Psychedelic Legalization: An Opportunity to Change Our Perspective on Equity

MAPS Bulletin Spring 2020: Vol. 30, No. 1

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Since psychedelics were discovered, human beings have used them to detach from harmful mental patterns, reassess their lives and get over traumas. For a century, drug criminalization has been a heavy source of trauma for people of color. It has atomized our communities, pushing people in and out of cages, their partners through trials of economic strife and housing insecurity, our wealth forever out of reach, unable to accumulate into a source of security. As we open the conversation on decriminalizing and eventually legalizing psychedelics, we come face-to-face both with the legacy of criminalization and the power of psychedelics to deliver us from trauma.

The legacy of cannabis criminalization is a massive scar on American history, one that is only beginning to heal. The legacy of cannabis legalization is already a few chapters in, and it’s an uneven history. Yes, decades of awful policy are ending (though far from ended), but efforts to use legalization as a tool to heal communities of color have been scattershot and wholly inadequate. I work to lower barriers of entry for people of color in cannabis through Supernova Women (supernovawomen.com), and while we have made big strides through advocacy, education, and networking, it is an uphill battle when state and local governments do little for equity and still show the same racist arrest patterns from the days of criminalization.

Even localities which have instituted equity programs have often had little in the way of positive results. Oakland’s equity program helps very few people—hardly surprising when one of the barriers to entry to start a cannabis business there is raising around a quarter of a million dollars. Oakland created a “buddy system” that pairs equity and conventional cannabis businesses to streamline licensing, but many potential equity businesses have been left out in the cold due to insufficient resources, difficulty finding real estate, or their “buddy” departing for another locality. Then again, at least Oakland tried. In most places with legalized cannabis, the status quo is a “free market” that benefits the wealthy and well-connected, mixed with sinuous local control regulations which advantage those with lawyers and the capital to move quickly when opportunity strikes.

 As it has with countless individuals, psychedelics, used carefully, can help provide a fresh start. We can start with a simple question: What happens when we center community health and community equity? With cannabis legalization, this was an afterthought. With psychedelics, we can do better. To do that, we need to zoom out and ask ourselves what “equity” really means. Social and legal equity get the most attention, and they certainly deserve our energies, but what about health equity? Environmental equity? Economic equity?

Dr. Rachel Knox, who works at the intersection of cannabis research and health equity, addresses this issue head on: “We must decolonize nature and the pervasive methodologies used to control it,” she explained in an email to me. “The reprisal of interest in integrating plant medicines into conventional culture must include the contemplation, development, and execution of measurable plans, programs, and innovations that ensure that plant medicines and the economies their commoditization creates serve all people.”

This is too big an idea to be shoehorned into policy after the fact. Real equity happens when it is written into the policy’s DNA. Knox argues that the first priority of our laws and economy as we integrate plant medicines should be to “measurably serve those most harmed by prohibition— black, indigenous, and other peoples of color, and patients—and ensuring that policy establishes regulatory pathways...that educate, destigmatize, accommodate responsible use, improve the environment, and economically stimulate the most at-risk communities first.”

Tax revenue from cannabis and other plant medicines provides a natural funding source for dynamic programs that address several of these dimensions at once. That can start with psychedelic therapy and education for communities which have been terrorized by the War on Drugs. Due to a number of factors largely stemming from criminalization, plant medicines and other psychedelics are ill-understood. Their power to heal is limited by access, and knowledge of these plants and what they can do when used properly is the first step. Education around psychedelics can open eyes and opportunities.

What knowledge we do have didn’t come out of nowhere. Many plant medicines are associated with particular indigenous communities that developed cultivation practices, understandings of preparation and dosage, and healing rituals over centuries. If these communities were start-ups and this knowledge belonged to them as intellectual property, they would be poised to make billions, licensing their IP or selling directly to customers. As money flows into this space, it is our collective obligation to ensure that these communities are included and compensated. This could come from legislation, but also the directives of investors and companies looking to profit from what they built. Include these communities, listen to them, and allow them to benefit from the growing acceptance of the plant medicines with which they work.

There are, of course, more ways to help a community than just cash (though cash helps). Community gardens can bring people together, clean the air and relieve food deserts. Clean water is a human right, and is essential to health and educational outcomes. Equity-focused job programs can bring a steady income and work experience that can lead to long-term economic stability. Some focused funds and sustained effort can go a very long way.

“We must wield policy that favors health equity,” says Knox. “In what better way can we do this than through the legalization and conscious regulation of plant medicines? This is the very nature of nature—it truly belongs to nobody and exists to benefit us all equitably.”

There are many good ideas out there that can begin to heal the communities that have been trampled on for decades. The key thing is to want it. Once we instill a desire for equity in every part of our society, the door will be open to using plant medicines to heal our societies, our communities, and ourselves. Legal access to psychedelics is coming. That can be a good thing or a transformative thing. It all depends on the intentions we have going in.

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Amber E. Senter is founder and CEO of Breeze Distro, a licensed lifestyle and infused cannabis product and distribution company located in Oakland, CA. She is also co-founder and executive director of Supernova Women, a women of color–led organization dedicated to empowering people of color to become self-sufficient cannabis industry shareholders.