Keeno Ahmed-Jones: Getting out of the psychedelic closet

It was an early Sunday afternoon, and a scrum of more than 100 people had squeezed into the second-floor lounge of the Cannabis Culture head shop in Vancouver, B.C.

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It was an early Sunday afternoon, and a scrum of more than 100 people had squeezed into the second-floor lounge of the Cannabis Culture head shop in Vancouver, B.C. This was not your prototypical stoner crowd: mostly women, they cut a wide demographic swath: college students, hipsters with bespoke tattoos, and a large contingent of grey-haired retirees wearing artfully tied scarves. The kind of folks you might see at a Green Party meeting, or a downtown Starbucks.

The event, a “psychedelic symposium” and fundraiser for Cosmic Sister, an ecofeminist collective, was running behind schedule. Celina Archambault, a petite blond with a distance runner’s spry build and the main organizer, was jockeying to find seats for people who had spilled over into the next room—one of the store’s retail areas, anchored by a glass case brimming with a stoner’s delight of mass-market candy, rolling papers, and vape pens.

If you are wondering what a psychedelic symposium is, you’re not alone. With the recent legalization of cannabis in Canada and the decriminalization of psychedelic drugs gaining ground in the U.S. and Canada, so are the people curious about magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, MDMA, and other mind-altering compounds for enlightenment and healing. The event at Cannabis Culture was part community gathering and part educational forum, featuring women directly involved in the world of plant medicine.

While the “psychedelic renaissance” seems to be heading mainstream—through multiple TED Talks, HR-approved microdosing in Silicon Valley offices, and author Michael Pollan tripping his way to the New York Times bestseller list—the effort to get psychedelics recognized for their therapeutic benefits has been waged for decades. Canada sits at a critical nexus: the first major country to pass progressive drug policy (cannabis) and being at the forefront of groundbreaking hallucinogenic research.

But let’s not forget history. In the 1950s, government-sanctioned psychedelic studies were being conducted around the world; LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA were found to have beneficial effects for people suffering from a variety of conditions, including anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. A decade later and a series of cascading events-Timothy Leary’s fervent LSD crusade, the ‘60s counterculture, and President Nixon’s all-out antidrug offensive-resulted in overzealous drug regulation and an unceremonious end for grant-funding, effectively slamming the door on psychedelic research for half a century. And yet, all the while, a steady stream of scientists, therapists, and healers have been working with these substances underground to help people who are suffering.

I recently moved to Vancouver, B.C., after living in New York City for more than 20 years. Canada-with its socialized health care, pragmatic gun laws, and affordable college tuition-seemed a viable antidote to the Sisyphean labours of big-city life. A few months before leaving New York, I attended a private salon at a sprawling Soho loft, where Rodrigo Niño, an accomplished real-estate developer and economist, spoke about his Stage 3 melanoma diagnosis in 2011 at the age of 41. Suffering from a crippling fear of death, he flew to Peru and did ayahuasca under a shaman’s guidance. Niño’s experience was transformative-his dread evaporated, and the potential of life, however fragile, bloomed in its place. Niño eventually beat cancer and is healthy and thriving today.

Ever since that night, I found myself asking: could these substances help me with my anxiety, insomnia, and past trauma? I had spent the better part of my life in New York paying handsomely for the privilege to contribute toward the vacation-home slush funds of three psychotherapists. Despite their Ivy League credentials and thriving practices, and regardless of the neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), eye-movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), and Big Pharma medications (which went mostly untouched), I never felt like I’d been “cured” or harnessed a deeper understanding of my own psyche. If any viable mental health alternatives existed out there, any at all, didn’t I owe it to myself to find out?

Women urged to reclaim roles as carriers of natural wisdom

With everyone finally situated, Ms. Archambault stood at the microphone and welcomed everyone. She spoke about the corporatization of cannabis and the domination of plant medicine in the 21st century by white men, in spite of its Indigenous roots, how colonialism and the War on Drugs had demonized these powerful agents of healing and pushed them underground. It was time, she said, for women to shake off multiple generations of repression and educate and empower ourselves, to reclaim the spaces we had been pushed out of as healers, cultivators, and wisdom carriers.

A procession of women from diverse backgrounds took the microphone during the next two hours. There was an elderly midwife and medicine woman who talked about salvia divinorum, a sacred hallucinogen of the Mazatec Indians that gained YouTube notoriety when legions of bored teens (including Miley Cyrus) posted their chaotic 10-minute trips to oblivion and back, eventually causing its reclassification as a controlled substance in the U.S. and Canada. She scoffed at the hyperbolic tabloid headlines and told the audience: “If you take the plant to its highest elevation, you can actually meditate on it.”

Eight more women spoke, including: the young owner of the only First Nations-run cannabis shop in Vancouver (cleverly named the 420 Stalk Market), a psychotherapist with the MDMA Phase III Research Study who provided tips on how to approach a psychedelic journey, an Indigenous activist and mother working to heal her reserve from intergenerational trauma, an organic cannabis farmer, and a chef specializing in the preparation of special meals eaten in the days leading up to a psychedelic journey.

Marginalized, poor can’t access psychedelics for therapy

But the most resonant speaker was Anne-Marie Armour, a social worker who has spent several years working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, ground zero of Canada’s opioid epidemic. Without mincing words, she told the crowd that the high cost of psychedelic-assisted therapy meant it was simply out of reach for the poor and marginalized. That practitioners using plant medicine with their clients do so at the risk of losing their licences. And psychedelic researchers, advocates, policymakers, and the community at large need to acknowledge its Indigenous origins and ensure that Native healers are represented where policy and practice is concerned. “Plant medicine,” she said, firmly, “needs to get out of the psychedelic closet.”

After the speakers had finished and most of the attendees had filtered out, I found Armour and thanked her. I shared my struggle to find a local, affordable “nontraditional” therapist (the last one I had been referred to charged $450 for the initial consultation alone). “I know how you feel,” Armour said, nodding knowingly.

I stayed after and mingled for a bit. A woman suffering from epilepsy told me that microdosing with mushrooms had remade her from a shut-in fearing her next seizure to having a functional life where she could hold down a job. A mother said she was there for her son, a 20-something heroin addict who had overdosed half a dozen times and been in rehab twice. She had seen the new documentary Dosed —where ibogaine therapy was used to end a heroin addict’s opioid dependence-and wanted to learn more.

Walking out under the intransigent Vancouver sun, I tried to process everything I’d heard in the past few hours. I felt exhilarated but also a bit angry that most people in the world were still-through no fault of their own-in the dark when it came to the truth about psychedelics.

But above all, I was heartened to know that there were people in Canada and beyond working in the shadows and the light of day to make sure that the door to the psychedelic closet was reopened-and that this time around, it would stay that way.

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