The Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave
Ayahuasca in the Grieving Process
Our guest is Ismail Ali, Policy Fellow at MAPS. Ismail helps develop sensible drug policy that will create alternatives to the failed war on drugs. He talks to us about his experiences with psychedelics, including an ayahuasca experience with his family for the purpose of coping with personal tragedy. We talk about psychedelics, family and drug policy in the US.
Ismail works for MAPS as a Policy Fellow, guiding the development of policies that will hopefully reverse the damage done by the war on drugs and promote basic human rights. Here, he tells us what made him decide to enter a career in drug policy, and how his experiences have influenced his view of psychedelics.
After Ismail graduated from Berkeley Law School in 2016, he decided to spend several months touring psychedelic festivals and conferences. Starting with the Boom festival in Portugal, Ismail volunteered for Kosmicare, a harm-reduction service similar to MAPS’ Zendo project. Following this experience, he visited several psychedelic conferences, including Beyond Psychedelics in Prague, Horizons in New York and the World Ayahuasca Conference in Brazil.
Ismail says that even though many scientists were presenting their research on psychedelics at these conferences, they were often unable to talk about their personal experiences. Ismail believes this is a symptom unique to psychedelics; in most other fields, it’s considered unusual for a researcher to not be totally familiar with their subject. For example, nutrition researchers aren’t expected to abstain from nutritious food. Ismail hopes that as legalisation of psychedelics for medical use comes closer, scientists will have more freedom to discuss their personal experiences.
We then hear about Ismail’s own unique personal experiences with psychedelics, most importantly a family journey to an ayahuasca retreat. His family decided to undertake a family ayahuasca experience to help in coping with the loss of his mother, which was devastating to the whole family. The experience did not totally heal everyone of the pain, but instead provided another tool that Ismail and his family could use to help overcome the loss.
Ismail believes that it may be tough for people to convince their family to have a psychedelic experience together, and with current stigma around psychedelics, it may require some outside motivator. However, Ismail agrees that the first step is honest discussion with your family about psychedelic use, without trying to convince anyone or push an agenda.
Finally, Ismail talks about the uncertainty in the future of US drug policy. The new administration has a lot of people worried, and could change the way researchers can obtain licenses. Ismail leaves us with the note that mental health services in the US are a big issue, and we need to reduce mental health stigma to allow people to find new ways of self-healing.
0:00:29 Paul Austin: Guys, gals, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, men and women and everything in between. Welcome back to the The Third Wave Podcast. We’ve another excellent interview for you today. This interview is with Ismail Ali who is a Policy Fellow at MAPS. I met Ismail at the Beyond Psychedelics Conference in Prague and we proceeded to then travel together from Prague to New York for the Horizons Conference, to Rio Branco for the World Ayahuasca Conference, and I wanted to get Ismail on the show to pick his brain about a really interesting experience that he had with his family and Ayahuasca, as well as other aspects of policy around psychedelic substances. So before I go further, I’m gonna give you a few more details about Ismail, I just want to ask you guys to please leave a review on iTunes, please, please, please. Right now, if you can stop this, pause this podcast and leave a review on iTunes, we would really, really appreciate it.
0:01:27 PA: We’ve a couple reviews so far, obviously, with this being a brand new podcast, iTunes has this New and Noteworthy section. If you guys help us by leaving reviews, even if you, just yeah, leave a review please, that would be excellent. Basically, because the more reviews that are left, the higher chance it has of going into the New and Noteworthy, the higher chance that this podcast has of reaching a wider audience, and I think as all of you would hopefully agree with me, more people need to hear about these substances. So, by leaving a review like that would really, really help it go a long way. The second thing, we’ve launched our forum, forum.thethirdwave.co. Right now it focuses on micro-dosing, but we’re going to expand it into all aspects, of think, of psychedelic culture. So please, hop on over there, go ahead and register, and if you feel like it, make a small donation to support our efforts at Third Wave with the various projects that we have up and going.
0:02:19 PA: Those are the only two announcements. Now, I’m gonna give you a few more details about Ismail, and then we’ll get into the podcast. So Ismail earned his JD at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law in 2016 after receiving his Bachelors in Philosophy from California State University, Fresno in 2012. As a law student among leading and participating in other extra-curricular activities, which focused primarily on human rights, civil liberties and racial justice, he also worked for the ACLU of Northern California’s Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Project. In addition, Ismail served as co-lead at Berkeley Law’s Chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, where he coordinated events that helped educate the law school community about antigens, challenged the stigma associated with psychedelic drug use and critiqued the racial dynamics of the emerging cannabis industry in California.
0:03:07 PA: To support his work at MAPS, Ismail received Berkeley’s Law Public Interest Fellowship, a fellowship which provides funding for qualified Berkeley Law graduates who pursue legal work in the public interest. Ismail believes that psychedelic consciousness is a crucial piece of challenging oppression in all of its forms and that legal access to psychedelics is an essential part of the progressive drug policy paradigm. He hopes to help develop and advocate for just, equitable and creative alternatives to the failed war on drugs. So guys, enjoy the podcast.
0:03:41 PA: So in the latter half of 2016, Ismail and I attended a few conferences together, unknowingly at first, but then we formed a friendship after that. And so, I wanted to bring him on the show today to talk about his story with psychedelics and how that’s brought him to the work he’s now doing as a Policy Fellow at MAPS. So Ismail, what brought you to those three conferences, Beyond Psychedelics, Horizons and the World Ayahuasca Conference?
0:04:08 Ismail Ali: Well, it’s a super good question Paul, and it’s really interesting, because the fact that the two of us, and actually there are a few of us that ended up at all three of those locations over the course of those couple of months, I think, was a result of a lot of very interesting social personal forces that led us all to believe that for some crazy reason we had to be on three continents in five weeks to learn as much as we possibly could about every angle and direction that we could find about psychedelics, whether it was science or culture or a theory. And for me personally, I think that those fell into a couple of categories, one being personal, spiritual understanding and growth, which underlies my entire relationship with the world of psychedelics generally, and my interest in psychedelic medicine and science and therapy, but also looking at it from a more political, global and socio-culturally relevant perspective as well. And for me, attending those three conferences and being really going head-first, neck-deep in as much as I could learn in these spaces about psychedelics, which I had thus far only been establishing on my own, independently, with my own community or with the Internet or however else.
0:05:31 IA: It was a big step for me. It was actually the first time I had committed that much time and energy and effort to becoming part of this world, this psychedelic world, in a more formal or structured sense. Because in the past, I had really just been my own interest on the side, or I was, in my head at least, focusing on other things in my own life. So it was definitely a combination of factors that I really, to be honest, maybe didn’t understand before I actually went on that trip. I think that over the course of that last year, before I went to those three conferences, I went to Boom Festival and Burning Man and Symbiosis. And then afterward I went to a psychedelic, digital healing from trauma, occupation event called Catharsis on the Mall in Washington DC. So I really was on a world tour from, I guess, early August until early November, which was just a series of strange events and learning experiences that all eventually led me to understanding that this was and is in fact the path that I’ve decided to take with my own life, not just personally but also professionally.
0:06:41 PA: So, let’s retrace that journey a little bit. Because we had gone to the Beyond Psychedelics Conference in Prague together. The first time we met was, I believe, in that room upstairs where we were all talking about… It was when all the younger people who were at the conference were meeting and talking about their personal experiences and why they were there.
