NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Trippy Talk with Psychedelic Educator Ashley Booth

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In this very special edition of Trippy Talk, Reality Sandwich is publishing three interviews by Priscilla Duggan. As a high school senior, Duggan decided to investigate the history and science of psychedelic research for an honors thesis. For this paper, Duggan interviewed psychedelic research giants: Dennis Mckenna, Brad Adams and Ashley Booth. We are so proud to present Priscilla Duggan’s interviews over the next three weeks.

After a short introduction by Priscilla Duggan, the third interview in the series will follow with Ashley Booth. –RS

Growing Up Psychedelic

Living in LA, it’s hard to shelter your kids as a parent. Thankfully, that was not a concern of my own. And as such, I was exposed to every kind of person, religion, belief, experience, and setting growing up.

As a teenager in LA I was exposed to psychedelics early. The idea of “counter-culture” and identifying as a “non-conformer” is particularly popular in my generation. Ironically, both of these terms originate from a “one fish swimming against the current” situation, rather than a whole generation trying to not conform. Psychedelics, with their mysterious and extremely stigmatized past, fit perfectly into a “counter-culture” box. And duly spark the interest of the youth.

In Pursuit of Knowledge

Psychedelics sparked my interest early. I’ve never been someone who leaned toward taking “drugs” or drinking alcohol. I’m actually quite content staying sober at a party and people watching. But, there was something different about psychedelics that I couldn’t ignore. I wanted to know, why were psychedelics so stigmatized? And, why were people telling me at 17, that they made you “jump out of windows?” How did all this relate to the laid-back, hippie culture of the 60s?

I’m the kind of person that likes to do a little research on something that interests me. Knowledge is power! Who knew this interest would develop into a 100-page thesis research paper? And, go on to shape the path of the particular kind of science I want to study in college as well?

A Researcher in the Making

There was a special program open to juniors and seniors at my old school called “Honors Research.” This program allows a student to develop a year-long research paper with a mentor in a lab, generally at UCLA or USC. So, after my recent spark of interest in psychedelics and inherent love for science, I knew I wanted to study them in my Honors Research paper. 

Overcoming Obstacles

However due to the nature of my subject (drugs) and my age at the time (17), I couldn’t get into a lab and research the neuroscience, or therapeutic potential associated with these drugs hands on (psychedelic therapy). And, no one else around me wanted to study psychedelics. I stuck out like a sore thumb among my peers and potentially raised the concern of the faculty. But I was incredibly eager to continue studying psychedelics because of what I had learned so far about them; their intrinsic therapeutic value and unique neuroscience. So I created a plan for my own research and method with the help of my mentor. I didn’t work in a lab that year. Instead, I gathered research by conducting interviews with psychedelic researchers and attending conferences, symposiums, meetings, and lectures.

The further I traversed into the field, the more I realized that no matter how much I thought I knew, there is an infinite amount that I did not know. But the fact that I could help de-stigmatize psychedelics through evidence-based research, excited me more than anything. By the end of the year, I had finished my paper. “Investigations In the History, Mechanisms, and Research Development of Psychedelic Drugs.”

Moving Forward

Throughout this research project, I found that people react in different ways to a topic like psychedelics. People are eager to offer plenty of opinions based on personal experience: stories they’ve heard, or books they’ve read. And every one of those opinions became critical for me to take into account.

Finding my way within the research world was intimidating. But, I capitalized on that and turned it into speculative interest. That drove me deeper into what brought me here in the first place. Even in the face of intimidating opinions from highbrow researchers, it felt valuable to listen to all corners. In an era of research trapped by its own need, to prove a proposed hypothesis, we’re becoming trained to ignore any opposing data. So, we’re drifting toward obscurantism.

So I listen and observe. Patiently, I take it all in. I watch as my own, hopefully maturing ideas, come to fruition or surprise me with another conclusion altogether.

Contributor | Priscilla Duggan

Priscilla Duggan + Ashley Booth Interview

Bio: Ashley Booth, MSW, MS has been a psychedelic educator and community leader in Southern California since 2014. She is the founder of the Southern California psychedelic society, the Aware Project and a co-founder of InnerSpace Integration. In 2016, she left a previous career in environmental science and is currently collecting her hours to become a licensed psychedelic-assisted psychotherapist. She is also a co-founder and clinician at the California Center for Psychedelic Therapy and a co-therapist on the MAPS-sponsored clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD. She has spoken on a variety of topics from harm reduction, MDMA clinical trials, and entheogenic spirituality in numerous conferences and podcasts. 

