Destigmatizing Plant Medicine

Thank you for joining me. First, I’d like to briefly introduce myself and frame this monthly open journal series. My name is Kabir and I work at CCM with a primary focus on communications and research. I’d like to use this space as an opportunity to share thoughts related to plant medicine, holistic healing, academic research, and Indigenous wisdom. This month my focus will be on destigmatizing plant medicine. A few recent articles got me thinking– how can we most effectively destigmatize this medicine as individuals? What destigmatization efforts seem to be successful? What destigmatization strategies might we not yet know about?

 

For many, destigmatization efforts will likely center around sharing information on the safety and efficacy of plant medicine. Recently Oregon is an excellent example of this strategy in action. Following the success of Measure 109 in Oregon the Oregon Health Authority is tasked with regularly updating the public on relevant psilocybin research.  Last week the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board announced a new collaborative effort with a recently established psychedelic research center at Harvard Law School. This collaboration will bolster the initial report the Advisory Board released in July and help inform additional legislative efforts in other states. While the initial report did confirm the efficacy of psilocybin therapy in reducing depression and anxiety, this research initiative will expand the scope of inquiry. For instance, researchers will examine how psilocybin prohibition has affected marginalized communities and how Oregon’s new legislation could impact those individuals. Additionally, the report will draw from “Indigenous use of psilocybin, anthropology literature, religious scholarship, bioethics literature, medical and psychological literature from the mid-twentieth century, narrative descriptions of psilocybin use, public health data, legislative materials, and legal scholarship.” This approach to research is intended to foster clear acknowledgement and respect for historical ceremonial use of psilocybin. I’m thrilled to see a culturally sensitive approach to program building unfold in Oregon and hope other states follow this precedent.

 

What caught my eye here is not just that relevant information is shared with the public, but that it is coming from a statewide government agency.  This represents a shift in the broader approach some government institutions have towards alternative medicine. As efforts like Measure 109 succeed it may become commonplace across the country for health agencies to share research that may lead to breakthroughs in our ability to help those that are suffering– regardless of the political viability of the therapy in question. What can we do as individuals to help make this dream a reality? Be vocal! If you attended an institute of higher education write to them and emphasize the importance of psychedelic research. Institutions across the country (Harvard, UW-Madison, UC Berkeley, NYU) are opening new schools specifically for researching the emerging therapeutic psychedelic landscape. As legislation passes in other states outside of Oregon there will likely be public forums to voice your hopes, desires, and concerns for any proposed psychedelic therapy program. Demanding a state-wide organization release regular updates on relevant research is essential.

 

While sharing captivating new academic research is without a doubt an essential part of destigmatization, it is just as important to make the information in these studies digestible for as broad of an audience as possible. This CNBC article sums up a complex neurological process that occurs during a psilocybin experience in a straightforward, engaging manner. During psilocybin therapy there is widespread dysregulation of cortical activity, especially in the default mode network. This dysregulation causes our brains to experience an increase in the entropy of incoming stimuli, in many ways replicating the intensity of new stimuli we felt as small children. This process was described as follows in the article: “when people are young, their brains go through critical periods of learning and development that then become closed off as they age. Researchers believe that psychedelics ‘open those closed critical periods for just a tiny window of time.’”

 

Summarizing complex neuroscience into easily understood phrases that emphasize the importance of careful facilitation is an effective way to destigmatize plant medicine in communities with little prior knowledge of the medicine. Describing psychedelics as a conduit for learning and experiencing as one did as a child centers the power of the medicine while also implicitly acknowledging the importance of careful guidance during a vulnerable experience. To experience the joy, fear, curiosity, and wonder you felt as a child may seem like a profound blessing to many– but I find it unlikely most people would want to send a child off to learn and grow alone. This metaphor is compelling precisely because it does not overly romanticize the experience. The comparison to childhood learning is founded in neuroscience that suggests our brain is literally replicating the same neurochemical state we had many years prior. The fact that it sounds fantastical is in large part what makes it so inspiring. 

 

Making information on plant medicine accessible also relies on a diverse selection of thought leaders promoting the subject. There are plenty of folks in communities aligned with plant medicine that promote it– which is great– but the audience they reach are likely already open to the idea of psychedelic therapy, or at the very least vaguely aware of it. To enact widespread destigmatization we must seek out and celebrate thought leaders from circles that rarely overlap with the psychedelic world. One area I’ve seen more and more vocal support in recent years is professional sports. I am confident that there are hundreds of thousands of sports fans across North America with very little to no knowledge of plant medicine and the research and progress currently underway. As more and more professional athletes speak up on the benefit they have individually found it inspires conversations in households and communities that might not ever have begun otherwise. 

 

Another recent article highlights a proponent of psychedelic therapy who works in a space that is rarely receptive to plant medicine. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not the only representative working to enact drug policy reform at a federal level– but she is certainly one of the most popular folks working on it now. She receives consistent attention from the media and has amassed a quickly growing following, making her an incredibly helpful source of destigmatization. Some of her supporters have certainly heard of psychedelic therapy before, but many others, especially those from older generations, have not. Every politician, athlete, influencer, etc. who uses their platform to share recent research, historical cultural practices, even business opportunities, related to psychedelic therapy is working to normalize a conversation thought by many to be too dangerous to participate in. Decades-old propaganda has stifled the progress of both academic research and community-level conversations about plant medicine. Sharing the opinions of thought leaders in a variety of fields with our friends and family who may have interest in those specific fields is a great way to open up a broader conversation about plant medicine as a whole. 

 

Another aspect of sharing individually tailored information on plant medicine is found in illness-specific publications. I recently read an article on Pain News Network, an independent nonprofit news network focused on chronic pain and chronic illness, that discussed the potential for psychedelics to treat fibromyalgia. This is an excellent way of sharing information on plant medicine in an effort to destigmatize with a specific audience in mind. I’m excited to see similar articles sharing information on the ways psychedelic medicine may offer relief on blogs, forums, news sites, etc. with an illness/ailment-specific focus.

 

The final component of destigmatization I’d like to highlight is the importance of acknowledging the history of plant medicine. Easily accessible resources on the history and tradition surrounding plant medicine are relatively sparse but incredibly valuable. This is an academic review on the ancient roots of psychedelic medicine. While this article doesn’t provide an extremely in-depth review of any one specific cultural practice, the authors provide an excellent overview of the various cultures throughout history across the world that have used psychedelic medicine. This is a great article to share with folks who may have only heard of psychedelic medicine through recent Western academic research. This piece contextualizes the centuries-old history of psychedelic medicine highlighting the importance of ceremony and experienced facilitators. The knowledge that throughout centuries, and in some cases even millennia, humans have used plant medicine successfully should serve as a great comfort to many. While science, and approval from thought leaders, helps garner support– an understanding of cultural practices that have survived the test of time should be considered equally important. Organizations that hold space for both current research and historical tradition provide education that is, at least in my opinion, ultimately more convincing than either aspect on its own.

 

Thank you for reading! If you have any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to reach out. My email address is kabir@centerforcm.com