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Here’s why Black people in the UK are turning to psychedelics

These change-makers are on a mission to normalise psychedelic-assisted therapies while interrogating the harm caused to Black people by the war on drugs.

08 Nov 2020

Illustration by Leyla Reynolds

While the results of the 2020 US election may have been hotly disputed, one outcome that was crystal clear was the win for progressive drug policy. From New Jersey to Arizona, voters in their millions chose to decriminalise the use of drugs at an unprecedented scale with Oregon even introducing a historic first by legalising magic mushrooms for therapeutic use.

That’s all well and good for the US but, you may be wondering, what does that have to do with our lived reality on Britain’s shores?

Earlier this month, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the world’s leading non-profit psychedelic research organisation, began fundraising in the UK to support clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among wounded army veterans.

In fact, the PTSD study is just one of dozens currently taking place in the UK that seek to explore the impact that psychedelic substances can have on mental health.

From MDMA, to psilocybin (magic mushrooms), Ayahuasca and beyond, a whole host of mind-altering substances which were traditionally used in recreational settings are being explored for their therapeutic benefits. So, given the historic racial disparities in mental health outcomes and the known lack of culturally competent mental health provision for our communities, just who is advocating for Black people’s needs within this newly emerging field?

Psychological and spiritual healing with psilocybin

“Although the psychedelic community is growing in the UK it is still very much a white space,” advocate Buki Fadipe says. “It is in the US too, but [there] I’ve been welcomed into and embraced by a passionate community of Black psychedelic female activists and I’m feeling some comfort as the isolation is so REAL these days.”

I first came across Buki earlier this year, when she spoke at the Psilocybin Summit, as part of a panel of Black women speaking about their diverse experiences with psychedelics. I was curious as to why a nice British-Nigerian woman would want to spend her weekend talking about illegal substances.

When we speak later via Zoom, Buki confesses that her first experience with psilocybin was so overwhelming, yet amazingly beautiful, that it jarred her. “It made me realise that I wasn’t mentally strong enough to cope with all the information that I was receiving and what was happening,” she explains.

Such an experience is not uncommon – in fact, a significant part of the work Buki now does through her Adventures In Om platform is to educate people about the importance of set (one’s mindset) and setting (physical and social environment) as a means of harm reduction.

Now resident in Lisbon, the UK-born yoga teacher describes her path to the plants (which she refers to as “medicine”), as a spiritual awakening. A few years ago, after suffering a family trauma she plunged into a dark depression. 

“As a Black person, whether you’ve taken drugs or not, you’ve been a victim of the war on drugs”

Keen to avoid traditional pharmaceuticals she found a huge therapeutic benefit from meditation. Yet while the grip of depression began to loosen, she was still unable to recall her dreams, a sign she took as an indication that she had not fully healed.

It was while on a Vipassana meditation retreat, where participants remain silent for days, that her dreams returned with a bang. “I sat up bolt upright, whipped out my phone, put on the record button and just spewed out the most insane dream that I have had in my whole entire life,” she recounts. 

“I was just so excited that my dreams had returned but on reflection, as I was dictating the contents of my dream, it really reminded me of my first psychedelic trip. At that moment it dawned on me that I needed to take psychedelics again.”

Buki, who is partly of Yoruba descent, describes the realisation as the true beginning of her journey into psychedelics. On her return to Lisbon she started doing research and began to uncover the connections between mushrooms and both spiritual and psychological healing.

Fast forward three years to the present day and she has shut down her former business and is now undertaking an MSc in transpersonal psychology with a view to becoming a psychedelic assisted therapist.

Race and the psychedelic renaissance

Buki’s surprisingly critical of the current trend in which psychedelics have become a fashionable fad, attracting coverage from the likes of Vogue. “I come across so many people who have been deeply depressed and have heard a few TED talks and ordered [psilocybin] truffles online only to turn up and say I’m still unwell! This is what the new wave is doing. It’s still offering people a quick fix. This is not how these things work.”

For all the promise of psychedelics being mainstreamed, drug policy advocate Camille Barton agrees that the absence of Black voices shaping the debate on what a future psychedelic field could look like is problematic. 

As an advisor to MAPS, Camille was one of the core organisers for last year’s Cultural Trauma and Psychedelic Therapies workshop, a precursor to the first MDMA psychotherapy training for therapists of colour. 

Despite being fully immersed in the field, even Camille says she has been frustrated at the speed at which psychedelics are being mainstreamed without much of the necessary nuance. “You have shows on Netflix like Have a Great Trip with [predominantly white] celebrities talking about their psychedelic experiences with no awareness of the criminal justice system or the risks that vary according to class,” she laments.

“If you’re a working class Black person without a safe space to have eight hours to go into some other realm, if you might be partially on the street, that is a very dangerous situation to put yourself in because of the carceral state.”

White privilege and psychedelic exceptionalism

The absence of harm reduction from the mainstream conversation means there is a lack of nuance about the context of safety that is on offer to different types of people. The reality is that while Gwyneth Paltrow can send her staff on a trip to Jamaica to heal through psychedelics, the war on drugs and the over criminalisation of Black and brown people still continues. 

A key part of Camille’s work centres on educating therapists working with psychedelics so that they can be aware of that landscape and avoid taking decisions that reproduce historic harms. “It’s not as simple as popping these substances and thinking that we’re all going to save the world,” she reminds me.

So what could a more socially-just introduction of psychedelics in the UK look like? For a start, there needs to be more joined-up work between harm reduction and drug policy organisations. While there are obvious alliances between the two, many psychedelic advocates and researchers have veered towards the scientific realm to try to dissociate their substance of interest from the stigma that is associated with drugs more broadly.

Imani Robinson, a communications strategist at Release and editor at Talking Drugs, stresses that their focus is on the decriminalisation of all drugs and that they actively avoid being part of any psychedelic exceptionalism.

“As a Black person, whether you’ve taken drugs or not, you’ve been a victim of the war on drugs,” they detail. “Thinking about what it means to have a personal experience of the war on drugs, it’s not about whether you’ve consumed drugs or call yourself a drug user.”

Black and ethnic minority young men make up about 51% of the UK’s youth prison population despite constituting just 13% of the population at large.

These figures can be explained, in part, by the disproportionate impact that drug law enforcement has on ethnic minority communities in the UK, through practices like stop and search. In Britain, Black people are nine times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police. 

Drug policy as a social and racial justice issue

For Imani, drug policy is inextricably linked to issues of social and racial justice. The prize at stake has less to do with whether or not some people get to take drugs but more to do with how we’re all going to survive and ultimately destroy the carceral state.

In the US, some organisations such as Journey Colab are seeking to go beyond access and equity to use psychedelics as a vehicle to create real gains in social justice and social change work. For example, one avenue that is being explored is how land can be restituted to indigenous communities who can use these as sites to grow their own plant medicines. 

The challenge of balancing the mainstreaming of psychedelic-assisted therapies with repairing the harms caused by the war on drugs is no less relevant on this side of the pond. This stage in the game could be the perfect time to organise. 

For example, Camille suggests that big UK-based businesses, such as Compass Pathways, that are setting themselves up for these substances to be the next cash cow can build-in a psychedelic corporate responsibility model that considers prioritising treatment and care for people harmed by colonisation and the war on drugs.

As Imani points out, 2021 will mark 50 years since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK which triggered global efforts towards drug policy reform. “It’s high time we recognise that [the reform movement] has failed,” they say. “In large part, because it refuses to be anti-state, anti-carceral or to stand in solidarity with sex worker organisations, racial justice organising or to recognise that the struggle will not be won if we fight it independently of all of the other struggles that it could not be untethered from anyway.”