queer bpoc wom mushroom ceremon
Collage: Cathryn Virginia | Photos: via Getty Images

Inside the Quest to Decolonise Psychedelics

Just below the surface of the psychedelic mainstream, a peer-supported care network trawls the globe like mycelium.

Ifetayo Harvey came to the mushroom ceremony ready to suffer. 

When she took mushrooms, it was usually painful, visceral, and visual. Alongside five women of color, she steeled herself to face personal grief and collective wounds. But as the moonlight filtered through the window of the little house in the New Mexican desert, they cuddled by the fire, splashed in the bathtub, and drifted off to sleep. 


“I’m not used to things being gentle in life,” Harvey says. “I almost wanted it to hurt.” 

Ceremony facilitator Mikaela de la Myco, a queer, mixed-race woman who guides and supports psychedelic experiences, had never seen anything like it. The dose she served was potent, she says, which typically brings challenging experiences; it was as if the medicine sensed this group needed to rest. “As BIPOC, we think we can’t learn and grow through ease and grace,” Mikaela says. “Now I realize not every lesson has to be hard.”

Much of the current “psychedelic renaissance” focuses on scientific studies where people don eyeshades, listen to classical music, and have mystical experiences on a therapist’s couch. Legalization relies on these substances’ ability to treat conditions like depression and PTSD, and advocates say this medical model helps legitimize psychedelics for a skeptical public. Yet more than 80 percent of participants in psychedelic clinical trials are white, and most are cisgender and straight. While queer and BIPOC communities disproportionately experience trauma, many can’t access—or mistrust—the medical system for its abuse and neglect.

Just below the surface of the psychedelic mainstream, though, a peer-supported care network trawls the globe like mycelium, looking for partners to entangle. They call some medical approaches appropriation, erasing the traditions from which they descended. For many, psychedelics never went anywhere, and advocates aim to preserve access and pass down knowledge, much like Amazonian peoples used ayahuasca as an act of anti-colonial resistance.


Indigenous traditions are indeed alive and well—not just in these cultures but in the Global Northern underground. They’re carried by medicine keepers and independent educators like Mikaela and Darren Le Baron, who teaches how to grow your own (non-magic) ‘shrooms and lectures about psychedelics’ use in Africa, where Indigenous peoples still learn from “plant teachers” and journey together to a spirit realm considered just as real as this one. “My approach is creating spaces and places for people who feel disenfranchised with the machine to just create our own machine,” he says.

Their network includes BIPOC-led groups like the People of Color Psychedelic Collective (POCPC) and Liberation Training, which “work with our personal transformation to contribute to collective liberation,” says co-founder and medicine woman Charlotte James. “One of the key steps in that process is decolonization work, calling us to question what systems got us to this place, and what each of our roles are in replicating or dismantling those.” 

“They say it’s more accessible because the cost is so much less, but if it’s less optimized or even re-traumatizing, is it really access?” —Charlotte James

Many in BIPOC communities targeted by the drug war don’t trust psychedelics any more than the medical system – queer people were once subjected to psychedelic “conversion therapy”. Yet psychedelic knowledge is ancestral, LeBaron says. He describes African plant medicine traditions embedded in everyday life, stewarded by a culture of elders, and mothers who microdose with mushrooms from conception through nursing. This literacy has largely been lost in the Global North, but Le Baron and the POCPC, where Harvey is director, host events that help people reconnect. 


“We can’t just be like, ‘Take mushrooms. It’s therapy.’' We need to say, ‘Wait, do you know what they are?’” Le Baron laughs. “Education is power, and through that power is empowerment.”

For psychedelics to become medically legal, clinical studies need reliable outcomes. Yet many say the power of these medicines is in their unpredictability. Community-centered spaces reflect this diversity of background and experience, offering supportive care before and after ceremonies for whatever comes up. 

