Cultivating a purpose 

What California’s potential decriminalization of psychedelics means for the future of the cultures that have preserved it.  

For years, as he was growing up in Oakland’s Eastside, self-labeled urban mycologist “Michael” of Myco.Oakland would take trips with his family to the ancestral home of his father in Oaxaca where the cultural acceptance of psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms is embedded — quite literally — in the architecture around the state. 

 “It’s like a recurring thing,” Michael said recalling imagery of mushrooms during the visits he had with his family and the pictures he took with his father as a child in a mushroom-themed public pool, where he later took his own children. “What I’m doing with my kids, taking them back there and showing them is the same thing my dad did with me.” 

 In 2019, he began investing full-time in cultivating psilocybin and now has birthed a successful brand of mushrooms, mushroom microdosing pills and clothing allowing him to profit monetarily while sharing access to this plant with a diverse group of people — even though, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, psilocybin mushrooms are still a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act and are deemed illegal to possess, cultivate and distribute. 

 The legality of possession of psilocybin mushrooms — like these ones that Michael cultivates — and other hallucinogenic drugs could all change in California if San Francisco Senator Scott Wiener’s sponsored decriminalization bill – SB519 – passes through the state legislature. Psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms as well as MDMA, LSD, ketamine and peyotl are all included in this bill and could be decriminalized soon for possession and social sharing. 

 Yet cultural questions remain about the inclusion of certain psychedelics of indigenous cultural significance – such as psilocybin, ayahuasca and peyotl – and how the legislation would affect the use of these plants and the cultures that have preserved them. 

 “This deserves to be known in my community” 

 Retired Army Veteran Jose Martinez described his life upon returning to the United States as a triple amputee after stepping on an explosive device in Afghanistan. Martinez said sustaining all of his injuries caused him to become dependent on opiates. 

 Overcoming his addiction, Martinez said the fallout from that dependency affected his mind until he found psilocybin mushrooms. 

 “About six years ago I ended up finding psilocybin and started using it for therapy for myself,” said Martinez, who testified by phone as a proponent for SB519 at the California Public Safety Committee meeting on April 6. “Gracefully, it (psilocybin) has changed my life… I was actually able to get married and now I’m surfing the world as a paralympic surfer for Team USA. It (psilocybin) has dramatically changed my family, my friends around me and slowly changing all the veterans around me as well.” 

 Veterans – like Martinez – are starting to inquire about the use of psychedelics to treat mental health issues and Jesse Gould, the founder and president of the Heroic Hearts Project – a nonprofit organization that connects connecting former military veterans with psychedelic therapy – is happy to show people the psychedelic experience  because at one point in his life — he didn’t have anyone to help him. 

 While living in Tampa Bay working in financing, he went to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to look for solutions to aid his mental health. What he was offered was medication and what he described as “no options” for alternatives. 

 After hearing about ayahuasca – a tea that is boiled using the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna brush – through various podcasts he would listen to, the idea of using psychedelics to improve his mental health grew in his mind. Coupled with the fact that his was “getting worse,”, he took a self-described leap of faith into the world of psychedelic treatment. 

 “I had that coming to Jesus moment where I was like, ‘I’m not happy in this job. I’m not happy in my life. What do I have to lose?’ like whatever I was doing was not sustainable,” he said. “So I put my two weeks (notice) into my job, got my affairs in order and essentially bought a one-way ticket to Peru.” 

 Doing his due diligence, Gould said that he vetted various ayahuasca retreats in Peru and found one of them that he was comfortable attending. He stayed for a week and participated in four ceremonies during his time there. 

 “It was a very hard, challenging process,” he said about the four ceremonies in which he consumed the ayahuasca tea. “It was almost instantly recognizable that it fell completely outside of my stigmas and my preconceptions and there was something to it. I wasn’t quite sure immediately but it wasn’t this happy go lucky, 1970s, having fun and getting high kind of thing. It was something completely different.” 

 Realizing the healing properties of this psychedelic treatment, Gould felt inspired to start the Heroic Hearts Project in 2017 to offer access to this treatment to other wounded veterans. Upon returning to the states from Peru, he began working immediately to make this a reality for people like him. 

