THIRD WAVE PODCAST
Why New Drug Policy Needs To Be About Justice
This week we talk psychedelics and drug policy with Natalie Ginsberg, Policy and Advocacy Director for MAPS. Natalie discusses how MAPS is using medical research to lay the groundwork for the decriminalization of all drug use. Could microdosing be a factor in destigmatizing drug use in mainstream society?
Natalie has witnessed first-hand the harm that current drug policy is doing disproportionately to people of color
Cannabis regulation has started to approach the issue of drug policy with a framework of justice. For us to make a difference, we need to use our privilege to openly discuss our substance use, and change cultural stigmas.
Natalie’s experiences as social worker and guidance counsellor shaped her interest in drug policy. She saw the harm that drug policy was doing to the most vulnerable young people, and realized that things needed to change. It was while working as a policy fellow for the Drug Policy Alliance, that Natalie discovered the research being done by MAPS to get substances regulated for medical use.
When Natalie started working at MAPS, the only psychedelic she had personally experienced was cannabis. “Smoking cannabis helped me get to the point of being interested in understanding other psychedelics.” Her experience with this substance also benefitted her work life: “Some of my best ideas have come from smoking cannabis.”
Cannabis regulation is something that Natalie thinks is starting to turn the tide of drug policy – and showing people that justice needs to be at the forefront of policy changes. Although many states still focus on business or medicinal applications of cannabis, Cory Booker’s recent federal legislation proposal has shown that people are starting to think about justice for those who have been most harmed by drug prohibition.
Natalie emphasises the importance of not separating different substances. We should treat all drugs the same when it comes to regulation – as we all agree that the majority of drug-related harm comes from their legal status. This means it’s crucial that we regulate the most harmful drugs like heroin as soon as possible; which means breaking down stigmas.
So what can we do to change the conversation around drugs? Natalie says that if you have the privilege to speak openly about your drug use, you should be doing so. If you don’t risk losing your job or going to prison, you should be exercising your ability to spread the message about responsible and beneficial substance use.
Changing our cultural attitudes to drugs requires us to begin an open dialogue about their benefits and nuances, together with important research being carried out by organizations like MAPS.
Note: since recording this podcast, the situation regarding research licenses for cannabis has changed. The DEA and DOJ are in a battle over granting these licenses.
00:29 Paul Austin: Hey listeners, and welcome back to The Third Wave Podcast. I’m your host, Paul Austin, per usual. For any new listeners, we of course welcome you and for all of you who are back again, thanks for tuning in. So I’m recording this from Brooklyn, where I’ve now been living for the past week and a half. New York is quite an adjustment, so I’m living in a Park Slope Gowanus area till the end of August and it’s just… There’s a lot of noise and it’s always noisy.
00:58 PA: It’s been kind of an adaptation and an adjustment for me living here, not sleeping quite as well. New York is just… It’s a really busy, busy, busy city and place. So I’m here definitely until the end of October, we’re working… I’m working with a couple of people here to get a microdosing course up and going, which we will be launching at the end of August, early September. So, stay tuned for that, the microdosing course, that’s gonna be fun.
01:24 PA: And we’re gonna do a special kind of soft launch to… Probably, the podcast and the email list, where we’ll open up access, to 100 people, for a super, super discounted lifetime price. We’re still determining what that might be, but we wanna make sure that the value that we’re offering is extremely high. And really, what this microdosing course is going to focus on is the two main problems that people deal with first. It’s trustworthy information in terms of starting a microdosing regimen and protocol and what you need to do and how you need to do it.
01:55 PA: But I think as this conversation evolves, more and more people are gonna be wondering, “Okay, well, now how do I get the most out of microdosing? How do I actually utilize this technology for the purpose that I got into it for?” So how do we create protocols, how do we pay attention to X, Y, and Z, how do we journal, all those things that will be the crux of our course. And I’m really, really excited to get this out to the world. I’ve been working on it for a considerable period of time. I’m super stoked to share it with you all. So, let’s get to this week in psychedelics, the typical beginning of the podcast. The first announcement is that a doctor apparently in Chile have prescribed microdoses of Psilocybin Mushrooms for anxiety. So there’s a Reddit subforum on the Drugs Reddit subforum, where one patient shared their prescription slip on that subforum.
02:48 PA: Now, I don’t know what this means. Obviously, mushrooms are not legal really anywhere. Even in Jamaica, they might be legal, but that’s only if you collect them in the wild yourself. There’s certainly no prescriptions being offered by doctors. So I would be interested to learn more about this and see what’s going on. I think microdoses will definitely be prescribed and used in the future, but I was surprised to see it this early. So, we’ll stay abreast of that and as we get updates, we’ll tune you guys in on the podcast too.
03:20 PA: The second piece of information is that NFL owners are considering to let players use medical Marijuana, which is a big shift for the league that has always been strictly prohibitionist. And I think this is probably largely because of all of the research and data coming out now about the harmfulness of opioids and how many NFL football players for pain purposes will become addicted to opioids. And Cannabis is obviously a much safer substance, it’s less addictive, it can’t kill you, it’s less harmful to the body. And so this shift for medical Marijuana, I think would be a tremendous cultural impact considering the relative importance of the National Football League in the United States’ culture and society.
