Decriminalize Nature: Roots, Human Health and Well-Being, and Ecological Reverence
The Decriminalize Nature Connecticut chapter team began seeking members in the last few months of 2019 and beginning of 2020. Now with several members in asynchronous communication through a workspace app platform, our organization is still working on forming our core chapter team, due to some setbacks in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. My personal thoughts on this particular movement to decriminalize psychoactive plant substances is that the movement seems to be very timely, in that here in American society, many are concerned with issues such as racial disparities and injustices, the War on Drugs, and climate change and renewable energy. So why Decriminalize Nature? I believe that through the decriminalization of these plant-based substances that many will have more access to such substances, ones that anecdotal reports as well as clinical and anthropological investigation have time and time again shown to be effective at catalyzing a rediscovery of our root connection with the natural world, and consequently, adding to our understanding, respect, and appreciation of natural laws.
DNCT chapter members Thomas Rhodes & Samuel Evans
The act of transferring power and authority from a central authority to regional and local authorities (decentralization) is a hallmark of the Decriminalize Nature campaign and mission. Decentralization seems optimum, given that not all states and provinces share the same ecosystem. Decentralization has been key at tailoring laws to states and regions impacted by a range of public issues (i.e., agriculture and rural development laws, wastewater treatment system laws, firearm rights and laws, etc.). As for the discussion of decriminalizing scheduled plant and fungi substances, instead of the federal government trying to standardize and control natural psychoactive drug laws, wouldn’t it be nice to leave these decisions up to local authorities in areas and regions where such natural products are actually native to? Two other important themes of this movement are that of transparency and open sourcing. Both are important considering that these plant-based materials can provide people an alternative healing outlet when there are no feasible options or other alternatives. People that have been diagnosed with some type of terminal cancer have been shown in clinical studies to respond positively to having an entheogenic or a psychedelic experience because of how such experiences have the ability to reframe their understanding and awareness of their diagnosis, and help them in accepting the truth of their having a terminal illness such as cancer. To be able to provide accurate information in a free and transparent manner is pivotal when it comes to these naturally occurring substances. I would also consider it a form of harm reduction as well. People should be able to access information on these substances at any and all times because people should have the means and ability to explore their bodies and minds in any way they see fit.
The general public opinion on scheduled substances is that most (if not all) should be decriminalized. Many have noticed the private prisons throughout the country and how the criminal justice system has profited and continues to profit off of unnecessary incarcerations due to small drug possession offenses. This seems to be one of the only “successes” of the current War on Drugs; local law enforcement organizations and public and private institutions profiting off of minor criminal offenses when it comes to drug possession, use, and distribution. Personally, I believe a mental health approach to drugs is more appropriate than our current criminal justice practices around scheduled substances, and in the near future it would be nice to see law enforcement getting educated on how to better handle situations involving those with drugs and/or individuals struggling with a mental illness or a differing ability who may be using such drugs with the intent of self-medication. With decriminalization in place, it would ensure that all adult peoples would be able to partake in the grow, gather, and gift strategy that is central to the Decriminalize Nature campaign and movement.
My thoughts on the experience that natural, plant-based substances can offer the user is one of deep and profound introspection and insight. In the therapeutic paradigm, the experiences that these natural substances provide are known as non-ordinary states of consciousness or altered states of consciousness (ASC) and appear to significantly aid in one’s own healing journey. Being a Colombian American and having been adopted from Bogotá, Colombia as an infant, growing up I had always been curious about my heritage and the traditions of Colombian culture. As I learned more, I learned of the indigenous tribes that are native to Colombia and the Andes Mountains. I learned of their connection to the land and to the plants and animals that my ancestors lived in harmony with, and that all existing tribes continue to coexist with to this day. In particular, I learned of the practices with coca leaves, Cannabis, psilocybe mushrooms, San Pedro cactus, of ayahuasca and ayahuasca ceremonies, sapo (kambo), and of yopo (a snuff comprised of tobacco, roasted seeds containing dimethyltryptamine that have been ground, and ash). I learned that these plant and fungi materials are to be respected, revered, and used with intent. I believe that all natural substances that provide for such non-ordinary states of consciousness can play a crucial part in one’s understanding of life, the world in which we live and are a part of, and how future generations will come to understand and navigate pressing issues that unfortunately seem to persist. Having personally benefited from some of these natural substances, I can say that as an individual who has struggled with anxiety since I was a teenager, that I live with little to no anxiety because of the experiences had and lessons learned (I also saw a therapist that practiced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) of perception(s) and body and mood regulation techniques based upon my own curiosity in such substances and their potential for healing and the exploration of higher levels of consciousness.
