Peyote plant with ray of sunlight in rainbow colors

Cultivating Purpose: The Cultural Context of California’s Potential Decriminalization of Psychedelics

Peyote plant with ray of sunlight in rainbow colors
Legislation proposed by state Sen. Scott Wiener could make it legal to possess for personal use and socially share hallucinogens such as peyotl.  (“peyote flower” by zapdelight via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

By Joel Umanzor Jr.

For years, as he was growing up in East Oakland, an urban mycologist for Myco.Oakland who calls himself Michael would take trips with his family to the ancestral home of his father in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the cultural acceptance of psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms is embedded — quite literally — in the architecture around the state.

“It’s like a recurring thing,” Michael said, recalling imagery of mushrooms he saw during the visits he had with his family and the pictures he took with his father as a child in a mushroom-themed public pool, where he later took his own children. “What I’m doing with my kids, taking them back there and showing them, is the same thing my dad did with me.”

In 2019, he began investing full-time in cultivating psilocybin. He has since birthed a successful brand of mushrooms, mushroom microdosing pills and clothing, allowing him to profit — even though psilocybin mushrooms are a Schedule I drug in the U.S. under the Controlled Substances Act, which makes them illegal to possess, cultivate and distribute.

The legality of psilocybin mushrooms — like the ones Michael cultivates — and other hallucinogenic drugs could change in California if state Sen. Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) decriminalization bill — SB 519 — passes the Legislature. Psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms as well as MDMA, LSD, ketamine and peyotl could be decriminalized for possession for personal use and social sharing.

Yet cultural questions remain about the inclusion of certain psychedelics of Indigenous cultural significance — such as psilocybin, ayahuasca and peyotl — and how the legislation would affect the use of these plants and the cultures that have preserved them.

Retired Army veteran Jose Martinez returned to the United States as a triple amputee after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Martinez said his injuries caused him to become dependent on opiates.

Overcoming his addiction, Martinez said the fallout from that dependency affected his mind until he found psilocybin mushrooms.

“About six years ago, I ended up finding psilocybin and started using it for therapy for myself,” said Martinez, who testified by phone April 6 in support of SB 519 at the California Public Safety Committee meeting. “Gracefully, it has changed my life … I was actually able to get married, and now, I’m surfing the world as a paralympic surfer for Team USA. [Psilocybin] has dramatically changed my family, my friends around me and slowly changing all the veterans around me as well.”

Jesse Gould, the founder and president of the Heroic Hearts Project — a nonprofit organization that connects former military veterans with psychedelic therapy — says he is happy to show people the psychedelic experience because at one point in his life, he didn’t have anyone to help him.

While living in Tampa Bay working in financing, he went to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to seek help for his mental health. What he was offered was medication and what he described as “no options” for alternatives.

After hearing about ayahuasca — a tea that is boiled using the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna brush — through various podcasts, the idea of using psychedelics to improve his mental health grew in his mind. Coupled with the fact that he was “getting worse,” he took a leap of faith into the world of psychedelic treatment.

“I had that coming to Jesus moment where I was like, ‘I’m not happy in this job. I’m not happy in my life. What do I have to lose?’ Whatever I was doing was not sustainable,” he said. “So I put my two weeks’ [notice] in to my job, got my affairs in order and essentially bought a one-way ticket to Peru.”

Gould said he vetted various ayahuasca retreats in Peru and found one he was comfortable attending. He stayed for a week and participated in four ceremonies.

“It was a very hard, challenging process,” he said. “It was almost instantly recognizable that it fell completely outside of my stigmas and my preconceptions and there was something to it. I wasn’t quite sure immediately, but it wasn’t this happy-go-lucky, 1970s, having fun and getting high kind of thing. It was something completely different.”

Gould started the Heroic Hearts Project in 2017 to offer access to this treatment to other wounded veterans. Upon returning to the States from Peru, he began working immediately to make this a reality for people like him.

“There’s a lot of vets I knew and people who served who had, unfortunately, taken their lives or people who were actively destroying their lives through addictions or PTSD,” he said. “This deserves to be known within my community and for those who are interested they deserve to have a little bit more streamlined process than I had to go through.”

