May 28, 2024
Indigenous people in Colorado say Native people who have been using plant-based medicines for generations should be leading the movement after the decriminalization of psychedelics.

For more than 15 years, Kuthoomi Castro trained under Indigenous elders in Ecuador before beginning the practice known within Native communities as serving medicine.

The journey, which allowed them to lead traditional ceremonies and give ayahuasca — a plant-based psychedelic brew — to others was long, and still ongoing, but sacred.

“This is my tradition and my path,” Castro said.

That’s why the Boulder resident and clinical counselor doesn’t take the use or distribution of psychedelics lightly. It’s what drove them and other Indigenous people — as part of a group called the Native Coalition of Colorado — to protest at the Psychedelic Science 2023 conference this summer in Denver.

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The members argue that Natives who have been using plant-based substances for generations should not only be more involved in the discussions but leading them. They worry that the measure decriminalizing psychedelics will allow the wealthy and the powerful to profit as psychedelics are misused and abused. And they are concerned that commercialization could make it harder for Native communities to find the plants they use in their practices.

The group is on a mission to raise awareness about these issues even as an advisory board works with the state to establish rules for psychedelic sales and dilicensing facilities such as healing centers.

“The plant medicine is a renaissance within the Western system, and it has been happening for decades through the Indigenous people,” Castro told conference attendees.

Indigenous communities opened up their medicines to help people heal, not to have the medicines taken and their cultures erased, they said.

“Please stop. Think. Think critically,” Castro added.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which hosted the large conference, told The Denver Post that it did not have anyone available to comment.

In 2022, Colorado voters passed Proposition 122, the citizen-led Natural Medicine Health Act. It decriminalized, for people 21 and older, using, growing and sharing five natural psychedelic substances, including two in psychedelic mushrooms — psilocybin and psilocin — and three plant-based psychedelic substances — dimethyltryptamine, ibogaine and mescaline. It tasks the state with regulating natural medicine use in licensed facilities and allows for expansion of the types of substances that can be offered.

Rabbi Ben Gorelick, measures out a precise amount of sacrament, psilocybin mushrooms, during The Sacred Tribe’s ceremony on Nov. 6, 2021. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post) 

This year state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 23-290, clarifying the regulatory framework for the Natural Medicine program, but they noted that the use of these medicines for health conditions should be balanced with potential cultural harms to tribes and Indigenous people.

The Natural Medicine Advisory Board, made up of governor-appointed volunteers, is working with state agencies on rules and implementation. By Dec. 31, 2024, Colorado has to start taking applications for natural medicine facilitators.

Department of Regulatory Agencies spokesperson Katie O’Donnell said DORA has worked to ensure it has tribal and Indigenous representation – two of the 15 board members are Indigenous and one practices psychedelic medicine within Native tradition. An Indigenous subcommittee and tribal working group were also formed, and the state is planning a public campaign to hear from communities across the state.

O’Donnell noted the new rules won’t apply to tribal nations, which are sovereign, but the tribes will be included since decisions outside their borders can affect them.

For Castro, that doesn’t go far enough. It keeps those already in power in control while decentralizing Indigenous voices.

They opposed Prop 122 even though it decriminalizes plant medicines traditionally used by Native people. Those who would be most affected were not making the decisions. And the law opens up the door for corporations to create synthetics and exploit the plants, Castro said.

“Right now because it has been legalized, or it’s moving into that, it’s pretty much open for people to do as they wish, as long as the system is saying it’s OK,” they said.

But Kevin Matthews, who works in consulting and education on psychedelics and was a proponent for the psychedelics campaign, said organizers tried to be inclusive and respectful of Indigenous communities. Backers prioritized decriminalization so Native communities could keep using natural medicines, and they excluded peyote (which federal law protects using in Native ceremonies) — its main active ingredient is the hallucinogen mescaline — from the measure.

Matthews said he pursued the measure because psilocybin mushrooms changed his life and he viewed it as a way to address mental and behavioral health crises.

“Whenever you are embarking on a major effort to dismantle decades-old harmful policies, there will inevitably be missteps and we recognize we could have done more,” he wrote in an email. “We are committed to continuing to work with Indigenous and Native communities to embrace the lessons learned and implement a model that honors the benefit that these communities have been carrying.”

That effort should have included leadership from medicine carriers and communities that have been stewarding native medicines like ayahuasca, said Gabriela Galindo, who lives in Boulder and has Indigenous roots and a background in public health and alternative medicines.

“Indigenous communities need to be the voices,” she said. “Our communities are the experts.”

But now people have discovered the benefits of the medicines — the same ones Native people were often punished for using — and they want to profit from them. They’re trying to bypass hundreds of years of history, she said.

Galindo understands wanting them for healing, but she said they’re being taken at the cost of Indigenous communities instead of addressing the root causes of problems in Western society.

Indigenous communities, however, are not a monolith.

A woman prepares copal resin in an incense burner, called a popoxcomitl, to offer smoke in order to cleanse and harmonize the energy of the ceremony during an annual community celebration known as Feast Day in honor of San Lorenzo, in Lakewood on Aug. 19, 2023. (Photo by Kevin Mohatt/Special to The Denver Post) 

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Veronica Lightning Horse Perez, a Littleton-based therapist of Indigenous heritage who uses psychedelics in her practice and incorporates Indigenous spiritual traditions, became a vocal proponent of Prop 122 because she said she sees so much suffering that could be alleviated with the medicines.

She also understands the frustrations.

“When we go to a conference and we see millions of dollars coming in and out the door, when we see a tent that says ‘poop Gods’ on it, and we see mushrooms with googly-eyed cartoon characters on it, it’s painful,” she said.

So what’s the solution? Castro stresses that they’re not calling for non-Natives to stop participating in plant-based medicine ceremonies led by Indigenous people.

They just want recognition for those who brought the medicine and respect for their practices. That means white people who haven’t been trained or haven’t done the work to understand the relationship with nature shouldn’t be offering it or leading traditional ceremonies.

“It’s not just understanding the logistical piece of it. It’s not just understanding how to cook it or prepare it or how to hold space for people or how many people can be there,” Castro said. “Our medicines for us are our elders.”

Castro is calling for a separation between plant-based substances and pharmaceutical psychedelics created in a lab such as MDMA — commonly known as ecstasy and sometimes used in therapy.

Indigenous people who spoke to The Post said they also want to see reciprocity. They want benefits for Indigenous people who provided the plant-based medicines, instead of just making them workers who get exploited.

“Rather than taking or centering themselves as the movement give it back so that they’re centering Indigenous people and then elevating us,” Castro said.