04:07 PA: Last little piece of news, Inverse. So an article in Inverse quotes a professor of neurobiology at University of Cal, Berkeley, who says that microdosing is safer and more effective than conventional antidepressants. He’s also quoted in Ayelet Waldman’s “A Really Good Day”. So Inverse has been writing a number of pieces about psychedelics as of late, and so it’s no surprise that this one came out as well. And frankly, it’s no surprise. Obviously, for anyone who’s microdosed, they… Clearly, it’s more effective than conventional antidepressants.
04:39 PA: And I’ll be interested to see what happens as we continue to source data on microdosing. And obviously, we’ll be at the forefront of that. And that’s something that we also will talk about in the microdosing online course. What’s the utility of microdosing for depression? And that microdosing course will also come with lifetime updates which will be exciting. As more and more research comes out, we will update that consistently.
05:03 PA: That is this week in psychedelics. Let’s transition to our podcast for the week, which is with Natalie Ginsberg who is a friend of mine. Natalie and I met at Beyond Psychedelics in Prague about 11 months ago, then we connected again at Horizons a week later, and then again at Psychedelic Science. So we’re kind of conference buddies and we’ve had a few phone calls in the midst of that. Natalie’s doing really, really important work at MAPS in policy and advocacy. And basically, I wanted to get her on the podcast to hear her thoughts about the intersections between psychedelics and drug policy, what can be done from an advocacy perspective going forward to initiate change in our culture and society. So this is fairly American-centric. And we’ll also obviously get into Natalie’s story. Why is she working at MAPS, what were those experiences that informed her decision to work at MAPS? So this gets into her story of course because that’s why we do these podcasts.
06:01 PA: It’s not really about information, but it’s about weaving different stories into a cohesive narrative to understand the reason why people are working in these spaces, how their past and their stories have impacted the work that they’re currently doing, and what that means as we work towards a larger kind of cohesive vision of reintegrating psychedelics into our cultural framework. I think you guys will really enjoy the podcast, it’s a bit of a shorter one. We started the podcast a bit late and I had to run a bit early as to Natalie, so I think it might be 40-45 minutes in total. It’s a bit of a quicker one, but super valuable nonetheless. And I think you’ll really enjoy it. So without further ado, I bring to you Natalie Ginsberg, the Policy and Advocacy Director of MAPS.
07:03 PA: We can start with Natalie Ginsberg’s story, how she first got into psychedelics and why, and how that led to what you’re doing now with MAPS. So yeah, let’s just start with that. What was your first psychedelic experience and what did it mean to you?
07:16 Natalie Ginsberg: That’s actually a different question than how I got into MAPS in the first place. Interestingly enough, I actually hadn’t really had a powerful psychedelic experience until after I started working at MAPS. And I was initially really drawn to the work by reading about the research, and by working as a social worker, and working with people who were experiencing a lot of trauma and inadequate ways of dealing with that. So yeah, I guess, to back up a bit, when I was in Social Work School, first I was working as a guidance counselor at a middle school in a very poor neighborhood in the Bronx, where a lot of the kids that I was working with experienced just so much trauma. And but I was noticing that a lot of the difficulties they were facing, really were stemming from the systems of control, and how the schools were operating, how they were walking down the street and getting stopped by police officers and treated like criminals, just on their walk to school. And so… Just like the broader systems of racism really impacting kids on the individual level. So that made me interested in working in drug policy reform because I saw drug policy as something that was really fueling our systems of mass incarceration and criminalization. And so, I was lucky to be a Policy Fellow at Drug Policy Alliance during my second year at Social Work School.
08:50 NG: And when I was doing that work is when I started reading about MAPS’ research. And I was really struck by this approach to mental health that was about kind of addressing the root cause of the trauma, instead of just trying to deal with the symptoms. Because that was really what we were being taught a lot at Social Work School even or as a therapist was, “Here are these ways of helping people work through their symptoms.” But there wasn’t really a lot being talked about like what was causing it. And I was just so… Psychedelics were helping things like PTSD, and depression, and addiction, and all of these things that were being taught were really separate illnesses. And so it just kind of really connected to me that it was not all these different diseases of the brain, but it is about kind of addressing the core. But as I’m also going on about that, I’m realizing that when I initially answered your question about my first psychedelic experience, I’m not including Cannabis, which I do really consider a psychedelic. And some… My smoking Cannabis definitely has helped me get to the point of reading about and being interested in understanding other psychedelics and MAPS’ work. And to this day, I still… Cannabis is probably my favorite psychedelic and one that’s been a really powerful ally to me in a lot of different ways. So I don’t wanna count that. Count that guy out. [chuckle]
10:11 PA: Totally.
10:11 NG: [unclear speech] actually Cannabis is a female plant, so…
10:16 PA: Do you use it in “psychedelic ways”? Meaning do you go into it with a specific intention? Because oftentimes when I smoke Cannabis, it’s like I’m rolling up a spliff with friends as a late-night thing we smoke it, we chat and there’s not really a ceremony around it. How do you normally utilize Cannabis or interact with Cannabis?
