Psychedelic drug culture in America has been whitewashed since it rose to prominence in the ’60s. Now, black people are trying to cultivate their own space.
A Google search for black researchers in the field of psychedelic therapy will yield a single result — Dr. Monnica T. Williams. At a time where terms like diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords in work environments across the country, research on psychedelic drugs continues to be led by white men.
Williams hopes to change that. A therapist and researcher at the University of Connecticut, Williams is leading the first-ever MDMA study to focus on the traumatic experiences of black, brown, and other minority groups. Assisting her is a group of therapists of color who work with communities of color. The study is one of 14 currently sponsored throughout the United States and overseas by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
But being the first of something like this has been a challenge for Williams, her study unraveling more and more problems that are the result of the racial disparity in psychedelic research.
“It’s definitely more challenging than I thought, just because there have been so many layers of racialized stuff to get through,” Williams said. “It’s an ongoing struggle.”
Psychedelic drugs are defined as: “mind-expanding drugs that are able to induce states of altered perception and thought, frequently with heightened awareness of sensory input but with diminished control over what is being experienced.” Major psychedelic drugs include DMT, LSD, and psilocybin (commonly known as “magic mushrooms”). But it’s LSD that’s commonly associated with inciting the United States’ interest in psychedelics when the drug first rose to prominence during the counterculture of the 1960s.
Timothy Leary became a well-known figure of the counterculture era, publicly promoting the use of psychedelics after using the drugs himself and conducting experiments with them as a clinical psychologist at Harvard University. Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also contributed to psychedelics’ rising popularity. He traveled throughout the country with a group of friends called the Merry Pranksters doing LSD, with their journey chronicled in Tom Wolfe‘s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Bands and musicians like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane added to that rise as well, pioneering a sub-genre of rock music inspired by these mind-expanding drugs — psychedelic rock.
By the late 1960s, politicians became concerned about the drugs’ impact on American culture. In the spring of 1966, conservative Democrat senator and chairman of the Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency Thomas Dodd held emergency hearings on LSD. Dodd claimed that the drug “was literally driving America’s youth mad and turning them into violent criminals,” alluding to the horror stories — everything from a student almost getting struck by a car while walking into rush-hour traffic to someone who “was impelled on a compulsive search for someone to rape” — that were being reported on the drug.
Leary stressed the value in conducting more research on LSD, even suggesting that legislation be made that would require users of the drug to be trained and licensed. But Leary’s testimony didn’t sway Dodd; by fall 1968, LSD was banned in the U.S. by the Staggers-Dodd Bill. In 1970, psychedelic drugs were labeled under the Controlled Substances Act as Schedule I, the most restrictive legal category.
Psychedelic research came to an abrupt halt, its end giving rise to the War on Drugs in the 1970s. “It was as if psychedelic drugs had become undiscovered,” a researcher said at the time.
By the ’90s, attitudes toward psychedelics had changed, allowing research to make a return. Since the early 2000s, over 26 studies have been approved, including psilocybin-assisted therapy for people with life-threatening cancer and landmark research on MDMA-assisted therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD. However, like its ’60s counterculture predecessor, the psychedelic research renaissance that’s happening at the moment is noticeably white.
In Leary’s absence has come Michael Pollan, Michael Mithoefer, and other white men who are supporting the use of psychedelic drugs to combat mental health issues. The problem goes beyond researchers too: raters (people who subjectively evaluate a patient’s response to a medical treatment); sponsors (an individual, institution, company or organization that takes the responsibility to initiate, manage or finance a clinical trial but doesn’t conduct it); participants — the whitewashing of psychedelic research has, and continues, to omit people of color.
The irony of this is that indigenous cultures have worked with psychedelics — from Bwiti practitioners in Africa who take Iboga to the people of the Amazon basin who take Ayahuasca — for thousands of years. Leary’s first experience with psychedelics — mushrooms in Mexico — was prompted by an article Robert Gordon Wasson wrote called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” where the author wrote about Mexican medicine woman María Sabina after taking mushrooms himself.
“Indigenous cultures and black people have a legacy with psychedelics. Iboga is presumed to have been used by Bwiti practitioners for their religious rituals for centuries,” Abdul Wilkins, an intuitive healer and supporter of psychedelics from Boston, said.
Also known as the “Beantown Ghetto Shaman,” Wilkins also facilitates psychedelic ceremonies geared toward people of color and low-income communities. He claimed the first time he helped organize a ceremony — with Ayahuasca — close to 40 people participated, his work as a healer, as well as a massage therapist and yoga teacher, compelling his clients to try it out. He recounted one moment where a woman, grieving the death of her mother, ended up having a spiritual conversation with her.
“It was like in Black Panther when T’Challa drinks the heart-shaped plant and he gets direct contact with his deceased father,” Wilkins said. “It’s very liberating because it not only heals them but helps them gain spiritual insight.”
In February, an article titled “Inclusion of people of color in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: a review of the literature” was released. The article, written by Monnica Williams and three other researchers, serves as a “comprehensive review of inclusion and recruitment across ethnic/racial groups in current (1993-present) psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy studies.”
