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Anticapitalist Psychedelic Activists Banned: An Interview

Recently a leaked blacklist showed the banning of prominent anti-capitalist activists from psychedelic conferences. Left Voice interviews one of these activists about the ban, as well as broader issues around the ongoing corporatization and commodification of psychedelics under capitalism.

Left Voice

January 15, 2023
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A drawing of a capitalist with many octopus arms holding various things he controls, with mushrooms, on a colorful psychedelic background.
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Can you introduce yourself to our audience? Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the psychedelic field?

My name is Yarelix. I use she/her pronouns. My primary work is in harm reduction. I currently run and oversee a multi-site drug checking program that functions out of several syringe service programs and an overdose prevention center. People come in, bring their drugs, and I test them with a machine to figure out the contents. Then I can provide harm reduction counseling and just provide support in whatever capacity people need. When we see concerning reactions to using certain samples within the overdose prevention center — such as a severe overdose —  then we are able to figure out in real time what’s inside of those samples. I also do data coordination around the results of that testing, putting out alerts when we see things that are concerning.  

Prior to this, I was mostly a street-based harm reduction outreach worker. We would do naloxone distribution in the community, fentanyl test strip distribution, general education around harm reduction. We would also do presentations in the communities, at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) facilities, or in different community meetings. 

I’m involved in a couple other groups related to psychedelics and harm reduction: I’m on the board of the Tennessee Recovery Alliance, a syringe service program in Tennessee. I am also on the board of the Source Research Foundation, which is a psychedelic philanthropy organization. I am an organizer with the Urban Survivors Union, where I organize calls and discussions focused on psychedelics. I’m also an organizer with the Alliance for Collaborative Drug Checking, which is a closed group for people who do drug checking across the Americas, where I also help organize our annual drug checking summit. I’m also involved with a bunch of other harm reduction and psychedelic related projects. 

I’ve been a community organizer in the psychedelic field since 2016. I co-founded the Baltimore Psychedelic Society, and I currently organize the New York City Psychedelic Society. I’m also on the advisory board of the psychedelic media group Psymposia. What I primarily do with the New York City Psychedelic Society is organize psychedelic integration circles for people of color and also have capacitated other groups to start out to support other community members, so we also have psychedelic integration circles for trans and non-binary folks. In the past, we’ve had educational events that talk about psychedelics broadly, but more specifically the politics of psychedelics and how they relate to harm reduction and larger systemic issues. 

I got into psychedelia because I was someone who didn’t have access to mental health care and I started using a lot of psychedelics, mostly for recreational purposes. Eventually I found that psychedelics had a really critical place in my life in order to help me learn how to regulate my emotions and process grief, and enhance my ability to thrive generally. I went from being someone who was largely not functional — meaning I was extremely anti-social, I didn’t really have any friends, I didn’t leave my room because I had panic disorder, I had severe social anxiety, and I hated talking to people. And so once I started doing psychedelics, I had a huge shift where I decided to talk to people and put myself out there. Even though it was difficult, using these different substances helped me cope with those things and to the point that I no longer had major depression, major anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. I have waves of those that are ongoing and resurface, but it’s no longer something that’s completely hindering me from functioning. I eventually got to a point where I was doing community organizing advocacy and then working in harm reduction. 

When I first started working with psychedelics, I assumed that that would be the trajectory for everyone. I assumed that everyone would take psychedelics, realize their potential, overcome some of their mental health issues or traumas, and then be in positions of service, wanting to help others or wanting to make the world a better place. Over time, through my organizing and through other endeavors that I’ve had within the psychedelic space, I quickly found out that that was not the case. So I try to tie back my work within harm reduction to remind people that there is a lot that needs to be done, there’s a lot that we can do. I always point to harm reduction as the way that I was able to find my place in the ecosystem. And also just to remind people that these are all drugs. You know, there’s this huge issue of psychedelic exceptionalism. Being able to tie it back to how harm reduction works, not just for injection or use of more stigmatized drugs, but also with psychedelics. We should be working across a full spectrum of drug use. 

Recently you shared a leaked document showing you were on a “blacklist”, banning you and others  from certain psychedelic conferences. Can you speak more about this?