Sometimes this means crying, vomiting, and writhing in pain—but it can also look like singing, dancing, and laughing. “If the container is held well, with community, it’s a fun and joyous space,” says Jewell, a participant in Mikaela’s ceremonies. A good facilitator, she says, has the timing of a chef; handing someone a drum to bang as repressed memories surface; playing just the right music to encourage the comedown. 

Yet there’s a reason Harvey expected a brutal experience: Pharmaceuticals treat traumas by suppressing the symptoms, while psychedelics bring them to the surface. Advocates say this enables healing, but without proper support, it can leave people raw and exposed. The process of interpreting, grounding, and contextualizing a psychedelic journey is known as integration, and it’s a crucial part of rituals from the Eleusinian Mysteries to visionary fasts. Yet it’s also where underground providers find early medical and commercial applications falling short. 


For example, Oregon’s service centers only offer one optional integration session. A new ayahuasca pill promises the benefits of the psychedelic brew without its characteristic purge—but Indigenous traditions say that’s the whole point. James, from Liberation Training, calls it commodification run amok, describing virtual ketamine therapy where, in some cases, the aftercare was outsourced to an app that gave generic responses to people in crisis, a serious health risk. “They say it’s more accessible because the cost is so much less, but if it’s less optimized or even re-traumatizing, is it really access?” she asks. 

In Indigenous traditions where the whole group journeys together, integration is built in. In the Global North, it must be cultivated. The underground communicates through invitation-only threads on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal: One group Mikaela started now has over 650 members, and she creates a group chat for each communal ceremony. There are virtual and in-person integration circles, yoga, meditation, and sound baths. After ceremonies, Mikaela says, people often tell her, “I don’t know what was more helpful, the medicine or the people I met.” 

Unfortunately, many BIPOC and LGBTQ people learn the hard way to trust their communities first. Only four percent of U.S. therapists are Black, and just 12 percent are queer, with few trained in culturally informed care – mainstream psychedelic spaces, sources say, are no more diverse. Medicine keeper and facilitator Preston Pacheco, who is queer and mixed-race, describes having to do “repair work” for those traumatized in white and straight-led ceremonies, as people are especially vulnerable to microaggressions, misgendering, and racism in the psychedelic state. 


“Gender identity can be difficult to talk about because of the burden of explaining to a therapist who doesn’t share the same experience,” says Hope J., a co-organizer and facilitator of Transadelic, a peer integration group for gender-diverse people. “Simply being trans with other trans people and talking about medicine experiences calls that aspect of myself into the room the same way the medicine does.”

I experienced this firsthand as a member of Transadelic, and I felt it even more profoundly at the first ayahuasca retreat for LGBTQ people, held in April 2022 at the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru. Organized by a queer Brazilian facilitator and guided by healers from the Shipibo tribe, we offered collective pain to the psychedelic space and found it, and us, transformed.  

“We’ve always healed in community,” says Pacheco. They co-hosted a retreat where all the leaders were queer, trans, and/or BIPOC, and fondly recall seeing “25 queer people laughing, crying, and dancing together. We built that space by us, for us.” 

Similarly, Reggie Harris’ organization, Oakland Hyphae, hosts the Oakland, California, and National Psychedelic Conferences highlighting diverse workers and growers. While mainstream conferences feature “the same token BIPOC and queer people,” he says, his “feel like a family reunion”.


Still, James says, we all internalize colonial messaging, and even marginalized people can perpetuate oppression. Liberation Training, says alumnus Darian Gavin, helped attendees face personal and collective complicity with grace. 

“Each session started with presence and connection with your lineage, unlike trainings where it felt like the white person was being smacked on the hand,” he says. “We learned from people across all walks of life about how different bodies might engage with these medicines. I cried because I didn’t want it to end.” 

For all the talk of medicine and ritual, however, most people just trip. Washington says 90 percent of psychedelic use happens outside the clinical setting, and only one-quarter is ceremonial. Yet even “recreational” use can bring profound and challenging insights about oneself, the world, and the nature of reality—making peer support especially important for those exploring psychedelics outside a therapeutic framework.

