Black Lives Matter, Decriminalize All DrugsJun 02, 2020
I’m used to posting very non-personal things about drug information, however am inspired to share more of my story. This is my reflection on some of the ways I’ve experienced the indoctrination of white dominant culture, privilege, and racism as well as why black lives, indigenous culture, and ending the drug war matter to me as a white person.
I am honest in my thoughts and recount things that happened to me a long time ago and more recently – it is subject to recall bias and other cognitive distortions of memory. It is not meant to call out or condemn anyone or myself. If the honestly is hurtful, I’m sorry, however I do not believe this international – generations deep – racial trauma is going to heal by minimizing or hiding.
Here I am. I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.
I was born ‘down under’ on the island state of Tasmania, south of mainland Australia. The island is very small relative to the United States. For reference, around 1/3 the size of the state of Oregon. Australia’s roots are colonialist and the plight of Aboriginal Australians is parallel to both Native American genocide and slavery of Blacks.
I would say more than anything growing up, music was the tool that taught me the most about systemic racism. Perhaps this is sad, perhaps not, perhaps it happened and I don’t remember. What I do remember is Aboriginal artist Yothu Yindi had released a number of tracks such as “Treaty” and “Tribal Voice” when I was 4 or 5 years old that topped Australia’s music charts.
I honestly don’t think I saw a black person or aboriginal until I went to Sydney with my dad just prior to moving to the United States around the age of 10 years old. He was painted and busking in the street with a didgeridoo. I remember it being a fascinating experience – so this is what ‘a native’ looks like. It was a mixed feeling – I couldn’t look away, I was so young and it was novel. I also loved the sound of the didgeridoo. My feelings were that his culture had been turned into a tourist attraction, he seemed displaced in tribal paint on a city block.
Viewing this man like an attraction seemed wrong, but I was amazed.
After moving to Oregon I was exposed minimally more to black people There were two black kids (not more than five) in my high school of over 1000. We lived close to my grandparents so we started to see them more. My grandpa said overtly racist things, oftentimes as ‘jokes’ involving truckloads of dead N**** babies. There were others in my family that seemed to have a similar ‘sense of humor’ that were less vocal. My grandpa didn’t finish (or maybe even go to) high school and began his life working in a coal mine. He built his way up to own a sub-contracting business that was successful. He was an incredibly generous person to us and so kind in many other ways. He was a hero to me. I came to understand his attitudes and manner of speaking were a product of his upbringing eventually rather than a mark of an evil man. I think the sick and twisted racial humor had been a way of connecting with people that were around him his entire life. I didn’t know enough or have the courage to ever say the jokes were wrong – but I knew it. I knew it more and more as I got older. I condemned him in my mind for these attitudes after leaving Oregon for 12 years. It was in Peru at the age of 30 under the influence of a mescaline containing sacrament ‘Huachuma’ that I was able to forgive the racism and spent much time in fond remembrance of all the good things he did for me. Perhaps not coincidentally this particular sacrament is also known as ‘abuelo’ or grandfather.
Thanks for healing some of the familial divides that form around racist attitudes psychedelic plant medicines
Back to music. Black culture was accessible to me via rap and hip-hop music, which I really began to enjoy. The rhythmic beats were hypnotic, and the ingenuity and sheer lyricism of many artists was impressive. You can rhyme about anything and there was and is so much diversity in the ‘message’ of different artists. Some rappers were ‘sell-outs’ and sang about accumulating material possessions due to fame for the entertainment industry or were lost in their egos. Some hip-hop artists were just that – artists. Many had social messages. To this day, especially on this day, I cry when I listen to “Changes” by 2Pac. He raps about what it is like to live in poverty and some the mechanisms of systemic racism – the drug war and mass incarceration. There are so many hip-hop legends that taught me about what their experience of life is like: Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Del, Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief, Living Legends, Nas, and so many others. It was evident that hip-hop was more than about shaming anyone else that stepped to the mic or self-glorification – it was about having a voice. It was about expression. It was about justice. It was a movement. I loved it. I remember I put hip-hop and rap albums on my Christmas wish list – I never got any of them. To be fair, the rationale was that they had “explicit content”. No shit, they were pretty explicit, explicit about the types of abuses and discrimination black people still faced“Cops give a damn about a negro, pull the trigga, kill a N****, he’s a hero…It ain’t a secret so don’t conceal the facts, the penitentiaries packed, and it’s filled with blacks” – 2pac 1992. I remember my dad telling me that I was listening to gangsters and murderers. It only inspired me to know the lyrics better and find ways of pirating the albums to listen. Now I see that this put less money in the artists’ pocket at the end of the day. Who is the gangster here? I’m sorry about this, although am so grateful to these artists. They got me through my teenage years and opened my perspective to another culture’s experience.
