Updated: Feb 18
On Amplify #10 we talk with Ifetayo about the War on Drugs, the need for the inclusion of people of color in psychedelic spaces, and her work with POC Psychedelic Collective. Let’s check this out!
*This interview was conducted and transcribed by Jessika Lagarde and condensed for clarity.
WOOP: How did you get involved with DPA, and what is your current role in the organization?
Ifetayo: I got involved with the DPA in 2013 when I was a junior in college and I was looking for an internship to do and I remember coming across the DPA's website. I had never seen an organization that spoke about people who use drugs compassionately and in a totally different way, so I applied for the internship and I got it.
While I was there, I was working in the media department and movement building team.
Most of the work was on how to build relationships with journalists, pitching stories, and then also organizing various communities to advocate for the ending of the War on Drugs. We worked a lot with faith communities throughout the country as well.
And that was also the first time I started writing publicly about my experience of having my father incarcerated for a drug offense. So I wrote about that in a few publications, an op-ed called "Children of Incarcerated Parents Bear the Weight of the War on Drugs". And then a few months later, the DPA invited me to speak at their conference at their opening plenary in Denver, Colorado and I didn't know what I was getting myself into.
I have never spoken to many people, so it was a really eye-opening experience. I wrote a speech and halfway through my speech, I just broke down and cried. But then after I was finished giving the talk, so many people came up to me and told me that they appreciate me sharing my story and that they related. I met other folks whose parents were incarcerated, or I met people who were the parents who were incarcerated and separated from their children.
Then I started working full time at DPA two years after I finished college. First I worked in the grants department, then I moved to communications. So I've been there for almost five years now! I really got involved because of my experience growing up with my father incarcerated, but also because of seeing other people in my family or kids at school be criminalized in different ways because of the war on drugs.
WOOP: How has the continued racism influenced current drug policies, policing, and mass incarceration of people of color today? (Please include some statistics in the US.)
Ifetayo: I believe one statistic is 80% of the people in federal prison for drug possession or drug charge in general, are black or Latino. So that 80% means that's racism right there, right? The ACLU did a report back in 2013 around marijuana use arrests and what they found is that black people and white people use marijuana at the same rates. Still, in most states around the country, black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana. So the drug war really enables racism.
It was started as almost like a trojan horse into our communities to destroy them and to make them weaker. And that was an easy way to do that because drug use is very common. It's a part of the human experience. People have been using drugs since caveman times.
WOOP: Black and indigenous communities have a long history of using plant medicines. Yet the psychedelic space has always been very white, lacking inclusivity and diversity. Why are we not hearing more from people of color - are they being excluded, or are they afraid to speak up? Who are some people of color our readers could follow?
Ifetayo: I could say it could be both of those things and other things as well. I think that in terms of like psychedelic organizations who do research, for a long time, they separate themselves from the larger drug policy reform movement. And a lot of them felt like doing policy work was going to threaten their research.
So, as a black person, if I'm looking at a psychedelic organization's website and I see nothing on there about the war on drugs or about racism, then it's gonna make me feel like this is not the organization for me. Because you can't talk about drugs in the US without talking about the war on drugs and racism.
A lot of the psychedelic organizations do that to avoid certain things, but that ultimately means they end up excluding people from the movement. And I think to your point about people being afraid to be open about their research, I think that's very real and valid.
I think that nowadays people are pretty open about the different drugs and substances that they use. But I know that 10, 20, 30 years ago it used to be even more stigmatized. Then you also have to consider the threat of criminalization was very, very real for folks of color. And it still is until today.
I think that some people believe that because we have decriminalization in a lot of states and cities around the country, the cops don't care as much about psychedelics. But I think that oftentimes it's not about the drugs themselves. It's about cops getting their numbers up and so with that it's very easy for a person of color to get arrested for drug use.
Even if they are just using it for personal possession, it's very easy for law enforcement officials to drop charges and to take a possession charge and make that into an intent to sell charge. So there's a lot more risk for us when it comes to seizing these substances.
And I think that to some extent there is some exclusion, right? Like if you are a psychedelic event planner and you don't have anyone that looks like me on your list of speakers, or none of the attendees look like me, then that's not gonna make me feel welcome. It's not gonna make me feel like this is a space for me.
And there are still other ways that folks of color are excluded. A lot of these conferences are very expensive. And so if you're from a working-class background, you're going to have trouble being able to afford a lot of these events. That kind of excludes us from the more white side of the psychedelic space.
WOOP: Let’s talk about cultural appropriation in the psychedelic world. Many plant medicines traditionally used in native cultures have been appropriated and offered as healing experiences for white consumers without acknowledging the wisdom and legacy of those cultures. Racism and colonialism undermine native traditions and wisdom in the name of research and science. What are the dangers of that, and what are some ways to mitigate its negative effects?