In fact, the psychedelic truism of “set and setting” should be changed to “set, setting, and support,” says Hanifa Nayo Washington, a founding team member of the Fireside Project, the first peer-centered psychedelic phone line. Two years in, volunteers have taken nearly 10,000 calls from people actively tripping or seeking help integrating past journeys. And their Equity Initiative pairs callers with volunteers from BIPOC, trans, and veteran backgrounds. Similarly, the Erowid website hosts over 20,000 trip reports with harm-reduction information, while the Reddit forum on DMT alone has more than 300,000 members. 


Some psychonauts are joining independent scientists and picking up where the 60s counterculture left off, blurring the lines between the clinical and mystical. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, a group of explorers is preparing to map a world that may not exist. They carry with them not compasses and maps but altar offerings, spiritual totems, and cozy blankets—and their destination is hyperdimensional. 

Based on the research of psychologist Rick Strassman and computational neurobiologist Andrew Gallimore, the Extended-State DMT program (DMTx) will use an intravenous anesthesia machine to extend the notoriously short-lasting trip of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful psychedelic that can transport users to a seemingly freestanding world populated by sentient beings. Though some consider ayahuasca sacred and injection sacrilegious, Gallimore says he sees both as different tools. Ayahuasca isn’t a naturally occurring compound, it’s an Amazonian technology. Similarly, “DMTx is a molecular technology that allows us to explore normally hidden realms,” he says, optimized for extended voyages.

The DMTx program was established in 2016 by Daniel McQueen, co-founder of the Center for Medicinal Mindfulness, who funds the program. They’ve run training retreats with smoked DMT since 2018, and with DMT now legal in Colorado, they hope to launch extended-state “missions” in 2024. Their team includes scientists, spiritual leaders, artists, and writers, who’ll attempt to “map” the DMT realm in images and words and even contact the entities people encounter on trips.


“If you talk to the Indigenous or mestizo shamans, they don’t care much about the idea of reality.” —Chris Timmermann

While talk of exploration and entity contact could sound colonial, intention matters: McQueen calls DMTx a community-based approach in the countercultural spirit, challenging norms of science, research, and reality, with reciprocal relationships as the goal. That’s a big draw to the scientists involved – along with Gallimore, neuroscientist Chris Timmermann of Imperial College London, who is conducting separate clinical studies using DMTx, is advising the program. 

“From the Western perspective, we’re obsessed with the binary of the real versus non-real, scientific validation versus not, internal versus external world,” says Timmermann, who is from Chile. “But if you talk to the Indigenous or mestizo shamans, they don’t care much about the idea of reality.”

In the same way, Harvey says her experience at Mikaela’s ceremony “doesn’t necessarily fit into the box of successful clinical outcomes.” She once worked for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the organization behind the trials that might lead to legalization. “There’s this desire to put psychedelic experiences in a box of good versus bad experiences, and sometimes it’s neither, or beyond,” she explains. “White epistemology requires certainty, and a lot of cultures these substances come from don’t require that.” 

As Gavin says and Harvey experienced, even rest and recreation are a privilege for many marginalized people, and accessing that can be as profound as an ayahuasca purge. Mainstream science might “validate” traditional knowledge, but decolonizing psychedelics requires an ontological shift: Challenging binary concepts that separate the spiritual and material while “having room and deep consideration for lived experiences rather than just ‘empirical evidence,’” as Gavin puts it.

Whatever happens with decriminalization, there will always be folk healers and interdimensional explorers, queers and women of color dancing in the woods, and people who just want to go to the doctor. “We all need to sit around a table as diplomats for our communities,” says Le Baron, “then be able to invite MAPS and Imperial College to our tables. These organizations are doing what they’re supposed to do, but for the masses, I think it starts in the ground.” 

Perhaps, James notes, this intelligent medicine realizes that change requires many routes. We’ll need every tool in humanity’s toolbox, choosing the right ones for each job. As Le Baron says, “Get in where you fit. We’re all different players on the same team. That’s how we’re going to decolonize the psychedelic space.”