Until she was a sophomore in Claremont McKenna College, Haya Al-Hejailan believed that all drugs were bad. Al-Hejailan grew up in Saudi Arabia, where Islam—which deems intoxicants haram, or a crime against God—informs the constitution.
In Saudi Arabia, possession of drugs can garner prison sentences or public floggings, and selling them can result in the death penalty. Breaking a brief moratorium on executions for drug offenses—coinciding with progressive moves under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia has reportedly executed 20 people for non-violent drug-related crimes in November 2022 alone.
Al-Hejailan’s perspective on drugs shifted when James Fadiman, a longtime psychedelic researcher, came to speak at her college in 2013 about the psychedelic renaissance. “The lecture changed my life,” she told DoubleBlind in an interview. “For the first time, I was listening to an actual scientist talking about psychedelics. I walked out of there having to pick up my jaw and re-attach it to my face.”
After Fadiman’s lecture, Al-Hejailan switched her major from Government and International Relations to psychology, and when she graduated in 2017, she thrust herself into the field of psychedelics. She has since become a psychedelic integration and harm reduction trainer with Fluence, taught a class on psychological approaches to psychedelic therapy, and assisted in Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy trainings. She is also currently co-producing and co-directing a documentary on the psychedelic movement, entitled “Psychedelic Renaissance.”
Currently based back in Riyadh, Al-Hejailan has launched the Arab Psychedelic Society—as an Instagram page—after initial trepidation. “Honestly, I was scared people would say I was promoting drugs,” she said. But after an interview with Al-Hejailan, published in Saudi-based newspaper Arab News, received overwhelmingly positive feedback, with tens of researchers reaching out to discuss ideas for collaboration and many more inquiring about the availability of psychedelic treatment, she felt “it was time to take a risk.”
In the interview below, Haya Al-Hejailan talks to DoubleBlind about her plans for the Arab Psychedelic Society.
DoubleBlind: Why do you think that lecture by James Fadiman left such an impact on you?
Haya-Al-Hejailan: I grew up in Saudi during the very Wahabi [an austere Islamic movement that prescribes literal, and strict, interpretation of the Quran] period, so I would say that like many Saudi women, I was experiencing complex PTSD. I was also beginning to explore my own mental health, and I was very unhappy with the treatment I was getting. I was just fed pills, basically. And it was never really about getting to the root of my issue. So I was very frustrated and disillusioned with the mental health infrastructure. And when I attended this lecture by Dr. James Fadiman, I realized that there are other methods that have been used for thousands of years that do just that; they tackle the core root. And I just thought to myself, if I were ever to become a therapist, I can’t look my patients in the eyes and tell them, ‘hey, I know there’s something that can actually really help you out, more than the prescription that you’re going to be getting from the psychiatrist, but I can’t use it to help you, because it’s illegal.’ I just felt like it was my duty in a sense or my calling to actually make this kind of treatment available to everyone around me.
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DB: What is your vision for the Arab Psychedelic Society?
HA: Our primary goals right now are visibility and awareness. That’s how we aim to build a community, and by extension, create an environment where people can come together and collaborate towards advancing the field of psychedelic psychotherapy in our part of the world. The next step for us would be to establish a mentorship program, and a scholarship fund for Saudi and Arab high school seniors and college graduates who are looking to specialize in psychedelics.
DB: How large is the gap between psychedelic science and Arab socio-politics right now?
HA: There’s no psychedelic research in the Arab world, as far as I’m aware. Before I started training with Fluence, I sent an email to the Saudi FDA pitching a study on smoking cessation, and I even mentioned a similar project spearheaded by Johns Hopkins, an esteemed institution. But I never heard back. And when I joined a wellbeing startup here in Saudi, back in 2019, I came across documents that suggested that the government is in fact aware of psychedelic research. But they’re just aware of it. Nothing beyond that.
A few years ago, I walked into the biggest bookstore here in Riyadh, and How to Change your Mind was right there on the shelves, but only in English, of course. I am really inspired by how that book brought psychedelics to the awareness of the everyday person in the US, and that’s why translation is part of our vision. I’d love to make an Arabic translation of that book available, as well as research papers and materials. It would really help to spread awareness among the public here.
DB: In the interview you did with Arab News, you mentioned that your long-term goal is to replicate global psychedelic research and treatment in Saudi, but “in a safe way that respects our culture and that respects our specific or unique needs.” How would you make the research specific to the local population?
HA: First of all, we would need to focus on the main issues people struggle with here in Saudi, which according to recent reports include smoking, depression, and obesity. So for example, in the UK and the US right now, there are studies being piloted on the use of mushrooms for anorexia. But for it to be more specific to the Saudi population, maybe a similar study could be done, except addressing obesity. But of course it wouldn’t work to have the same protocol from Johns Hopkins, for example, applied here, because there are religious and cultural aspects that we need to take into account.
DB: Can you tell us more about how the research protocols would have to change?
HA: Honestly, that’s a question I’m still trying to figure out. Because even with plain old psychotherapy, there’s a lot of issues with trying to apply it here in the Middle East. The field of psychology at large is very western centric. So it’s all part of a bigger question; how do we decolonize psychology and psychotherapy, and how do we make it relevant to our societies?
Cultural competence is very much lacking abroad. So that would have to be a main focus in designing the protocols. For example, we would have to be more sensitive about how religious elements would play into the research here. In psychedelic drug experiences, there’s set and setting, right? And then there’s matrix, which is basically the participant’s cultural, socio-political environment. So for example, here, we’re told that drugs are not just illegal, they’re haram, and that’s something that therapists are really going to have to work with.
So if you’re going to have a study that’s going to include, let’s say, 16 Saudis, and you’re going to be using psilocybin mushrooms for smoking cessation, depression, or eating disorders, therapists will need to address the matrix. They will need to answer questions like: Is this haram? Is this a drug or a medicine? They will need to really understand how people perceive psychedelics and to make sure that when dosage day comes, participants are not going in thinking “I’m taking a drug,” and having their religious conditioning come up.
DB: Is there anything in Arab culture or history that indicates openness to the adoption of psychedelic use for therapy?
HA: Well, the acacia tree that exists all over the Middle East contains DMT. And there’s Syrian rue, which includes an MAOI inhibitor [like the ayahuasca vine]. So there’s a long history of our ancestors experimenting with psychedelics. Rock art all over the Middle East dating back thousands of years depicts ceremonies featuring altered states of consciousness. There are also traditions that don’t necessarily have to do with psychedelics, but that achieve similar results; for example, there’s a lot of Sufi chanting practices that help one reach an altered state of consciousness, similar to Holotropic breathwork.
So we’re not importing anything new, or foreign; we’re just reviving something that had disappeared due to fundamentalist religious movements, and the west’s export of the racist, unscientific war on drugs. What’s new is us reintroducing it from a scientific lens. That has not happened here yet. And that’s how you really convince policymakers and people who hold the power to make change here.
*This interview originally appeared in DoubleBlind Issue No. 9.
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