The document said: “Banned from all our events. No entry allowed under no circumstances.” It has my photo along with the photos of others. Everybody who was on that list was from the media group Psymposia, along with two other folks including Sasha Sisko. It was kind of initially funny and kind of a shock that there was a conference in my hometown of Miami that I had never heard of and did not know of any of the organizers, and that I was being banned from it for some reason. We initially thought that there must be someone who is part of the organizing team that is connected with someone who despises Psymposia — because there are a number of folks out there that do not like Psymposia’s critiques. Then over time, we started to see the conference unfold and the ways in which people who are working in “corporadelia” were talking about a lot of the work that we do. For example, there was a presentation from Hamilton Morris, a prominent figure in the psychedelic community, who was talking down on the work of my colleagues Brian Pace and Neşe Devenot around right-wing psychedelia. He was also belittling some of the work that Dimitri Mugianis has done around the intersection of capitalism, psychedelia, and the medical system. He seemed to be trying to discount the work of people and groups who have critiques of capitalism and the medical system. 

Why do you think you and other activists are being put on such lists? How do your politics around being critical of capitalism, the police, the prison industrial complex relate?

I’m positive that the reason why I was on that blacklist was because I’m on the advisory board for Psymposia. But it could be because the only reason why I’m in psychedelia — besides hoping that other people raise their consciousness, see the importance of shifting the needle on one where society is headed, and systemically make changes — is pointing out what’s wrong with the current psychedelic space. That includes the bullying that happens within the psychedelic space. It includes the social capital that is hoarded and used to control and maneuver work, jobs, and relationships within the psychedelic space. It also includes capitalism’s intersection with psychedelics and how the psychedelic space really positions itself to be apolitical about extremely political issues like health, health care, mental health care, and healing, so that it can avoid any critique of these systems.

Conference organizers like Microdose don’t actually care about healing people or making society a better place. From what I’ve seen and heard, all they care about is parading around different venture capitalists and companies and making sales. Of course, they’re going to thrive off of a capitalist model. If their bottom line gets threatened, they’re not going to be very cool with that. I think it’s all related. People in this space who tend to be very accepting of capitalism as a system also tend to be more accepting of structures that protect capitalism, such as the police that protect property and the prison-industrial complex that allows for the cheap labor of materials that are used in capitalism production, as well. Having politics that calls out these connections makes these corporations look bad — especially those that are touting the use of psychedelics for “healing” within their capitalist endeavors. And if it makes them look bad, then they will make less money. So it makes sense why they target activists who are speaking out against capitalism, against the absurdity of reaching, healing, and helping people through this extremely inaccessible medical care system and through the sales of pharmaceuticals — especially people that have been through complex trauma, people who are poor, people who are unhoused, people who use drugs or are dependent on substances.  

But again, it is interlinked with how capitalism perpetuates itself. It survives because of how expensive the housing market is. It survives because there are police to enact violence on people who don’t fit the dominant culture or who do things that are rooted in survival. These things become criminalized and the police enforce that, such as drug use or sleeping in public spaces. When we politicize psychedelics and try to bring in more leftist and revolutionary socialist ideas, more politics that are rooted in dismantling capitalism, they’re going to be against that. I think that a lot of the “organizers” in some of these spaces pursue raising financial capital, even if it means inciting or perpetuating violence because they I don’t think that they care actually about healing or dismantling systems that create suffering. 

Can you speak a little more about the commodification and corporatization of psychedelics we are currently seeing more broadly?

Psychedelia has a long history in use among Indigenous communities. Then, of course, in the countercultural movement of the 70s. In those times people would sell psychedelics, but it wasn’t in the way that we’re seeing now where venture capitalists and corporations are coming in and taking over. We’re now seeing wealthy white men acting like they discovered psychedelics like mushrooms and ayahuasca, creating companies around these substances, and finding ways to sell them back to people. Now there are large corporations getting investments from venture capitalists that are using this over-promising language of psychedelics being “the answer” to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. They’re doing this while pushing sales and investment. 

