After talking to Bia Labate, I actually believe that she has some kind of time-expanding ability because I do not know how she does everything she does.
The “hippy anthropologist and plant-lover” from Brazil has been at the forefront of psychedelic advocacy and accountability for over twenty years. In the field of Plant Medicine, Labate has published over twenty books as an author, co-author and co-editor. She serves as the Public Education and Culture Specialist at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). And in 2017, she founded the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, a non-for-profit with the mission of promoting psychedelic research, education, policy-reform, and inclusion.
To put it simply, Labate builds bridges between the worlds within the psychedelic field: indigenous tribes–Western medicine–science–politics–academia–the general public. This is crucial, especially right now, as Psychedelics are emerging from their sub-culture caverns, and into the broad daylight of the mainstream. Everything is Illuminated. Or, much is being illuminated, like all the voices that historically have not been included in the field– women, communities of color, LGBTQ, and indigenous peoples such as Native American populations in the United States. Thus, Bia Labate is not about to get woo-woo about Psychedelics. And, it’s refreshing.
Psychedelics inspires us to think critically about reality. We really need to go beyond this mantra that ‘psychedelics heal’ and ‘psychedelics can save us’ and ‘psychedelics are the future’ because it’s bit more complicated than that. As psychedelics and MDMA advance in the process of FDA regulation, we have more and more chances on the horizon that these substances will be regulated. So, how are we integrating them and who has access to them, and under which conditions?”
Psychedelics are about to go primetime. I sat down with Bia Labate to discuss Chacruna and the breadth of its efforts to ensure that its transition from sub-culture to mainstream happens consciously.
Chacruna: Building Bridges…
Maria Mocerino: What is Chacruna and the story behind its founding?
Bia: I was formally employed as a professor. But, I decided to put my academic career second, and dedicate myself more to making this non-for-profit dream come true in the United States. I felt there was a big gap for something like this.
Maria: What is that gap?
Bia: There is a really vibrant ayahuasca culture here, and a burgeoning psychedelic field, but there aren’t a lot of places that promote cultural education and a cultural legitimacy around these plants. That’s what really matters.
Bia: It isn’t just about integrating the substance into an individual’s life, it’s about integrating it into our societies at large. So we aim to educate the public and work on the cultural paradigms that inform the Drug War. In the end, it’s mainly a religious and moral problem against drugs. So we need more critical, informative, and scientific knowledge about these plants. That’s one part of our mission. The other part of our mission is to create a bridge between the universe of ceremonial or traditional use, and the world of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Maria: Since a major function of Chacruna is to bridge ancient practices and new modalities, how do we appropriate these substances without losing their lineage?
Bia: It’s fundamental to get informed about what you’re doing. I’ve been to a few ayahuasca retreats where they’ll have integration circles and people will talk nonstop about themselves, and talk about the problems, childhood, abuse, all kinds of things, but have zero interest in the local culture, and understanding who these people are. So it becomes very ethnocentric. So, Chacruna is an organization that is funded and led by researchers that have firsthand experience. We create accurate and accessible information about what these substances are.
…Between the Old and the New
Maria: Should the traditional ceremonial models remain intact as we export these plants to other cultures? Or, should we adapt the traditional models to the culture?
Bia: There isn’t just one form. There are multiple indigenous uses. Each tradition has its own identity and then it emigrates and transforms. It’s very unrealistic to claim that things will not change. Which doesn’t mean that everything is valid. So there’s a fine balance. I think we need to talk about public policy and harm reduction as Psychedelics and Ayahuasca go global.
Maria: You gave a talk about a book you organized and published, Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. You spoke about the importance of deconstructing the “evolutionistic narrative of Ayahuasca.” Would you say that this problem of a “linear narrative” applies to psychedelics in general? If so, what is that narrative and why is it important to deconstruct it?
Bia: Some psychedelics have a more linear history, but yeah for sure. All cultural phenomena is more complicated than common sense tends to represent. That’s where we think research, social sciences, and critical thinking makes a difference. There’s a lot of reductionism in the way the substances are portrayed. Theres a lot of naiveté and romanticization – it’s a very common trope.
If we say that: these substances were a part of certain cultures, and then we imported them, and we don’t know how to use them, and they cannot really fit into our categories–then we’re in a really bad situation. It’s more complicated than that.
There’s been a lot of immigration back and forth. Anthropologists in general like to see cultures as dynamic in constant movement, that they can always exchange and transform. This fixed idea that culture, that reality will never change, doesn’t help to deal with contemporary phenomena that exists despite this stereotype.
Maria: Like you were saying, a linear narrative is an issue because culture is dynamic. Thus the idea that a container would be fixed is a false one. So in terms of bridging that gap, between traditional uses and clinical trials, how does that work when these cultures have such different narratives about drugs?