10:40 NG: Well, I would say I use Cannabis in a lot of different ways. But I do really try to have an intention. So even if it is rolling it up with friends, that is like part of the intention. And often our conversation will kind of get to different levels or we’ll be able to make different connections, or think about things in different ways, or kind of have a more heart-opened conversation. And so even that way I see Cannabis operating and it’s like a psychedelic manner. But certainly, I really get a lot out of smoking Cannabis alone and with the intention of coming up… Like thinking about different things. I’ve had so many of my best ideas I think have come from being in a state of just kind of letting Cannabis. My mind wander, and make connections, and really yeah explore different things. So it does seem very psychedelic to me in that way. And I know sometimes, it will kind of just arrest me like if I’m… Like I’ll be walking somewhere, and just some idea kind of hits and I kind of get into a deep state of following that strand of creativity somewhere. But I really, my whole… I’m like very deep… I don’t know, it really feels like there’s a psychedelic component to that.
11:56 NG: Like my body, I’ll just literally stop and be kind of arrested in that space. Or conversely, I’ll find my body moving in a really cool like… Whether, you know… Maybe I’m working out an idea and I’ll find my body kind of dancing through something, or I don’t know. So Cannabis definitely allows me to work through a lot of different things.
12:22 NG: I have, but not sticking to a dedicated regimen. And I am definitely interested in exploring it more because I have to say my experience which is quite limited. I’m not very sensitive to it. And I know the point is that it’s imperceptible but it was for me. And I think I didn’t dedicate enough time to understand its impact on me. But I would be curious to compare how microdosing would be different or… I mean, I imagine it would be quite different. But how I would enjoy that impact on my creativity, and kind of functionality during the day.
13:04 PA: For me, it’s like this is something that I’ve been talking about quite a bit on the podcast, as well as on some of our other resources. I’ve had conversations with Jim about this, Neil Goldsmith. About how sometimes microdosing might even be more than sub-perceptible, right? So it might be what Neil calls a museum dose, where we might take instead of 15 mics, it might be 30 mics. And what I’ve noticed for me at least, when taking lower doses of LSD, it kinda helps with externalizing systems that I’m thinking about. And then externalizing them, on the world in a way that makes sense. Whereas with Cannabis I feel like Cannabis helps me a lot with the internal processing, but if I try to externalize that on the world, it’s a little bit messier, to get into. But this is kind of veering off track anyway. And I would like to talk about you, and your specialty, and I think we can take that Cannabis link and we can tie it to something that was really exciting in the news over the past week, which was the initiative that Cory Booker did with the Drug Policy Alliance.
14:09 NG: Yeah.
14:09 PA: Can you talk a little bit about that in terms of your understanding of that and also your hope in terms of what impact that might have on a policy level for the federal government?
14:21 NG: Sure. So Cory Booker introduced legislation to legalize Cannabis federally. And that’s actually the first piece of legislation that was put federally to do that. And I was very encouraged overall by that being the first bill because it was one that was quite grounded in kind of a broader framework of justice and recognizing the deep harms of prohibition, while certain states that have legalized have had different focuses, let’s say. And some are more focused on businesses and have even had rules prohibiting people with criminal records from participating in the Cannabis industry. So not in any way trying to compensate for the harms. So in that way, I’m quite encouraged. I would say that I’m not overly optimistic that this bill is really gonna move forward any time in the very near future, but I think the intention with the bill is really to start this conversation and lay the groundwork for… If this is kind of where the conversation is starting, I think that’s a pretty awesome thing.
15:30 NG: And I also do think in this general climate right now, with, there’s a lot… Sessions is coming really aggressively for Cannabis. I’m actually seeing that in some ways, definitely not all ways, but in some ways that’s also kind of helping because it’s really forcing people to stand up more strongly for Cannabis and to defend states’ rights and to defend different pieces that before any legislators weren’t really comfortable taking a strong stance on one way or the other. But Sessions has been saying so many ridiculous things that kind of forces people to also then educate. I’ve seen media do really great articles every time Sessions says something about Cannabis making the opioid crisis worse, or something. And then there’s great pieces explaining how Cannabis… Actually states with medical Cannabis have seen a 25% drop in opiate-related death. And how many people are replacing opiates with Cannabis or using Cannabis to help reduce their opiate use.
16:33 NG: So it was just like… It’s been interesting to see how that has worked. And I am generally optimistic about Cannabis, although I don’t know that it’s gonna be legalized federally, as I said super soon, but I don’t think it’s too far off either because really the more, more people that have access to it both as medicine and in legal states and the more people who really understand both the cost of prohibition and the safety of Cannabis, especially relative to things like alcohol or tobacco, I think the harder it really is gonna be to reverse directions on that. Though I will say I see a lot of potential in the many pharmaceutical companies that have a lot of money and lobbying power, perhaps some of the strongest lobbies, they are the ones that are donating money to many of the politicians that are most forcefully standing against Cannabis. So that is one thing to just be conscious of, especially as we bring it into the opiate context. Just some of these companies that are making prescription opiates, are also funding all of these anti-drug free, anti-Cannabis campaigns, which is just really interesting to be aware of and to see how that will play out.
