Notes on Liberation

Sep 16, 2019

In 2020, the very word psilocybin was trademarked, now we have an attempt to patent surround sound and soft chairs in psilocybin therapy. What’s next, a copyright on compassion? To some of you I am sure that this is laughable to others, laudable. Either way if you are in the field of psychedelics, it likely elicits some kind of response. As a creative person who has found himself defending his own intellectual property more than once, I certainly appreciate the legal structures that allow the preservation of proprietary information. Likewise, I can sympathize with those who maintain that the plant-based psychedelics should be as free as the breeze that circumnavigates mushrooms spores. Whatever your perspective reasonable minds can certainly agree that the subject is complicated.

Fascinated by fungi from childhood, after my introduction to Maria Sabina’s ‘Little Children’, I knew that we were set to be friends for life. Like many, I began studying the history. The who’s, the what’s, when’s and why’s of how psilocybin came to be known to the Western World. A youth of twenty, I simultaneously rejected my Catholic upbringing and became acutely aware of the South’s blatant racism. On my twenty first birthday I shaved my head and vowed to take on natural, unkempt dreadlocks in an outward attempt to reject my white privilege.

Ironically and perhaps understandably, Gordon Wasson became something of a god to me. Founding the field that still holds great interest, Ethnomycology, he was a giant among men. The available information at that time was limited to say the least. At twenty-five, inspired by the birth of my first son, I went back to University to finish my bachelor’s degree. By then my locks were shoulder length and as a self-ascribed Rasta, my literary studies focused on Pan-Africanism. Psychedelics along with this cultural lens showed me that the world was truly one. But we had been divided by manufactured boundaries. There was only one race, human. Our differences were imagined.  Before long it became apparent that psilocybin mushrooms were the sacrament Catholic communion attempted to emulate. Also becoming evident was that Wasson and Hoffman were not necessarily the heroes our white-washed history had made them out to be.

Of course, the sins of psychedelia didn’t begin when these two men had contact with the legendary curandera Maria Sabina. Historical records document some of the earliest psychedelic persecution in the accounts of Cortez’s priests who encountered Aztec mushroom eaters. It can likewise be found in the flames of purported witches burning at stakes. Some claim that psychedelic subjugation is alive and well in research universities and privately funded labs to this very day.  

The chemical compound psilocybin naturally occurs in a wide variety of dung dwelling and mulch munching mushrooms. It is a fact that humans have been consuming them pretty much, forever. I suppose proprietary rights can be claimed to certain elements of a practice, but comfortable furniture and Bose speakers can most certainly be found in many a psychiatric office around the world. Best practices for psychedelic use go back to paleolithic times, but to the best of my knowledge these medicine keepers shared that information freely. Yet here in the 21st century we find ourselves deliberating ethical line of ownership to operational models with thousands of years of use. Is litigation the only way we can achieve liberation? That appears to be the case.

The religious persecution of psychedelic societies seemed to have been curbed when Indigenous Americans were again given the right to use plant sacraments in 1994. And while we are seeing more and more legitimate ayahuasca and psilocybin churches pop up around the world, the shroud of Wasson and Hoffman’s prestige may have become something of a weighted blanket for clinical practitioners.

The widely accepted historical account is that these two scientists travailed and traversed through the Mexican highlands in a gallant effort to bring these visionary mushrooms to the wider world. Popular belief is that their kindness and curiosity allowed a relationship of trust to form with Sabina, the keeper of the mushrooms. It is widely maintained that their efforts were benign, and we are inheriting psychedelic liberation through of their legacy. While the psychedelic renaissance is undeniably, an outcome of their work, might we entertain the possibility that this heritage is neither as historically nor currently as liberating as it is often imagined it to be. Maybe I should say here again that this subject is complicated.

Wasson did make several trips to Oaxaca before and after meeting Sabina. Of course we know that he spoke highly of her, but we also know that he lied to her about his motivation for taking the ‘sacred mushrooms’. And while his recounts over the years praised Sabina’s veladas, healing powers and her deserved canonization, nowhere can I find that Wasson nor Hoffman offered any support to this saint as she died in poverty, as a direct consequence of their work. Generosity was Sabina’s character, whether it was to her own Mazatec people or white outsiders. It is said that she never turned away anyone seeking healing.