Bia: There are multiple ways. One of the programs we have is the Psychedelic Music Forum. This is probably the most common thread in all traditions – music. You have millions of dollars to investigate the properties of the substances and effects on the body but so little to study the actual experience. And music is such a central tenant of the experience. That is an example of a dialogue between traditional uses and psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Maria: I appreciate that. It’s true that we can get a little too focused on the substance itself rather than the experience, which is really what it’s about.
Bia: Outside of Chacruna, I was involved in organizing a retreat for health practitioners to experience Ayahuasca. As a therapist, do you need to take the substance?
For our methods and worldview, we don’t consider it necessary. But in some traditional communities, it’s very important. Even so, in other communities, the patient wouldn’t even have these substances. But here you have two different models, different epistemological points of views: on the one side, that these are ‘drugs’ with certain biomedical properties. On the other, that are plant teachers, they are alive, they have intelligence…so they teach you. If health care professionals take ayahuasca, it doesn’t mean that they have to imitate the rituals but maybe they can learn energetic aspects or bring elements of the sacred into the office. If the practitioners get along with Ayahuasca then maybe they get to know themselves better and heal their own wounds and by extension be better therapists.
There’s a whole universe to be explored. It’s endless. It’s infinite. And we’re just scratching the surface. We’re incredibly prejudice and uneducated. We are taught to disrespect than to be curious and to investigate.
Maria: In a traditional context, a shaman isn’t just a “medicine man or woman.” The spiritual component of his or her role is equally as important. Can this element translate when physicians or therapists in the West are not considered “spiritual” guides?
Bia Labate: I think we have a lot to learn from these traditional sources but we have our own sources and roots to look to. We have a lot of mystical traditions in the West, and we have our own founding fathers: hippies, psychonauts, first explorers and chemists that did a lot of investigating. In the field of psychedelics, even psychedelic science, there has always been a mix between clinical and non-clinical uses. Always a kind of dialogue between science, culture and spirituality. These things are not so alien to us.
Maria: What are the most important elements of these traditions to carry into these new modalities that are being developed?
Bia: The more important thing is to consider this with respect, but at the same time having a sense of humor. I see this a lot in the United States. People are so self important. And, at least us, latin people, we like to make a lot of jokes. It’s about taking things seriously but knowing how to make fun of them. Do you know what I mean? Conducting rituals that are serious but also fun. Not hyper-vigilant but not completely loose.
Maria: Because your organization raises awareness around sexual abuse in Ayahuasca ceremonies, could you speak to the factors involved in this dynamic? And what we can do about it?
Bia Labate: The problem of sexual abuse is not just a problem of ayahuasca. It’s prevalent in our societies, and also, in traditional communities. And small villages in the the amazon have very different traditions of gender roles. Foreigners are frequently unaware of these cultural differences…so we try to raise awareness about them. But beyond that, we’re talking about techniques shamans frequently use. And there is one common technique – to trade sex or touching for some kind of shamanic power. Ayahuasca can be an aphrodisiac, it does raise a lot of energy. It’s one of the most primal and strongest energies we have as human beings.
But, like any other relationship that involves hierarchies: therapist and student, teacher and student, religious leader and follower – they don’t depart on the same ground. A lot of shamans would say, that is was consensual, so ideally we would like to educate the shamans as well. This is much harder, but we did take our guidelines to NGOS, restaurants, the British Council, and the Office of Tourism. And we’ve collected more stories of how women were trading sex or touching for some kind of shamanic power. So the basic tenant is – if you have sex with a shaman that doesn’t make you a shaman.
Maria: Is this something that happens internally as well?
Bia Labate: I think the seduction of power and hierarchy is common to traditional settings. Shamans can abuse local women. And of course, it’s also inverted – women with men. It also happens.
Maria: Since we typically hear of men in the shamanic role, what is the role of women in ancient shamanism?
Bia Labate: For sure, women have been shamans. It’s not so well-known and documented but it exists. With the expansion this has become paradoxically more common. Because a lot of people want to go to shaman women because they are afraid of male shamans. That is also a side effect of the globalization of ayahuasca. Traditionally, they were women who were not menstruating anymore because menstrual blood has a lot of power in all of these cultures. And it’s frequently said that the spirits don’t like the smell of menstrual blood.
Maria: (laughter) Really?
Bia Labate: If there is dead blood, the spirits will go away.
Maria: That’s a funny idea.
Bia Labate: All these taboos, prescriptions, and diets…they have to do with a cosmological worldview. A lot of things with fertility and hunting have to do with the larger economy and exchange between humans and nonhumans. Between the visible and invisible. People will say sexual energy…keep it to yourself but they won’t say, spirits don’t like the smell of dead blood, because we adopt these practices…and read them with our own lens.