Ifetayo: I think that cultural appropriation can be dangerous because it makes it so that everyone thinks that they have an equal stake in saying certain cultural aspects. Say, for example, weed or pot. I've seen it in a lot of conversations folks saying "Well, this is for, this comes from this, in this group, but it's for everyone, anyone can use it", and I really disagree with that.
I'm not going to judge people for doing those things, but I do think that there needs to be a lot of careful consideration that goes not only into your planning and your interaction with these indigenous medicines but also with the people and their culture. And I think that it's very easy to replicate somewhat colonialist dynamics when you're engaging with ayahuasca tourism or during peyote.
I think another one of the dangers that we're going to see very soon is that with a lot of these decriminalize nature initiatives happening all over the country, they are really insulting the indigenous groups from where these substances originate. And so decriminalization is one thing, but the next step is legalization that will open a commercial market for these substances.
And to me, that's where cultural appropriation really is dangerous because we live in a capitalist society and if we don't have any kind of cultural protections for these medicines I think that people will exploit them in different ways. I think that people will bottle it up and synthesize it into something else and start selling it for price and for profit. And that takes away the cultural importance of the substances for the indigenous people.
I think something that we can do to mitigate the dangers and the risks is to really listen to indigenous groups in America, Central America, South America, and really deeply listen before taking action. And then also figuring out what kind of regulation models are there out in the world for when legalization does inevitably happen. There are different regulation models for substances that I think we should really look at, like cultural protections for indigenous groups.
I think that there needs to be some cultural protections and restrictions around these things. And again, listening to indigenous groups, supporting them. And when I say support, I mean giving them resources, donating to their causes, and not only causes really to be psychedelic medicines but all causes. Because a lot of these issues around peyote and ayahuasca are also tied to the environment as well. So I think we also need to consider supporting that aspect as well.
WOOP: Academic studies around psychedelics have not included researchers or communities of color. Why is this a problem? What is currently being done to change that, and how can the psychedelic community be more inclusive in general?
Ifetayo: I think that shows bias on the side of the researchers, right? And the academics who are doing that work. I think that if you're a researcher and you're not unpacking your own biases, then you're going to perpetuate those biases throughout your work.
So I always share this example of folks when I worked at kidnaps a few years ago we had a staff meeting and the clinical team was doing a presentation. And they're going over the demographics of the study and I remember they said 90% of the participants were white and I was just the only black person in the room at the time. So I was like "This is weird". And I remember someone saying "Why do we have so many white people, not a lot of people of color?"
And the respondent said: "Oh, it just happened that way". I share that as an example of what I'm saying. If you don't unpack your biases, you're going to project those biases into your work. And so to them, it just happened that way because in their minds the bias is that white people are the default.
It's really important for people to do racial justice training, because if you don't, then you're good with anything. You'll think that there's nothing's wrong with having a study with 90% white people.
I think though that there's been some progress to make it more inclusive. I think there's been a lot of folks who are tired of it being homogenous. I think there's also more interest from academics and researchers of color who want to get involved. I think that's something we can continue to build upon.
Bringing in more folks of color, bringing in more researchers and academics of color who are interested in this kind of work, bringing in more therapists of color. And giving them the training or whatever resources they need to contribute to a psychedelic work.
WOOP: You’ve co-founded the POC Psychedelic Collective in 2017 to provide a space for people of color to talk about and explore psychedelic substances. What are some of the ways it is doing that, and what are some of your events or resources we can point our readers of color to?
Ifetayo: We've been doing this for three years now and it's been a learning experience for me. And I think a big part of this work is just meeting other folks of color who are in the psychedelic space when we go to events. That's one way that we serve our community and audience, by being there for representation.
We've done panels with other psychedelic societies like Philadelphia and DC. We had our conference last year in DC, the Empyrean Conference. We also had a retreat last year in Santa Fe, New Mexico and we're hoping we can start doing that stuff again.
I think it's really about starting a conversation and opening the dialogue. I don't feel like I have to do a lot because there's so much knowledge out there and it's really just about creating a space for people to come and to gather and to share their thoughts and ideas.
It was really cool to see that especially at our conference last year, we had about a hundred people in DC and we had folks who travel from all over the country just to come to our event. That's really inspiring for me. And it made me realize how much this work is needed. Because there's a lot of us out there, but we're all separated right into our own little circles. So our job with POC Psychedelic Collective is just to bring those circles closer together and also bring a different lens on looking at psychedelics.
We need to start looking at psychedelics through the lens of the war on drugs and through racial justice. So we really need to understand and give folks of color that understanding, that our communities have been targeted for years now. Psychedelics are a part of that.
