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The Colonization of the Astral Plane:
Ethical Dimensions of Plant Medicine and Opening the Doors of Perception.
A draft of a talk and paper I submitted and gave yesterday at “Forms of Psycadelic Life” conference in Berkley CA.
With the uptick in the popularity and ready public acceptance of plant medicine journeys, psychedelics, and other traditional healing methods, as well as the FDA’s starting to admit the myriad pharmaceutical, psychological, and neurological benefits for practitioners more ethical dilemmas arise than new horizons.
The interest from those whose ancestors chose “white”--white culture, white identity, whiteness, or more accurately “power”--in land-based practices often use hybridized indigenous practices in neo-versions of traditional “medicines:”plant, animal, and experientially derived medicines to alter the consciousnesses of practitioner, patient, or client. But without the development of a shared ontology and an anti-racist lens, or a decolonial counter-narrative to the disputed history of this emerging field, we are irredeemably reinforcing the products of white supremacy and offering white-washed psychedelic ossuaries that are pseudo spiritual communities divorced from indigenous, black or brown culture or frankly pain. These ethical dimensions our eyes so readily stare beyond are actually the whole point of sacred ceremony. While one of the entourage effects is one may become reconnected not just one's own body, trauma, pain , or shadowside, but the community of people around them. It is to help us connect to each other.
I say this not as an outsider, or the unaffected. I’m not trying to be presumptive, but I am assuming I am the only person, or one of the few, submitting a paper to this conference who has a felony arrest, plus conviction for LSD, and who has served over two years in a county prison for this arrest.
It is also not inappropriate at this juncture to place my intersectional identity into this conversation. I am formerly houseless with a ten year period without home, succor, or support in this nation from 11 years old until my early 20’s. Even then, I was housing insecure until my 30’s and find myself in the same boat now. At this conference.
I am Black, trans, non-binary to be exact for those who will become obsessed, and mostly an autodidact from the early scraps of knowledge, wisdom, and esoteric understanding one can steal from a public library. Finally, I have spent over 25 years in the so-called psychedelic underground, counter culture that will be much beaten up upon, malaised, and called irrevocably irresponsible by some today. From Haight Street , to the Kesey Family Farm, and then to buying my own 1942 silver Ford Harvester Bus with a 1946 engine, a complete bolt by bolt recreation of the Merry Pranksters’ famous bus “Further.” I have crawled through the cow fields of Ocalla National Forest before the academy deemed cowshit worthy of its ontological attention. I still have several spots in New Mexico where I have permission to harvest peyote if I am ever in need of seeing just how cosmically ridiculous I am again. Ironically, I find myself today in an African Diasporic and Indigenous tradition that doesn't use any psychedelic or psychotropic means to reach the same ecstatic states of consciousness, and find a more stable rhythm this way.
I am convinced we must become Astral Abolitionists, and Psychedelic Freedom Fighters. The first step is to not pretend that this isn't well threaded ground by the academy. To not pretend it has not been historically mismanaged , abused, and co-opted by this very august body's predecessors. We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to see the social utility in alchemy, warrior rites, the proliferation of the ability to perceive beyond what we deem the veil, or the mundane. Nor are we the first to presuppose the medical benefits to be beyond what Western Enlightenment can perceive.
If we fail to do this we are just colonizing the so-called “astral plane” and assisting in the hyper-capitalization of higher states of consciousness which recreates on a spiritual plane the same systems of oppression that led many to seek out this land-based tool for humanity.
This paper will address the issues of access, privilege, and licensing in this brave new world, and explore what reparations means in this context. We will also ask the following questions:
Can there be a real community of so-called “ascended” and “enlightened” if that same community doesn't start with reparations to formerly incarcerated psychonauts?
Is this such well explored territory by the state that we unknowingly hand the forces of empire the ontological and pharmacological keys to the “heavens” themselves?
Is there a real social value to encouraging and fostering a rich counter culture that runs as a decolonial counter narrative to capitalism's attempts to profit from these medicines? Or another words: Is our only hope the Trickster?
“don't just describe an emotion, arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion, and sometimes we have to come into awareness through the back door.”
That little quote from the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and “you are either on the bus, or off the bus” were guiding principles when I was a young teen. It spoke to the experience of psychedelics, or at least my experience of psychedelics, more clearly than:“Be Here Now;” or Leary’s CIA fueled rants; and certainly made more sense to me than Huxley. The Merry Pranksters experience, though privileged, white, and very ensconced in a specific context and time, still spoke more to me as a Black Queer kid from West Philadelphia than anything else. It felt dangerous, real. To me, it always read as a story about a group of artists who seemed to be on the run and under the gun by the United States of America, and destined to lose. This tracked with my experience.
I experienced, or became experienced, with opening the doors of perception in the early 90’s when penalties for taking, consuming, or even possessing LSD, Psycobilin, or THC were high. Pun intended.
In fact, I spent much of my early teen and young adult life in jail in places like Boulder, Colorado, San Francisco, California, and eventually in my home state of Pennsylvania for a joint, or three hits of LSD to date my most dastardly deed, at a folk festival.