0:07:00 IA: Yeah, I think that’s right.
0:07:00 PA: Yeah, and you approached me afterwards, and was like, “Yeah, you know, we have a lot in common.” And then we discovered that we were both going to Horizons in New York, and then we were both going to Rio Branco in the Amazon. So, can you recount the totality of that journey for us, beginning with Boom in Portugal and ending in Washington DC at Catharsis in the Mall? Even just the basic logistics of how you went from one point to the next, and maybe just a few thoughts and sentences about what you learned from each of those events.
0:07:30 IA: Sure. Well afterward, I kind of started seeing it as a psychedelic world tour. Because even though the only explicitly psychedelic parts of it were kind of scattered throughout that whole summer and fall, the experience in its totality was extremely psychedelic and I don’t mean that in the sense that I was tripping the whole time. I just mean that there kept being all these situations that I didn’t realize I was choosing to put myself in that ended up being very, very beneficial and significant for my personal growth. So, I graduated from Berkeley law school in May of 2016, and then spent the entire summer studying for the California bar exam. So, basically the first two-thirds of 2016 were really characterized by a lot of sitting and reading and a lot of time spent in front of a computer memorizing stuff. So, by the time I took the bar exam at the end of July I was really prepared for, to I guess, re-come out of my shell again again, after having really focused a lot at the end of my law school career. And then, I actually, I hadn’t intended on going to Boom Festival but probably like in April or May of that year. And then, one of my friends reached out to me and I don’t actually remember the circumstances of how it started, which is another reason this is so psychedelic, and asked me if I wanted to participate in Kosmicare, which is kind of like a European model, of the Zendo.
0:08:58 IA: And what they do essentially is psychedelic first aid or psychedelic spiritual crisis response. And at Boom Festival, they actually have it integrated not just openly with the festival, but they actually work with the government, with law enforcement, with emergency services, much like Zendo is working on doing now here at Burning Man or other festivals. But the thing that’s interesting about the Zendo or, excuse me, about Kosmicare, is that because it’s so well supported and because it’s so essential to the identity of the festival itself, it’s supported and integrated in a way that I’ve actually never seen before, and it was really a big step. And I think starting my trip there where I was working a couple of shifts of a program that was essentially going 24 hours for eight days straight, working with people who were taking too many, too high doses, multiple drugs, anonymous drugs, substances that they didn’t always, that didn’t always combine together, substances that they weren’t already familiar with.
0:09:55 IA: And it was really interesting starting off, going from literally studying for and taking the California bar exam to two weeks later being on this side of this lake. It was the first festival I’ve ever attended by myself actually. I met people there, but it was really like I camped alone and tried to make it in many ways a kind of solitary experience. And it was definitely a paradigm shift in that I saw both some really, really intense cases of people who had extremely, arguably negative and definitely challenging psychedelic experiences in this beautiful, incredible, really exceptional festival climate environment. And also, use that as an opportunity to really re-establish my own relationship with this whole world, which is in many ways, very separate and different from the world that I spent the last three years in in law school and developing those skills. So, I’m spending a lot of time talking about Boom because that was a really significant starting point.
0:10:51 IA: And from there, I came back to the States after a couple of more stops. And then, that’s when I went… I began this tour with you, and then I ended up at Beyond Psychedelics, which is where we met in Prague, which was a fantastic experience. I think that one of the things that they did really well was make the… Really find the intersection between… Not so much a festival, but more like… I don’t know, it was very celebratory I felt like. I felt like there was a lot of pieces of it that made it really about bringing together the community in a way that was very celebratory and that was very generative. And then overlapping that with some hard science, some really, really good data, some really good presentations. And I think that was a really good transition from this really crazy world of the Boom Festival and working with Kosmicare, and really going head first and really engaging with this world in a really concrete and intense way. And then going from there into, I guess, a little bit further up into the 15,000, 20,000 feet realm, where we’re now talking about how these things affect people on a more theoretical and broader scale. And then, from there…
0:11:54 PA: Well, let’s pause there for a second ’cause I think that’s an interesting dichotomy that you’re talking about.
0:11:55 IA: Yeah. Yeah.
0:11:58 PA: Because basically, you’re talking about this difference between people who are taking psychedelics and you’re dealing with them one-on-one, to then people who are just theoretically discussing the implications of psychedelic use, often within research paradigm.
0:12:13 IA: Exactly. Exactly.
0:12:14 PA: How do we… I feel like one of the big things we see in the psychedelic space, and this is true of a lot of psychedelic conferences, this is true of a lot of the people who are doing research in psychedelics, is there are certain people who are well known within the psychedelic space who can’t actually even talk about their own psychedelic experiences, specifically, scientists.
0:12:34 IA: Totally.
0:12:35 PA: Because they see it as a conflict of interest. I think Rick is kind of an exception to that.
0:12:40 IA: Totally.
0:12:40 PA: Because of his status within the psychedelic world and the larger even medical community. But by and large, people like Roland Griffiths and Robin Carhart-Harris, they can’t actually talk about their personal psychedelic experiences. And I think this to some degree, has led to riffs within the psychedelic community, where people perceive it as being very odd that we have all these researchers talking about psychedelics, without actually discussing their own subjective experiences. And I guess I don’t have any specific questions, but just more a commentary on… That’s a really interesting dichotomy between what you dealt with at Kosmicare, compared to what you observed at Beyond Psychedelics and at Horizons in New York.
0:13:26 IA: Yeah, and I’ll say, just to comment on that, as a side note, I definitely hear that and see that dichotomy, and I also think it’s really interesting. And I think it’s really… It’s particularly relevant and alive for people who are, like you said, scientists and working in research, because there’s this perception, whether it’s mistaken or accurate, I don’t know, that people who research something should not have had experience in it. Which I think is really interesting, because I feel like that’s unique to psychedelics because of the stigma. I had a really great professor, his name is John Powell, who works at the Haas Institute for Equity and Inclusion at Berkeley, and I took a Critical Race Theory course with him about race, law and politics, and he put it really interestingly. He was like, “Everyone experiences gravity. Every human experiences gravity, but there are probably 10 or 12 people in the entire world who can actually explain gravity, really understand it and can explain it.” And he used that to describe his perspective on race and racism. He’s like, “A lot of people have experienced racism or discrimination, but to understand the mechanisms actually requires a lot of concrete thought and theoretical effort, which a lot people have not taken, even if they’ve experienced this.”
0:14:38 IA: So, I think this is another good alignment here, where it’s like, there’s a lot of people in the United States and around the world who’ve had experience with psychedelics, and a lot of people, especially in the older generations… You and I are relatively young, but a lot of people in older generations, who were involved in doing something in the ’60s and ’70s will openly talk about their experience then. But as you said, there seems to be a stigma with now that there’s so much energy and attention toward the scientific research, which you’d think would have the most space for that kind of clinical separation, even in the midst of an experience, to be so stigmatized. I don’t think that people who study diet or bacteria of our bodies don’t have to not be to be involved. I think that’s a pretty extreme and maybe a little bit of an absurd example, but I think that the idea that there has to be so much separation is definitely one that comes out of stigma, rather than necessity. And just one last point on this. Just for myself as an advocate, I’m also learning to find what that line is, and I’m finding, really learning and trying to discover what the most effective spaces to occupy in the midst of that balance within experience and passion and interest and also legitimate advocacy movement.