17:50 PA: And I think for me, that speaks to, and this is something that I talk about on the podcast here and there, is that speaks to the power of local and state governments and what we’ve done so far because many of those politicians really actually do pay attention to the interest of the people rather than the interest of corporations, I think it’s pretty well known by this point in time that by and large, our federal government has been bought out by corporate interests and there are a lot of values that we not only learn from our experiences with Cannabis, but obviously also our experience with psychedelics that are antithetical to a lot of these corporate values that have dictated American society and culture for so long. And so part of me is really curious to see what happens when things like Cannabis, MDMA, and Psilocybin become legal on a federal level. What are the implications of that, what does that mean? And one big question that I have is what does that mean for transitioning into a better political system?
18:53 PA: So even, Natalie before we hopped on the podcast we were talking about cryptocurrencies, and it seems like cryptocurrencies have a ton of potential to destabilize the very centralized bureaucratic financial system that we currently find ourselves kind of stuck within. And so once we have cryptocurrency, once we have these other technologies like MDMA, Psilocybin legalized. Part of me thinks that that’s gonna help us to transition into a more compassionate and caring society and community that moves past this nation-state that we’ve built into kind of a post-industrial, post-nation state era where things are more decentralized, and the political offices that we elect are more, they’re more in line with the principles and the values of the people who elect them, rather than the corporations who pay them money.
19:42 NG: I certainly hope so, but something that you said just reminded me a bit of something that we talk about a lot in our work which is, you were mentioning when things like MDMA and Psilocybin and Cannabis are legal federally. And though, as you know right now, there’s research both with MDMA that MAPS is doing, and with Psilocybin that Usona is conducting to make both those substances into medicine, so in that way they will be legal federally but they would still be in the medical context. And in terms of fully legalizing these substances outside of the medical context which… I don’t believe that any substances should be criminalized. So I definitely… We’re ultimately working towards that but we believe that it’s also really important not to continue to separate different special drugs and legalize these good drugs like psychedelics but we don’t wanna talk about legalizing things like heroin, ’cause that’s the… Doing air quotes right now, “the bad drugs”. And just these continue separation and Cannabis is “good safe drug” but that’s totally different in many people’s minds and other substances. But I think that’s just a really important part of my work in drug policy, is recognizing that the harms from these drugs are really exacerbated by them being illegal.
21:07 NG: So it’s almost even more urgent to be legalizing substances like heroin that are causing so much damage because that would allow for them to be regulated and used much more safely. And also frankly, many more people are currently being arrested for other drugs than for psychedelics. So that is just something an interesting thing to keep in mind. ‘Cause working at MAPS people definitely approach us all of the time about trying to state initiatives to legalize mushrooms, or do things that… In one way, of course we support the idea of not criminalizing these substances and making them more accessible to people in a safer way but it is in terms of broader work I think important to think of decriminalizing all drugs and Cannabis has been this special case. And it has kind of led the way and opened things up.
21:57 NG: And I think it’s had a role but I guess I am concerned about the idea of just going kind of substance by substances and making special cases for certain drugs which that certain people tend to use those drugs that we consider safer. Things like psychedelics really… The kind of communities of people in the US at least who have access to them are often quite privileged communities and people who are not really suffering from arrests and from the same harm from the drug war, or to the same extent. I won’t say they’re not suffering ’cause I think really we all are, and anyone who is operating in any of these systems under prohibition certainly risks a lot more than they would be otherwise. But I just think it’s important to kind of hold that broader picture.
22:47 PA: Yeah, and what you’re talking a little bit about is privilege. These people, like you and me, we have a certain level of privilege that we were born in pretty well-to-do families, we had a really excellent education, we’ve definitely both been impacted by the drug war, which is why we’re doing the work that we’re doing today. At the same time, as far as I know, we both haven’t been arrested and put through the entire system which makes us unable to get a job and support a family and kind of all of those things.
23:15 NG: Totally. And to add to that, that both of us our work is… Surrounds talking about substances that are illegal. That we feel comfortable and safe enough to even do that is an immense privilege.
23:29 PA: It is. And I think it’s an important one that those in that position… People who are in a position like ours more and more people step out and do this. And we’ve had conversations about this before, in terms of the importance of de-stigmatizing psychedelics. Because I think the sense that I get when I’m looking at this from a mainstream public level is with a lot of the changing conversations around Cannabis we are now having these conversations… To go back to your previous point, there’s alcohol and tobacco and caffeine, which are these kind of state-sanctioned psychoactive substances. We have Cannabis which likely will become a state-sanctioned psychoactive substance probably in the next two to three, maybe five years. But then we have all these other drugs.
24:14 PA: We have this almost monolithic term that we wrap not only heroin and methamphetamines and MDMA under but we also wrap some of the more classic psychedelics like LSD and Psilocybin and Ayahuasca and DMT under these. So if you talk to your average person, if you say, “Oh, yeah, I’m microdosing LSD,” they’re probably gonna think that it’s highly addictive. They’re probably gonna think that you’re abusing it. They’re probably gonna think that it can kill you. They’re probably gonna think all these things that aren’t true. My follow-up question to that then is, from an advocacy perspective, what can we do as individuals and communities to start to change this conversation not only around psychedelics but also all drugs so that we can de-criminalize them and eventually legalize them?