The team concluded that future studies need to be more inclusive of minorities and improve recruitment strategies, while also addressing the possible reasons why inclusiveness is a problem (lack of diversity among psychedelic researchers; the harrowing history of exploitative experiments conducted on black people by white researchers like the Tuskegee Syphilis study).
“Because of the criminalization of all these substances and the fallout from the war on drugs, African-Americans face a lot of danger when it comes to using drugs or even talking about them in a way that isn’t true for white people,” Williams said. “There isn’t a lot of interest in busting white kids who are trying different drugs but the same cannot be said for black kids.”
The double standard also applies to academia. Williams noted how academics of color are more cautious about speaking on their experiences with psychedelics than their white counterparts, referencing a recent talk she saw Michael Pollan give at the Horizons Conference, an annual forum on psychedelic drugs.
“Black people have to be a lot more careful, and particularly those of us, for example, who are clinicians and are licensed,” Williams said. “We can’t really talk in that way about experimenting with these substances.”
Some black academics have talked about their use of psychedelics candidly though. Nicholas Powers, a poet and Associate Professor of English at SUNY Old Westbury, gave a presentation at last year’s Horizons Conference titled “Black Masks, Rainbow Bodies: Race and Psychedelics.” He talked about how black people adorn figurative masks, shielding their true emotions from themselves and others as a means of survival from racial and systemic violence. Which is why there’s an apprehension when trying psychedelics — the fear of being vulnerable while under the influence.
“Psychedelics melt masks and if you’re wearing a mask to protect yourself the very last thing you would want is an experience where the mask is gone,” Powers said. “You’re exposing yourself without protection.”
Williams experienced this firsthand when she participated in an optional MDMA session after joining MAPS. A member of MAPS recognized Williams’ work studying racial trauma and reached out asking her to lead a study as they launched their Phase III MDMA trials.
Williams, who had never used psychedelics prior to the session, described it as “pretty deep” and said she spent most of the session crying, the drug bringing back past trauma she endured as a child.
“We started talking about that kid that was me,” she said in an interview with Psychedelic Times. “My therapist asked if I could find some love in my heart for her, and I said ‘No; I hate her.'”
“She asked, ‘Why do you hate her so much?’ And I said — with tears streaming down my face — ‘Because she was so vulnerable. It was intolerable. Black people are taught we have to be strong — all the time. But no one can be strong all the time. And no one should have to be.'”
Previous studies of MDMA were to demonstrate the safety of the drug. For the Phase III trials, Williams is demonstrating the drug’s effectiveness in addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This study will be randomized, meaning half of the participants will get MDMA while the rest will get a placebo.
Officiating participants for the trials is an arduous process. Conducting multiple interviews and physical exams, as well as combing through medical records, researchers have to do so much before a participant is approved.
“What I think is particularly tough for our participants is a lot of them don’t really trust the medical system, let alone a medical research study,” Williams said. “We’re getting all this detailed information from them before we’ve really even had the chance to build a rapport. With participants of color, we do need to work a lot harder to build the trust. Often they have not felt respected or given the same courtesy that a lot of the white participants have always taken for granted.”
In taking on this study, Williams has realized that there’s not an infrastructure for people of color in psychedelic research. The lack of minority participants and researchers is only one part of a larger problem. There’s the lack of raters of color as well as recruitment materials that specifically cater to minority groups. Even payment — commonly a check — can be a dilemma, considering some participants don’t have a checking account.
“The foundation that was built for the study really needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt with diverse participants in mind. The problem is that takes time and energy and money so we’ve had to make a lot of compromises to even be able to do what we are doing.”
The setbacks have been valuable for Williams though because she can use these instances to show sponsors why outreach for people of color needs to be better. She referenced an incident where a woman who was selected to be a part of the Phase III trials dropped out because they couldn’t get a black woman as her rater.
“I think a lot of the things, they don’t get it because they’ve never had to think about those things before,” Williams said. “So, sometimes, it actually takes, you know, the unwanted thing happening to show people that it is a really important issue.”
Through word of mouth and speaking at lectures and public events in Connecticut, Williams found people of color to participate in the Phase III trials which will begin next month. During the session, which is six to eight hours long, the patients will receive 100-125 milligrams of MDMA and sit with their therapists in a room designed to be comfortable. The patient may speak or remain silent throughout the experience. The process is repeated three times before the patient is re-evaluated for symptoms of PTSD.
Aside from the trials, Williams and MAPS are fundraising for a special program to train therapists of color on how to administer MDMA. The week-long workshop would hopefully increase the number of therapists of color a part of MAPS (22 out of the organization’s 221 therapists — which also includes international researchers — are of color) and make them eligible to be a part of Expanded Access. Also known as Compassionate Use, the program will make MDMA available next year for special use, although Williams expects the FDA to legalize the drug sometime in 2021.
Williams’ pioneering study has shown how people of color have been disregarded in psychedelic culture and research for decades, and it seems the more progress she makes the more problems she discovers. But she’s aware of the challenges and wants to build a foundation that future researchers of color can refer to and contribute to.
“If someone had told me, ‘In five years you’re gonna be a psychedelic therapist,’ I would have been like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re not,'” Williams said. “But I think that our little site is making a big impact on the larger psychedelic community and the larger psychedelic medicine scene, and it’s important for me that we keep moving forward even though this has been really, really hard.”