0:15:51 PA: Yeah, and so, let’s follow that path a little bit, and then, we can get back to Horizons and the World Ayahuasca Conference. For you, where is that space? How do we hold that space? When will those things start to change? Will it be okay for scientists to come out of the closet, so to say, about their own psychedelic use once psilocybin becomes legal for medical use in 2021? Will it be okay once they’ve become fully legalized and regulated? Will they never be okay because maybe psychedelics will always carry a stigma in certain circles? What thought have you given to that dichotomy?
0:16:24 IA: Yeah, I think there’s two things that are really relevant here. One of them, you mentioned really accurately, which is gonna be these big milestones with respect to legalization, or even if legalization is a pretty strong word, let’s say medical access, which is, once we have some sort of institutional security that there is legitimacy to using some of these substances for specific reasons, it’ll be easier for researchers, and not just for researchers, but for advocates, people like myself and people like you, to be much more open. I think that some of us are already pretty open, because we’re ideologically committed to that kind of transparency, but a lot of people still can’t. So, I think one of those pieces will be exactly the milestones that you mentioned. But the other, I think, is actually a little bit more amorphous, and maybe a little bit more difficult to get to, and that’s the stigma and the issue around how we deal with mental illness and mental health generally. I think that even right now, people who use totally legit, prescribed substances that come from the pharmaceutical industry, whether they’re anti-depressants or anti-psychotics or anti-anxiety medications, there’s still a stigma even around those. And to some extent, we’re breaking that, and we’re realizing that mental illness and mental discrepancies are not something to be ashamed of, but in fact they’re something that everyone experiences.
0:17:40 IA: And I think until we understand that, we need to have a better and healthier relationship with their minds, in the same way that you see a lot of that focus happen around our bodies with organic food and with all these shifts in the way that we deal with our bodies. And I think until we see that shift with respect to the way that we deal with our minds, we’re not gonna see the kind of de-stigmatization that we really want, because people are scared of their own minds, and they’re really scared of the perceptions they have about other people with, whether they’re neuro-diverse or they have just different kinds of experiences that have led to whatever behavior they’re acting out now. And I think that both of those things are gonna be necessary for people to be more open. I think that we need to realize that this whole concept of self-medicating does not just apply to a former soldier or a former marine with PTSD who smokes cannabis to balance out some of those symptoms. We have to look beyond that, and not just look at the populations that we see and we identify as being affected, but really expand that beyond to include people like our siblings and ourselves, honestly. Because those are the people, I think, that we were most easily and willing to ignore, when we’re talking about this stuff.
0:18:49 PA: And I think that brings home a really personal point to me, because I have two sisters and I’ve been having conversations even with them. They don’t struggle with anything, they’ve never been labeled, we could say, as being depressed or as… My younger sister has some anxiety. Yet they’re both on anti-depressants. And one book that really goes into detail about this is Anatomy of an Epidemic, by a journalist named Robert Whitaker, which talks about how basically this mental health crisis and issue, and even what you were talking about, even the perception of mental health in the United States is largely an iatrogenic epidemic. I might be mis-pronouncing that. I-A-T-R-O-G-E-N-I-C. Iatrogenic, I believe, epidemic. I’ll double-check that. Which basically means, it’s a result of over-interventionism.
0:19:43 IA: Oh yeah, I’ve definitely heard that term.
0:19:45 PA: It’s a term from Nassim Taleb, and Antifragile is back in the ’70s and the ’80s, the American Psychiatric Association was more or less paid off by pharmaceutical companies to create certain educational standards and to pass certain science that made it much easier to prescribe certain substances. And as a result of that, now we’re dealing with this mental health crisis and all these mental health issues specifically in the United States. They don’t deal with this in Europe to any really degree that we do. They don’t really even deal with this in Canada, it’s specifically in the United States. And so I think coming back to that original point, when we discuss breaking stigma, when we discuss eliminating stigma, there are people like you and me who are working in organizations or have our own organizations where we have these big visions. We have these big ideas and pictures of how we want to change society, how we want to change systems, how we want to change culture to make them more accepting of these medicines, MDMA, psilocybin, LSD, Ayahuasca, ibogaine, cannabis. Yet, I think there’s power in addressing it first with our friends and family.
0:20:58 IA: Totally.
0:21:00 PA: And it’s hard to change big systems until we kind of change the immediate environment that we exist within on a daily basis.
0:21:09 IA: Totally.
0:21:11 PA: And so I…
0:21:11 IA: That’s actually… Sorry, go for it.
0:21:12 PA: No, no, no. No, please. Please go ahead.
0:21:14 IA: I was gonna say that that’s a good segue into talking about the World Ayahuasca Conference and this conversation, and this presentation I did, would now be a good time?
0:21:21 PA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, let’s dig into that. That would be great.
0:21:25 IA: Sure. So after Beyond Psychedelics, I went to Horizons, we spent some time there. And then about a week after that, super quickly after that, we both found ourselves in Rio Branco…
0:21:36 PA: Way to quick after that, I will say.
0:21:39 IA: Way quick, way quick. We went from literally…
0:21:40 PA: We were exhausted by the time we got there, yeah.
0:21:44 IA: Yeah, it was fast. I think I went from New York back home to the Bay Area for three days. I think I had like three nights in my bed [chuckle] or something and then went immediately back down to Brazil. But that experience was really significant, because it overlapped two really big pieces that ties directly into what you were saying about our engagement with our family. So the first time I had drank Ayahuasca was with three generations of my family in 2015. And what happened was that essentially two years after my mother passed away in 2013, we, as a family, kind of started to identify these gaps that my mother had filled as a kind of a social crux. And she had really provided a lot of social and interpersonal support for my family and for her family, who were all immigrants from Colombia, who came to California in the ’80s.
0:22:32 IA: And kind of realizing that this shift via her loss, she passed away from cancer in the summer of 2013, really kind of dramatically affected our interpersonal family dynamics. And we missed her, but it was more than just missing here, we realized that there was something really clear that we needed to heal from. There seemed to be this kind of nascent trauma that had resulted from her being really sick for many years, and then from passing away in a way that was both very expected and very sudden in the way that only someone with cancer can pass. And as a result of that, some of my family members decided to organize a family healing retreat in Mexico in 2015. And at that retreat, my grandmother, two of my aunts, all of my cousins, both of my brothers all spent a week together living at a house a little bit south of Mexico City where we did a lot of activities.
0:23:27 IA: We hiked together, and cooked together, and we did sweat lodges, and got massages, but at the end of the week, we also sat in a circle and drank Ayahuasca together. And the thing that was really amazing about the conference in Rio Branco, the World Ayahuasca Conference was that I was able to tell that story, I was actually asked the week before by Bia Labate at Horizons when I met her there to speak about my experience. So I had a week or four days or whatever to come up with this presentation and prepare it for public filling, which I had never done before. I told the story of my experience drinking Ayahuasca was with my family at Burning Man, symposia actually had like a Burning Man kind of version of their psychedelic storytelling. And I told it there, but that was the only time, and I think that was recorded, but the audience was like eight or nine people. It was a small group. It was beautiful, it was a really great day.