Priscilla Duggan: How did you get into this field of research?

Ashley Booth: I had some personal, very impactful experiences at Burning Man. It just made me rethink drugs and our drug policy in general. I used to be in environmental research, and so I always had an interest and curiosity in science. I was curious about what was going on outside. Then these experiences  turned the focal point to, “what’s going on inside me?”

And so, after having had some significant experiences, I started a psychedelic society, the Aware Project, as a way to do something with that activation that I felt. This has been a big, meaningful experience in my life. How do I help other people get better information about this stuff and make good decisions about it? Through the Aware Project I got connected to a lot of people in the field. And then a couple people starting one of the MAPS clinical trial sites in LA told me, “apply and see what happens!”

I had just quit my job and wanted to get into psychedelic integration or therapy. But at that point,I had no trauma background and very little therapy experience but they said,“because of your research background we would love to hire you as the study coordinator,” which the person that is the glue that holds the whole thing together.

PD: So you were in research before you got into psychedelic research. What kind of research was it?

AB: I was a marine biologist and oceanographer for nine years.

PD: Did you like it?

AB: I worked in the biology and ecology of squid and octopus. Then I kind of got sick of killing animals. So I got into oceanography which is kind of like a meteorologist of the ocean. Then, I got into ocean acidification and how the oxygen in the ocean is going down. It’s depressing work. At the same time, I had had some significant psychedelic experiences that opened my eyes to several things and my heart wasn’t in my work anymore.

It was a feeling that I had, that we’re not going to save the oceans and environment until we heal people. Because unless people are out of their trauma mentality and their trauma perspective, where they’re trying to basically survive, they’re not going to care about trees, or overfishing the ocean. That was a big jump because I didn’t really know what I was going to do if I quit my job. I took my leap of faith and things have just been coming up to meet my feet. And it’s been amazing!

PD: If I were to say “psychedelics,” like mushrooms and LSD, to certain friends or family members, they would say “that’s a drug just like cocaine or heroin.” A scary drug. What do you think the best approach would be to lift the social stigma surrounding psychedelics?

AB: At the Aware Project we talk about being a good psychedelic ambassador. Ambassadors are liaisons between one country and another country. So, you’re a bridge between two cultures in a way. 

You have to speak to people with a multi-pronged approach. Part of this is knowing the science. Because most people, they don’t know anything. They’ve heard a couple little things here and there about psychedelics. So it helps to be well-versed in the current science. Then there is the historical/indigenous information, I mean most cultures around the world, have been using these things for thousands of years. So it’s communicating the science, this historical piece that puts it in context, and then the emotional piece.

When I’m talking to people about climate change, you can tell them facts until you’re blue in the face. But unless you speak to some emotional piece that gets to them, they’re not really going to care. Because people act when they care. So I just listen to people to hear what they care about. Do they care about veterans, the ineffectiveness of mental health care these days, or over-packed prisons? In the end, the bottom line is to communicate from the place where psychedelics have changed you. I try to practice speaking authentically from that place. But honestly, in talking about psychedelics, I’ve actually gotten way less push-back than I have in talking about vegetarianism and veganism, for example.

PD: Really?

AB: I talk to people about it pretty often, obviously. They just don’t have any reference point. There might not be an emotional trigger in the same way that vegetarianism gets people worked up. So they may be concerned, but they’ll listen. In the media too, there’s been very little pushback.

On of the biggest things that has made a difference is the Joe Rogan podcast. And Michael Pollan’s book. He already had a huge name and readership. At the same time people in Hollywood are obviously having experiences with this kind of stuff and they’re weaving it in, in subtle or overt ways, into media more and more.

When I first started, I wanted to get this information to people. Now I’m a lot more prudent. This is expanding faster than the science is right now. We’re going to get Expanded Access for MDMA in the next year and a half. Then we’re targeting to get it rescheduled by 2021. But we’re not going to get it covered by insurance for maybe many years after that. So lots of people are gonna know about this and not many people are going to be able to afford it or access it for a while. That is going to rise the demand in the underground community immensely, which could potentially destabilize things.

Part of me wants to go and actively talk to those underground providers and say, “you need to be safer,” and control things. The other part of me thinks this is way too big and expanding way too quickly. So I just have to do my best but also sit back into a place of trust, knowing that there is something bigger going on here.

PD: Do you see a sustainable future for psychedelic integration into medicine? And do you see any risks or dangers?