Some have tailored and conceptualized their understanding of psychoactive plants and fungi as “not drugs” but as “just plants/fungi” or as sacraments. While some cultures and religious traditions may regard certain plant and fungi substances as sacred and use them in ceremonies and other religious practices, that does not take away from the fact that the ingredients and molecules that constitute these plants and fungi are psychoactive “drugs” or chemical compounds. But is not all matter constituted of molecules and chemical compounds (drugs), although most do not provide for any psychoactive effects? I think that the term or label “drug” itself is very loose and broad when it comes to substances that are used in a manner to produce an effect or in the treatment or prevention of a disease or otherwise. Perhaps for the sake of naturally occurring plant and fungi substances, the current vernacular can shift and evolve to liken them to entheogens.
Decriminalize Nature defines the term “entheogen”/entheogenic plants as “the full spectrum of plants, fungi, and natural materials deserving reverence and respect from the perspective of the individual and the collective, that can inspire personal and spiritual well-being, can benefit psychological and physical wellness, and can reestablish human's inalienable and direct relationship to nature”(www.decriminalizenature.org/dno-resolution). The word itself (originally coined by Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, 1978) comes from the Ancient Greek entheos meaning literally “[the] God (divine) within” and when put together with the root gen, becomes “entering a state of inspiration” or a variation of the theme. www.erievision.org/definition-entheogen/ The more known and controversial term, psychedelic is a more inclusive term used to describe any mind-expanding substance or experience. Coined by Humphry Osmond, M.D., in 1957, the word also comes from the Ancient Greek – psyche (mind/soul) and deloun (show), respectively. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC381240/ A more recent term coined in 2008 by Richard Doyle, Ph.D, ecodelic refers to: … plants and compounds [for] inducing sudden bouts of interconnection, the perception of being enmeshed by the terrestrial and extraterrestrial ecology. www.maps.org/news-letters/v18n1/v18n1-MAPS_16-20.pdf This term might be more along the lines of the language used by environmentalists and ecologists, but still holds relevancy in the discussion of deprioritizing or decriminalizing naturally occurring plant and fungi materials.
When it comes to the discussion of Nature (natural) versus synthetic, I believe that both types of compounds hold value in the world of modern-day medicine. For instance, Marinol (dronabinol) which is a man-made and orally administered version of the main and psychoactive ingredient found in Cannabis sativa (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC) has been used to treat cancer patients who often experience nausea and vomiting from the chemotherapy they receive as part of their treatment. Similarly, synthetic psilocybin is often used in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy clinical trials as a substitute for natural psilocybin (see the work that COMPASS Pathways is doing), although many individuals report on the validity of consuming mushrooms containing psilocybin as essentially more involved than taking synthesized psilocybin. Psilocybe mushrooms not only contain psilocybin, but they also contain psilocin (what psilocybin is broken down to in the body) and baeocystin, both of which in theory could add to or amplify the psychoactive effects and the overall experience had by the user. It seems that because of this overlooked truth, researchers conducting clinical trials tend to gravitate toward using synthesized psilocybin since the accuracy in dosing is predictable and much greater than when administering dried psilocybe mushrooms to study participants.
