Tripped up: Psychedelics' emergence in American health care

Researchers, doctors and traditional Indigenous practitioners ponder psychedelics’ push into mainstream medicine

Dr. John Halpern’s line of work is littered with miraculous little instances.

As a psychiatrist specializing in addiction and psychopharmacology, Halpern’s research primarily focused on the use of psychedelic medicine to treat crippling dependency. He had heard stories of recovery, had seen some himself, but one in particular sticks out. 

Halpern studied the use of peyote in the Native American Church on the Navajo Reservation. He spoke with one of the elders, who suggested Halpern meet her son.

Halpern sat with the elder. She told Halpern how her son began selling alcohol and cocaine on the reservation until he disappeared one day.

He was gone for months. And when he returned, he returned visibly drunk. He pleaded for a peyote ceremony. 

The elder's son attended two peyote ceremonies. After the night of the first, the young man disappeared again and came back a year later. 

Halpern said that after a second ceremony, the young man’s life had completely turned around. He went back and got his GED, enrolled in Diné College and got his own place, his own vehicle.

“Tears were welling up in her eyes,” Halpern said. “And all of the sudden these humongous hands rest on her shoulders. I look up and I see this young but huge Navajo man. And he smiles and says, ‘Hey doc, is my mom telling you my story?’”

Halpern said that’s what the Native American Church and the Peyote Religion is about. 

“It’s about bringing people back to that central truth, to remember who they are.”

The story shared with Halpern is not uncommon in the Native American church. Peyote is just one of many psychedelics with the capacity to heal spiritually, mentally and physically. 

Psychedelics have long been used in healing rituals among Indigenous communities, and their prevalence is well-documented in ancient civilizations. Now, psychedelics are becoming less taboo in American medicine and academia. 

But as they gain traction in the research sector, many are wary of implementing the substances into healthcare and pharmaceutical systems, and of the possible appropriation and commodification of sacred practices.

History of Psychedelics 

Research shows psychedelics have been around as long as life itself. Psilocybin sprouted out of the ground as apes roamed the earth. Ayahuasca took centerstage in ancient shamanic rituals and continues to do so even today. 

Psychedelics are nothing new. 

Michael Winkelman, a retired ASU professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, researches the roots of psychedelics and their long history of benefits. He started studying psychedelics in the ‘80s and brings a multidisciplinary perspective to his research. 

Winkelman said he brings together clinical and pharmacological research into the context of anthropological, cross cultural and evolutionary research. 

His most recent paper works to prove psychedelics’ key role in evolutionary biology, building off Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory, which claims psychedelics worked to evolve human consciousness.

“Most people feel we need to move beyond the term ‘hallucinogens,’ because we realized that these [psychedelics] provide important information in these visions,” Winkelman said. “To presume that somehow they're false and distorted is really missing the point about these substances.”

He’s also studied traditional and spiritual use around the world. He suggests a connection between psychedelics and the beginnings of ancient religions and civilizations globally.

“Can you find God in a pill?” Winkelman paused. “Well, you know, people do. We have to understand something about our nature and about these substances — they give people legitimate spiritual experiences.”

The earliest visual evidence of psychedelic use in a spiritual setting is dated around 5000 BCE, though research suggests it may have been around earlier. Ancient peoples depicted Shamans toting mushrooms or rendered deities in a psilocybin shape. Later references to peyote and other psychedelic substances appear throughout history. 

In each reference to hallucinogenic substances throughout history is a basis of spiritual and sacred rites. And they vary widely in practice. 

Shamanism employs psychedelics as a form of healing. But instead of the client taking the substance, the shaman will take the psychedelic and draw on their own experiences to perform energetic healing. 

Others take the medicine in unison. One of the most prominent is the use of peyote on Navajo reservations in the Southwest.

Peyote's purpose in the Native American Church is not for its hallucinations, but for the healing it does for the body and mind. The focus is not on the visions that may occur, but on the prayer of the ceremony, whether it be for a family or person struggling with illness, poverty, depression or anything in between.


Healing through peyote

Chris Luna, an ASU graduate pursuing a third degree in mechanical engineering, is no stranger to peyote ceremonies, having grown up in the Native American Church.

“It’s good for your head, good for your mind, good for your body,” he said.

Those who use it say it helps overcome fevers, joint aches and alcoholism. And limited research has even shown use of the plant can improve the immune system’s response to cancerous tumors. The older people in a tribal community often use the medicine to help them feel young and rejuvenated, Luna said. 

“I’ve seen old people in [peyote] ceremonies … start jumping around and dancing around like they’re young and spry,” he said. “It’s cool to see that.”

Beyond just experiencing its healing nature, however, Luna said enduring a peyote ceremony is not always fun. He once expressed to his father the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that overtook him at the ceremony. “Sitting up at these ceremonies, it’s really hard,” he said.

“I know. Life’s hard, though,” his father responded. “It’s like that.”

He said the peyote and the ceremony incite a fear in people that isn’t felt as often in modern days. It connects people back to their ancestors, to learn their lessons and feel their pain.