Gould evaluates and educates when pairing a veteran with psychedelic treatment. He determines the needs of the veteran and vets the retreats to make sure they are respectful of Indigenous ways. The project also supports veterans both financially through grants to pay for the retreats and through a reintegration program with follow-up meetings after their experience.

Privilege of Sacred Knowledge

Gould hopes to contribute to Western medicine’s understanding of psychedelics. In partnership with various colleges, the Heroic Hearts Project is conducting studies on the medicinal properties of psychedelics within the veteran community.

“We are working with the University of Georgia and the University of Colorado, Boulder. Through the University of Georgia’s psychology department, we have been doing a personality survey and psychological survey where the veterans will take the survey before the retreat, immediately afterwards and then three month follow-up to measure the changes immediately and long term,” Gould said.

He added that the project has also developed its own independent research on the effects of psilocybin on veterans with microtraumas in their brain, which has opened the door to collaborate with the Imperial College of London. Because of the limited availability of research, Gould said his goal is to make this information more accessible.

“Our main thing is having open access to a lot of this research because a lot of people are trying to put it behind [intellectual property] barriers and make money off of it,” he said. “We are trying to promote healing as much as possible.”

Michael said researching psilocybin is a privilege. A privilege he says he had during his time at Cal State East Bay, where he used his leisure time to read about the theoretical aspects of psilocybin cultivation by accessing the school’s databases, which allowed him to bypass paywalls and other intellectual property barriers.

“I had the time, and it was something I was interested in,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have that privilege. I had the privilege to f—around for a year and fail [in cultivating psilocybin] and then get it. I was privileged enough to have time and space to work because I was in school.”

Because of his cultural ties to mushrooms as a Oaxacan, Michael said that one of the most frustrating things was a lack of access to mushrooms — which motivated him to research cultivating his own.

“It was when I was having trouble accessing mushrooms. Having to deal with white boys to get it was when I was just like, ‘Why am I struggling to get something that I feel like is mine?’ ” he said.

Michael said he experience ignorant interactions when trying to get mushrooms from white dealers.

“It was just little mean looks and them being like, ‘What do you know about this?’ That’s when I was like, ‘What the f—? What do I know about this? You don’t even know where … I’m from. You don’t even … know.’ ”

The state of Oaxaca — where Michael’s family is from — is home to the Mazatec people who have used psilocybin mushrooms in ritual healing practices for generations.

“It’s our s—. Why should I be struggling for our s—? It makes no sense,” Michael said.

A year and a half after starting his endeavors in the world of psilocybin, Michael has seen the same people who spurned him now following him on Instagram, trying to get access to the plants he cultivates.

Yet according to Dr. Carlos Cordova, professor of Latino/a studies at San Francisco State University and a practicing shaman, the a cultural context around the knowledge and use of psilocybin mushrooms goes against monetization of these indigenous sacred plants.

The Proper Channels

Cordova’s first Indigenous sacred plant ceremony was in Mexico in 1977 during a period of instability in his life.

While researching his master’s thesis and looking for teaching opportunities in El Salvador, Cordova was detained by Salvadoran authorities who stripped him of his visa and gave him five days to leave the country — although he is a Salvadoran citizen. The abrupt ending of his stay in his home country due to the escalating civil war left him with a sense of disillusionment.

“I was completely disenchanted,” Cordova said. “I got depressed.”

His heartbreak over leaving El Salvador was evident to his friend’s assistant, a teenage acquaintance of Cordova from Mexico City who suggested he meet his grandmother — an elder who had knowledge of the use of psilocybin mushrooms to combat depression.

Under the guidance of a shaman, Cordova began a ritual period of heavy mushroom consumption that, in his words, “rocked his world.”

“Imagine having to take up to 10 pairs of mushrooms, five different times, skipping a day in between,” he said. “You are going for a period of two weeks. You are taking all these mushrooms at a high level, an intense level, not just eating a couple.”

He said his ceremonial experience “cleansed himself of that energy” that was his depression by giving his mind and soul balance and stability, which continued in his life for a long time. Because of that change, he said he felt he didn’t need to continue using the mushrooms and, even during other emotionally unstable moments of his life, hasn’t till this day.