25:02 NG: I think that you were saying before something that is really important to me, which is that when people can kind of recognize that they do have the ability to speak more openly about these things to do that and to speak about both their own experiences with psychedelics or what they’ve seen with friends or about research or about any level that they feel comfortable. That that really makes the biggest difference. And we know with medical Cannabis that what makes you most likely to support medical Cannabis is not whether you’ve smoked yourself, but if you’ve had a friend that’s a medical Cannabis patient or a family member. You know, someone that Cannabis has really helped as a medicine. Just seeing that personal connection is really hugely important, especially for something like psychedelics where there’s just been so much stigma and misinformation that it’s really hard to kind of reverse and re-educate people.
25:53 NG: And I think that while not… I can understand the fear around speaking very publicly about these things that I really would encourage people to even talk to their family members or close friends. That is a really huge important conversation that, if you have a special connection with a family member, or a close friend. And even if you’re not as comfortable being super public, that can really still have a big shift. And honestly, I do think that the only way we are gonna continue shifting policy is when people’s minds are changed, and politicians or other people working in different government agencies, they are all people that read the news and live in our world otherwise and are super influenced by what’s going on and what people generally understand about these things. And that’s why I think it’s really great what you’re doing with talking about microdosing because I see that is the way that people have been able to speak more openly and comfortably about these drugs and kind of help de-stigmatize psychedelics, when people feel like you can take it in smaller doses or things that feel safer. I have seen that be very beneficial.
27:05 PA: Well, it’s seeming to open a lot of doors and a lot of different avenues that we haven’t really been able to open before ’cause sometimes these high-dose psychedelic experiences, and I’m not talking so much about MDMA because MDMA is definitely psychedelic in nature, but it also, it does have this kind of non-threatening way about it as well. There are a lot of people in our culture who have done MDMA or ecstasy, what they thought was ecstasy, like a party going up but they never touch a psychedelic because of all the cultural stigma that exists around it. So, MDMA also falls in that, but particularly with microdosing it’s seeming to sit at all these deltas, or it’s seeming to sit at a delta of all these different things going on, related to more and more people are becoming disgruntled with pharmaceutical companies, particularly with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.
27:56 PA: There’s a lot of people who are becoming interested in not only living pretty good but living their best life, like optimization and bio-hacking. And there are a lot of people who are looking to access flow states to be more creative as we deal with more complex problems and topics that we need to solve in a world that looks to be increasingly chaotic. We’re recording this podcast at a time when North Korea is basically threatening to nuke Guam. That’s an issue. But again, that seems to be less of an issue than climate change which a lot of people in our worlds don’t really… Well, a lot of people in our worlds definitely understand, but a lot of people from a mainstream level still don’t accept.
28:37 NG: Totally. And I think even people that understand it, can feel quite helpless about it. And that is one potential for psychedelics I see that is under-utilized. I think that, I know there’s been studies I think out of Imperial connecting psychedelic experiences with people’s connection to nature and making people feel more connected to nature and more connected to moving things forward. So I think there’s a lot to be explored with that. I’m actually curious if you know if microdosing has the same effects.
29:11 PA: Well, I think… No, I don’t think microdosing does really have those transcendent effects from the ego and I think that’s where this idea of connection and empathy with nature and the world around us, it comes from that transcendent experience, that we often get with higher doses. But I do think microdosing makes the idea of having a psychedelic experience more palpable.
29:36 NG: Oh, sorry, I was just gonna say from my personal experience when I’m drinking Ayahuasca, actually in the time I was drinking I had very subtle experiences. I haven’t really had any kind of these big ego-dissolving kind of those experiences that you might expect would help connect with nature, but I’ve actually really found that after drinking, I have noticed I have different ways of being in nature, more desire to spend time in nature, even things like the dogs connect love me now in a way that I don’t know I have definitely experienced the effects. So I guess I’m just saying, I’m not sure that it’s always necessarily connected to those big dose experiences but that there might be other more subtle changes that psychedelics can also bring about that help improve nature connectedness or whatever.
30:25 PA: I think you’re definitely right on that. And now that you got me thinking on this topic, it’s like, as I’ve been microdosing more and more, I have wanted to spend more time in parks, I have wanted to spend more time with people. I’ve had this sense of self-care. So even a lot of people who are microdosing report that they eat healthier, maybe more vegetarian, they’re more conscious of what they’re putting in their body. So I think these low-dose experiences, the difference between the low-dose and the high-dose experiences is, I think with the low dose it tends to be a build-up. So day zero to day 90, you’re gonna notice a big difference but it’s not day zero to day one where it’s a significant shift, whereas with some of these high doses, it’s more like day zero, you go from having a really shitty day, to day one or day two, feeling all of a sudden this huge outpouring of love and connection and empathy for everything around us.
31:11 PA: And then of course, that dissipates over time, until you do the high-dose experience again. So, microdosing seems to be helping with… It could help with those in-between phases. But again, this is going off-topic. I really wanna dig more into you and I wanna dig more into policy and advocacy, and I particularly like to hear more about what you’re doing at MAPS right now because I think a lot of our audience and listeners would like to hear more about that. So let’s dig into that a little bit. What have you been working on over the past six to nine months, particularly to policy and advocacy with MAPS, and where is that going in the next year or so?
