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What the “Psychedelic Renaissance” Needs to Learn from Big Tobacco

The Psychedelic Renaissance is not a collective liberation movement — it is the epitome of capitalization.

DoubleBlind Mag

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It’s easy to take for granted the self-congratulatory vibe of the Psychedelic Science conference last year. The conference, put on by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), one of the primary research organizations attributed with catalyzing the current wave of psychedelic science, advertised it as “the largest psychedelic gathering in history.” It hosted more than 10,000 researchers, therapists, and other psychedelic professionals gathering in the Denver Convention Center over five days for talks and networking. In the brightly-lit convention center, substances that were once putting people in jail were showcased as backed by venture capital. People were wide-eyed: the psychedelic renaissance had finally come, and it had heroes.

The closing address, the victory lap if you will, began in the main auditorium with the lights dimmed, and the film that was projected on the stage was nothing short of an action movie trailer for the main hero, MAPS Founder Rick Doblin.

Struck by the absurdity of the moment, I took out my phone and recorded a part of the film:

“I actually met Rick in 1974, and he’s bare-chested, you know, his long hair, looking like a real stud, and he’s standing in front of this beautiful house, and he’s got this pet wolf. And he was just this… psychedelic dream!” narrates Tom Shroder, author of Acid Test (a book, in part, about Rick Doblin). We see a young and cavalier Rick Doblin taking off his shorts, privates blurred, jumping naked into a pool. 

It goes on. 

“Back then, when we asked Rick, ‘What do you want to do?’ He was really clear: I want to be a psychedelic psychotherapist!” longtime friend Kate Hawk exclaims. 

READ: Is Most Science News Bullshit?

When the lights come on, Rick triumphantly takes the stage. And then, it gets even more surreal. I record this, too. 

Five protestors walk down the aisle towards the stage, one beating on a flat-hand drum, demanding to be heard. 

The stand-off is tense. A female protester yells at Rick, who responds, that “it’s not the time.” Security in suits crowd the aisle, ready to pounce. A chant of “Let them speak!” takes hold. 

And, in a moment of admirable leadership and maturity, Rick invites them on stage. 

The second one to speak was Daniel Castro-Kuthoomi, a mestizo-Indigenous Kichwa curandero who has worked with sacred plant medicines since age 12.

The plant medicine renaissance within the Western system has been happening for decades through the Indigenous people. We opened our medicines for you to heal: not to take, not to extract. This movement is not a renaissance; it’s been happening already for a long time…Please stop, think, think critically. This is not okay. You’re being deceived. You’re going to continue being deceived.

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The same happened to tobacco, it now causes cancer. The same happened to [opium], it now causes addiction. The same happened to coca, now cocaine causes a lot of harm. 

…decades from now, you’re going to see the medicine harming you because they are living beings and they don’t like to be abused. They’re going to come back, and they’re going to harm you.

This is not a collective liberation movement, this is capitalization.

Kuthoomi’s warning is prescient—and grounded in fact. 

Tobacco is the first shamanic plant. Archeological evidence for the human use of tobacco in the Americas stretches back at least 12,300 years. According to distinguished botanist Dr. Thomas Harper Goodspeed, among other experts, people Indigenous to the Americas first domesticated tobacco roughly 8,000 years ago–on par with the domestication of the first food plants in the Americas. 

At the time of European contact, it was cultivated from southern Alaska to modern-day Chile. Among the diversity of cultures and spiritual traditions of the Indigenous Americans, the use of tobacco as a sacred medicine is universal.

Even today, as we meet the traditional sacred medicines of peyote, ayahuasca, san pedro, coca, yopo, and others, they are all used along with tobacco. Tobacco has been described to me within the present-day cultures of the Sundance and the Native American Church as a means of direct connection with the creator or to the spiritual worlds. 

Among these native traditions, tobacco is not considered an addictive poison. Instead, tobacco is considered the most sacred plant: It’s the connection to the creator, and what one does with smoked tobacco is made true. The peace pipe to seal treaties was the way of filing an agreement with the universe. In present-day North America, when tobacco is given before a ceremony, it is to make a commitment to that ceremony and the agreement to do it. 

READ: Shamans Are Going to Jail for Ayahuasca Possession

Yet tobacco, as a globalized commodity, is not sacred. Adulterated with chemicals to make it more addictive and give it a branded flavor, the World Health Organization estimates the worldwide use of tobacco is responsible for eight million deaths per year. It’s no surprise that idle smoking outside of a sacred context leads to bad outcomes—and even more so when compounded with the blood on the hands of its European, and later global, commercialization. 

The first slaves were brought to the American colonies in 1619 to work the tobacco fields at the Jamestown colony. The new industry was the backbone of the southern colonial economy, driving the expansion of the African slave trade across the Atlantic and of the tobacco plantations eastward from the ocean, expelling, if not outright, exterminating the Indigenous people as they ate deeper into the continent. 

Wrested away from prayer and ceremony, tobacco has been a powerful source of wealth and political control for more than 500 years since Columbus first encountered Taíno Indians smoking cigars on Hispaniola. Twenty-five percent of the signees of the Declaration of Independence, the first American aristocratic families, were tobacco farmers. Wealth generation through the control of tobacco has been exponential ever since. By the end of this decade, the global tobacco market is expected to exceed $1 trillion, according to a report by Statista

While MAPS and the re-branded for-profit arm Lykos Therapeutics are primarily concerned MDMA at this time—a pharmaceutical compound turned party drug to re-legitimized pharmaceutical—there are many companies seeking to take the active alkaloids of sacred medicines and commercialize them. Filament Health and their chemically synthesized “ayahuasca” pill—what people often refer to as “pharmahuasca”— aims to make the “trip” more predictable and manageable for a psychiatrist or therapeutic facilitator who’s never set foot in the Amazon. Meanwhile, Compass Pathways has been granted a patent for their synthetic psilocybin—the primary psychoactive compound in sacred mushrooms—and it has been fast-tracked by the FDA for depression. 

The websites and investor pitches demonstrate that these are businesses first, and note their commitment to creating and protecting their intellectual property around chemical extractions or “novel” uses of Indigenous IP. Whatever commitment they make to reciprocity or access is secondary to the protection of their ability to turn a profit from these medicines. 

However, there are risks in deviating from the sacred and traditional practice of the Indigenous peoples who have introduced us to these medicines. They carry the power to heal—and also to harm, even if that harm is self-inflicted. Is that not what happened with tobacco, opium, and coca, all in the name of profit? 

Kuthoomi ended his speech, his voice breaking with sincerity: “We’re here because we love you. We’re here because we don’t want you to harm yourself.” 

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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