0:24:22 IA: But it was very different experience. And this was the first time that I literally, I came up with a whole PowerPoint presentation. And what I did is I framed my experience of drinking Ayahuasca with my family in the context of social community level healing. And although the crux of the experience for me was my mother passing away, and then my family being like… We feel almost desperate, in need of something that will kind of help us bring some kind of cohesion back within the system, within the family system. And it was only appropriate then that we would find a native Colombian medicine to do that. But it was the first time I had really shared that with the world. And I was able to present that at the conference. I think the actual title was Mortality Grief and the Family: Emotional Healing with Ayahuasca in a Contemporary Context. And I was able to present that and kind of just describe my experience and really tease out why I believe that starting first with our families, which is a challenge, because admittedly a lot of trauma that people have comes from their families. It’s not easy to just say like, “Hey, go ahead and fix everything with your mom like now,” [chuckle] it’s not something that people wanna do necessarily or go to do willingly or quickly.
0:25:30 IA: So, the kind of concept is really just around how do we look at the family relationships, our most immediate relationships, and that can be interpreted as blood family or chosen family, however. And how do we work on those at the micro level, because ultimately it’s that micro level change that I think has a really significant impact. And just to close this whole thing out, I actually was able to give that same presentation to my family at the end of last year, a few months after the conference, and was able to present it to my grandmother and to my aunts, and just tell him. I was like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing, this is how we’re framing it, and this is what’s going on.” And it was really well received, it was great.
0:26:05 PA: And what was that experience like? I would love to hear more about that. What was that experience like to drink Ayahuasca with your family? What did you discuss and talk about at the World Ayahuasca Conference and when you presented it to your family at the end of last year?
0:26:18 IA: Yeah, it was really beautiful. The thing that I think was really powerful, there were few things that were really powerful. One being, in the same way that any healing modality is not an end all be all, and that it is, in fact, only a tool and an arsenal of tools that we can use to heal ourselves.
0:26:34 IA: The experience was more than just the Ayahuasca experience but the experience of sitting with Ayahuasca, with these people with the generations definitely encapsulated a lot of the benefits. And there were a couple of interesting things and I’ve sat with Ayahuasca multiple times since this experience, including with the people who actually taught my cousin who, my cousin poured the Ayahuasca for us, he’s been working with the medicine for many years, and has quite a bit of experience and he structured the experience for us, but I’ve since sat with the people who taught him and have seen how interesting it is to see these cultural trends be adapted or changed or held tight, depending on what kind of context they’re in. So a lot of our experience is focused obviously on our experience as a family. So beforehand, we did a lot of meditation, we just spent a lot of time really engaging with each other on a personal individual level to understand what exactly is our goal here. We’re gonna be drinking this berry, this ancient Colombian medicine, what we drink was called Yagé which is essentially what they call Ayahuasca in Southern Colombia and Putumayo.
0:27:42 PA: So that’s what William Borroughs then found when he went into the jungle in the 1950s?
0:27:46 IA: Yes.
0:27:47 PA: Yeah, okay.
0:27:47 IA: Totally, exactly and ultimately we’re talking about a very similar substance, I’m sure you’ve talked about before and know about the fact that there’s with Ayahuasca you really need two things: You need TMT and MAOI and there’s a lot of ways that you can get those combinations and there’s a lot of different combinations all over South America. But the experience was very much looking at this sacred Colombian medicine, which is so tied to our personal family roots as a family who had been in Colombia from generations and generations before they emigrated to the United States and kind of thinking about how we could tie that concept, like looking at our “roots”. Like what are these roots? What is the nature of this substance? What’s the nature of these plants, what is the nature of this ancestral connection and how can we bubble that up into our own experience and really look at the fact that we’re dealing with literal ancestral connection here? We were having conversations with our grandmother. I had conversations with my grandmother about how she really represents… I mean she was and is, she remains a matriarch within the family, and we spend a lot of time discussing, how do we want to relate to each other in a really structured, mutually beneficial loving, supportive way going forward.
0:29:04 IA: Not just because of my mother’s passing, but just generally, I mean the world is a tough place, and people get older and things go on and thinking a lot about how can we be supportive of each other and using the ancestral roots of the medicine to articulate that with us. There was one moment that I really wanna share that I think is particularly powerful and my grandmother had a really challenging experience when my mother passed away. Obviously, it was her daughter, and that’s difficult for a number of reasons, but she really, even two years later, when we were in Mexico, was still really feeling a lot of that sorrow and grief and on top of that, actually my grandfather, her husband, was very near death and he actually ultimately ended up passing away about a week after we came back from Mexico, so she was really in a very, very emotionally challenging place and although it was really great for her and she really appreciated spending time with us because she hadn’t spent that much time with her, all her grandkids in a decade, if not longer, it was still very difficult for her, but there was a moment that I think really encapsulates the whole weekend, the whole kind of experience.
0:30:03 IA: She was crying a lot. We were in the middle of ceremony, she was crying a lot, like very, very, very dramatically, really, really feeling a lot of that pain. And then my aunt walked up to her, we all sat in a circle around her and my aunt came up to her and looked at her and said “These changes are happening. Your daughter has passed, your husband will be passing soon. There are these massive shifts happening in our family and you have choices now.” And she said them in Spanish, but she gave her two choices, she said You can be…
0:30:35 IA: The little grandmother or…
0:30:38 IA: The powerful empress, so she was like, “You can be either of these archetypes, you can be the old frail lady who barely makes it through the winds of life, who has to fight every minute or you can stand up, find the strength in your feet and remember that you are an empress and that you are and deserve to have access to your power and that you can, if you choose to take it.” And my grandmother, she cried for a little longer but that was it, that was a huge key. And now my grandmother spoke at her husband and my grandfather’s funeral, three weeks later and they’d see change in how she was interpreting her relationship with death and mortality was so different, and even today, she still struggles a lot because she’s much lonelier, she has a lot of personal struggles that obviously come from losing that kind of, those people that are close to me, and they affect me, they affect my whole family because that’s what’s happened to us. But I couldn’t give, I couldn’t say she took Ayahuasca and was better, her grief went away. It’s not that simple, but I think that having access to the medicine and really being able to connect with her own roots and her own ancestry reminded her that all these changes are part of life and that she can and does and has the chance to and the power to really kind of engage with them head on and in a way that brings more power to her, instead of taking it away.
0:32:00 IA: So ultimately, the experience was really positive for her and it was great for us, all of her grandchildren who we’re all our generation, here we’re all much younger, and seeing that in her gave us a lot of strength and I know all of us now go on regularly thinking about how these experiences changed our lives, and I think we’re actually gonna be having our second round of the family healing retreat in a couple of months, and I’m really excited to see how much farther we can deep in that mandola, that family mandola.
0:32:29 PA: And how did your family dynamic change as a result of that? How has it been strengthened with the absence of your mother, who you said really held things together? How did Ayahuasca then help that transition of acceptance not only for your grandma, but for you guys, as a family?
0:32:49 IA: Yeah, so a couple of things, one, I think that we realized that we were seeing my mother’s passing as like this huge burden and we saw the space that she had left as this huge, kind of gaping hole of, I don’t know social interaction that we had to fill.