31:48 NG: These last six to nine months have been a lot with the psychedelic science, our conference, which I know I saw you at was a really awesome job, both required a lot of work going in but has also produced a lot of amazing different connections and work, which has been really awesome. But I guess to step back, I’d say our number one policy priority right now is ending this DEA enforced monopoly, NIDA-run monopoly of research Cannabis. So right now, there’s only one source of Cannabis that is legally available for federally-approved research, and beyond MAPS has our MDMA for PTSD studies which have been going on for over a decade right now…
32:37 NG: And we’re about to start phase three and really going on full steam ahead with those. But we also received $2.15 million grant from Colorado State a few years ago. But because of all of these different bureaucratic hurdles and different policies preventing Cannabis research from moving forward, we only just recently started that study. And that study, we’re using this Cannabis grown at University of Mississippi, by NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse because they’re the only people producing Cannabis we can use for research. But besides, that Cannabis certainly not being the quality of medical Cannabis in California, for example, where I live, and we’re using this to treat PTSD and veterans, so it’s really quite important about the quality of the medicine.
33:27 NG: But on top of that, this is a phase two study, and we’re doing, same as MDMA, we’re doing drug development research with the idea of having Cannabis as an FDA-approved medicine, so that insurance would cover it, and it would be legal on a federal level, not just state level. But so to move forward to phase three, which is the final phase of Cannabis research, you have to use Cannabis, the same medicine that you were then gonna plan to sell to market, which you can’t sell Cannabis grown by the government to market. That’s not like a sustainable supply and the government also won’t be selling that to you and making mass quantities.
34:05 NG: So basically, as it stands right now, there’s zero pathway forward with that, and MAPS has sued the DEA over this many years ago, and we’ve been kind of pressuring the DEA to change this. And then last year, the DEA finally announced that it would end this monopoly and it would grant more licenses, which was really exciting. But now as far as we know, at least 25 different companies have applied to grow Cannabis and they have yet to grant a single license. So that continues to be our main priority is forcing the DEA, pressuring the DEA to grant more licenses to facilitate Cannabis research. Because right now we see Cannabis research being blocked much more than other psychedelic research in the US because really the main hurdle to other psychedelic research at this point is the funding though being Scheduled One certainly makes it more difficult to research these substances.
35:05 NG: It’s not impossible, but I guess along those lines, I’m thinking another priority of ours that we’ve been focusing on is trying to find the funds and create the space to do Ibogaine research because it has been quite difficult and actually NIDA at the moment isn’t even… You need to also have the drugs produced to be able to do research on them. And NIDA right now is producing a non-psychoactive Ibogaine that they’re willing to do research with, but in the midst of this opiate crisis, it seems really crazy to us that people aren’t willing to try anything they can that might help people suffering through opiate use disorders, but on the same front that’s also why we’re pushing to unlist NIDA monopoly over Cannabis because we know Cannabis could also be… There is also a very powerful tool in the context of the opiate crisis. But I guess, and to say just a few more words about Ibogaine, there are actually three states, this past year: Vermont, New York and Maryland, that introduced Ibogaine research bills. They get it, they’re trying to legalize research in their states to try to move forward with Ibogaine. So there are people conscious of that and trying to move forward little by little.
36:28 PA: So why, a question that comes out of this for me is, why is it so damn hard to get research up and going for the psychoactive substances that the government has deemed to be Schedule One, even though we now have the research that shows they’re not as dangerous, for example, as alcohol and tobacco, which are both state-sanctioned psychoactive substances, why do you think there’s so much pushback from the federal government and the federal level?
36:58 NG: Well, the pushback is really around Cannabis with these extra kind of regulations and things that make it more difficult. But actually, they’re saying, “Though there are extra regulations that make these Schedule One substances harder to research like, requiring… Purchasing a really huge expensive safe to store the substances in or having doctors that have to have certain licenses… That have a Schedule One license to be able to administer… ” There are definitely things that make it more complicated, but I wouldn’t say that they’re actively put making it, like they’re actively trying to stop that research. The fact that both MAPS and Usona are about to start phase three with Psilocybin and MDMA shows that it has been possible. And those are just drug development research, but there’s certainly been other academic studies that are more easy also to do… To conduct research around.
37:53 NG: So that’s been something… I think there’s more pushback around Cannabis because there’s more awareness of Cannabis. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are more threatened by Cannabis at the moment. Now we’ll see what happens but there’s just more consciousness and also more of a fear of it getting out. There’s a lot of protection, not wanting people to… The University of Mississippi I know the farm is is very well protected and it’s in the ideas of these DEA administrators are like, “We could never… Growing… Sanctioning more Cannabis farms, everyone’s gonna wanna kind of steal the Cannabis.” In their minds, it seems easier to have redistributed in a way that they fear. That would be one of my guesses.
38:39 PA: But this is… It still seems to be so far from reality, right? There seems to be this growing disconnect between the federal government and what its people want. And so I guess, I’m even questioning, on a larger level, what happens when you have a government at the federal level, regardless of whether Trump and Sessions and all them had been elected. That’s so out of touch with the fact that its populous is suffering, its populous is going through an opioid epidemic. It’s like you were talking about earlier, the war on drugs has created this stratified racism in our society and culture, and it’s caused so much more harm than anything that we could imagine. All the stigma that we have against mental health. All these pharmaceutical companies that have pushed SSRIs and anti-anxiety medications and ADH medications on kids as young as four or five years old, which has kick-started all this. I guess for me is the bigger question is, how are they so clueless? And part of it comes back to me, is like… I’ll paraphrase here, but it’s like, you can’t get someone to believe something, something that their job doesn’t depend on. Or you can’t get someone, I’m paraphrasing it incorrectly, but it’s basically, you can’t get someone to buy into a concept or idea that actually threatens their very livelihood and threatens the very structure that they built it on.
