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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Beyond Pot: Psychoactive Drugs Touted as New Medical Frontier

Southern California resident Paula Kahn says she began exploring the use of psychoactive drugs as a teenager to help her heal from past trauma, a practice that health researchers – and health-tourism entrepreneurs – have begun studying and promoting in recent years. 

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Southern California resident Paula Kahn says she began exploring the use of psychoactive drugs as a teenager to help her heal from past trauma, a practice that health researchers – and health-tourism entrepreneurs – have begun studying and promoting in recent years.

Kahn said that as a survivor of sexual violence, psychoactive drugs gave her a sense of empowerment and control over her own body by tapping into practices used by indigenous communities as part of their religious ceremonies and medicine for thousands of years.

She began researching the potential widespread application of medicinal plants in public health, especially for people who experience multiple oppressions in their life. She looked up a psychotherapy training program at the California Institute for Integral Studies but didn't see any people of color or indigenous educators in the program.

Kahn also found that along with being classified as a controlled substance and therefore illegal to possess, many of the medicinal plant treatments – often used in a space described as a ceremony – are unaffordable.

One known as ayahuasca, a plant-based beverage, gained media attention for relieving depression in patients who did not respond to conventional treatments.

A company called Temple of the Light leads a 14-day ayahuasca retreat, which includes yoga and mindfulness training. Participants pay up to $1,800, or nearly $3,000 for a 23-day retreat, for a guided ceremony deep in a Peruvian jungle.

The company website says participants will gain a “new sense of self that is more resilient and peaceful.”

“I couldn’t afford these medicinal plants or guided ceremonies,” Kahn said. “I wonder whether these healing practices are accessible to folks most experiencing state violence. People in these spaces tend to be well-resourced white people.”

Kahn said she is concerned that in what she called a “very white drug policy movement,” medicinal plants outside of cannabis will remain out of reach for those who don’t have the time and financial resources to seek them out.

A good venue for discussing expansion of access to these substances was the Los Angeles Psychedelic Science Symposium, a conference that took place over the weekend at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Psychedelic science advocates promoted the history of medicinal plants and their application in public health. Presenters discussed the recent ways Western science has analyzed psychedelic plants’ impact on public health issues like depression, opioid addiction and mental illness.

The conference, however, featured no discussion of expanding access to low-income communities and people of color.

Dr. John Drimmer, clinical psychologist and board member of LAPSS, said in an interview with Courthouse News that he agreed with Kahn.

The movement to embrace psychoactive substances from a public health sense is dominated by white people and is out of reach for many who stand to benefit, potentially the most, from treatments, he said.

Drimmer said inaccessibility is a result of the “illegal” classification by federal regulators.

“These substances are illegal, that’s why they’re inaccessible,” said Drummer, who formerly taught at UCLA’s medical school. “Even for a well-to-do white person from the Westside [of LA], it’s hard to access these treatments.”


Drimmer said in order for society to benefit from these treatments they must be researched in a controlled setting. For now, they remain “underground except in very few research venues,” he said.

Sandy Walsh, spokesperson with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said in a statement to Courthouse News that Schedule I substances – which include psychoactive drugs – are subject to the most stringent restrictions under the Controlled Substances Act.

That means they can’t be manufactured, distributed, dispensed, or possessed except as part of a research.

The FDA can’t discuss any specific drug trials, Walsh said, though individual drug companies or researchers can share information about their trials.

Researchers at the conference – including Canadian physician Gabor Mate, Dr. Draulio de Araujo of the Brain Institute in Natal, Brazil and Sofia University professor James Fadiman – presented studies on the use of psychedelics and other plant-based substances in medicine and therapy.

In his study, Araújo and his team tested the effect of the ayahuasca plant beverage on 29 patients who had taken at least two antidepressant drugs in the past without signs of improvement. Each person was randomly treated with ayahuasca or with a fake brew during a single session.

Compared to the people who only received a placebo, the ayahuasca treatment reduced depression symptoms more rapidly than other antidepressants available in the local market.

Fadiman said in a statement that despite the stigmas attached to medicinal plants, medical researchers and mental health professionals “increasingly recognize the need to create forums to discuss the potential public health benefits of these medicines.”

He added: “The preliminary research we have suggests that these medicines can have a profound and positive effect on people’s lives. Despite laws that prescribe their use.”

Psychoactive elements – which are produced by plants including fungi and peyote cactus – have always threatened the political and social status quo upheld by governments and religious institutions. And popular culture promulgates a narrative that psychedelics and people who use them are out of touch and perhaps even dangerous.

“The stigma that’s attached is that people who use these substances are addicted, that they don’t have any agency or could be involved in something criminal,” Kahn said.

Drimmer said he isn’t convinced that the general public is opposed to the use of psychoactive plants in medicine. He said society, including city and county public health officials, probably don’t know much about the medicine, which leads to their fear of its application.

Officials from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comments by press time.

Kahn is starting a nonprofit organization called Cosmovisiones Ancestrales that she said seeks to “bridge the gap” between users of psychoactive medicine and the indigenous communities where the medicine is sourced from.

“There is often no talk of ethical consumption in these medicinal plant advocate circles,” Kahn said. “There’s a disconnect between consuming and the impact on indigenous communities and their land.”

Kahn wants to work with indigenous communities to develop sustainable ways of “curating healing experiences” and promoting indigenous knowledge, which she said is often seen as less legitimate when compared to studies by university researchers.

At the opening of the LAPSS conference, keynote speaker Gabor Mate warned attendees against the “Mickey Mouse approach” to using psychoactive medicine, referring to users who are simply looking for a good trip.

“These modalities must be approached with respect and reverence, they’re here to teach us,” he said. “These are not panaceas and don’t take the place of hard work.”

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