I was unable to access student loans, be promoted at any job, or have a credit score of 700 most of my life until recently for these crimes. The same joint I will probably enjoy after this conference, or some of the very tools we will be espousing to one another, in states and jurisdictions where these plant and pharmacological medicines are either recreationally or medically legal. To further complicate these instances in my life I have been named a medical patient in several states for all of these medicines. As someone who has experienced the prison industrial complex as a result of psychedelic apartheid and as a student historian who credits their early occult, esoteric, spiritual and theological range and curiosity to these tools I find myself often in strange quandaries.
On one hand the US Government has waged an ideological driven chemical and biological warfare on her more spiritually attuned citizens openly since the late 1960’s. Even the Yale press, with it’s fawning account of the CIA’s exploits post-WW2, described the government's role in the astral plane like this:
“Another illustration may be given with regard to chemical and biological warfare. Notoriously, the CIA and army scientists explored the realm of mind-control drugs and truth drugs, an experimental program known as MK-ULTRA that culminated in the suicide, under the in- fluence of secretly administered LSD, of army scientist Frank Olson. But this lurid story fails to disguise an underlying restraint. In the late 1940’s, the CIA had started worrying about Soviet chemical warfare capabilities and mind-control drugs that might be administered to sleeper assassins (Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate popularized the concept in 1959)” (Rhordi 2002)
Furthermore, it is the academy in particular that over the last 50 years has had no ethical dilemma whatsoever handing the keys over. This state of being we wax whimsical about this day we seem all too willing to give over to these very same malevolent forces I hope we can all agree to describe at a minimum as the project of coloniality, capitalism, and for the more spiritually minded, empire.
Whether one is chasing down the summerland, cosmo visions, eschaton and messianic kin-doms that drip into our world, or just plain see the neurological benefits of these medicines, this isn’t a brave new world. This is well-trodden territory for the academy, the FDA, local governments, and the institutions of policing, whom we know are the armed enforcers of capitalism.
Or in more plain terms: if local municipalities, governments, and police have stopped treating something like contraband, or morally irregular, that means it has become capital or property.
The California cannabis industry is all the proof one would ever need to point to capitalism’s corrupting influence. Without going into a full discourse about it, I urge you to study this example
How is it in 2023 we are having this conversation, when less than 10 miles from here I spent 2 years in county prison for the sale of 2.5 grams of cannabis? What conditions on the ground have made it more socially acceptable?
I propose to us this fine day that the only reason we are here is because the capitalist and medical/wellness industrial complex has decided to colonize the astral plane as psychnaughts have known it, thus making the trickster, the prankster, the underground and all it’s pitfalls the only hope we actually have left.
If you need proof here is a lovely quote from a peer review cost benefit analysis one can just google from my current home state of Oregon:
“Providers of psychedelic therapies including therapist groups and larger provider networks, as well as insurers, must understand the supply, demand, and price dynamics of these interventions. Appropriate pricing is crucial for patient access, payer adoption, and revenue generation. There are various methods for setting the price of new pharmaceuticals. Value-based approaches seek to develop a societal value estimate as an upper-bound for the price; return on investment (ROI) approaches determine the lower bound. The societal value, in turn, depends on appropriate cost-effectiveness analyses that compare net health care costs with expected health benefits (50, 70). Within plausible price bounds, the profit or revenue-maximizing price is determined by a variety of factors including especially the price elasticity of demand (71). The successful introduction of psychedelic therapies is similar to the rollout of conventional medical therapies. However, an important difference arises from the history of prohibition: Illegal cannabis continues to compete with legal, regulated cannabis products. Similarly, market models for legal psychedelic medicines must account for potential downward pressures on price exerted by well-entrenched informal markets for LSD, MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms, and other psychedelic materials” (Jones 2022)
This is the new incarnation of the empire and it is being sung in the secret places of the cosmos. It is full of fed’s just like the old days. “Shiny black shoe wearing alphabet boys.”
As a historian and sentient Black person in this country there is little effective difference between the CIA, the FDA, the FBI, or local state cannabis boards to the average black person. They are means of control to keep us from ever holding capital, property or wealth, and I don't think this bold new era of scientific and cultural rediscovery of ancient technologies long known to those of us relegated to the margins of society is something we should willing hand over like we did the cannabis industry, or other forms of so called esoteric or spiritual wellness.
It is creating a system of Spiritual Apartheid, and reinforces the very structures of the project of coloniality. It also doubles down on the western enlightenment notion that everything that came before it is inferior, lesser, or needs our help by ignoring the social wealth of spiritual technologies those in prisons across the country have developed for us to use at this time. We ignore their contributions at great peril, it is tantamount to ignoring the Trickster themselves.
Is our plan to render the very face of the cosmos with whiteness now? Are we hell bent on ignoring the black, brown, indigenous, and poor white bones this psychedelic graveyard we are all haunting is built out of? Is creating an apartheid system even on higher levels of consciousness our only fate at this very immature time in our societies development, or will the best of what makes humanity rise to the top?