0:33:05 IA: And I think it did two things. One, it showed us that whatever it is that we really wanted or needed, which was the excuse to talk to each other sometimes honestly, was always there and we didn’t need another person, even if it was my mother to do it for us. And two, that whatever burden we were feeling was something that we felt together and I think that was the really big benefit. The answer to your question is really one word. It’s togetherness. It’s the feeling that we are choosing to be in this unit, even though we kinda didn’t choose because that’s how family works and our deciding that through this agency, through this decision to really take control of and take responsibility over this development, we could do that with each other’s help. And I think… And since then, my family has always been fairly close for a number of reasons, but I think that having that experience really brought it… Made it really alive for us. It made it really clear exactly what was the benefit? It kind of reminded us.
0:34:00 IA: That’s actually the best word, it reminded us, what is really important for our own relationships and I think just on a broader level, I think that’s one of the reasons I think people are so enamored with and believe so much in the power of medicines like Ayahuasca because Ayahuasca in particular and a lot of these medicines, what they do is they de-condition you. They help you remember things that you have forgotten because of the conditioning you’ve received from society. And I think it was easy for us at the time to remember someone died and we should be sad and now there’s all this grief, instead of looking through that into the other big meanings here, like life goes on, and we can do this together and we choose what meaning we find in these experiences and that kind of encapsulates the whole thing.
0:34:42 PA: Beautiful. And so you said you’re doing this again in a couple of months and it sounds like you have a family then that obviously works with these substances. It probably wasn’t too much of an effort to get your family on board to drink Ayahuasca together or was it? What was that conversation like when you first started discussing the possibility of drinking Ayahuasca together?
0:35:02 IA: Well, it’s an ongoing conversation and I can’t take too much credit for it because the person, like I said, my cousin and aunt really organized this first round. And it was only since then, I guess, leading up to then and since then that I have really engaged with this world in a way that’s more formal. Because before I had been experimenting with or using, consuming psychedelics especially for creative and emotional and spiritual growing purposes for about almost 10 years at that point from a couple of years ago. And I think it was really helping frame it outside of I think the stigmatized recreational context and really being like, “Hey everyone, we’re not taking LSD and going to a music festival.” Just to be clear, I have absolutely no qualms and I have no judgments for people that do that. But I’m saying in contrast to taking LSD at a music festival, I’m sitting in a circle, I’m talking about emotions with your family on Ayahuasca is not really something that people wanna do recreationally.
0:36:00 IA: A lot of people don’t like thinking of talking about emotions period when they’re sober much less when they’re under the influence of some substance. So I think that the process is really a framing and I think that talking about it now, again, and this desire to have a second round, which is definitely an ongoing conversation, it’s really about, “Well, what do we really want here? And is it healing? Is it more connection? Is it communication? What do we really want and how can we get that? How can Ayahuasca or a sweat lodge or just a week together, be the medicine or be the tool that we use to bring that together?”
0:36:33 PA: And I think the next follow-up question for me, and I’m thinking of this also from a listener’s perspective as I would imagine there’s some listeners who are thinking… Scheduling or getting an Ayahuasca retreat, or a psilocybin retreat or whatever that might be with my family sounds like a really keen idea, what do you think would be the value in other people doing this and other families doing this and getting them to possibly heal themselves. I’ll give you an example. I was recently in Jamaica for a legal psilocybin retreat. So in Jamaica, magic mushrooms are legal as long as you cultivate them yourself. And this is also true apparently in the British Virgin Islands.
0:37:14 IA: Interesting.
0:37:14 PA: And Brazil and a few other places. We will have an article on that coming out soon, on the legality of psilocybin mushrooms in various places. Anyway, on this retreat, there was a guy who was on the retreat who had drank ayahuasca a number of years ago. I think down in Peru in Iquitos by himself, went back then afterwards with his son and I believe then went back maybe a third time with his whole family, including his wife and his other son. And he spoke about how it was such a healing process for them to go through that. And so on this psilocybin retreat, he was basically saying there are somethings similar about how… First of all, psilocybin, he said he preferred it to ayahuasca because you’re not puking your brains out. The whole time.
0:38:00 IA: Reasonable. Very reasonable.
0:38:02 PA: When you’re doing it. It’s not quite as harsh. And he also said, “You know, this would be an excellent way. I’d love to bring my family down here and get them involved in this process.” So if there are people listening who would say, “Hey I’d like to approach my family about this.” From your perspective, what would be a good way to approach a family about having an experience like this together? What would be a good way to frame it so that they can understand there is a really strong value in terms of coming together around these visionary plant substances.
0:38:33 IA: That’s a super good question. So I… There’s two pieces to it, I think. One is that, in my experience, I was able to at least in this first round was able to take the back seat and watch it happen. So I was able to get this external reservist perspective by watching just from a practical perspective thinking about my grandmother who is a pretty devout Catholic and who has had her own interpretations of faith and spirituality and drugs and consumption or whatever for her all her life, and who really, I think was suffering the most. I think there was one piece, I can’t discount the fact that I think for her and for some of us, we were feeling some level of desperation and I think we are not the first people to try an alternative innovative medicine healing strategy because they’re desperate. That’s kind of an age old.
0:39:21 IA: Story and I think it’s particularly true of people who have all kinds of health issues, whether they’re physical or mental. So I think, unfortunately, because the stigma and the intellectual… Not even so much intellectual, the conceptual barrier to entry is so high for a lot of people to using psychedelics or to engaging with these substances is that unfortunately, that almost always requires some sort of… It’s not desperation, and some sort of external pushing factor which I don’t think any one person can do alone, so I don’t… And I am sure that there are cases in which that’s easier, but I do think that barring someone who’s already interested for their own reasons like their… It helps to have as sad as this is. Like some sort of external factor that motivates that desire or the clarity of need in a way that I think maybe other things couldn’t. But on a more practical level, when I spoke to my father about it, my father did not sit with us, last year, a couple of years ago, but I don’t remember exactly how we framed it to him beforehand, but I’ve talked to him a lot since then, especially now because my work is literally in kind of psychedelic advocacy, so I talked about it… With my father about it and the way he framed it I think is really interesting and beautiful.
0:40:31 IA: He… And once I kind of spent time thinking about it and describing my own relationship to the plant and to the experiences and how my family deals with them. He looked at me and… It was after we had dried up a lot but he kind of looked at me and he was like, “That sounds like the stuff my mom used to give me.” And I was like, “Wait what?” And he’s like, “Yeah, when we were growing up in Pakistan, my mom,” or my grandmother, I mean, “My mom, always had,” his mom always had herbal remedies and he was like, “Yeah whenever we got sick or we’d get a stomach bug or whatever it was easy, she would just make some sort of tea and we drink it.” And that wasn’t something you prescribed, it wasn’t something that you got from a doctor, it was just an herbal remedy that she probably learned from her mom who learned it from her mom who has probably had it in the culture for hundreds of years, if not longer.
0:41:16 IA: So for my father realizing that what I was talking about, and this is obviously not the case with something like MDMA or something like LSD, which is a synthesized molecule, but is much more the case with something like ayahuasca or with peyote or even with ibogaine maybe… Is that these are really old remedies. These are not… This isn’t… Like we have a lot of new-age language around it because a lot of the people who have sought alternative medicine have found these substances and a lot of those people have also sought other kinds of medicines and other kinds of healing modalities, which have varying levels of acceptance within our culture.
0:41:51 IA: But I think realizing that paradigm shift, that we’re not talking about capital D drugs, which I think is a really scary concept for a lot of people, but we’re really talking about ancient herbal remedies that just also happen to have psychoactive effects makes it a lot easier for… I mean at least in my experience, parents, and people who are otherwise not at all interested in this to think about them in kind of a different framework. I’ll also share one last thing, which is regarding the use of molecules, especially something like MDMA, which I spend a lot of time thinking about because of the work that Max does, is actually kind of becoming also a little bit easier because of the science.