So the commodification piece is not acknowledging the roots of these sacred medicines. There are Indigenous people all over the world who are still stewards of these medicines, and a lot of them are land defenders that are being killed by mining companies, for example. And some of the capitalists that fund these mining projects are also funding these new psychedelic corporations. Then they use the funds to patent substances that really shouldn’t be patented in order to make even more money. Psychedelics come from Indigenous cultures and they come from the earth. But through these patents, it creates gatekeeping, which keeps people out of psychedelia who have been part of it for a millennia.

Corporatization is also showing up in the form of these out-of-touch psychedelic conferences that are pushing a very apolitical approach to psychedelics. We’re seeing these huge boutique psychedelic therapy centers popping up and the rise of the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry.  In reality, the problem is not that we need some “magic pill” to “heal my brain” because I’m an individual who is suffering; but instead, we have to remember that we are all a collective, and we’re all suffering within this system that is designed to inflict these these ills on us. 

Why do you think this trend is so dangerous?

We’re creating this system inside of a broken system that is not meant to work and can’t work under capitalism. For example, if I’m someone who is having really difficult mental health issues and I turn to psychedelics to try to heal, it’s not going to be a linear process — sometimes things get worse before they get better. In an ideal world, we would be able to turn to psychedelics,  plant medicines/entheogens, and process it. Then, I could come out of the psychedelic experience and do psychedelic integration to figure out what I’ve learned. But part of that integration that is so vital — but that we don’t often get — is rest. Time to take care of oneself physically, emotionally, spiritually. The ability to really be there for ourselves in whatever capacity we might need. And often, that’s not what we get under capitalism. Instead people are told to go to this clinic, have a six-hour session, and then go back to work a couple hours after that. That’s not going to allow people to appropriately heal. And some people’s healing journeys are very intense. There are people whose psychedelic therapy timeline could be an entire year. In that year, they can have periods of extreme depression, of suicidal ideation, or being disconnected and nonfunctional. And that can lead to the person losing their job, their housing, so many things that are not being discussed. Healing is not linear, but under capitalism, people need to get back to work, and these companies are adapting to that. 

This attempt to mass-provide psychedelic therapy without being tailored to a person’s needs and without rest time because we live under capitalism creates so much potential not only to harm, but to harm someone worse than how they entered. And we don’t have any safety nets for that. Ultimately, the reason why we’re suffering is because we’re living under a capitalist system that fuels income inequality and doesn’t provide social services or safety networks for folks that really need them. There’s so much violence everywhere. And that’s not something that an individual is  going to fix with one trip on mushrooms. And so I think that the corporate psychedelics industry is just another piece to uphold the system of capitalism. 

There needs to be more grassroots organizing among those who work with people who need help. We need to think of creative ways to better serve our communities and ourselves as we’re doing really difficult work. A lot of the reasons why I use psychedelics is so that I can sustain myself in work that is emotionally taxing. We need to develop a perspective that is political, that is rooted in people, rooted in workers, rooted in the poor, in the undocumented, and in the Indigenous. Rooted in communities that are not rich and not right-wing. We could potentially use psychedelics in a positive way, but it has to come from the community and not from corporations or the for-profit medical system that has done so much harm and inflicted so much trauma on historically oppressed communities. 

If our readers are interested in learning more about psychedelics from a more revolutionary perspective, where can they go? Are there other organizations or conferences they can check out?

Psymposia is a great media outlet that does work around anti-capitalism in the psychedelic field. It also works to try to expose “corporadelics”, as they call it. Dimitri Mugianis has also written a fair amount about this. While this is in no way a complete list, some other leftists doing work around the intersection of psychedelics and revolutionary politics are Vince Rado, Emma Stamm, Rafaelle Lancelotta, Marty Ortañes, and Paul Elias. Psychedemia is an anti-capitalist and leftist psychedelic conference that talks about a lot of these issues. Unfortunately, other than that, this space is severely lacking. 

Being anti-capitalist in the psychedelic space is very difficult because there are a lot of people trying to make profit off of this. 

I hope that we create more space for talking about psychedelic use from an anti-capitalist and revolutionary perspective. There definitely is a lot of work to do in that realm.

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