At this point it would be legitimate to ask me if I see these medicines as helpful, or hopeful to this stage of humanities social development, completely hampered by the white supremacist lens that sentence implies. Humanity has known about this natural technology, and it’s social utility for millenia. The real question is will this be enough to get us within even arms reach of our lost humanity, for we have become a people so out of touch with land, our bodies, our own stories, our ancestors that we have spent over a century trying to use prohibition and a prison industrial complex to curb or even stop these very natural societal behaviors.
So yes , I believe there is real hope in the proliferation, distribution, the use of more “proper forms of ceremonial container” and trying to make things very safe for the “normies.” The only problem with that is the very medicine itself. If anyone has ever taken a plant medicine journey knows, it would be ludicrous to suggest you know exactly how things will turn out for the practitioner. I may know the proper dosing for desired outcomes, how to care for the you that is your body you may sometimes wholesale abandon, and soothing words, phrases, patterns, ceremony, and tools to make sure you are surrounded by love, and feel empowered in that state of consciousness, but the whole point of even taking this medicine is that we have no idea what will emerge. It is emergence, entanglement, paradox, the hero’s journey and sometimes one hell of a movie all wrapped into one.
I have gone on hundreds of plant medicine, LSD, DMT, Peyote, Psilocybin, and every other sundry form of psychedelic out there, and I have no idea what will happen when I truly open myself once again to chapel perilous, or the maw that is cosmic uncertainty. Only fools pretend they know what will happen for certain.
Which brings the bigger question: does knowing what my EKG may look like , my heart rate, my typical body response, and other common phenomena one can discover in their friends van on a saturday night mean I am being scientific? What happens when science comes up against a phenomena that can’t be repeated over and over again, and in fact is more like birth when truly successful it is the art co-creating with the practitioner something novel, wild and uncontrollable. Sentient life in its rawest form, the human untethered by the mundane for a brief moment, then integrated back into what we call the everyday, but not just for their benefit, but for the social, intellectual, and spiritual technology they bring back to our community with our healing.
Conclusion: The Call of the Trickster, and New Ontological Realities.
I propose that the only way to keep the academy, Federal and State governments is to push for decriminalization for the average descendant of the diaspora or of settler culture, and full legalization for indigenous peoples of the two continents we sometimes call the Americas or Turtle Island. I say decriminalization for the rest of us because the most obvious first issue is not just the immediate release of these clearly political prisoners for any charge related to non violent possession, sales, and even manufacturing of any psychedelics. Period. We must also turn to these everyday practitioners who didn't have to invade another's culture, practice, or country to tap into some of the same sacred realms so many of us have only glimpsed at the invitation of others.
Furthermore with the rise of extreme rhetoric, both parties doubling down on a police state like tactics to keep control during civil unrest, and the increasing mental health crisis it is through communities built of mutual aid or mutual trust in concentric sacred circles built of neighbors, neighborhoods, and practitioners. The great obsession that is creating any of this into professionalization, specialization, and classification is a western enlightenment construct.
It also leaves no chance for the novel, the unexpected, or you know the actual beneficiaries of all this work, or so many of us will claim these next few days, the actual people. It is in people, through people, and our shared experiences that we know the Divine in my opinion, and I do not believe any of this exploration of the spheres will be any different. It must have the energy of the trickster called synchronicity by some:
“Synchronicity was enshrined in the acid mysticism of the sixties, where it functioned like the psychedelic equivalent of Christian grace. In THe Electric Kool-Aid Test, we often find Ken Kesy and the Merry Pranksters enjoying, tracking, and even helping stage uncanny coincidences, which Wolfe ( but not Kesy) calls synchronicities. Prankster lore included a number of example s of this “weird shit” like the time Neal Cassady ran out of gas driving everyone to the High Sierras, only to encounter, the next morning , a Chevron gasoline tanker that stopped to fill the bus up, then continue up an isolated road.
Synchronicity is the wink of the Trickster. Emerging unbidden and in your face, a strong synchronicity suggests (without confirming) the existence of a mischievous and almost paranormal network of intentionality-what Kesey called “cosmic control” and what Lily attributed to ECCO ( Earth Coincidence Control Office)” (Davis 2019, )
We must leave room for this energy to always be a part of what we are doing because we have seen first hand what capitalism and the State can do with these medicines
If it is in people that we shall open up new technologies from deep within the well of the collective unconscious in this age, then we must be in conversation with our own traditions, moral compass, peers, and this counter culture community. They're the only ones who can keep us accountable to radical redistribution of this medicine. I leave with this truth from the Black experience in the Americas. If white people can make money from it, they legalize it.
Davis, Erik. 2019. High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies. N.p.: MIT Press.
Jones, Jennifer L. 2022. “The economics of psychedelic-assisted therapies: A research agenda.” Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.1025726/full?&utm_source=Email_to_authors_&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=T1_11.5e1_author&utm_campaign=Email_publication&field=&journalName=Frontiers_in_Psychiatry&id=1025726.
Rhordi, Jeffreys J. 2002. ““Allen Dulles and the CIA.” In Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence.” Jstor. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm6rw.13.
Wolfe, Tom. 2008. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. N.p.: Pan Macmillan Australia Pty, Limited.