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Black and Brown healers are reclaiming psychedelic medicine

As psychedelic treatments grow increasingly trendy, The Sabina Project wants to remind you where it all began.

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“There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby, and invisible” - María Sabina

In November of 2020, Oregon took an unprecedented step in American history: passing Measure 109. The bill did not decriminalize Psilocybe cubensis, a species of mushroom affectionately referred to as “Magic Mushrooms” or, more commonly, “shrooms.” Instead, the measure empowered the Oregon Health Authority, the same agency handling the state’s COVID-19 outbreak, to develop a “psilocybin-assisted therapy program” for adults over the age of 21 suffering from chronic conditions like depression and PTSD. For these patients, even a single dose can have a life-changing impact.

Yet marginalized populations, particularly people of color, are often underrepresented in psychedelic medicine studies. According to an analysis of research conducted between 1993 and 2017, participants of psychedelic studies were overwhelmingly white — 82.3 percent — while only 2.5 percent were Black, 2.1 percent were of Latinx origin, 1.8 percent were of Asian origin, and 4.6 percent were of Indigenous origin. Long before scientists studied mushrooms in this context, however, cultures throughout Central and South America such as the Mazatec, Mixtec, Totonac, Aztec, and Zapotec people revered them as “sacred Earth medicine.” One rock painting found in Spain suggests humans there were using them nearly 6,000 years ago, and it’s thought the use of mushrooms more widely in spiritual ceremonies dates back at least 10,000 years.

If it wasn’t for María Sabina, the first contemporary Mexican curandera, or sabia ("one who knows"), scientists may never have heard about the psychedelic, potentially therapeutic mushrooms of the Psilocybe genus at all.

Historical accounts indicate that in 1957, Sabina was deceived by R. Gordon Wasson, an ex-J.P. Morgan executive and amateur mycologist who talked her into allowing him to participate in a velada (healing ceremony). Before the ceremony, Wasson, a Columbia School of Journalism graduate and journalist before joining J.P. Morgan, promised that he wouldn’t share the information with his colleagues in the United States. But Wasson didn’t hold up his end of the deal. Instead, he published a full account of his experience in Life magazine.

Within weeks, the U.S. was “hip” to psychedelics. Sabina, on the other hand, was exiled from her community and villagers murdered her son in retaliation for her teaching Wasson about the sacred Earth medicine.

“Mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes, physically vulnerable.”

Today, an organization called The Sabina Project is working to restore her legacy by elevating sacred Earth medicine once again. Throughout 2020, the Black-led psychedelic education, training, and harm-reduction organization has hosted ceremonies and workshops both in-person and virtually, with a particular focus on educating Indigenous, Black, and Brown people on the ancestral traditions.

The Sabina Project does not offer ceremonies with mushrooms or use any medicines which, according to co-founder Undrea Wright, “run the risk of being punished by the systems designed to destroy us.” Wright was formerly Vice-President of Maryland NORML and Secretary and co-founder of Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition, which was instrumental in passing the state’s decriminalization and medical bill.

“Psychedelic-assisted therapy requires you to be mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes, physically vulnerable,” says Charlotte James, the organization's co-founder who previously worked for a decade in harm reduction. “That is going to be a big hurdle for researchers to overcome with BIPOC communities in terms of building trust outside our communities.”

Instead of mushrooms, The Sabina Project hosts ceremonies with Rapeh, a tobacco-based snuff also referred to as ‘hape,’ ‘hapi,’ or ‘rapay' that seen is as beginner medicine for novices, and Kambo or ‘sapo,’ a poison extracted from an Amazon frog known as the giant leaf frog or monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor). In order to fully complete a Kambo “transformation,” The Sabina Project recommends one complete three Kambo treatments within a 28-day lunar cycle.

Unlike ayahuasca or shrooms, which can cause mind-altering psychedelic trips, Kambo and Rapeh are both legal and non-psychedelic substances. The Rapeh ceremonies are said to offer participants a safe gateway into the world of sacred Earth medicine, as participants use only a small amount for a meditative purpose and grounding effect. Kambo, on the other hand, is a more intense and involved experience as the secretion, typically applied to a small burn on the shoulder, can often produce purging (a.k.a vomiting).

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Sabina Project decided in February 2020 to offer Rapeh ceremonies remotely. Despite the participants only being able to converse and interact through video chat and not in-person, Wright says the ceremonies have been more powerful than he anticipated.

“I was skeptical because I usually do it in person with others,” Wright said, “but when you're in ceremony it's you working on your vessel anyways — maybe in a group — but it's an individualized experience.”

Before the start of each ceremony, The Sabina Project sends each participant their own Kuripe and Rapeh. Kuripe is a V-shaped pipe used to self-administer Rapeh which connects the mouth to the nose, allowing the user to blow into each nostril. This design signifies the masculine and feminine spirits and the balancing of the brain’s two hemispheres. Once ingested, the Rapeh is said to cause one’s body to release its negative energy and toxins, a feeling many Rapeh participants associate with an increased sense of focus and clarity. The Kuripe size, as well as purpose, differs from the better-known Tepi, a long pipe that shamans use during in-person ceremonies to blow Rapeh into the participant’s nostrils.

In order to keep the experience personalized, The Sabina Project limits the number of seats in each virtual session. People can also schedule personal one-on-one ceremonies.

“Sacred Earth medicine is stigmatized in our communities, so with Rapeh, it's a legal medicine and [we] can use it to build an intentional relationship with medicine allies, and bring it into their own wellness practice, and take their healing into their own hands,” says Wright.