0:42:28 IA: And because we’ve got suddenly this engagement with data, which implies that these substances that we’ve been afraid of for… The government has claimed to be afraid of for so long is, actually, if not less harmful than we originally assumed, that they at least have more benefits than we originally assumed. And I think that’s… Those are both good starting points and… Some people just aren’t reasonable humans, but I think, when we’re with our family and when we’re talking from our hearts, it’s easier to, if not actively convince them, because that might not be our job, but at least present them the space and the non-judgment and the compassion for them to make an educated decision themselves, as long as a first round of accurate information kind of framing is presented to them.
0:43:14 PA: Right. I think, and you make a valid point as there are some people who are just so conditioned by our culture and our society that it would be impossible to break through, but there are, I think, other people who now because of things that are going on with the legalization of cannabis with…
0:43:28 IA: Sure.
0:43:29 PA: Like you’re saying with the research that’s coming out on psilocybin and ayahuasca and things of that nature. I think there are more people who are willing to listen.
0:43:39 IA: Totally.
0:43:39 PA: And again, I would come back just to my family dynamic. Again, I was raised in a conservative Christian family, went to church every Sunday for the first 13 years of my life.
0:43:50 IA: Sure.
0:43:52 PA: Drug use was a big no-no. Cannabis was a big no-no and fast forward now, I’m 26 now. So, eight years later since I kinda left home initially to go for college, and I’m now having pretty semi-regular conversations with my parents about psychedelics. I’ve even talked about how, as I mentioned earlier, some of my family members who are on pharmaceuticals for whatever reason…
0:44:17 IA: Sure.
0:44:17 PA: Why not try to get them micro-dosing on the thing? And if I had brought that up three years ago, or two years ago, I would have been shunned…
0:44:24 IA: Yeah, totally, yeah.
0:44:25 PA: To some degree, and would have been thought of as crazy and… And it’s only because I have been so open and transparent about my own psychedelic use and I’ve backed that transparency with a rational dialogue that now I’ve been able to gain a certain level of legitimacy within my nuclear family. So I think another big aspect to people who maybe deal with families who are not accepting of these things or who are so conditioned from a cultural perspective is the first step, is just having conversations about these things and being open and honest. Because when we hide, especially from our family… There are some people who… They can’t be open about their psychedelic use in the workplace…
0:45:08 IA: Sure.
0:45:08 PA: Because of various reasons, or they can’t be open about psychedelic use even with some of their friends for various reasons. But I think with your family, there aren’t probably going to be any major repercussions, although that might not always be the case. I think if you have a decent family environment, a family environment where you would even consider going and drinking ayahuasca together or going and taking psilocybin together. Then first coming out and having these conversations about, “Yes. I take psychedelics,” or, “Yes, I’m interested in psychedelics.” I think that’s often a good first way to break the ice with an understanding that… You have to be patient sometimes. Progress comes. It’s slow at times, and often times when we wanna see these changes in our familial environment, some of which can be accelerated with the use of ayahuasca or with the use of psilocybin, we first have to take steps to get there. And I think that first step is often just being open and transparent and honest about our own use and why we think it has impacted ourselves without even trying to convince or persuade others to need to do it because if…
0:46:11 PA: Like you said, the external need is there. If there is some sort of tragedy or some sort of event that occurs, which I think you’re right, that is often necessary to get people in that space to discuss this. If you’re first having those conversations about just general psychedelic use, I think then if there’s ever an external event where the possibility of taking psilocybin or ayahuasca together comes up, your family will be in a place where they might be more accepting or they might be more willing to try it.
0:46:39 IA: Sure, and I’ll say one more thing. You said patience which I think is really, really important here, and the other, I think is allyship. And this is true with any kind of advocacy or culture or personal change. I think finding the people who are the most willing to listen, and then starting there, and this is not just a good strategy with their families, but just generally speaking. And finding the people who might be interested in it for reasons that you’re not interested in. I think one of the big mistakes we make as advocates is trying to convince everyone to think the way we think about the things that we’re thinking about, instead of using the frameworks that we use or instead of introducing the frameworks that we use in other contexts and really meeting people where they are at.
0:47:19 IA: I think that it’s really easy to get caught up and to get kind of… Not just overly enthusiastic, but almost like evangelical, especially when it comes to something like psychedelics, which is such an exciting topic with so many kind of, with so much room to discuss so many things that it’s easy for people from the outside who have not otherwise been convinced, but otherwise would not necessarily be interested to see that, honestly, as evangelism, which I think has a very triggering and maybe negative effect. And I think starting with real patience like realizing that this is a very slow change over time. We’re trying to undo 500 years of social conditioning here. This isn’t something that’s gonna happen overnight for anyone. And even for those of us who are convinced and who have been initiated into the space, we had to do our own, we had our own hurdles to jump, and our own paths to cross, and a lot of that often came out of some sort of struggle, or challenge. And I think by recognizing that we should be as patient with others as we would have wanted someone to be patient with us when we were younger, when we were learning is a really good place to start.
0:48:24 PA: And I think allyship and patience, I think, yeah, those are the two things, even when I was thinking about my own context. I have a younger sister who I’m very close to, and I had a family conversation last night because there are just some things that have been happening in my family that I thought needed to be addressed, nothing major. But I think we live in certain political times where…
0:48:43 IA: Sure.
0:48:44 PA: I have concerns about the next 10 to 15 years even with just things like climate change.
0:48:48 IA: Sure.
0:48:48 PA: And all the things that are going on with that, the rise of authoritarianism. It’s important to create, like you were saying, cohesive family units so that we can weather the storm together. So I was just having a family meeting about this, and when I was thinking about the context in which I was going to discuss the subjects that I wanted to discuss, I thought about first how I could discuss these things with my younger sister and kind of get her to see how I’m seeing it, and having that, it made the family discussion much easier.
0:49:17 IA: Totally.
0:49:17 PA: So I think allyship is important, it’s absolutely important. And I think talking about these substances with family is important. And I think what you did with ayahuasca is incredible. The experience you went through with your family, that is something that I think a lot of people wish that they could do.
0:49:32 IA: Totally.
0:49:32 PA: I think that is something that a lot of people wish they could do because, like you were saying, we as individuals who are advocates for psychedelics, we recognize the potential and we recognize the benefit and it can be sometimes frustrating to have people who are very close to us, who maybe don’t see eye to eye from that perspective.
0:49:48 IA: Totally.
0:49:49 PA: Cool. So I’m gonna do a right turn here and I would like to move past this topic and subject, can get a little bit into the work that you are doing as a policy fellow at MAPS and just talking about how maybe psychedelics have influenced that work that you’re doing at MAPS and maybe some future projects that are on the horizons for you, specific to what you’re doing at MAPS.