 “There’s a lot of vets I knew and people who served who had unfortunately taken their lives or people who were actively destroying their lives through addictions or PTSD,” he said.

This deserves to be known within my community and for those who are interested they deserve to have a little bit more streamlined process than I had to go through.

— Jesse Gould, founder and president of the Heroic Hearts

 For Gould, there is an evaluation and education that goes into pairing up a veteran with psychedelic treatment in the Heroic Hearts Project that begins when the veteran reaches out to the organization. From evaluating the needs of the veteran to vetting the psychedelic retreats to make sure they are respectful of the indigenous ways, the project focuses on providing support to veterans both financially as well as through grants to pay for the retreats and a reintegration program with follow-up meetings after their experience.  

Privilege of Sacred Knowledge 

 Gould’s nonprofit also hopes to contribute to Western Medicine’s understanding of psychedelics. By partnering with universities around the country, the Heroic Hearts Project is conducting studies on the medicinal properties of psychedelics — such as ayahuasca and psilocybin — within the veteran community. 

“We are working with the University of Georgia and the University of Colorado, Boulder. Through the University of Georgia’s psychology department, we have been doing a personality survey and psychological survey where the veterans will take the survey before the retreat, immediately afterwards and then three month follow-up to measure the changes immediately and long term,” Gould said. 

 He added that the project has also developed their own independent research on the effects of psilocybin on veterans with microtraumas in their brain that has now opened the door for them to partner with the Imperial College of London. Because of the limited availability of research he encountered, Gould said his goal is to make this information more accessible. 

 “Our main thing is having open access to a lot of this research because a lot of people are trying to put it behind IP barriers and make money off of it,” he said. “We are trying to promote healing as much as possible.” 

 For Michael, there is a privilege in researching psilocybin. A privilege that he recognizes he had during his time at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, California where he used his leisure time to read on the theoretical aspects of psilocybin cultivation by accessing the school’s databases to be able to bypass IP barriers and paywalls. 

 “I had the time and it was something I was interested in,” he said, recognizing his own opportunity in being able to dedicate a portion of time during his education to study psilocybin. “ A lot of people don’t have that privilege. I had the privilege to fuck around for a year and fail (in cultivating psilocybin) and then get it. I was privileged enough to have time and space to work because I was in school.” 

 Because of his cultural ties to mushrooms as a Oaxacan, Michael said that one of the most frustrating things was a lack of access to mushrooms — one that motivated him to do his own work in researching to cultivate his own. 

Why am I struggling to get something that I feel like is mine?

— Michael of Myco.Oakland

“It was when I was having trouble accessing mushrooms. Having to deal with white boys to get it was when I was just like ‘Why am I struggling to get something that I feel like is mine?’,” Michael said about ignorant interactions when trying to get his hands on mushrooms from white mushroom dealers. “It was just little mean looks and them being like ‘What do you know about this?’. That’s when I was like ‘What the fuck? What do I know about this? You don’t even know where the fuck I’m from. You don’t even fuckin know’. 

 The state of Oaxaca — where Michael’s family is from — is home to the Mazatec people who have used psilocybin mushrooms in ritualistic healing practices for generations. 

 “It’s our shit, why should I be struggling for our shit. It makes no sense. I personally felt some type of way because they would just be assholes – and when you’re an asshole consistently you’re just like ‘Alright, it’s good. I’ll remember it.’ and I remember it.” 

 A year and a half after starting his endeavors in the world of psilocybin, Michael has seen the same people who spurned him in accessing mushrooms now following him on Instagram trying to have access to the plants he cultivates. 

 Yet according to Dr. Carlos Cordova, professor of Latino/a studies at San Francisco State University and practicing shaman, there is a cultural context that the knowledge and use of psilocybin mushrooms have which goes against monetization of these indigenous sacred plants. One that he has experienced firsthand under the guidance of a shaman. 

 The Proper Channels 

 Cordova’s first indigenous sacred plant ceremony was in Mexico in 1977 during a period of instability in his life. 