Once everyone is ready, participants in the virtual ceremony inhale the Rapeh at the same time, heightening the collective experience to what would typically occur during an in-person session. So far, the sessions have filled up quickly and the group’s next session will be hosted on New Year's Eve.

Rapeh isn’t traditional tobacco. The main ingredient is Nicotiana rustica, a strong species of tobacco 20 times more potent than N. tabacum, used in cigarettes. Unlike in the West, where tobacco is widely consumed and demonized — with 38 million smokers using it habitually — Rapeh is seen as sacred by some Indigenous communities for its ability to cleanse ceremonial spaces as well as individuals.

One author notes that three Indigenous tribes known for producing Rapeh blends — the Katukina, Kaxinawa, and Nu-nu peoples — usually keep the exact ingredients of their blend secret. Yet often the Rapeh is mixed with various medicinal plants, such as mint, clover, tonka beans, banana peels, and cinnamon. The blend that The Sabina Project sources is only one step removed from the tribes that produce it. Sometimes, the final mixture can take weeks to prepare.

“Rapeh is not about tripping, in the Western sense,” Wright told Input over the phone. “It's about grounding and getting into a deep meditation, and in certain ceremonies to compliment other medicines.”

“Rapeh is not about tripping. It's about grounding.”

“I’ve used Rapeh in traditional ceremonies before but what I appreciate about the Sabina Project and what they are doing is allowing people to be in control of their own practice,” says Yarelix Estrada, one of the speakers and collaborators of The Sabina Project’s Anti-Racism workshops, which were held during the fall and winter. ”Typically there would be someone who administers the medicine, so there is always a power dynamic involved, whereas the Sabina Project gives people a chance to use them however they feel is appropriate.”

Kambo ceremonies, on the other hand, remain an in-person experience. The purging caused by its use in large quantities is said to be a result of the medicine expelling the negative energy out of the participant. At the moment, Kambo is not regulated by any health organizations — including the FDA — and is not officially considered medicine in the U.S.

Its use as sacred Earth medicine nevertheless has a long history. According to legend, the Kaxinawa people in Brazil had fallen ill and Kampun, a village shaman or Pajé, had run out of options for treating his people. After entering the forest, a spirit is said to have shown him how the secretions from the giant monkey frog, which expels the poison as a way to defend itself from predators, could save his community. Following Kampun’s death in old age, it is believed that the continuation of his practice protects those who protect the forest.

When applied to the human shoulder area, it’s said to have a range of applications ranging from treating cancer to easing general anxiety. None of the perceived benefits of Kambo, however — which include reduced migraines, infections, and chronic pain — are scientifically-backed, MedicalNewsToday notes. Some postulate the effects of Kambo, including dilated blood vessels and relaxed muscles, may even be placebo. Yet the cultures who have used it for centuries say it works by purifying the body and mind of evil spirits. It was also used by ancestral shamans to ward off bad luck, or “panema.

In 1966, two-time Nobel Prize nominee, Vittorio Erspamer of the University of Rome, who had synthesized over 60 chemical compounds including serotonin, was the first person to analyze the white creamy secretion and said it was “unequaled by any other amphibian.” There are currently over 60 patents based upon it and research into its potential is ongoing.

The use of Kambo applied to a burn can leave marks on one’s arm in addition to the intense puking, as one Redditor in the r/Ayushasca subreddit mentioned. Unlike Rapeh, which is seen as beginner-friendly, Kambo requires more preparation and experience. During the in-person ceremony, participants are required to consume between 1.5-3 liters of water which is said to help flush the whole lymphatic system, liver, kidneys, gallbladder, and other organs.

Bre Jenkins, who did an in-person Kambo session with the Sabina Project prior to the pandemic — her second time using it — says her experience went smoothly, leaving her with a sense of healing afterward. “In-person it's nice to have with you people who are acting as grounding energy, so if you feel uneasy you can look to them for support,” Jenkins says.

Ten days prior to the Kambo ceremony, the Sabina Project meets with each participant virtually to determine their overall state of well-being in order to set expectations and intentions for the ceremony. In the weeks and months after the ceremony, group members continue to check in on the participant’s transformation progress.

Aside from hosting these ceremonies, The Sabina Project holds anti-racism psychedelic workshops that educate participants on how ceremony-assisted therapy can help people confront their personal biases, given that the narrative of healing often doesn’t take into account those who may not have basic needs met, such as housing and healthcare.

Yarelix Estrada, an organizing member of the NYC Psychedelic Society, was one of the series’ first speakers. Her workshop was attended by over 50 participants, and initially, she was concerned the session could be “Zoom-boombed” by outside agitators, as have other organizations trying to create a safe space for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. The session was a success, though, and since it was remote, people from all over the world were able to join in on the event — uniting folks of color who otherwise wouldn’t have had access, Estrada notes. “If this wasn’t happening, we would only have a local circle in NYC and other people in other places couldn’t share in the experience,” she says.

Yet there is still a long way to go. Estrada points to the overdose rate for the BIPOC community, which has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to insufficient resources, that epidemic still lacks necessary support. “When I first started organizing in psychedelics, the ideal in my head was, 'If I help people integrate their psychedelic experience, they will heal themselves and help other people.' And that’s my hope,” Estrada says, “that people become better humans because of it.”

And so, the fight for inclusive, legal, and safe access to psychedelics continues — in honor of the Indigenous communities that cultivated them; in respect for sacred Earth medicine; in the name of Maria Sabina.