sustain the city long into the future, but whose past carries a legacy of harm that is still felt, and has not been forgotten.

The Santa Monica freeway is also known as the “Rosa Parks Freeway,”, and represents the most westerly stretch of the “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway,” which traverses our nation westward from its eastern origins at the Atlantic Ocean (The Interstate Highway System – Definition, Purpose & Facts – HISTORY, 2010). The freeway divides the city along racial and economic lines, essentially functioning as its equator, marking the line between the whiter and wealthier neighborhoods to the north, and the neighborhoods of less wealth and more people of color, to the south. During its construction in the 1960s, the freeway displaced a large segment of the city’s Black and Brown neighborhoods, carrying the intergenerational torch of colonization and systemic racism through the city’s most diverse communities while manifesting its destiny to the Pacific Ocean (Estrada, 2005; Fleischer, 2020).

I grew up in a house that sat right next to the freeway running through the city. Growing up biracial in a lower middle-class household south of the freeway in Santa Monica was figuratively fitting, as I was literally existing and living on the boundary between races and resources in my city.

Living on this dividing line brought me into daily contact with two very different worlds. Every day I bounced between the worlds of the haves-and-the-have-nots. Every day I traveled across town to attend schools in the whiter and wealthier neighborhoods because my older brother Justin, who had Down’s Syndrome, could not get the care and support he needed in our neighborhood. The schools in our community were too underfunded and under-resourced to support Justin, a student with unique challenges and special needs.

I’ll never know how our life would have been different if we hadn’t attended the schools with all the money and resources; but I know that if we had the resources that we needed in our neighborhood, quality care and education would have been much easier to access for my brother and our family.

I am now a psychologist and researcher looking at the potential of psychedelics in combination with therapy to help heal the wounds of our past and support us in connecting more deeply with ourselves, one another, and our world.

However, when I reflect on our modern psychedelic renaissance and the current gaps and disparities in access to psychedelic therapy between those who have and those who don’t, it brings me back home to Santa Monica. It brings me back to my brother Justin. It brings me back to the Freeway.

I grew up staring at a structural divide and moving through two different worlds. Today when it comes to resources and access in psychedelic therapy and research, it’s impossible not to see the current structural divides separating two very different worlds.

Following the Signs in the History of our Highways

I recognize the freeway as a part of my story, my family’s story, and the history of my city. It inspired me to reflect more broadly on our collective story, the history of our country, and the challenges on our psychedelic road ahead.

If we intend to continue creating equitable pathways for more people to access psychedelic therapy, we’ll need the direction and support of our MAPS, but we can also follow the guidance and signs in the history of our highways.

As our field continues moving forward, we are navigating new territory in the emerging psychedelic space. If we intend to continue creating equitable pathways (Leighton & Harrison, 2022) for more people to access psychedelic therapy, we’ll need the direction and support of our MAPS, but we can also follow the guidance and signs in the history of our highways.

The Santa Monica freeway stands as a constant reminder of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going–helping us remember that to everything, there’s a past, a present, and a future.

The freeway’s dominant physical presence looms as a reminder of what still divides us. Its construction journey reflects the destruction in our nation’s history: telling the tale of the paths we’ve laid, and how those paths replaced countless people, cultures, and communities that were forcibly displaced. The way it scars the Los Angeles landscape reveals the legacy of harm for people of color by the structures and systems we’ve created; and it clearly marks where wealth, power, privilege, and resources are held and where they are not.

But while its construction path and origin story reminds us of our current divides and a harmful history, the freeway stands today also as a symbol of what connects us and brings us together, now and into the future. It represents an enduring reminder that collectively, we will always have the opportunity to envision and reach a shared destination.

From its eastern origins as the Christopher Columbus Highway toward its western terminus as the Rosa Parks Freeway, its transcontinental travel reminds us that although our collective road began with racism and colonization, we have the resources to construct a path toward equity and social justice.

Across our field today, as we on-ramp onto this psychedelic superhighway, we are all coming from different places and have our different histories, but we are now moving forward together envisioning our shared psychedelic future:many paths converging, many minds merging, and many ideas emerging. As we continue forging our paths forward, how can we all take a moment to slow down to see where we are and reflect on where we’ve been?

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Lessons in Slowing Down

My brother Justin passed away in 2014. He was my best friend and my greatest teacher. His lessons guide the way I engage with others in therapy, relationships, and in community. He taught me to slow down, to go at another’s pace, to see things from another’s perspective, and to be patient, present, and available to others that have unique needs and challenges, and who might be struggling.

Justin’s story tells the story of many people of color across our country who have unique needs and need special care, but they encounter obstacles to accessing that care, they don’t know about that care, or they can’t find that care in their own community.I carry his spirit and teachings with me and the hope that our emerging field can collectively embody his messages and lessons.

If our field stays in the psychedelic fast lane moving forward, we’ll ignore the hurt and trauma occurring on the shoulder and drive past society’s outcasts lurking in the shadows of the underpass. Justin’s legacy reminds us of who gets left behind if we lack patience, humility, and time– becoming too focused on speeding toward reaching our individual destinations.

I don’t know how things will unfold, but I know that I care, and I hope we all care, about where we have been, where we are, where we are going, and how we plan to get there. The truth is, while we might be going at different speeds, traveling in different lanes, and starting from different places, we are all getting on this same psychedelic superhighway. The only way we are going to collectively move forward is for all of us to see one another, support one another, and to move forward together.


Estrada, G. (2005, October 1) If You Build It, They Will Move: The Los Angeles Freeway System and the Displacement of Mexican East Los Angeles, 1944-1972. Southern California Quarterly. Volume 87 (3): 287–315. https://doi.org/10.2307/41172272

Fleischer, M (2020, June 24) Want to tear down insidious monuments to racism and segregation? Bulldoze L.A. freeways. The Los Angeles Times, Opinion. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-06-24/bulldoze-la-freeways-racism-monument

History.com Editors (2019, June 7) The Interstate Highway System. History. https://www.history. com/topics/us-states/interstate-highway-system

King, N. ( 2021, April 7) A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways. NPR, Morning Edition. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/07/984784455/a-brief-history-of-how-racism-shaped-interstate-highways

Leighton, M., & Harrison, C. (2022, October 31). MAPS Doubles Ethnoracial Diversity in Trials Again: Re-Designing Systems of Care. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies— MAPS. https://maps.org/news/bulletin/maps-doubles-ethnoracial-diversity-in-trials-again/

Wick, J. (2021, October 11) ‘We’re sorry’: L.A. moves to make amends for wrongs committed against Indigenous people. The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-10-11/la-announces-apology-mistreatment-indigenous-people

Joseph McCowan, Psy.D.

Joseph McCowan, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, currently working in Los Angeles as a Therapist and Supervisor in the MAPS sponsored Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD. Additionally, Joseph supports the MAPS Therapy Training Program as a training assistant, and has supported efforts toward increasing the diversity of therapists and participants in the MAPS clinical studies as part of the MAPS Diversity Working Group. Outside of his work with MAPS, Joseph practices at the California Center for Psychedelic Therapy where he provides Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy (KAP) and Psychedelic Integration Therapy. Along with his training in MDMA Assisted-Therapy and Ketamine Assisted-Therapy,Joseph is trained in multiple other psychedelic assisted therapy approaches including Psilocybin Assisted-Therapy for Depression (COMPASS Pathways) and 5-MEO-DMT Assisted-Therapy for Depression (Beckley PsyTech). Joseph is deeply passionate about furthering education and awareness of the healing benefits of psychedelics for communities of color and in working to improve mental health outcomes for historically underserved communities. Joseph received his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.