And I think that there are some efforts to kind of depoliticize psychedelics as substances, but they're very political and they're associated with hippies. But it's deeper than that because a lot of those "hippies'' were activists and they were anti-war activists. They were civil rights activists. And we also need to look at the history of our government kind of experimenting with these substances.
I think that says a lot about how powerful these substances are. And I think we're really here to just educate people about that and to also be educated. It's really about a community learning approach. So it's a learning process for all sides.
WOOP: Do many people of color know about or use psychedelics, or is there a stigma around it? How accessible is psychedelic therapy to people of color?
Ifetayo: I think that people of color do know about psychedelics. I first learned about psychedelics in middle school, but I still didn't really have a grasp on what it was because it's one thing to know that a substance exists, but it's another thing to try it.
There's a different stigma for us in our community. Because of the war on drugs, because of the crack error in the black community. Just using substances in general, altering your state of consciousness is something that people are afraid of to some extent. There's a stigma because a lot of folks, especially in the black community in the seventies and eighties, saw their family members get addicted to other substances. We saw them go to prison. We saw our family members die of overdoses.
We still have that collective memory, collective trauma from that era. I think that makes us cautious about using psychedelics. And when it comes to accessibility, you have to understand that the war on drugs and prohibition makes it more difficult for these substances to be accessible. And it makes it more dangerous.
When you start thinking about certain substances, like LSD in MDMA, if you're buying it off the street, you don't know what you're getting. It could be cut with adulterants. And if these types of substances were legal or at least decriminalized, we would be able to have more of a harm reduction infrastructure in place. We could actually test these substances and see what's actually in them. We could regulate the supply of the substances for people to use.
WOOP: How did you first come across psychedelics and how has it helped you heal?
Ifetayo: I got diagnosed with depression in college and in some ways, it wasn't surprising because I knew that I experienced bouts of depression before as a kid. So I was really depressed my senior year of college and I was feeling suicidal sometimes. And my options were to go into therapy and then also get antidepressants. And I was very cautious around that because I never tried anything like that before.
Even though I know that antidepressants work really well for a lot of people I was scared to do it. So I was looking for an alternative. And when I went to the conference in Colorado in 2013, I attended a panel with a lot of psychedelic researchers and they were talking about end-of-life treatment with psychedelics.
So folks with terminal illnesses using LSD and other things to help them cope with end-of-life anxiety. So I drew some parallels in that experience and I thought maybe I should try this. So on one Saturday morning, I made a peanut butter sandwich with the mushrooms and ate it, and went for a walk on this nature trail. And I didn't know what to expect.
And I had a great trip. I was reminded of the simple things in life. That life is all around us in different ways. Being on this trip was like I was a kid again, almost because of the things I was seeing. It felt like how I imagined the world was as a child.
This really opened my eyes in a lot of ways because I wasn't very spiritual or religious before. I was an atheist agnostic and really didn't believe in any God. So while seeing all these scenes around me, I realized there's a whole world up that I was not seeing. And that challenged a lot of my understanding of the world. And challenging my idea of how the world works was inspiring and healing for me. The mushrooms let air breathe into my life and it was like an emotional reset for me.
WOOP: What are the ways people can get involved in or support the work done at POC Psychedelic Collective?
Ifetayo: We get a lot of people reaching out to us about volunteering and being involved. And I think that's something that we're going to be doing more of right now. We filed our incorporation papers for our nonprofit. And so I think in 2021 we're going to be looking for more volunteers to work with us.
And when COVID has died down a bit, we can maybe have some events. I would like to do another retreat. I think that it is a really rewarding experience for a lot of people, especially folks who are new to psychedelics. And reach out to us on social media, we are there.
WOOP: Any other suggestions on how the psychedelic community can support and uplift communities of color?
Ifetayo: Listening to indigenous groups, giving them resources. A lot of people aren't able to do the work they want to do because they don't have the means to do it. And that it's money basically. That's the difference between a lot of the more established organizations versus the non established ones. So I think money and resources is a big one.
And also if you're a person who's planning out an event, making sure that you don't have an all-white panel. We have to do better in terms of that, and also sharing and uplifting our work.
Besides that, just sharing and uplifting our work on POC Psychedelic Collective. We've done a couple of online workshops this year. And there are other groups of folks of color who are doing this work as well. So I think it's important to also share everyone's work.
Really fight back and get some notion that there's a limited amount of people of color in
the psychedelic space or interested in psychedelics because there's a lot of the stuff out there.
Ifetayo Harvey is the marketing coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and founder of the People of Color Psychedelic Collective. She is a graduate of Smith College with a BA in History and African Studies and has shared her experience of being personally impacted by the drug war. Ifetayo is currently a student of Somatic Sex Education. In her free time, she enjoys TV, fitness, crafts, and playing her euphonium or listening to music. She is originally from Charleston, SC and currently lives in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @if3tay0.