Intellectual curiosity in addiction, exposure to drug cultures in hip hop music, and adolescence peaked my interest in drugs. I smoked pot for the first time in senior year of high school – it was incredible. I also ate mushrooms. I hallucinated hard – melting into a puddle by a lake while camping for hours. I was more in tune with myself than ever, I felt kind, the edge of irritability softened, I could look at a view of a natural setting and experience beauty without an impatience to move on. It was like the world became alive from a state of deadness. And music was even better. I began to play didgeridoo - back to ‘my’ roots.
I went to UC Santa Barbara on a swimming scholarship. There were no black people on the swim team, we did have a few Hispanic persons and Pacific Islanders. I took courses like Native American religion and world music for fun and majored in pharmacology (which was also fun). I fell deeper in love with drugs and music, although the turning point here is that I learned about indigenous uses of drugs for authentic spiritual worship. Namely, I studied Peyotism. At this point I think I really discovered the ‘story’ of who I am. I remember thinking that I have an aboriginal heart. because I identified with their thoughts on spirituality more than anything I’d heard previously. Religion and spiritually centered on worshiping the land you live on and being a steward of it is the only religion that ever made any amount of sense to me. Religion compatible with preservation of biodiversity and reverence for ecology that experiences the mystical by ingesting psychedelics? – I’m in.
Thank God for the sanity of indigenous persons.
I met my first love at UCSB and she was from the South. I don’t know and never asked – but she was a sugar momma to me and after visiting I got the sense there was some old money in the family. I went back to her hometown one time and we went to her grandparent’s place. They had two personal servants that served us lunch named Ike and Gentry. They were Black and were live in servants, paid a wage for their time, however it was creepy being served lunch with my best ‘country club’ looking outfit on in the South by two black servants at a table of all white people. I ate the lunch and didn’t ask any questions.
In 2010, at the age of 25, I began pharmacy and public health programs. Out of a class of just over 100, there were maybe 4 white males. Most were female and there was an incredible diversity in ethnicity, representing cultures from all over the world. I ate Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Korean foods all for the first time in a period of a few months. Now, particularly Thai and Indian foods are staple favorites. This doesn’t have as much to do with black people or drugs as much as me pointing out just how deep and extensive the white monoculture of my upbringing was. Beyond obtaining that piece of paper that now provides my livelihood, pharmacy school gave me the tiniest glimpse of empathy into what it’s like to be in a room full of people different colors from you. I was a minority. Not oppressed in any way by any stretch of the imagination, but just existing as a minority for a few hours a day in a classroom was an incredibly enriching to my perspective.
As I progressed through my education and training I learned a lot more about not just the drugs, but the public health context of drug use. I learned that what 2pac had rapped about all those years earlier is born out in real world data. His experience was not some rapper’s anomaly of a life, it was the general experience. The last rotation of my psychiatric pharmacy residency was at Richard Donovan prison, a little inland and very close to the Mexico – US border. I interviewed prisoners about their psychiatric history and medication use just about every day for six weeks. I heard their stories and time and again found them to be not be monsters or sociopaths, but hurt souls that got a bad start in life, got into trouble, and were never allowed out.