Research on such naturally occurring entheogens has been going on for some time. Also worthy of mention is that a therapeutic approach and utilization of these substances began in the fifties but after the cultural upheavals that ensued, they were banned in the later half of the 1960s – mainly for political reasons which disregarded the promising research and development being done in the scientific and therapeutic spheres. Specifically, these compounds fall into two primary categories: tryptamines (see Shulgin & Shulgin, 1997) which are serotonin analogues … such materials as psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine, and phenethylamines; [which are] sympathomimetic amines and include drugs such as mescaline [an alkaloid found in both peyotl/peyote and San Pedro cacti]. (Kasprow & Scotton, Journal of Psychotherapy Practice & Research, p. 20) Eduardo Schenberg, Ph.D., reports that psilocybin is part of eight trials for major depression, cigarettes, alcohol, and cocaine use disorders and existential anxiety in life-threatening diseases, mostly cancer. (Schenberg, Frontiers in Pharmacology, p. 2) Research of these unique entheogens appears to hold great promise in better treating and managing mental illnesses and life-threatening diseases. Currently, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is in Phase 3 (the final phase) of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug development research trials on MDMA (often confused with street “ecstasy”/adulterated MDA and/or MDMA or something entirely different) for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This intensive, rigorous, and consequently time-consuming and expensive clinical trial process overseen by the FDA is crucial when it comes to understanding the science, efficacy, and the overall effectiveness of a chemical compound being studied for future development/manufacturing, distribution, and implementation. The FDA has awarded MDMA-assisted psychotherapy with breakthrough therapy designation and is working with MAPS to get the substance approved in the most efficient way possible. Current psychiatric treatments for those living with PTSD appear to be only about 50% effective in managing and treating the symptoms associated with the disorder, whereas the Phase 2 trials (at the 12-month follow-up) reported that 68% of the study participants no longer had PTSD. While these FDA research and development trials take a long time to conduct, I believe that the thoroughness of the three (and sometimes four) phases of clinical research is necessary in solidifying the knowledge base and safety (or lack thereof) of any and all novel chemical compounds that may hold potential in the treatment and management of diseases, mental illnesses and disorders, and bodily injuries or harms of any kind. Had research and development on MDMA not been postponed due it being outlawed in 1985 under the Controlled Substances Act, many suffering from PTSD (among other disorders and mental illnesses) might have been treated (and “cured”) through its use as an adjunct or “catalyst” in the context of the psychotherapeutic paradigm.
The decriminalization of entheogenic plant-based materials necessitates certain legal considerations. First and foremost, no person(s) or corporation should be allowed or authorized to patent any natural genetic material. Secondly, Decriminalize Nature believes that natural entheogenic plants and fungi should not be scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act. Another hallmark of the DN campaign and movement, and one mentioned earlier in this writing – is that of the grow, gather, and gift strategy, which seems to be an efficacious way of developing or continuing to develop mankind’s relationship to Nature. This process also calls for adequate and appropriate replanting practices so that future generations may come to benefit from the various naturally occurring entheogens that different ecosystems have to offer. In respect to these natural entheogens, they should not be grown and harvested with the intent to distribute them for personal financial gain, but gifted and shared among those who might hope to benefit from the experiences these natural substances have to offer. It should be noted that the DN movement proposes (in each city/chapter resolution) that no authority-holding entity should or shall use any funds or resources that would aid “in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of Entheogenic Plants by adults” (18+). While this seems to be sound legal language, it should be recognized that adolescents and young adults (of whom are well known to experiment with psychoactive substances, not only plant-based materials, but also synthetic and semi-synthetic materials) would still need more advocacy and support if caught possessing or using such naturally occurring entheogens by an authority-holding entity.
Integration, a change maintenance strategy or technique, in the context of entheogenic experiences involves examining and often discussing with another the meanings of memories, thoughts, feelings, and insights experienced by such profound experiences. It also entails examination and discussion on how the experience(s) will help the individual who had said experience(s) to grow, heal, and contribute to his/her/their community. Implementation is the application of the overall insights experienced and lessons learned from these experiences into everyday life. Both integration and implementation are critical when it comes to having meaningful and appropriate relationships with these entheogenic plant and fungi materials and the regions or ecosystems they are endemic to. Communities with psychedelic or entheogenic peer support groups are gaining an increase in popularity and utilization in our current Western model. These community-based peer support groups play the important role of providing a safe space where those who have had entheogenic experiences and those who continue to have them can share their experiences and the insights gained from them in a prosocial manner. Having such groups established and accessible is important because it shows others that there are resources available for individuals who may be seeking community-based support for entheogenic experiences.