As a practicing shaman, Cordova said showing the plant reverence is of the utmost importance as well as going through the proper channels — like shamans — who have preserved the plant.

“You know, I respect the plants a lot. I don’t touch them, I don’t deal with them, I don’t ingest them,” he said.

The shaman is integral to the Indigenous use of sacred plants and the connection between mind and spirit.

Indigenous communities use these sacred plant ceremonies to combat depressions and angst. Susto or espanto — translated into English as a “scare” or “terror” — are sometimes handled with the use of psilocybin mushrooms and the guidance of a shaman in a communal setting.

In their 2021 book “The Handbook of Medical Hallucinogens,” UCLA psychiatry professor Dr. Charles Grob and Dr. Jim Grigsby, a professor of clinical health psychology at the University of Colorado, call the shaman the link between the physical and the spiritual. During these ceremonies, the shaman will ingest the sacred plant with you to diagnose the issue you are experiencing.

“It’s usually not an individual experience. Certainly, you would not go get mushrooms and take them on your own. That would not be part of the experience,” Cordova said. “At least, there would be a shaman that would guide you and the shaman takes the plants with you.”

According to Cordova, Eurocentric research is finally correlating these Indigenous diagnoses with Western terminology.

“When we talk about culturally bound illnesses like ‘susto’ or ‘espanto’ — which psychologists now have looked at like, ‘Oh, you know that really is post-traumatic stress disorder’ or syndrome as it is called now,” Cordova said. “Here, in the United States, it’s been studied for about a period of about a hundred years, but in Mexico, it has been studied for 3,000 years. They know the process. They know how to deal with it.”

Cordova says this longevity of knowledge on how to deal with certain nonphysical ailments distinguishes these Indigenous sacred practices as tried and true.

“I think that makes a big difference in understanding the process because it has evolved over a period of more than 3,000 years,” he said.

Michael says there is a tie to the plants that comes with being Oaxacan. Growing up, he knew about the role Oaxaca played in preserving this sacred knowledge.

“I’m grateful that my dad was just like ‘Maria Sabina is responsible for this,’ he said. “I’m grateful that he told me, ‘You need to understand where you’re from and how much history we have behind us.’ ”

Oaxaca was home to Sabina, a curandera — or sacred healer — who opened the world of Western medicine in the mid-20th century to her communal healing practices involving psilocybin known as “veladas.”

Western medicine is attempting to medicalize the use of the Indigneous communal aspects of psychedelic healing as alternatives to Eurocentric mental health practices.

Jen Leland, co-founder of Ceremony Health Collective in Oakland, witnessed the shortcomings on both sides of the mental health field.

Years of her own trauma as a juvenile within the justice system and in intergenerational foster care turned her off to mainstream mental health therapy practices — even as a practicing child therapist.

This dissatisfaction with mental health treatment coupled with her own personal experience of using Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine — more commonly known as MDMA or ecstasy — as well as psilocybin in her own therapy six years ago motivated her to create alternatives in her own practice.

“So in some ways, the MDMA and the psilocybin experiences that I’ve had in terms of therapy, I was really excited. Like, ‘Wow, this is the way in which I would like to practice with folks,’ ” she said. “But it is a Schedule I substance, and certainly the Board of Behavioral Sciences — if I started giving out MDMA to my clients in private practice — would have my license snatched up, and I’d be in jail.”

She began looking into practices that are not just client-facing but systems-facing, leading her to co-found the Ceremony Health Collective in February 2020. The organization, she said, is focused on psychedelic-assisted group psychotherapy. The collective does not do individual treatments but uses communal aspects of healing and the rituals associated with these psychedelics.

“Ceremony is in our name because we want to bring in rituals and the use of ritual as transformative practices in a communal way with the medicines,” she said.

As MDMA and psilocybin enter the third phase of clinical trials in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s drug development process, Leland hopes these psychedelics will be rescheduled so physicians can prescribe them and therapists can use them with people in practice.

She hopes the collective can attain nonprofit status, yet she is skeptical of that ever becoming a reality.

“It might be impossible, unfortunately, to be a nonprofit psychedelic clinic at this point,” she said. “Because of the medical regulations on this, it’s almost like they want us to be for-profit and have a profit motive. Like we can’t just be nonprofit.”