40:03 PA: So I’m even looking at it more from a high-end perspective. I think part of the big reason why the DEA, for example, isn’t granting any of these licenses, and it’s been so difficult in unwinding the war on drugs. It’s not because of any rational reason. It’s simply because, whether they understand this consciously or subconsciously, that if they are to approve this, if they are to wind down the war on drugs, then there won’t be a DEA anymore. I don’t know how many people work for the DEA, whatever it is, but the institution always exists to perpetuate itself.
40:37 PA: And if it actively excepts things or ratifies things, that makes it whatever, not available anymore, then there’s obviously… That’s not gonna happen. So this is what’s interesting then about what MAPS is doing, it’s like you guys are obviously, you’re following all the protocols, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s a bit more subversive than that. It’s more like, we’re hoping to get this medicalized, and that way… I’ve had these, a conversation with Brad about this before, I think the first podcast that we did. It’s like, once we can get it medicalized, then we can kind of walk MDMA through the full legalization process because of all these things that you’re talking about with storytelling and people who healed from PTSD. It becomes more normalized and more integrated into culture and society as a whole.
41:25 NG: Yeah, definitely. And that’s also a reason why a big focus of MAPS is our harm reduction work. Because it’s very important that one day, when these substances are legal, that we really have the systems in place to make them as safe as they have the potential to be. They are safe substances, but they also have the potential to do a lot of harm if people are taking them in ways that… In spaces they don’t feel safe or, and things that are coming up, they can severely re-traumatize. So that’s work I’m really proud that Rick and MAPS prioritize, is creating that framework for current use when people… We know people are using psychedelics now even when it isn’t legal and so then teaching people how to best take care of that.
42:11 NG: So I guess I can also elaborate a bit when I say harm reduction. MAPS has a project called the Zendo Project, which creates safe spaces at festivals like Burning Man, where trained peer counselors are waiting for people who might be having difficult psychedelic experiences so they can, instead of having, engaging with this… Being overwhelmed by their festival when they’re having a difficult time, they can go to a quiet space and process and work through what’s coming up for them. And often, their difficult experience turns into a really valuable one, and when they’re able to be in that right context. So we think that’s really essential.
42:54 NG: And another piece of harm reduction is the concept of drug-testing because we know, especially substances like MDMA are very… Are almost always adulterated and oftentimes are cut with quite dangerous substances. And MDMA, of course, is not the only thing. We know LSD, recently, there have also been a lot of different kinds of new things being passed off as LSD that are quite dangerous. And so, yeah, we think it’s really important people are learning to take responsibility for what they’re putting in their body. Because of prohibition, we often don’t know what are in these substances. And then another leg of harm reduction is really this education and knowledge. This is so more people know the safer choices they can make. So I guess all of those things are really what we’re keeping in mind as we’re maybe working towards a distant vision of a time where drugs are not criminalized. But in the meantime, we think it’s really important to build the safest route there, if that makes sense.
43:58 PA: And it totally makes sense. I know Rick has talked about this before, and this is often an analogy that I think about. It’s like when people first learn to drive cars, you don’t just put them in a car and say, “Well, let’s see how that goes,” right? When you’re 15, you drive with your parents for a year. Then when you’re 16, or just before your 16th birthday, this was for me, at least, in Michigan, you take a driver’s test and you get a driver’s license. And I think Rick has talked about this before. It’s like, “Well, we should do the same thing for psychedelics.” Obviously, you don’t give this really strong, potentially dangerous substance to someone who has no context or education or understanding of it. So in order for people to really utilize it, especially when we’re looking at a post-medical world, it’s important that we educate them about how they can utilize them. It’s important that we create a container and space in which they can utilize them properly. And it’s also important that we provide the integration and aftercare so that the experience that they have is meaningful and profound and insightful. Because that is what heals these traumas that you were talking about at the beginning of the podcast. And that’s, I think, ties back into the reason why you got involved in this work was really, what we’re doing is, with psychedelics, is we’re healing a lot of trauma.
45:10 NG: Yup, absolutely. And that is something that, at least for me, psychedelics have helped me really understand trauma to be a much broader concept than I think I also initially understood. And while there are very severe traumas that can result in things like PTSD and substance use disorder, that really everyone experiences minor traumas every day, or birth is everyone’s initial trauma. And psychedelic experiences can often help you basically understand how your experiences impact and shape you. And to me, that really is, trauma is about an experience. And so, I think in that way, psychedelics are incredibly powerful because as you’re learning about what has shaped and created you and how you operate, the more conscious you become of that, the more [A] you can work to either to make changes within yourself, if that is, if you choose, but also it allows you to better understand other people and why they may be acting how they’re acting and to then improve your ability to connect and empathize. So I do think this piece of trauma or this concept of trauma is one that is really revelatory.