 While looking for teaching opportunities in his home country of El Salvador, Cordova was researching for his master’s thesis but was eventually detained by Salvadoran government authorities who stripped him of his VISA and gave him five days to leave the country – although he is a Salvadoran citizen. The abrupt ending of his stay in his home country due to the escalating civil war left him with a sense of disillusionment. 

 “I was completely disenchanted, I got depressed,” Cordova said about his emotions during his transition from El Salvador up north. “And so I left within the five days and went to Mexico City and I was staying with my friend.” 

 His heartbreak at leaving El Salvador was evident to his friend’s assistant, a teenage acquaintance of Cordova from Mexico City suggested he meet his grandmother — an elder who had knowledge of the use of psilocybin mushrooms to combat this depression.[Text Wrapping Break] 

Under the guidance of a shaman, Cordova began a ritual period of heavy mushroom consumption that in his words “rocked his world”. 

 “Imagine having to take up to 10 pairs of mushrooms, five different times, skipping a day in between,” he said. “You are going for a period of two weeks you are taking all these mushrooms at a high level, an intense level, not just eating a couple.” 

 The results of his ceremonial experience “cleansed himself of that energy” that was his depression by bringing his mind and soul balance and stability which continued in his life for a long time. Because of this change, he said he felt he didn’t need to continue using the mushrooms and even during other emotionally unstable moments of his life hasn’t till this day. 

 As a practicing shaman, Cordova said showing the plant reverence is of the utmost importance as well as going through the proper channels — like shamans — who have preserved the plant. 

You know, I respect the plants a lot. I don’t touch them, I don’t deal with them, I don’t ingest them.

— Dr. Carlos Cordova, professor of Latino/a studies at SF State

“You know, I respect the plants a lot. I don’t touch them, I don’t deal with them, I don’t ingest them.” 

 The shaman is an integral to the indigenous use of sacred plants and the connection between mind and spirit. 

 Indigenous communities use these sacred plant ceremonies — like the one Cordova went through — to combat these types of depressions and angst. ‘Susto’ or ‘espanto’ – translated into English as a ‘scare’ or ‘terror’ – are sometimes handled with the use of psilocybin mushrooms and the guidance of a shaman in a communal setting.  

 In a 2021 book titled, “The Handbook of Medical Hallucinogens” by Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and Dr. Jim Grigsby, professor of clinical health psychology at the University of Colorado – the shaman is the link between the physical and the spiritual. During these ceremonies, the shaman will ingest the sacred plant with you in order to diagnose the issue you are experiencing. 

It’s usually not an individual experience; certainly you would not go get mushrooms and take them on your own. That would not be part of the experience.

— Dr. Carlos Cordova, professor of Latino/a studies at SF State

“It’s usually not an individual experience, certainly you would not go get mushrooms and take them on your own. That would not be part of the experience,” Cordova said. “At least there would be a shaman that would guide you and the shaman takes the plants with you.” 

 According to Cordova, euro-centric research is now finally correlating these indigenous diagnoses with Western terminology — although the knowledge of these illnesses and medicinal practices have been passed down generationally compared to the West. 

 “When we talk about culturally bound illnesses like ‘susto’ or ‘espanto’ — which psychologists now have looked at like ‘Oh, you know that really is post traumatic stress disorder’ or syndrome as it is called now,” Cordova said. “Here in the United States it’s been studied for about a period of about a hundred years, but in Mexico it has been studied for 3,000 years. They know the process. They know how to deal with it.” 

 Cordova believes that this longevity of knowledge on how to deal with certain nonphysical ailments distinguishes these indigenous sacred practices as tried and true.  

 “I think that makes a big difference in understanding the process because it has evolved over a period of more than 3,000 years.” 

 Michael believes that there is a tie to the plants that comes with being Oaxacan. Growing up he knew about the role that Oaxaca played in preserving this sacred knowledge. 

 “I’m grateful that my dad was just like ‘Maria Sabina is responsible for this’, he said. “I’m grateful that he told me, ‘You need to understand where you’re from and how much history we have behind us’.

You need to understand where you’re from and how much history we have behind us.

— Michael of Myco.Oakland

 Oaxaca was the home to Sabina, a curandera – or sacred healer – who opened the world of Western medicine in the mid-20th Century to her communal healing practices involving psilocybin known as ‘veladas’.  

