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Psychedelics Sector Must Respect Indigenous Wisdoms, Say Experts

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Oct 04, 2022   
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Psychedelics have demonstrated a lot of potential in addressing addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other difficult-to-treat conditions. But current proponents of psychedelic medicine should be doing more to foster a culture where these medicines are available in ways that still respect the Indigenous traditions behind them, a new essay argues.

Published in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness, the new essay from University of Cincinnati postdoctoral researcher Neşe Devenot and co-authors highlights numerous ethical concerns currently facing the field and emphasizes the importance of acknowledging wisdoms already known to Indigenous people.

The dark side of the shroom

Psychedelic medicine paints itself as an exciting young market, currently on the fringes of mainstream medicine but with massive growth potential. And massive is no understatement; according to market estimates, the global psychedelic drugs market could be worth over $7 billion by 2016.

In the essay, titled “Dark Side of the Shroom: Erasing Indigenous and Counterculture Wisdoms with Psychedelic Capitalism, and the Open Source Alternative: A Manifesto for Psychonauts”, the authors contest that characterization of psychedelics as fringe.

To Indigenous groups, the power of natural plant psychedelics (entheogenic plants) has been known for thousands of years. Contemporary medicine may only now be discovering the efficacy of these plants in clinical trials, but this should not erase “the six thousand plus years of R&D” already done by Indigenous cultures, the authors argue.

“Psychedelics have a lot of potential. But how they are approached matters,” said Devenot in a statement. “Some people working in the field have their own financial interests in mind but not necessarily what’s best for people.”

“Indigenous people have been using psychedelics for millennia. And they have been long persecuted for psychedelic or plant medicine practices,” Devenot said. “It’s unethical for big corporations to claim patents and monopolies on psychedelic medicine while these groups are still being prosecuted.”

Research must be communicated clearly

One consequence of this exuberant nascent industry, backed by staggering financial projections, is the potential for researchers or reporters to overstate medical research findings to the public.

For example, the essay points to the April 2021 publication of a highly-anticipated trial in which the antidepressant escitalopram would be compared head-to-head with psilocybin. The trial was pre-registered, meaning that the researchers declared in advance which outcomes they would measure and how their data would be analyzed.

The researchers found no statistically significant differences between the performance of psilocybin and escitalopram in improving self-reported depressive symptom scores. Other secondary outcome measurements did favor psilocybin, however the study design meant that there were no definitive conclusions that could be drawn from this.

Despite this, a newcomer to the idea of psychedelic medicine may read the news opinion piece authored by one of the researchers and be left with the idea that psilocybin had dramatically outperformed the traditional antidepressant.

“The reason people are excited about this field is there are promising developments in psychedelics,” Devenot said. “Preliminary evidence suggests it seems to be helping people for a range of conditions notoriously difficult to treat for whom everything they tried in the past hasn’t worked: depression, addiction, PTSD and generalized anxiety. But it’s still early days.”

The context of psychedelics use

Contrary to the aims of certain pharmaceutical companies, which desire to tightly control the psychedelic experience and distill out a one-size-fits-all approach made up of certain factors that can be patented, the essay authors believe that there is no single correct way to safely and meaningfully access psychedelic states of consciousness. In fact, attempts to restrict psychedelics access to only these avenues may add further strain to an already overburdened mental health care system.

The sacred context of psychedelics in Indigenous traditions does incorporate a lot of focus on the importance of set and setting, and in community support and safeguards. This care and other related traditional teachings are what has made psychedelics available to the corporate world and research sphere in the first place, the essay points out, and they can offer a useful foil to the corporate sphere.

“Pharmaceutical companies should not be the ones dictating how people access these experiences,” Devenot said. Instead, the authors advocate for “the development and ongoing evolution of open-source standards for the context and deployment” of psychedelic plants, which are better in keeping with how psychedelic plants are consulted in Indigenous traditions.

Accordingly, the authors also argue that it is important to consider how increased access to psychedelics may affect wider society and the body politic, as opposed to solely examining the changes that psychedelics may have on an individual and their health.  

“While prominent psychedelic psychiatrists and behaviorists are focused on rooting out and transforming individual habits of mind, we argue that there is another, latent potential for psychedelics to draw attention to—and transform—the invisible, hegemonic infrastructures and ideologies that subtly naturalize and perpetuate deeply unequal societies,” the essay reads.

Psychedelics and psychedelics research should be approached in a mindful way, the authors say, where Indigenous knowledge and traditions are respected and where the benefits of psychedelic medicines are not over-promised by researchers or financially-invested parties.

“It’s not impossible to do this work in a way that’s ethical,” Devenot said.


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