Practitioners in the field of psychotherapy have been doing integration work for many years, although “integration” is a more recently applied term. With Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy (PAP) and Psychedelic Integration Therapy (PIT) gaining more popularity, the term has had an increase in use in the therapeutic paradigm. The potentiation for profound spiritual and/or mystical experiences is significant within any context of psychedelic and entheogen use – therapeutic paradigm or otherwise. However, within the therapeutic paradigm these experiences that are often felt as spiritual or mystical, are essentially byproducts of non-ordinary states of consciousness, as I mention earlier, produced by these entheogenic medicines and their effects. That is not to say that these experiences are not relevant. In PAP, these experiences are thought to be helpful in catalyzing deeper therapeutic work, work that is inaccessible for some individuals through conventional modalities of therapy. This unconventional approach to helping clients/patients has similarities to ancient shamanic cultural practices with natural entheogens like psilocybe mushrooms and dimethyltryptamine-containing plant materials. Based on current and past research of such interventions with entheogenic substances (natural or synthetic/semi-synthetic) in therapeutic and clinical contexts there seems to be little to no addictive potential for such medicines. This is significant, as psychopharmacology for some time now has relied on compounds like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) to manage the symptoms of various mental disorders. Ethical practice as well as the mental diagnoses and conditions of clients/patients must be carefully evaluated since no medicine-assisted treatments are 100% risk-free. In order for clients/patients to have adequate support as they begin on their healing journeys, a co-therapist team consisting of practitioners who are strong and committed to the treatment program are provided to give support and help facilitate the process. After establishing a therapeutic alliance with the client/patient, the team can then aid in bringing out insights and bringing clarity to the insights gained by the client/patient from the session(s) with the medicine. I believe that this therapeutic approach and modality is effective should clients/patients be evaluated appropriately in regard to their conditions, as well as also have access to adequate post-treatment integration supports and services.
When I think of the phrase “right relationship” I think of how the world’s first farmers and agriculturalists must have cared for the earth and land they lived and worked on, how they felt a deep connection to the land and crops harvested, and how they lived in harmony with the land and its original creations. To me, right relationship with Nature means being able to ethically hold a righteous connection between oneself and the natural world as part of one’s daily practice. A common motif currently circulating in our Western culture is that both “God” and Nature are synonymous. This concept brings Nature into the discussion of spirituality and religion, and the practices therein. Archaeological research in the form of [radio]carbon dating and alkaloid analysis on two “peyote button” samples (presumably from the Rio Grande area of what is today Texas) from a museum in San Antonio, Texas (El-Seedi, De Smet, Beck, Possnert, and Bruhn, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, p. 238) indicated the presence of mescaline, a powerful phenethylamine compound that was also the first of its kind to be studied by Western science in 1897. The analysis performed by El-Seedi et al. (2005) suggests that the indigenous North Americans more than likely acknowledged the “sacred” and healing properties of peyotl some 5700 years earlier. Early European records show that Bernadino Sahagún (1499 – 1590) had written about “peiotl” use among the Chichimeca, a tribe that was native to present-day northern and central Mexico.