Luna recalled how cold it used to get during ceremony in Mexico. He said there were times he truly thought he was going to die during ceremony due to a combination of the medicine’s effect on him, the cold desert landscape around him and the physical toll of sitting up for the whole night.

“I was in ceremony one time and I thought for sure I was going to lose my feet,” he said. “It was that cold.”

His ancestors harnessed its capacity for healing as did their ancestors before them. He sees no reason not to follow in their footsteps. “They knew what they were doing.”

Luna had mixed feelings toward writing about peyote.

“There’s just something missing when you don’t hear it straight from the person who’s telling you about it,” Luna said. “It’s something that you experience. And it’s so old. It comes before the written word. There’s something that will not be transmitted.”

But Luna said maybe it’s good to educate people about peyote, although he isn’t sure whether it’s for him to say.

“I was taught to just follow the medicine,” he said. “Whatever that means.”

Research and medical use in the U.S.

Now, more and more entities outside of traditional practice are looking to follow the medicine too. 

Interest in psychedelic healing on the whole shot up in the last few decades, but a combined cultural stigma and extreme classification by the federal government halts psychedelics from making any real medicinal headway in the U.S. 

But it’s not stopping psychedelic proponents from trying.

Winkelman edited multiple studies showing how psychedelics produced therapeutic effects instrumental in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and depression.

“There's reason to believe that psychedelics have a very powerful effect in changing your settings, changing your cognitive emotional orientation, even changing your worldview,” Winkelman said. 

Dr. Joe Tafur, an integrative medicine activist and medical doctor, echoes this sentiment. Through his practice, he’s working to bring a medical perspective to spiritual healing practices. 

Tafur worked in the Peruvian Amazon studying Amazonian plant medicine. There, he underwent a traditional ayahuasca apprenticeship, learning under Shipibo curanderos, Indigenous shamans. 

He wrote a book, The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine, where he detailed his time as well as his journey into spiritual healing. 

Now he works at the Ocotillo Center for Integrative Medicine in downtown Phoenix where he incorporates what he learned to treat those struggling with mental illnesses. He’s seen people experience complete, or near-complete healing from their respective diagnoses.

He believes psychedelic healing might be the answer. 

“Society is at epidemic levels of anxiety, depression and untreated trauma,” Tafur said. “[Psychedelics] are really about trying to find some effective way to move forward.”

Tafur is also part of the Modern Spirit, a nonprofit group dedicated to demonstrating the value of spiritual healing in modern health care. The Modern Spirit Epigenetics Project, one of the group's initiatives, is trying to kickstart research on MDMA treatment for PTSD.

“It's important that the access is increased and that there's some level of reverence given to the therapeutic protocols,” Tafur said. 

The Modern Spirit is just one of many research groups working to combat the lack of research on psychedelics in the U.S. 

Despite a long history of proven benefits, psychedelics are still considered a schedule I drug by the federal government. Under this classification psychedelics are considered “to have abuse potential and no therapeutic value.” 

With a schedule I classification, research becomes more difficult to start, and more difficult still to complete.

Though some substances, like MDMA or ketamine, are seeing streamlined approaches to open up more research opportunities, federal and cultural perceptions of psychedelics often tilt negatively.

There is a slow momentum building behind the psychedelic movement. Many make the comparison to marijuana, envisioning the possibility of decriminalization and wider medicinal use. 

“There's a lot of things they can help us to do,” Winkelman said. “But is mainstreaming through medicine what we want to do?”

Fear of commodification

A steady move into the mainstream comes with reservations about how exactly psychedelic medicine would be implemented into America’s health care system and how that might lead to a lack of accessibility or appropriation of Indigenous practices. 

Though many are pushing for a wider adoption of psychedelic and spiritual medicine, psychedelic proponents share reservations about accessibility and value of treatment. 

Winkelman notes one big concern is who controls the substances. He said the bulk of the controversy comes from millionaires capitalizing on psilocybin and other psychedelic production. 

GOOP, purveyor of all things health and wellness, posted an article detailing ten psychedelic centers for healing, therapy and exploration, with many of the retreats and facilities charging thousands of dollars for a weekend retreat. 

“All that's going to be inaccessible to most people. And I don't think that we should have a system set up where the doctors are going to have a monopoly on using what has been part of our evolution and health and well being and community dynamics and care over literally millions of years,” Winkelman said. 

Another concern is how substances would be legalized on the medical level. Many fear adaptation by Western medicine could result in the degradation of religious and spiritual practices. 

Whether this means encroaching on resources traditionally grown and harvested by Indigenous communities, like peyote and ayahuasca, or undermining the history of healing and spirituality, the threat looms. 

Tafur and Winkelman, as well as the majority of the psychedelic community, think there are ways to avoid this. The exact approach is still up for debate, but many think less regulation could be the key. 

Either way, it is a plunge psychedelics proponents are willing to take, citing their vast, untapped capacity. 

“You have to give people a chance,” Tafur said. “You have to take that risk. The most important thing is for those people to be healed.” 


Reach the reporters at kiera10riley@gmail.com and japere38@asu.edu or follow @kiera_riley and @jsphprzz on Twitter.
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