I’ve been pulled over or stopped by police in the street at least five or six times in my life. I have got a speeding ticket and a fix it ticket. The majority of the time the police have let me go with a warning. The interactions have always been amicable. The most recent time I was jay walking across some train tracks near my workplace. The lights/bars came down, I looked both ways, easily judged the train to be far off enough to have time to cross, and crossed. An officer stopped me and told me what I had done was illegal. I told him that although I admit I had broken the letter of the law, that because he must have seen me look both ways before I crossed, that I was still concerned for my own safety and for this reason I was in compliance with the ‘spirit of the law’. He liked this a lot and told me “in my years of being a police officer I’ve learned to judge when to cite someone and when to let them go with a warning and you don’t look like someone that needs a fine”. I was momentarily thrilled I’d talked myself out of the ticket, although as I thanked him and he left, his words kept echoing in my head. What did he mean that I didn’t look like someone that needed a fine? I was wearing slacks, a collared shirt and tie – surely I was dressed like someone that could pay a fine. This occurred in Southern California, in an area that is demographically Black and Hispanic. As I drove home I began to wish I had insisted on the fine.
As I began a career specializing in psychiatric pharmacy, the psychedelic renaissance has gotten hotter. Much hotter. Massive explosions in research, real clinical trials, medical tourism or psychospiritual retreat center booms, and MDMA and psilocybin articles and news stories everywhere. Practically a dream come true for me as I see naturally occurring sacraments on the brink of decriminalization. Fairly simple to create a psychedelic consulting practice and academic trajectory out of psychedelics now given the years of study. But, being a cheerleader for psychedelics and leaving the drugs you don’t like behind is pretty close to complicit with the status quo - a status quo of systemic racism in drug enforcement.
Psychedelic exceptionalism sucks and falls so far short of where we need to be!
That is just it – if you want to stop having a prisons full of traumatized persons of color with substance use or mental health problems, you have to strip away the power to prosecute persons that are non-violent drug users. Drug laws are notoriously enforced in disparate ways racially, with Blacks and Hispanics being more likely to face charges or be convicted than whites, despite similar drug use rates. Plus prohibition doesn’t work and is associated with worsened harms of drug use.
So, I’m sorry if you love acid but hate amphetamine, are at one with all on 5-MeO-DMT yet are afraid of heroin users, psychedelics alone are not enough for me. Until the police are disallowed to prosecute persons for using or possessing drugs this one form of systemic racism will continue. You know, it’s pretty hard to find a job once you have a drug conviction to disclose on applications. You also lose eligibility to borrow federal loans for education. So, you become stuck. Not permitted to rehabilitate yourself and trapped with economic insecurity – maybe you will be tempted to sell some drugs, or steal something - the cycle of poverty and mistreatment is complete. The drug war is the perfect mechanism for keeping communities in poverty, preventing upward social mobility, and ensuring the public still perceives you as a ‘dirty’ character.
As you can read, I have had miraculous levels of fortune in my life. This is not to say I haven’t worked hard for what I have. I have worked very hard. But, I have noticed that in life, I need just decide which door to knock on and it opens – it’s not hard to see the privilege when you look for it. The path of opportunity has been greased for me and I have not been innocent all the time. There have been several instances I’ve been given a break.
Despite my shortcomings and moments of complicity with racism at varying points in my life, I do not like racism and strive to do good things in the world for black communities by advocating for ending the drug war. I’ve been born from cultures that harbor racist attitudes, missed opportunities to speak up for black people, and defrauded some of the artists that gave me so much perspective. Plenty assume persons want to end the drug war because they like getting high. The truth is I could get high with minimal legal risk now the same way I did when I was 17, whether the drugs are legal or not, because I enjoy that much privilege.
Indigenous instruments, native wisdom, and psychedelic sacraments have done ineffable things for me and are ingrained into the fabric of who I am today. I’m so grateful for black people and their culture(s). I’m so grateful to indigenous persons and their culture(s). I’m so grateful that I no longer live in monoculture Whitesville eating pizza and burgers without a spice in sight. I’m so sad that we culturally manifest oppressor’s guilt with reactive denial and pretend it’s fixed, rather than recounting the wrongs and assisting in dismantling the structures of systemic racism.
I want to celebrate the victory of the War on Drugs together and know that nobody else is going to prison for non-violent drug crime. It will be one step towards healing.
Join me, it’ll be worth the fight.
Black Lives Matter, Decriminalize All Drugs
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