Leland understands, though, that there is a debate around SB 519. Some people might not want to go through medical professionals to access psychedelics. Medicalization would still criminalize people who treat themselves through their own circles of friends or spiritual centers like the Native American Church. In addition to limiting access, she said pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists are looking to stake their claim in the world of medicalized psychedelics.

She is not wrong.

On May 10, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study — the organization handling the FDA’s phase three trials — released a study of MDMA in which 67% of participants showed improvement after being treated. After the study was released, COMPASS Pathways — a U.K. for-profit mental health care company focused on developing psychedelics for treatment — saw its shares rise 5% to $35.77 even though it had nothing to do with the MAPS’ MDMA study.

COMPASS Pathways is also branching out to the world of psilocybin. In a March press release, it announced it had been approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for two separate patents relating to a synthetic, crystalline psilocybin it is working on.

Leland said placing the sacredness of psychedelics — such as psilocybin mushrooms — within the confines of medicalization as we know it in the United States goes in direct contrast to what these medicines represent.

“Do we really want to locate the sacredness of these medicines and these transformational practices in a medicalization model that is so profit-driven and so not sacred?” she said.

Although Cordova agrees with Leland on the sacredness of the plants, he also says the contexts of these sacred plants are unique to their cultures. He said that medicalization of these sacred psychedelics can be a “two-edged sword,” in that, if not used with respect, the entire purpose of using the plants becomes destroyed. If used only from a Western medical perspective to heal the mind, the plants won’t work as intended because these Indigenous holistic medicinal practices have ties to the spiritual — something not taken into account through Eurocentric medicinal practices.

“What I see as a problem is that [Western medical practitioners] might feel a spiritual sense of something when they take the plant, but they are taking it out of context. They don’t understand how it is seen among the Indigenous communities,” Cordova said. “It is native to that experience, and like my shamans would always tell me, ‘If you are going to take any of these plants, you have to go to the source.’ You would have to go back to Oaxaca. You would have to go to the mountains. You can’t even do it in Oaxaca City. You would have to go to the mountains to do it there and do it from that perspective.”

If not, Cordova says, practitioners and patients are creating a new cosmovision — which is defined as the Indigenous Mesoamerican way of viewing the world — because they are not using the traditional methods within their context. A solution to this, according to Cordova, would be allowing medical professionals to learn directly from shamans to keep that cultural context within medical usage.

“I think that if there was a situation in which you would have shamans coming in to teach for medical school on how to use it or incorporate this type of treatment or the doctor going to Oaxaca to learn about the plant from a cultural perspective,” he added. “The problem is that if you don’t take that cultural perspective into play then I would believe that it is cultural appropriation in trying to adopt something that is very culturally bound to Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico to an experience in the United States that is completely alien.”

Cordova said he understands the need to not criminalize people for possession of these psychedelic plants but doesn’t necessarily believe they should be cultivated for profit.

Colonization of the mind

Yet, according to Michael, regardless of opinion on the sacredness of these plants — there will be a monetization of mushrooms and these other psychedelics of indigenous background.

“What you think isn’t a commodity is a commodity to someone else. That’s how I see it,” he said about the traditional belief that these plants are not for sale. “Living in the now — like I get it, I totally get it. Giving an offering [to a shaman] as a gift for the healing, but I think that it’s all in your mindset.”

Regardless of a person’s worldview, capitalism is still very much a reality of life in the United States.

“Look, in this capitalistic world, you either go with it or get dragged in it,” Michael said. “I learned that … in my Social Theory class. Capitalism, workers and producers, commodities and time, how much you’re worth and what you’re producing is worth. Now, where are you going to put yourself? Are you going to completely step back and let someone else handle it? That’s how I see it. Who else to profit off of it than our own people?”

Corrina Gould, spokesperson for the Ohlone/Lisjan tribe, describes the new legislation as a whitewashing of medicinal traditions.

By decriminalizing psychedelics like peyotl, psilocybin and ayahuasca, Gould said the accessibility of these plants would cause them to be overharvested in the same way other indigenous plants — like white sage — have been in the past.