First Nations peoples living in the United States first learned of this sacred cactus when the Kiowa and Comanche tribes visited a native group in northern Mexico. The Kiowa and Comanche tribes, along with all other First Nations peoples living in the U.S. were restricted to reservations by the later half of the nineteenth century. Consequently, these First Nations peoples’ groups living within U.S. borders saw much of their cultural heritage and traditions disappearing and dismantling. American Indian leaders who had knowledge of this cactus began procuring the cactus to meet the needs of these more advanced but also restricted tribal groups living within the U.S. Over time, the success in spreading the ceremonial use of peyotl faced opposition and eventually repressive legislation. This, and a “general attitude of resignation toward encroaching Western culture” led to the formation of the Native American Church (NAC) in 1918. (Schultes and Hoffman, Plants of the Gods – Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers, 1992) In an effort to maintain their traditions, to this day, members of the NAC continue to practice right relationship with not only peyotl but with a variety of plants, herbs, cacti and fungi. Recently, the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC) and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) put forth a statement that asks non-native persons who seek relationships with entheogenic healing medicines to look for other alternative medicines, and to discontinue their search(es) for peyotl. While I, and the DN movement understand this is an honest effort to reverse the depletion of this cactus, it is evident that the cactus is under threat of becoming extinct, in all of its endemic regions – both here in the U.S. and Mexico as well, where more than 40 tribes currently use it in ceremonial contexts. (Susana Valadez, To Safeguard this Sacred Cactus and Diverse Cultural Traditions, https://www.decriminalizenature.org/blog/233-peyotl-s-call-for-unity) If decriminalization of peyotl were to be passed, perhaps there could be a greater effort made in collaboration with the NCNAC and the IPCI to propagate the cactus elsewhere, ensuring that abundant and open access would be available to all parties involved. The entheogenic substances that Nature provides (peyotl included) and the knowledge of how to protect these natural substances from extinction and how to better preserve the habitats in which they are endemic to should be accessible to all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual practices, and this is one aim of the DN movement. Furthermore, as the Huichol (and other) tribes use peyotl for initiatory or rites of passage purposes – “to find their life” as they follow Tatewari, the oldest Huichol god – with the guidance of a shaman or medicine man, do not young people in our Western culture yearn for something profoundly meaningful as an acknowledgment of the significance of the pathways in life they are making? Instead of first communions, getting driver’s licenses, and drinking alcohol at college – all very mechanical rites of passage – there seems to be a desire for something that will touch our hearts, our souls deeply. As Ram Dass wrote in 2004, “We owe it to them [young people] to develop rites of passage that match the stretch of their spirits. We owe it to ourselves to introduce them to the society of adults from the space of unity and love that psychedelics open within us.” (Ram Dass, MAPS Bulletin; Rites of Passage: Kids and Psychedelics, 2004)
It is no secret that both the medicalization and commodification of entheogenic materials is drawing the interest of Big Pharma and for-profit organizations operating in the private sector. What is convenient about the medical model is that there is an established standardization of the medicalization process thanks to the FDA. On the other hand, commodification could be advantageous for all parties involved, should the producers of entheogenic ‘commodities’ honor and carry out appropriate sustainability techniques as well as honoring and respecting the different traditional and ceremonial uses of naturally occurring and entheogenic materials. Whether medicalization or commodification, gatekeepers (and all involved) of both (and any and all other) processes and approaches should operate with values and ethics synonymous with the original groups and communities who developed right relationships with these greatly revered entheogens. Again, it all comes down to transparency and more so, authenticity. On my educational journey of becoming a social worker, I was taught early on of how important it is to bring not only authenticity, but integrity to the work that social change agents (of whom social workers are commonly associated with) set out to do. Integrity is just one of the six (6) values of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics. The ethnical principle that complements this value is that we (social workers) must behave in a trustworthy manner. (National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, p. 6) I hope to see that there is some form of pledge or charter that gets introduced and is enforced as a way to bring ethics and also authenticity into the center of the developmental work being done concerning the psychedelic/entheogenic movement and the many ways and traditions of practicing (modalities) with such materials. To ensure that more powerful entities and organizations operate from a space of integrity, authenticity, and reverence to said materials it seems that the education of proper ethics and ethnical principles is needed now more than ever - especially during this time of great economic disruption due to COVID-19, and the recent Black Lives Matter movement protests. If an ethics charter can be introduced and also mandated for those working in the medical sphere, I think it would resonate with the ethics and principles that movements such as the DN movement, the environmental justice movement, the social justice movements, and the many communities who ceremonially use psychedelics/entheogens are (and have been) endeavoring to make commonplace in Western culture.
All peoples and communities, companies and organizations have a role to play in the advancement of not only the decriminalization of entheogenic and psychedelic materials (plant-based or not), but of sustainable and ethical practices that can be implemented when it comes to such materials. I, along with many others, hope that all parties involved can work in harmony to contribute to and establish a culture that values and honors truth, equality, right relationship to Nature, and present orientation while also being mindful of any potential harms to the planet to work collaboratively toward collective prosperity.
Samuel EvansMember of Decriminalize Nature Connecticut