Wasson died in 1986 only one year after Sabina, Hoffman in 2008. Certainly, they were aware of her condition at the end of her life? Certainly, they received word of her home burned to the ground and her son murdered by fellow villagers because of the influx of ‘gringos’ blamed on her? Certainly, they had the ability to help. How could it be that these two white, male academics went on to fame and success while the brown woman who was the foundation of their fortunes died in hunger and poverty? And what I find to be the more relevant question: As inheritors of their legacy, do we have a responsibility to our predecessors who preserved the mushroom traditions so that we could come along to isolate indoles and categorize compounds?

After many years of anger fueled activism, attempting to raise awareness to ethnic injustice, the mushrooms started showing me that the only solution, was to first accept the situation. In 2016, after seventeen years of resistance, a psilocybin arrest and some significant letdowns by the Rasta community, I cut my dreadlocks and founded PLEDG. Psilocybin Liberation Education Discipline and Guidance. PLEDG is a 501c3 that provides community, education and scholarship assistance for access to legal psilocybin treatment.

Inspired by my time as a language arts instructor in a downtown middle school, the foundations of PLEDG lie in the ongoing civil rights movement.  Like my antebellum icon John Brown, I recognized that my white, male status provided a subversive opportunity. My focus was to employ this privilege in the world of psychedelia. Only the mushrooms could save us was my belief then, and in many ways, now.

Throughout the six month legal ordeal resulting from my arrest in 2015, it was painfully obvious that a pound of psilocybin found on my Magnificent Mushrooms farm and dreadlocks to my waist, would not carry the conviction that darker skin tones would have. I was facing three B felonies, manufacture, possession and distribution of a schedule 1 substance. The dismissal of these felonies at the end of my successful probation was not merely a result of my wife’s parents being attorneys. I was white, I was a male and I was thirty-five years old. Left behind me in the county jail were men who undoubtedly deserved the same treatment but would not receive it, and you know why.

No prior arrests and a history of service to my community was helpful, but let us be honest, in southern Indiana (and most likely the rest of the United States) I would have served time much longer than a week and kept a felony record for much longer than two years had I been a man or woman of a color other than white. And who really believes that a black or brown man or woman in 2013, or even now in 2021 would see similar results were they to start a public venture such as I did with MycoMeditations?

That doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced stereotyping myself. While being barefoot is my preference I don’t believe that has anything to do with my state of birth or my level of education. As a ‘self-taught shaman’ from the hills of Kentucky, with no psychiatric training, my work has received quite a bit of criticism from the ‘professional’ psychedelic community. To be fair I have had a certain amount of praise as well. Perhaps the privilege and persecution has put me in a unique position to comment on the current happenings on the psilocybin scene? Perhaps my unwavering commitment to this work for more than twenty years means that I have a responsibility to do so?

Before I go any further please understand that a love of natural sciences is what sparked my interest in mycology, also herpetology, dendrology, psychology and many more areas of study. All subjects that have acquired my attention, have been examined through the lens of scientific skepticism. The natural world has been my classroom since childhood. Valuing the scientific process, allowing us the ability to confirm or reject our intuitions and theories, I early on approached psilocybin with a microscope and scalpel, tools of the trade.

Rejecting Catholicism I also rejected mysticism. Despite understanding the mushroom as a sacrament, the psychedelic experience appeared to be a psychological phenomenon, nothing else. Fortunately, my sense of adventure equaled my desire to understand. Endless analysis of the mushrooms yielded great returns in cultivation and potency. General taxonomic knowledge allowed me to collect my own food and drugs. But no scientific perspective could describe or illuminate the stranger phenomena that was becoming normal to me. Admittedly had I stopped being so analytical things would have revealed themselves much quicker.