 Presently, Western Medicine is attempting to medicalize the use of the indigneous communal aspects of psychedelic healing as alternatives to euro-centric mental health practices that aim to heal individuals with PTSD and other mental health issues. 

 “…they want us to be for profit” 

 Jen Leland, co-founder of Ceremony Health Collective in Oakland, witnessed the shortcomings in the mental health field as both a patient and a child therapist.  

 Years of her own personal trauma as a juvenile within the justice system and in intergenerational foster care turned her off to mainstream mental health therapy practices – even as a practicing child therapist. 

 This dissatisfaction with mental health treatment coupled with her own personal experience of using Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine — more commonly known as MDMA or ecstasy — in her own personal therapy six years ago motivated her to create alternatives in her own practice. 

 “So in some ways the MDMA and the psilocybin experiences that I’ve had in terms of therapy I was really excited. Like ‘Wow, this is the way in which I would like to practice with folks’,” she said. “But it is a schedule one substance and certainly the Board of Behavioral Sciences  if I started giving out MDMA to my clients in private practice  would have my license snatched up and I’d be in jail.” 

 She began working on nonprofit organizational development and trauma-informed care looking into practices that are not just client-facing but systems-facing, leading her to co-founding the Ceremony Health Collective in February 2020. The organization, according to her, is focused on psychedelic assisted group psychotherapy. The collective does not do individual treatments but uses communal aspects of healing and the rituals that are associated with these psychedelics. 

 “Ceremony is in our name because we want to bring in rituals and the use of ritual as transformative practices in a communal way with the medicines,” she said. 

 As MDMA and psilocybin enter the third phase of clinical trials in the US Food and Drug Administration’s drug development process, Leland is hopeful of the  rescheduling of these psychedelics so that physicians are able to prescribe it and therapists can use it with people in practice. 

 She hopes that the collective can be a nonprofit organization, yet she is skeptical of that ever becoming a reality under a medicalization model of psychedelic usage. 

Because of the medical regulations on this, it’s almost like they want us to be for-profit and have a profit motive. Like we can’t just be nonprofit.

— Jen Leland, co-founder of Ceremony Health Collective

“It might be impossible unfortunately to be a nonprofit psychedelic clinic at this point,” she said. “Because of the medical regulations on this, it’s almost like they want us to be for-profit and have a profit motive. Like we can’t just be nonprofit.” 

 Leland understands, though, that there is a debate within the community of those who support SB519. According to her, some individuals might not want to go through medical professionals to access psychedelics and the limits of medicalization would still criminalize people who are already treating themselves outside of these medical confines through their own circles of friends or spiritual centers — like the Native American Church — that offer access to these sacred medicines. In addition to limiting this access, she said that pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists are already looking to stake their claim in the world of medicalized psychedelics. 

 She is not wrong. 

 On May 10, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study (MAPS) — the organization handling the FDA’s phase three trials — released a successful study of MDMA in which 67% of the participants after being treated showed improvement . After the study was released, COMPASS Pathways — a for-profit mental health care company based in the United Kingdom focusing on developing psychedelics for treatment — had their shares rise 5% to $35.77 even though they had nothing to do with the MAPS’ MDMA study. 

 COMPASS Pathways is also branching out to the world of psilocybin. In a March 2021 press release, they announced they were approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office for two separate patents relating to a synthetic, crystalline psilocybin they are working on. 

 For Leland, placing the sacredness of psychedelics — such as psilocybin mushrooms — within the confines of medicalization as we know it in the United States goes in direct contrast to what these medicines represent. 

Do we really want to locate the sacredness of these medicines and these transformational practices in a medicalization model that is so profit driven and so not sacred?

— Jen Leland, co-founder of Ceremony Health Collective

“Do we really want to locate the sacredness of these medicines and these transformational practices in a medicalization model that is so profit driven and so not sacred?” she said. 