0:50:12 IA: So I joined MAPS as a policy fellow about a year ago. It’s quite February 2017. And so I joined a little bit, about early spring 2016 while I was still a student at Berkeley Law School because I had been introduced to Natalie Ginsberg who is MAPS policy and advocacy manager by Allen Hopper, who was an attorney, who used to work at the ACLU in the office that I was working on when I was at the ACLU in 2015. So there was this kind of three-person removed, kind of like jumping process where I finally got introduced to Natalie and we kind of hit it off and I really started immediately engaging with some of the more kind of interesting sociopolitical psychedelic world concepts that I’m now working on. So I basically jumped on the team with her last spring to attend and to do some advocacy and just represent the psychedelic side of civil society at the United Nations General Assembly special session on drugs which was in April of last year, of 2016. And I joined because my educational background and my training as a law student, in my early law career was around two big issues, which is civil rights and questions around autonomy and honestly, I spend a lot of time thinking about national security and surveillance.
0:51:35 IA: I was politicized by force in the post 9/11 era as a teenager. And as I was raised in a Muslim household, and I still identify as Muslim, so my whole political framework really forced me to be political at a very young age. And as a result of that, I studied civil rights, and then eventually studied… And I spent a lot of time focusing on human rights when I was actually in law school. So Natalie saw that, we realized that there was a good nexus here and I went with her to the UN last April to just really get a good idea of what was going on in the world of drug policy advocacy and that really kind of cemented it for me. I had known that I wanted to be doing drug policy work for a long time, but didn’t actually know that that was a reasonable possibility. And until then, I had worked at the ACLU doing criminal justice reform. And I worked for an organization called Muslim Advocates that was doing kind of impact litigation around illegal surveillance on Muslims in the post 9/11 era.
0:52:25 IA: And then once I realized over the course of 2016 that there was really massive gaps and legal and policy gaps in the world of psychedelic advocacy, I kind of started working on figuring out what it would take to work for with MAPS and to help start moving that forward. So I applied for and received a fellowship through Berkeley Law School at the end of my… When I graduated from law school, and I’m currently working via that fellowship to help MAPS develop, implement, expand their policy in advocacy goals and capacities. So from a kind of overview perspective, that just means finding, identifying as many gaps as possible in the world of psychedelic advocacy in the United States and globally. And just figuring out what would need to happen to start moving those pieces forward.
0:53:15 IA: So one really clear example is looking at how connecting it to my first experience with MAPS was connecting how… Connecting psychedelic advocacy and questions around access to psychedelics to questions about human rights that are relevant at the international level. Like the human right of access to medicine is a really, really important piece. I think that is kind of lost because we don’t really think about psychedelics very often in an international perspective, and we’re often dealing with them within kind of domestic or national criminal or… Yeah, criminal contexts. So when we think about advocacy like looking at the whole global scale of the potential of this work is a really big piece of it.
0:53:54 IA: And then kind of another thing on a more granular specific scale is looking at… One great example is how we do sentencing, how we do mandatory minimum sentencing for substances in the United States. In 2010, a couple… We collaborated with a couple of attorneys on a drug policy reform project that the ACLU was working on and helped two defendants who were on trial who were on trial and I think convicted of high-level MDMA possession offenses to… We convinced the judges of these cases to lower the ultimate sentencing for these people who were caught with MDMA. Because what we did is presented a whole bunch of science, and basically said, “Hey when you made these mandatory minimums when the Federal Sentencing Commission made these mandatory minimums you used bad science and your science told you that this was a super dangerous substance that was deadly, that really need to be restricted, dah dah dah dah. And now we have all this evidence that that’s just not the case. And that you should probably maybe shift your sentencing guidelines, so you’re not giving people massive mandatory minimums for possessing and selling something which may be criminal. Sure it’s schedule one. Sure, but is not nearly as dangerous as you think it is.”
0:55:09 IA: So I think that’s a good model for what kind of practical impact we can have here in the States, where now because we have all this science we have all this room to advocate for shifts in policy and that’s kind of where, again, my work really becomes live and it’s kind of translating that science that we have, not just MAPS, but just generally looking at the science in the world of psychedelics and for the world of psychedelic research especially and then translating that for legal and policy making and law making audiences and hopefully slowly, but surely, starting to shift the criminal framework. So at the very least, our goals are lofty… There’s a lot… Definitely a long-term vision, but for at the very least to make science and research easier because right now there’s a tremendous amount of hurdles that researchers have to go through in order to get science done, and I think that’s one of the major obstacles to actually having massive levels of social change.
0:56:01 PA: Yeah, so what are those bottlenecks? ‘Cause basically what you’re saying is it’s a bottleneck that you’re trying to overcome.
0:56:06 IA: Exactly.
0:56:06 PA: What are… If that’s one of the bottlenecks, in terms of making research and science just easier in general, ’cause that will obviously help to accelerate the amount of research and science that’s done, what are other bottlenecks from a policy perspective that you have identified at MAPS that you’re working to change?
0:56:22 IA: Well, there’s this funny kind of situation that’s going on, which is that, generally speaking, when we don’t understand something it’s easy to advocate for researching it. Generally speaking, with most concepts, when we want to learn more about something we want to do research for it. Now that we have a lot of scientific technology and capacity both in the United states and generally, now that it’s 2017 and we’ve been doing science for a really long time, the methods and the publishing and the way that we get that information is becoming increasingly refined, and we’re getting more access through better data. But, that kind of framework doesn’t always seem to fit with things that we’re afraid of, and psychedelics definitely fall into that category, because I think… Although to me, when I hear we don’t know enough about blank, whether it’s ayahuasca or mushrooms or gravity, whatever it is. When we don’t know enough something we wanna know more, and we have processes by which we can know more.
0:57:21 IA: So I think there’s… Because these substance… A lot of the psychedelics that we’re talking about are schedule one and because the DEA has really, really restrictive kind of the situations under which research for schedule one substance can be done. There are a lot of hurdles that we have. So to be more specific, one of… One really good example is what’s happening with cannabis right now. It’s probably the one that’s most live right now at MAPS. So as a lot of… As you… And I’m sure a lot of your listeners probably know, the DEA held… Essentially had a monopoly over who could… Who would get cannabis research cultivation licenses, and until July of 2016, that was the University of Mississippi, and they were the only DEA-approved source of cannabis, which they kind of worked with through the National Institute on Drug Abuse. So all of the research cannabis until last July came from one source, which is problematic for a number of reasons, but for us, as an organization that’s trying to help develop space for cannabis to be used as a medicine, because us and a lot of other… We and a lot of other organizations and people also believe that.
0:58:23 IA: There’s this really interesting hurdle where it like to do phase three testing through the FDA to get a drug approved onto the market. Not… Is that you need to be able to do the research with the same substance that you would be selling or that you would be providing through the medical model. I think that works really well for molecules, and for MDMA, for example, which is another substance that we are going through this process with. It makes sense, because MDMA, in theory, is a single molecule that you can synthesize in a lab, and we’re in the process of getting medical-grade MDMA in order to be able to actually go through that process. Cannabis is really tough, and I think that the FDA process is really not meant for something like cannabis, because first off, there’s hundreds and hundreds of strains. Hundreds and hundreds of ways to cultivate.
0:59:03 IA: And I think that there’s so much variation that the model that the FDA uses to get medical access to something is really misaligned with the way that growing and consuming cannabis actually works. So the DEA-enforced monopoly where only one organization could grow research cannabis was lifted in July of last year, which meant, in theory, that the DEA could then grant additional licenses to other organizations, to universities, whoever to grow that cannabis. Over the course of the last six months, I think about 14 or 15 organizations, researchers, including a researcher that we’re working with named Lyle Craker from a university in Massachusetts, UMass Amherst, have all turned in their applications or are in the process of turning in their applications and have yet to receive any word that they’re granting… That the DEA is granting any. So one major roadblock, and something that we’ve been thinking about a lot is how to pressure the DEA to actually grant the licenses they said they would be granting eight months ago, so we can start actually realistically start doing good high quality research on cannabis.