AB: There’s no doubt in my mind that psychedelic medicine, or just psychedelics in general, are going to have a huge impact on both mental health and our society. We’ve already seen it with cannabis. It was “resistance, resistance, resistance,” and now it’s huge. And I think the same thing is going to happen for psychedelics. The issue is, is our society mature enough and ready enough to be able to integrate this? Those of us that have been doing this work, we’re going to be called to help in this implementation process. 

My concern is mainly around education and people’s desperation for help in their lives. Desperation and ignorance can lead to learning things the hard way. It’s a reflection of our culture’s mental health approach, our desire for quick fixes, and our inability to distinguish good information from bad. 

PD: Do you think that one psychedelic is proving to be more promising for medical integration than another?

AB: MDMA and psilocybin are well on their way. I think Ibogaine is going to be the next push after that because of the opiate crisis. LSD is such an effective tool, but it’s such a long trip. That’s why they are doing psilocybin research and not LSD research. It’s just not logistically possible. But I don’t really want to see them all go down the medical route. I would rather see pushes for freedom of religion and spirituality, and making these things available through a spiritual context and not a medical one. Even Ibogaine, it belongs in a more shamanic context than a medical model.

PD: That speaks to set and setting right?

AB: I worked at an Ibogaine clinic in Mexico. I didn’t do their addiction program but I was a psycho-spiritual retreat leader for about a year and a half. And so I’d go down there about once a month. It was a medical model. People were in hospital beds, hooked up to cardiac machines, but we put on nice lighting and music. However they were still in a hospital bed with nurses around. So there was nobody supporting people during the experience. I would prepare them before and help them integrate afterwards, but I wasn’t supporting them through the experience.

I don’t know if it was a dosing issue or a set and settings issue but like a third, maybe half of the people didn’t much out of their Ibogaine experience from a psychological standpoint. And given how expensive it is, it was not really the best investment. It can help with a lot of physiological issues, so I think that it makes sense to use it for those things, but it’s all connected so I don’t think you can just treat one symptom as if its isolated. I wonder if people would have gotten more out of those experiences if it had happened in a more shamanic context. I see certain substances being successfully integrated into a medical model with some minor adjustments to the existing systems but other things shouldn’t be forced into that space, like the psychedelics that more often illicit spiritual experiences. 

PD: Do you think they should be used solely for therapeutic purposes, patients that need help, or also for the betterment of healthy individuals?

AB: I think of Bob Jesse; his whole thing is about the “betterment of the well.” That’s the path that I was taking before I had even heard that phrase. There wasn’t anything that I was deeply trying to get over or through, and yet I learned a lot about how to live my life more fully. I really value this perspective. The approach of “positive psychology” to mental health has grown significantly over the past several decades. Preventative medicine has started to catch on, and now preventative mental health measures are also catching on. Unfortunately, right now with our medical model, there are only medicines that goes through the FDA to treat particular symptoms There is not as much money in preventative health and it’s not fully in our vocabulary.

So MDMA was first being used for couples therapy. But in couples therapy, there’s no diagnosis for “having a challenging marriage.” So you have to have something that you can diagnose that then you can treat. So I’m not sure how the self- betterment and self-development perspective is going to fit in to our existing mental health model. Approaching this with a more spiritual model might be the way to work with it. If people have serious mental health issues because of deep trauma or more challenging mental health conditions, they should not be doing psychedelics in a context that isn’t supervised by an experienced mental health professional.

PD: What are your views are on sacred versus recreational versus medical use?

AB: Integrating psychedelics into our culture is going to take a significant perspective shift in all these areas (spiritual, medical, and recreation). Rick Doblin, for example, doesn’t call it “recreational use” in the way lot of people use it. He calls it “celebratory use.” Which I love. It’s not like your being real quiet and meditative and trying to process things, you’re just taking it to see and celebrate life, relationships, and connection as sort of an enhancement to that process of being present. Using psychedelics to “escape,” well, there’s only a few that you can use that way.

Eventually you’re going to have a challenging experience, that’s going to bring up your baggage and you’re going to realize, “Oh, I need to be a little more respectful here.” But I think it’s possible to be celebratory and respectful. I feel that we need to stop separating these approaches so much. Most of the people I see that are supported by psychedelics, have a mixture of all approaches. It’s going to take a lot for our culture to realize that it’s really all the same thing: Learning how to live as a whole person – mind, heart, body, and spirit.

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