 Although Cordova agrees with Leland on the sacredness of the plants, he also believes that the context of these sacred plants are unique to their cultures. He said that medicalization of these sacred psychedelics can be a “two edged sword,” in that, if not used with respect the entire purpose of using the plants becomes destroyed and if used only from a Western Medical perspective to heal the mind the plants won’t work the way they are intended to because these indigenous holistic medicinal practices have ties to the spiritual — something not taken into account through eurocentric medicinal practices. 

 “What I see as a problem is that they (Western medical practitioners) might feel a spiritual sense of something when they take the plant but they are taking it out of context. They don’t understand how it is seen among the indigenous communities,” Cordova said. “It is native to that experience and like my shamans would always tell me is, ‘If you are going to take any of these plants you have to go to the source.’ You would have to go back to Oaxaca. You would have to go to the mountains. You can’t even do it in Oaxaca City, you would have to go to the mountains to do it there and do it from that perspective.”

If you are going to take any of these plants you have to go to the source.

— Dr. Carlos Cordova, professor of Latino/a studies at SF State

 If not, Cordova says, practitioners and patients are creating a new cosmovision — which is defined as the indigenous Mesoamerican way of viewing the world — because they are not using the traditional methods within their context. A solution to this, according to Cordova, would be allowing medical professionals to learn directly from shamans in order to keep that cultural context within the medical usage. 

 “I think that if there was a situation in which you would have shamans coming in to teach for medical school on how to use it or incorporate this type of treatment or the doctor going to Oaxaca to learn about the plant from a cultural perspective,” he added. “The problem is that if you don’t take that cultural perspective into play then I would believe that it is cultural appropriation in trying to adopt something that is very culturally bound to Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico to an experience in the United States that is completely alien.” 

 Cordova said he understands the need for not criminalizing people for possession and incarcerating them over these psychedelic plants but doesn’t necessarily believe they should be allowed to be cultivated for profit. 

 “I think that decriminalizing it to a certain extent is being done to avoid people being… institutionalized in the prison system,” he said. “I think that if it is going to be the sale of all these plants then I’m not too sure that it should not be criminalized unless it is controlled. But if an individual, himself or herself, is selling them in the streets I don’t think that that would be a wise thing to do.” 

 Colonization of the mind 

 Yet, according to Michael, regardless of opinion on the sacredness of these plants — there will be a monetization of mushrooms and these other psychedelics of indigenous background. 

What you think isn’t a commodity is a commodity to someone else. That’s how I see it.

— Michael of Myco.Oakland

What you think isn’t a commodity is a commodity to someone else. That’s how I see it,” he said about the traditional belief that these plants are not for sale. “Living in the now — like I get it, I totally get it. Giving an offering (to a shaman) as a gift for the healing but I think that it’s all in your mindset.” 

 For Michael, regardless of a person’s worldview, capitalism is still very much a reality of life in the United States. 

 “Look, in this capitalistic world you either go with it or get dragged in it,” Michael said. “I learned that shit in my Social Theory class. Capitalism, workers and producers, commodities and time, how much you’re worth and what you’re producing is worth. Now where are you going to put yourself? Are you going to completely step back and let someone else handle it? That’s how I see it. Who else to profit off of it than our own people?” 

 Corrina Gould, tribal spokesperson for the Ohlone/Lisjan tribe, believes that the new legislation is a white-washing of medicinal traditions. 

 By decriminalizing psychedelics like peyotl, psilocybin and ayahuasca, Corrina said that the accessibility of these plants will cause the overharvesting of these medicines in the same way that other indigenous plants — like white sage — have been in the past. 

 “Indigenous people go out and harvest and only take what they need whereas people selling it on Amazon and Whole Foods and all of the other New Age kind of things are using, abusing and commercializing it in such a way that it is difficult for Indigenous people to even get a hold on it,” Corrina said. “So that’s what happens when you over commercialize something the original people who have used it for centuries don’t have access anymore.” 

 She understands the plight of the urban native youth and the effect capitalism has had on disconnecting them from their indigenous traditions and social structure. 

 “There are younger people who are acting as their own agents sometimes in urban areas where there is less accountability back to their tribe,” she said. “I think that when you grow up in an urban area sometimes the cohesiveness with tribal teachings is dissipating a lot. It’s like I don’t have to answer to anybody, there’s this whole idea — an American idea.” 

