This story appears in the November/December issue of ESSENCE, available on newsstands now.
Festival-loving hippies, bro slackers, and, more recently, trendy “woo-woo” White women come to mind when we think of people who partake in psychedelics. But before their adoption by the White counterculture, researchers say entheogens like mushrooms also had a place in Black and Brown indigenous communities, where they had been used for centuries to access elevated mental and spiritual states. But they were made illegal in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill outlawing them, ostensibly because of safety concerns— effectively halting all medical studies of psilocybin mushrooms as a -treatment for trauma, depression, and -addiction.
This proved to be a major barrier for the Black community, says Monnica Williams, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who uses psychedelic medicine for the treatment of racial trauma and PTSD. “There were many young Black people who were psychedelic enthusiasts in the ’60s and ’70s,” she explains. “But once it was criminalized, it became too risky for them to continue, whereas, for White people, it was a bit safer.”
Today, the stigma attached to these substances has lessened. Cities like Oakland and Seattle have decriminalized psychedelics, and new research is being funded. Clinical trials are underway nationwide, including some conducted by Williams that serve marginalized patients who have not had success with traditional therapies.
“The science shows this therapy’s very safe and not addictive—but you really need to have a guide who’s very experienced, who understands your culture and your historical trauma, to have the most helpful experience,” she says. That’s why Williams hosts retreat with an emphasis on serving people of color— hearkening back to African traditions that were stripped from Black Americans as a result of colonialism.
“We haven’t had access to a lot of these traditions for some time,” Williams says. “Meanwhile, White people have known that these therapies are helpful and have been using them. We deserve those same options.”
For some, the idea of a shroom trip is still unorthodox. Marijuana advocate Victoria Sanders, founder of Black Girls Smoke and Good Day Flor, who is known as Vic Styles online, was apprehensive when she had the opportunity to try them more than a decade ago. “I thought mushrooms was for weird White people,” she says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘What is that? Weed is the only thing I’m doing.’”
That changed when she took her first trip, inspired by a friend who worked as an illustrator. She saw that he was a high–functioning creative thriving in his career—and he cited shrooms as one of the reasons why. “The first time I tried mushrooms, it was the most beautiful experience ever,” she reflects. “I was in upstate New York. I was immersed in nature. Time really slowed down. I was able to notice the way that the grass felt, the way it moved. I was able to observe things in trees and ladybugs that I had never seen. Not that they had never been there—I had just never been mindful enough to pay attention to them before.”
Since then, she’s experimented with other psychedelics; she’s learned more through her partner Jayson Paulino, founder of Intuitive Nature, a community for Black and Indigenous people of color whose goal is to center healing through mushrooms and other earth medicines. “There were traumas that made me feel like I couldn’t believe in myself or love myself,” Paulino recalls. “But the minute I opened those doors, I realized that the world was my oyster and I had so much to live for.”
The couple’s use of psychedelics goes beyond themselves, with Sanders using her platform to change the way people view those who partake of marijuana and mushrooms. “You see someone like me and it’s like, ‘Oh, wait, I look up to her. Wait, she is successful—she does these things and she is competent. Maybe you can do mushrooms and still have everything else.’ I think I’m using my life as an example for that.”
Researchers say there are many studied benefits of psilocybin use: feelings of euphoria, a sense of connectedness, increased energy, and improved mood, to name a few. But as with any mind-altering substance, there are rules of the road. Hanifa Nayo Washington has had a relationship with psychedelics for over 20 years. As a healing justice practitioner, she’s logged countless hours helping Black people find their way to mushrooms in a safe, comfortable way, and is also co-founder and chief of strategy for Fireside Project, which operates the Psychedelic Peer Support Line.
“Because of the war on drugs, because of the war on Black people, we’ve been scared out of this relationship,” she says. “It’s time for us to reclaim that. The psychedelic wellness it can offer is real, and it is for us.” She emphasizes, however, that users must thoughtfully prepare for a trip and subsequent integration—the process of downloading the experience afterward. Fireside Project provides education around both and its peer support line offers trained volunteers who serve as companions for people undergoing a psychedelic experience in real-time.
“The reality is that during some psychedelic experiences, there will be emotionally challenging things that come up,” she says. “There can be dissociation that comes up, and that’s normal. The Fireside Project line is there to support people who are in challenging times.”
So, is there such a thing as a bad trip? Washington suggests that what many labels as such is often a result of resistance, or having rigid expectations of what should be happening. “I think that it’s important to understand that psychedelics aren’t for everybody and not every psychedelic is for everybody,” she notes carefully. “There might be some that work really well with your body chemistry and the type of experience you want to have. And there are some psychedelics that may be the opposite of what you’re seeking.”
Beyond Fireside Project, Washington believes that finding a community—whether it’s a friend or a Black integration circle, like One-Village Healing or the Ancestor Project—is -necessary. “When it comes to safety, I cannot stress enough the importance of processing your experience with someone you trust, in your own way,” she states. “It’s important to reflect on what it was like. What do you remember? What were some of the message downloads that came through? What was challenging? These can be wonderful learning experiences.”
The first time Nikisha Riley did mushrooms, she was in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park at 4 A.M., hanging with friends after a party. It started off magically, she recalls. Birds were flying faster; trees were pulsating. As she got around more people, though, the feelings turned into paranoia. Her heart started racing.
She didn’t consider mushrooms again until years later when her anxiety and depression came to a head. This time, she decided to be more intentional in her use. “I started learning what to do on these trips, like journaling and making sure you’re in a natural space, a clean space,” she says. “I have a playlist. I’ve learned that I like lemon tekking, which is a technique where you grind up the mushrooms and then you squeeze lemon on it and let it soak up the juices because it helps you digest it better.”
The result of her research and preparation was a more integrated trip. When she does mushrooms these days, she feels more healed and less reactive. She doesn’t get triggered as easily and has a more expansive outlook on the world around her. “Being a Black person, a Black woman, in America, it’s hard,” Riley says. “I think doing mushrooms helps me deal with that. I feel the lasting effect of just being more loving, and more patient, seeing that we are all connected and that people are hurting. It gives me a new perspective.”