“Indigenous people go out and harvest and only take what they need; whereas, people selling it on Amazon and Whole Foods and all of the other New Age kind of things are using, abusing and commercializing it in such a way that it is difficult for Indigenous people to even get a hold on it,” she said. “So that’s what happens when you over-commercialize something: The original people who have used it for centuries don’t have access anymore.”

She added that capitalism has disconnected urban Native youth from Indigenous traditions and social structure.

“There are younger people who are acting as their own agents sometimes in urban areas where there is less accountability back to their tribe,” she said. “I think that when you grow up in an urban area, sometimes the cohesiveness with tribal teachings is dissipating a lot. It’s like I don’t have to answer to anybody; there’s this whole idea — an American idea.”

Gould describes it as a “colonization of the mind.”

“It is about colonization, though,” she said about the reality of life in the United States. “It’s like people don’t have opportunities to make money, and that’s what you need to live in this capitalistic society. And so I can see how there might be a young person that thinks, ‘Oh, this is a good idea. Let me go make some money,’ but then who is it benefiting? Is it benefitting your entire people or is it benefitting you?”

Selling Out?

In light of this potential decriminalization, ethical questions then arise about who benefits from this access and these newly enacted laws. UC Santa Cruz ethics professor Dr. Sandra Dreisbach, who has been following the psychedelic debate since the introduction of Wiener’s bill in February, says each Indigenous community needs to be included in the discussion of what decriminalization would look like.

“At least from my perspective, we need to literally work in all these spaces and work together as we move forward with a little bit more appreciation for these perspectives,” Dreisbach said. “It’s like, if we move forward with decrim, we know that there is this issue — let’s just say that’s an issue, although that oversimplifies it — with peyotl, and that’s just one issue. We aren’t talking about ayahuasca or mushrooms when it comes to Indigenous use because, really, most of these medicines are tied to Indigenous peoples, and there is not really one that is separate from it.”

Dreisbach said the “pervasiveness of availability” is one of the main factors to consider when weighing the ethical decision to decriminalize these plants and include them or not in legislation.

“Ayahuasca is not found throughout the world and peyotls are not found throughout the world. Psychedelic mushrooms happen to be, and there are different cultural traditions,” she said. “That’s where you get into issues of complexity.”

Michael said the ethical decision is clear because the context of living in the United States dictates that money is needed to do anything.

“Why am I going to step back?” he said. “I’ll tell any Native, ‘Why … would you step back? Why would you let someone else come and take your [stuff] like that? They are already going to make a profit in America. If you don’t want to make a profit, move to … Madagascar or something because everything is for profit here.’ ”

Michael doesn’t know how Wiener’s decriminalization bill would affect his psilocybin business. He wants to continue pushing his brand of mushrooms through his clothing and the psilocybin he cultivates. Yet he says that if presented the opportunity to make a deal with the devil — financial backing from some pharmaceutical company for his spores and the research he’s done — he might have a hard time resisting.

“I don’t know. If I get offered millions, contracts for forever? I’m going for contracts for life. Me and my kids for life,” he said of thinking about an opportunity for generational wealth. “To think that I could do anything I want beyond that — you don’t even know the good things I could do in Oaxaca.”

Along with providing his children a better future, one of his goals — with what some would call “selling out”— would be conserving the plants and preserving the knowledge in Oaxaca.

“I want to conserve. That’s it. Whatever money it takes to conserve what we got is perfectly fine because with money — if you go to Mexico — even the president will meet up with you,” he said. “You need capital, and that’s what I learned in college. You need capital to be able to do anything you want. You can’t be broke because no one will listen to you.”

He has a price in mind — half a billion dollars. Thoughts like these make him feel like he could be the one to put his family — and the Eastside of Oakland — on the map in the scientific community through his psilocybin cultivation.

“Maybe [because of my work,] my great-granddaughter becomes somebody and she could tell my story at a TED talk one day,” he said. “My great-grandpa was an urban, Oakland pioneer of mycology.”

Hoping to manifest this future into a reality, he continues to work.

“I don’t have a choice. We’re out here trying to do the best with what we got,” Michael said. “While [expletive] were out there shooting at each other, my mushrooms kept growing.”

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