This quest for truth led to the Toaist sages. It is their rigorous and scientific study of existence that has truly enlightened me to the workings of psilocybin. The scientific and mystical can indeed be synthesized. And perhaps the mystery is what the psychedelic reawakening is really missing. It was central to Maria Sabina’s work. But here in the West, it seems that our psychedelic renaissance is more of an industrialization. What we have observed in cannabis and now psilocybin is no different than what we have witnessed for millennia around every other form of indigenous knowledge. It is precisely the perspective that Albert Hoffman and Gordon Wasson brought to Oaxaca.

The devaluing of direct experience, the discrediting of the self-taught expert, these are remnants of the colonial mentality that accompanied the conquistadors. It has been passed down to modern science and academia often disguised as ‘rigor’. We thank the quaint little village people for allowing us to take their treasures and turn them into trophies. And then we not only wait for the white coats that commandeered these sacred medicines to finally conclude, after decades of lives lost through incarceration, that the mushrooms are safe. We have granted others the power to conceal our birthright behind a veil of supposed authority. Now we are deciding if we will allow copywrite law to regulate basic practices and even names of naturally occurring compounds. If only Maria Sabina would have trademarked the dirt floor of her hut or the sound of a bleating donkey!

I do understand that the consequences of Eurocentric Imperialism and the American drug war will take a very long time to reconcile. Propaganda and misinformation continue to be the most effective weapons in controlling public opinion. But make no mistake, sheltering psychedelics under the coats of clinicians perpetuates the narrative of nonsense. My musings are not words of encouragement for any and everyone to become a psilocybin shaman or a psychedelic therapist. The ‘storming of the white house’ provides a stark warning there! Nor do they suggest we lockdown the laboratories, but perhaps we don’t need scientist or government agencies to tell us that psilocybin is safe. Nor might they be the best to help us understand the experience itself. And I think it’s safe to say, no one owns hand holding.

As we advance our psychedelic understanding we might also ask if we really need a therapist with us every time we trip, particularly therapists who don’t take mushrooms themselves? Let me also add that performing psychedelic experimentation on folks when the researchers themselves have almost no experience is not only commonplace but should be ethically outlawed.

Harm reduction is on the top of most minds when it comes to administering psilocybin and other psychedelics. Yet inexperienced administrators are commonplace, particularly in medical settings. Even the most highly regarded public psychedelic companies and organizations maintain that there is no need for clinicians to consume the drugs that they will be administering. And my dear reader if you value anything that I say, please believe me when I report back that after administering 3000 (or so) doses of psilocybin, if you plan on walking anyone across the shifting psychedelic landscape, extensive firsthand experience is the greatest safeguard and should be the highest priority for psychedelic safety.

There will certainly be some change in rhetoric as these inexplicable experiences become more available. As the highly controlled, faux forests and laboratories turned living rooms prove less effective than a freeform experience in actual nature, change will slowly occur. If we would only look to the wisdom of our ancestors rather than slowly collating data from suboptimal outcomes we could make much more rapid and meaningful progress.

There will be those who continue to try and describe the oddities of the psychedelic experience in academic language, and some will do a better job than others. But perhaps it is more the place of poets and practitioners to inform the public about what goes on behind the psilocybin curtain. Attempts to intellectualize a phenomenon that defies current linguistic models ignores the reality that words barely scratch the surface describing the psychedelic encounter. Patenting the pieces of psychedelic wellness does not serve anyone well. Service is what our work with psychedelics should be about and not strictly service to shareholders.

If there is anything we owe to the legacy of Maria Sabina, to the countless souls who died without recognition, dedicating their lives to these sacraments, it is service to our fellow humans through equitable access to one of nature’s most abundant medicines, the mushroom. As an expression of allegiance to the mushroom, PLEDG serves those who lack those resources. Hopefully my call for your assistance will not either. PLEDG can help many, but it needs help to do that. If you feel compelled, we invite and welcome your donations of any size both financial or in kind. I am confident that we will see psychedelic authority back in the hands of those who pledge their allegiance to the mushroom. It is those who dedicate their lives, through courageous personal experience, to ongoing exploration, to authenticity, vulnerability and unabashed honesty that are the true leaders in the psychedelic renaissance and those elements cannot be patented.  

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