 Corrina describes it as a “colonization of the mind.” 

 “It is about colonization though,” she said about the reality of life in the United States. “It’s like people don’t have opportunities to make money and that’s what you need to live in this capitalistic society and so I can see how there might be a young person that thinks ‘Oh, this a good idea let me go make some money’ but then who is it benefiting is it benefitting your entire people or is it benefitting you?” 

 Selling Out? 

 In light of this potential decriminalization, ethical questions then arise about who benefits from this access and these newly enacted laws. For Dr. Sandra Dreisbach, professor of ethics at the University of California Santa Cruz who has been following the psychedelic debate since the introduction of Senator Wiener’s bill in February, sees the need for each individual indigenous community’s space to be included in the discussion of what this new reality of decriminalization would look like. 

 “At least from my perspective, we need to literally work in all these spaces and work together as we move forward with a little bit more appreciation for these perspectives,” Dreisbach said. “It’s like, if we move forward with decrim, we know that there is this issue — let’s just say that’s an issue although that oversimplifies it — with peyotl and that’s just one issue. We aren’t talking about ayahuasca or mushrooms when it comes to indigenous use because really most of these medicines are tied to indigenous peoples and there is not really one that is separate from it.” 

 Dreisbach said that the “pervasiveness of availability” is one of the main factors to consider when weighing the ethical decision to decriminalize these plants and include them or not in legislation. 

 “Ayahuasca is not found throughout the world and peyotls are not found throughout the world. Psychedelic mushrooms happen to be and there are different cultural traditions,” she said. “That’s where you get into issues of complexity.” 

 Michael believes that the ethical decision is clear and not as complex because the context of living in the United States dictates that money is needed to do anything. 

 “Why am I going to step back?” he said. “I’ll tell any Native why the fuck would you step back? Why would you let someone else come and take your shit like that. They are already going to make a profit in America. If you don’t want to make a profit move to fucking Madagascar or something because everything is for profit here.”  

 Having money or a collective voice, he added, is the only answer to making anything happen in the United State’s capitalistic society — the latter of which he doesn’t see happening because the mentality in this country is “too pussy.” 

 In terms of Senator Wiener’s decriminalization bill, Michael doesn’t know what the future will hold on how the bill will affect his psilocybin business. He wants to continue pushing his brand of mushrooms through his clothing and the psilocybin he cultivates.  Yet he believes that if presented the opportunity to make a deal with the “Devil” — a financial backing from some pharmaceutical company for his spores and the research he’s done — he might have a hard time resisting. 

 “I don’t know. If I get offered millions, contracts for forever? Fuck dude. I’m going for contracts for life. Me and my kids for life,” he said of thinking about an opportunity for generational wealth. “To think that I could do anything I want beyond that — you don’t even know the good things I could do in Oaxaca.” 

 Along with providing his children a better future, one of his goals — with what some would call “selling out”— would be conserving the plants and preserving the knowledge in Oaxaca. 

I want to conserve. That’s it. Whatever money it takes to conserve what we got is perfectly fine because with money — if you go to Mexico — even the president will meet up with you.

— Michael of Myco.Oakland

“I want to conserve. That’s it. Whatever money it takes to conserve what we got is perfectly fine because with money — if you go to Mexico — even the President will meet up with you,” he said about the ability of money to get you in the room. “You need capital and that’s what I learned in college. You need capital to be able to do anything you want. You can’t be broke because no one will listen to you.” 

 He has a price in mind — half a billion dollars. Thoughts like these make him feel like he could be the one to put his family — and the Eastside of Oakland — on the map in the scientific community through his psilocybin cultivation.  

 “Maybe (because of my work) my great-granddaughter becomes somebody and she could tell my story at a TED talk one day,” he contemplates aloud. “My great-grandpa was an urban, Oakland pioneer of mycology.” 

 Hoping to manifest this future into a reality, he continues to work — even in the midst of his surroundings. 

 “I don’t have a choice. We’re out here trying to do the best with what we got,” Michael said. “While mothafuckers were out there shooting at each other, my mushrooms kept growing.”