1:00:12 PA: And will that happen in the Trump Administration?
1:00:14 IA: That’s a very, very good question. So, we’re thinking a lot about that, because there’s a couple of different directions that the administration could go, and it’s like almost late February, and we’re still really, really kind of unclear on what’s gonna happen next. But there’s kind of two separate tracks that are happening. One, because Jeff Sessions, the recently appointed AG, has far from the best history when it comes to a lot of topics, but especially including cannabis.
1:00:39 IA: We… It’s very possible that the protections that states believe that they’ve had from federal intervention with cannabis policies, whether it’s recreational or medical assistance, may not be valid anymore and what kind of remains to be seen is whether or not the administration is gonna go after cannabis as an industry. And then… And that’s one track that we’re worried about for not a lot of reasons. It’s not just because of cannabis, there just seems to be this really kind of slow and maybe even active rejection of a lot of civil right protections that have been put in place in the last few decades, which we’re definitely concerned about.
1:01:13 IA: And the other is looking at the FDA process itself, and it’s really unclear because, at least to my knowledge as of right now, there hasn’t yet been any… Very much information about who would be leading the FDA or the DEA or any of these other big organizations that are relevant to our work, and we’re still… We’re kind of waiting with bated breath to see exactly who ends up at that position, and how we can negotiate with them in the future. On one hand, I can see how some people might understand that having fewer regulations, which is like a big topic. Having fewer drug regulations could be, in some ways, good for us, because it would allow us to get more information.
1:01:52 IA: More data through earlier, and maybe we could get MDMA available for people earlier than in five years when we hoped to be done with the FDA approval process. However, I think that there’s one really big downside to that, which is that if… Even if these policies get changed, there’s this real concern about legitimacy. With psychedelics, we’re already fighting an uphill battle to convince people that these substances work. And I think, although sure, there might be a short term benefit to lowering regulations because it would allow us and other companies to get substances onto the market or available for purchase or available for use.
1:02:28 IA: I think that there’s definitely the real concern of a backlash afterward where people are like, “Hey, we actually really like those old regulations, and maybe drugs that get through with these lower regulations actually aren’t that legit.” And as someone who works at an organization that does psychedelic science, we don’t wanna give anyone any reason whatsoever to doubt our science, so we would actually much rather have totally legit, standardized systems to go through, because then we can say, “Hey, we went through these correct channels.
1:02:56 IA: We’re not trying to get around anything.” And we’re really not. And I think that having that structure is honestly more important for us as an organization and for people who are trying to do psychedelic science, who are trying to legitimize it, it really doesn’t work in our favor to have worse standards. So it’s gonna be… Or lower standards. It’s gonna be interesting to see how that plays out in the next few years, but I think that because there’s still so much uncertainty, it’s really hard to have a concrete action plan. So, we’re kind of just for now waiting and seeing.
1:03:21 PA: And I think… I’ll just make one last note before we wrap up, because I know you have to get going.
1:03:25 IA: Sure.
1:03:26 PA: One thing that could act as a bulwark against what you’re discussing, what you’re talking about, is the fact that even if the regulations are laxed and there is this supposed backlash, I think one thing that could prevent the supposed backlash is simply the fact that these substances work.
1:03:42 IA: Totally. Yeah.
1:03:43 PA: And I think MDMA works for PTSD. Cannabis works for PTSD. Psilocybin works for depression. And I think compared to the ’70s, in today’s environment, when people start talking about how they had PTSD for 10 years, and they did MDMA and they discuss that and talk about that… That positive science… That positive word-of-mouth will hopefully spread because of the Internet and because of the ability to easily communicate across nations and cities and states and all those other things.
1:04:17 IA: Totally, yeah.
1:04:18 PA: So that’s just one thing that I thought of that might act as a way to prevent that backlash, even if we do see more lax regulations.
1:04:24 IA: Totally.
1:04:25 PA: So, great. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know you have to get going, man, so we’ll wrap up. Is there any final last words you wanted to say or kick in or anything like that?
1:04:35 IA: Yeah, I guess I wanted to comment on the point you made, just really quickly earlier about access, and about how we deal with access to different populations. And I think that that’s becoming a really live question for us right now as we get closer to hopefully having a medical model for MDMA, and that kind of goes back to… And I think figuring out how we actually treat people who need treatment, instead of just turning this into a designer treatment that only some people can afford. I think that’s a really live question, and I think that the answer to that goes back a lot to what I was saying earlier and what we were talking about earlier around stigma and mental health.
1:05:14 IA: And I think for now we don’t have, as a society, especially in the United States, we don’t have access to good mental health services and that’s like a fault of like a lot of structures and people. There isn’t one really cause to that, there’s a whole bunch of causes that all go into the fact that there’s just an under resourced population, a huge under resourced population when it comes to access to mental health. So I think as these conversations go forward and, to be sure, the medical model is only one of many. And I could go into other… Maybe another time we can talk about what a religious or spiritual use looks on like a broad scale.
1:05:45 IA: But for now, when we’re thinking about like a medical or at least a healing model around access to these substances, we can’t just be thinking about the substances. Like I… Personally, I have gained a tremendous amount of personal benefit from my experiences with psychedelics. I know a lot of people who have as well. I really strongly believe in their power for personal growth, for social transformation, and for kind of community learning. I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential there. But at the end of the day, psychedelics are like anything else, and like I said earlier, a tool. And what we really need is that community, that connection, which can come through a lot of different sources. And I think remembering really clearly that what we’re trying to do is help the people have more tools. So they can do their own healing, so they can tap their own inner healer, their own… The person, the little child inside of them, the old grandmother inside of them. These people that I think, we all articulate that we kind of don’t always have access to. But will make it easier in the long run for people to really find that healing that they really need.
1:06:42 IA: And I think, I should say, I think and I hope that as this conversation moves forward, we’re really putting front and center what we’re really trying to do here, which is kind of satisfy this really pressing need that society has, which is kind of characterized by this real separation from self and separation from nature and separation from all these things that I think ultimately lead to a lot of suffering. A lot of personal suffering, that I think eventually becomes oppression. And I think that nexus between personal suffering and oppression is really important when we’re thinking about how to solve really high-level social problems. Because yeah, it’s… In my opinion, we’re not gonna be able to just give everyone MDMA and make the world a better place. It’s really not that simple, and that’s not the point. What is the point is for people to learn that in order for us to move forward as a society, we have to start really articulating and understanding our personal traumas. And then dealing with them, first at our own levels, then with our families, then with our communities. And then through that we can articulate actual change and actual growth over time, and hopefully actual human evolution.
1:07:45 PA: And I think that’s a beautiful way to end things, and I think that can happen, like you’re saying, through the use of substances like MDMA or Psilocybin or whatever it might be. But it also can happen from a non-pharmacological perspective as well.
1:07:56 IA: Totally, definitely.
1:07:57 PA: Cool. Well, thank you so much for sharing your time.
1:08:01 IA: Yeah, thank you so much, Paul. This was a fantastic conversation.