46:24 PA: Yeah, it absolutely is. And I think for me, my own traumas that I’ve gone through, and this kinda gets back into our conversation about privilege, we all have our own traumas that we’ve dealt with and those traumas have then, in some cases, inspired us to go above and beyond. So my own was like growing up in a place and a time that I basically felt ostracized and like an outcast. So I grew up in a very traditional family. Drugs are bad, things are bad, generally enjoying yourself is bad, sex is bad, all these things. And so, when I first got into Cannabis, I was basically shamed by my family for smoking weed, like so many people in our generation have been. And then when I was 20, and I don’t know if I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but I was basically doing what some college kids do to make a few extra bucks, selling some Cannabis and I was also caught by the police doing that. And nothing came of it because I was able to, I was never arrested or anything like that, but that still was traumatizing for me. And I think that experience when I was 20, is what then, that traumatizing experience, I didn’t sleep for three weeks. I basically, after it all got resolved, was very, very sick for an extended period of time. Yeah, it was bad, and it was for basically selling weed to a few friends…
47:41 NG: And that’s sounds so, like that impact, I can’t even imagine how you weren’t able to sleep for three weeks and it sounds like such a difficult scary experience. And then, I guess, from my perspective of working with so many people, mostly people of color who have been arrested and to even understand the trauma then, it’s so dramatic and your experience and yet, that was relatively lucky, as far as those things go, you know what I mean?
48:07 PA: Yeah, it absolutely was. It was super lucky because nothing really came of it, except then to heal that trauma, I basically did a psychedelic experience a few months after that. However, and I had a bad trip. I had a challenging experience, but I had no context for it. I had no understanding of it. I had no awareness of why did I have this bad trip until five years later when I smoked DMT with a close friend, and he actually walked me through it. And only five years after the fact, was able to relive that trauma, work through it, and then finally have these really open, kind of blissful experiences on psychedelics again. So I think that also speaks to what we’re talking about is, it’s one thing to wanna go in and heal trauma. However, it’s a whole another thing to have the appropriate container and context in which if that trauma does come up, that we can process it appropriately to actually grow from the experience and not have it be something that continues to recur again and again.
49:04 NG: Totally. And that’s why I say, it can really be quite dangerous in those ways. Like if a really difficult experience is coming up in a container that’s not appropriate and you’re stuck in that kind of fear space and that’s what your body is retaining and holding on to, that can be really quite harmful.
49:22 PA: How do you think that plays out then, based on your work and experience, how does that play out, that trauma, in communities of color for example, in New York or Chicago or Detroit, places like this?
49:35 NG: Trauma in general or trauma from the psychedelic experience that was not had the right container to…
49:41 PA: Let’s go trauma from the war on the drugs. We’ll do that. Trauma from the war on drugs, in particular.
49:46 NG: I think there has been such immense trauma that’s actually really under-diagnosed especially in communities of color and many marginalized communities. There’s one study in Atlanta in a black neighborhood with higher rates of violence, where the average person had a higher rate of PTSD… I mean, yeah, there were high rates of PTSD than in returning war veterans, just to give you some context. And there’s actually this amazing researcher named Dr. Monica Williams, a professor at University of Connecticut and she has done research demonstrating that you can actually get PTSD from experiencing racism, from daily racial trauma and the experience of being a person of color in the US, literally can manifest in PTSD symptoms. A feeling of when you’re walking down the street that literally you could be shot for really no reason by a police officer or every time you turn on the television, seeing someone that looks like you being shot and then, or maybe the police officer not being brought to justice over that or there’s just so many levels of… Or even very small, what we will call microaggressions, like little comments that a friend might make that really kind of can grow on you when you would start to feel like these constant reminders of difference, I guess.
51:10 NG: And we see also in other marginalized communities, there’s always very high rates of trauma. Like the transgender community has an astronomical suicide rate because they are a community that is made to feel so trauma… Even by the experience of going to the bathroom to feel like there, it’s a traumatizing experience to not have the space to exist and to live in a society that tells you that you kind of shouldn’t exist. So we are definitely seeing a lot of conversations around what trauma looks like in these communities and different ways of providing support, and how important it is in communities that experience trauma to also have community approaches to healing, both individual and community approaches. Because trauma really, it can be experienced and is experienced on community levels, and not just individual levels.
52:03 PA: Absolutely. So before we wrap up, could you just tell our listeners the best place to find you, whether that’s on Twitter or whatever it might be in case they wanna reach out or get more information about what you’re doing at MAPS?
52:16 NG: Yeah, it’s awesome. You can find me on Twitter @NatalieLyla, and Lyla, L-Y-L-A, or MAPS website, maps.org. There’s a ton of information all about our different research. There’s soon gonna be actually a page up about the policy and advocacy work that me and my colleague, Ismael, are doing, if you’re interested in finding out more about that. Yeah, Twitter would be a great way to reach out.
52:43 PA: Great. Well, thank you so much for doing this and hopping on the call, Natalie, and digging into these topics. I think this is something that I’d like to do a follow-up for in maybe six to 12 months, once we have made some more progress but I think this is a really good start for our listeners in terms of policy and advocacy in the psychedelic but also the larger drug space. So thanks again for doing this.
53:05 NG: Well, thank you. Great to speak to you.
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