The Psychedelic Liberty Conference
Maria: I’d like to talk about the Psychedelic Liberty Conference you’re organizing because it’s the first of its kind, and seeks to address the most current issues in psychedelics today. What are the biggest obstacles in the legalities surrounding psychedelic substances?
Bia Labate: With the movement of decriminalization in different cities, it sparked a whole new dimension. Because before, people who were interested in combating the Drug War didn’t have many options besides clinical trials… and it’s great. But it will take years and years and years and cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And decriminalization is a much more accessible, cost-effective, and direct way. Then, it’s like everything. It’s kind of funny and entertaining. People will have all sorts of heated debates. Some people are completely upset because it’s not all drugs…
Maria: Legalizing all drugs?
Bia Labate: …Or even decriminalize. Some people want to decriminalize all drugs, all schedule 1. Some people say only plants. Then other people will say it’s too early to decide, that we should wait for the medical trials. So we want to create a forum to discuss all this.
Maria: What do you think?
Bia Labate: I’m a complete fan of decriminalization. But anyway, the question is, how is it going to accessible for different populations, including people of color once Psychedelics and MDMA are regulated by the FDA?
Oppression and Racism
Maria: For the people who are not aware of this issue, could you talk about why it’s so important to create modalities that specifically address the needs of marginalized groups?
Bia Labate: Ok, there’s Black Live’s Matter. Some people will say – “all lives matter!” – and that creating special rights for black people is disregarding the fact that other people have problems. Which is…manipulation…racism…ignorance. We’re not all the same. Certain populations have experienced oppression and racism and carry legacies that other population haven’t. This is why we have to create special things for these populations that are historically repressed. We saw this a lot with our conference Queering Psychedelics. We got a lot of backlash actually: oh you queer people…you think you’re so different, you think you’re special, why do you need a special conference? Psychedelics have nothing to do with sex. And why do you isolate yourselves…why do you create this religion of intersectionality? This is so bullshit, what the fuck, now this has invaded the social justice…
Bia Labate: So…we got a lot of backlash. There is a historical legacy. Thousands and thousands of people were told that their sexuality was wrong, pathological, all kinds of horrible things. The participation of women has been ignored. Women participated in the foundational trials in the 50’s, but they didn’t get credit. People of color were persecuted, and subjected to scientific investigation. They were guinea pigs of scientific research without consent, without knowing. So they have trauma. They are suspicious of medical investigation. So you have to create special modalities that are more sensitive. And the Native American people are not very much contemplated in the field of psychedelic science. It’s very shocking that the field of psychedelic science excludes peyote a lot. It’s the main substance of this land.
For Chacruna, our stars are Native Americans, Black Americans, queers, women… people who aren’t normally in the loop. I don’t know if this will change the world, but it’s a little tiny drop, and it’s what I know I can do.
Maria : These substances are entering into the mainstream. The pharmaceutical industry is the main body that administers medicine and drugs, at least from a legal standpoint, so will psychedelics be integrated into the pharmaceutical industry or will a new system emerge surrounding them?
Bia Labate: We don’t know how they are going to be regulated. It’s going to be regulated under the current frameworks we have, that is for sure. But we can look at what happened to cannabis, and learn from past mistakes.
Maria: What can we learn?
Bia Labate: Over taxation and over regulation. It became incredibly bureaucratic and expensive. And also the fact that some people who had criminal records couldn’t be growers. That’s a big problem. But this whole idea of the future legal markets or commercialization…we don’t really know.
Commodification and Commercialization
Maria: Finally, to wrap up – the commodification of psychedelics, and the emergence of psychedelic corporations. There seems to be a lot of anti-capitalist sentiment inside the psychedelic community, which makes sense, but how can we make this transition as psychedelics go mainstream?
Bia Labate: As a colleague said – the big sharks are starting to circulate.
Bia Labate: Now you have powers to be, the big capitals, looking at these practices. When they see it’s lucrative, they’re ready to go. The Open Science Statement by Bob Jesse and The Council of Spiritual Practices – it’s a good example. It’s not against the commercialization but it is in favor of having certain values. There’s a lot of ways that people can grow in ethical ways. Do you offer scholarships, do you have space for volunteers, do you have any program of giving back to the community…? I’m a pragmatist. Are we against commodification? I don’t think it’s yes or no but how.
On a personal note, I made this joke the other day… I’ve been more of a hippie anthropologist that is a plant lover, but I haven’t myself figured out how to make Chacruna sustainable (laughter).
Maria: (laughter) Right.
Bia Labate: We’re open to volunteers, for donations, we need philanthropists. Finding a ways to create this movement in sustainable and ethical ways is a challenge. We, the non-for-profits, are also facing challenges with this expansion. We all feel overwhelmed with the speed of things. I think this field is probably going to look different in 5-10 years. We’re at the tip of an iceberg, it’s going to explode in ways we cannot even imagine.