Ifetayo Harvey is a 31-year-old Black woman that has been breaking ground in the psychedelic space for some years now. Harvey is a published author and the founder of People of Color Psychedelics Collective (POCPC), an organization that focuses its efforts on psychedelic education within communities of color and ultimately ending the War on Drugs. Based out of New York City, she continues her work at the Drug Policy Alliance. I had the opportunity to speak with her about her father’s imprisonment and her journey with Depression and psychedelics, among other things.
Can I get a bit of your background? Where you grew up? What was your home life like?
"I’m originally from Charleston, South Carolina. I grew up there until I was about 18. I grew up in a big family, I have four brothers, two sisters, and my mom of course. Things were always very busy, things were always happening in my house because there was just so many of us and all my siblings had friends. I was this shy, awkward kid growing up, but I was around a lot of people so that kind of helped me push myself out of my shell. And I like to think of my childhood as you know, outside of having a huge family, my childhood felt… very average or normal. I had a good neighborhood school that I went to, had a lot of friends, but throughout my childhood, there was like this cloud hanging over everything, and that was related to my dad’s incarceration."
Father in Prison
"My dad went to prison when I was a kid. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for Cocaine trafficking and I remember the day my mom told me my dad went away and I was very upset. Obviously, as a child, you don’t fully understand what it means to go to prison, but I had an idea because of TV and movies, stuff like that. That was – it was hard for me because my dad was incarcerated in another state in Florida. By that time, his and my mom’s relationship had soured. I never really visited my dad when he was incarcerated. We wrote letters and that’s how we maintained contact.
Thankfully he was released after serving eight years, so he didn’t serve his full sentence, but unfortunately, he was deported right after. My father’s originally from Jamaica so that made things hard. It was like, 'Yay he’s out of prison, but boo because he’s in another country.' I was determined to see him and meet him and I also wanted to know that side of my family, my Jamaican side. When I was 16, I had my first job working at a fast-casual place and saved up enough money to go visit him."
"The emotional toll of incarceration when they’re in, once they're released, it continues on and stays with you so that kind of got me into the work I’m doing now. Back when I was in college, I started speaking about my experience with my dad and the impacts of parental incarceration. I was an intern at the Drug Policy Alliance back in 2013. I wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post called ‘Children of Incarcerated Parents Bare the Weight of the War on Drugs’ and from that, I was invited to be the opening plenary speaker at the Drug Policy Alliance’s conference. They have a biannual conference and so I was a senior in college and I spoke about my experience with my dad and ended up breaking down in tears in the middle of my talk because I had rehearsed it many times, but something about speaking those words, it just became real."
"At the same time, I had recently been diagnosed with depression and so I was having this big achievement in my life and then I’m also getting used to this new diagnosis. I didn’t know what to do because I was in therapy already. They wanted me to try antidepressants and I was very hesitant at first because my mom’s an herbalist and she always wanted me to stay away from antidepressants.
At the conference, after I did my talk, I went to this panel called ‘End of Life Treatment in Psychedelics’ and I was really fascinated by this talk because I had been introduced to the idea of medically assisted suicide. And I know it’s problematic in a lot of ways, but the idea of choosing to end your own life because of whatever reason was really interesting to me. After hearing about these folks using LSD and other things to cope with their existential anxiety, something just clicked in me!"
Psychedelics and Mushrooms
Had you ever tried psychedelics before?
"No. Mm-mm. I was a regular weed smoker, drink alcohol, you know. My friends in college – that’s when Molly started becoming big – but I never really had that much of an interest in psychedelics. I had an interest in the psychedelic subculture in the 60s and 70s. I thought that was really cool, I love the music from that era, the style, but I really had no interest in psychedelics in terms of doing them. I was just, “Oh, okay, whatever.”
But at that point, I was willing to try anything and after that panel, I said to myself, “I’m going to try mushrooms.” I went back to school after the conference and told my friends like, “How do I do mushrooms?” They gave me the rundown on how to do them and yeah, that kind of set me on this trajectory I am on now."
Working for Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)
"Fast forward, to post-graduation, I ended up working at MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) where I was an Executive Assistant."
(Which is super cool by the way. I’m a huge fan of MAPS so the fact that you got to work there is INCREDIBLE.)
"It was definitely an experience, that’s for sure. I was only at MAPS for eight months. It ultimately wasn’t a good fit for me and there was other stuff going on at the time with my housing and so I ended up leaving. But I learned a lot about the psychedelic landscape, who the big players are, about the research, but to me, I saw a big problem. And that was the fact that they weren’t doing a good job at bringing folks of color into their studies. I was the only Black person who worked there at the time.
They’ve made a lot of progress since I was there in 2015, but that wasn’t easy. That happened because a lot of the staff at MAPS, they lead that work. For me, I wanted to see Black people included in this research because we have so much trauma, ya know? Enslavement, we have just Jim Crow, the lynching era, we have so much trauma. Why aren’t we being talked about in this work?"
Working for the Drug Policy Alliance
"After I left MAPS, I moved back to the East Coast. I’ve been in New York since 2016. I accepted a full-time at the Drug Policy Alliance and they didn’t do a lot of psychedelic work and I wanted to do psychedelic work. So, I wrote a piece for Symposia called “Why the Psychedelic Community is so White” and that got a lot of traction."
Reluctance and the War on Drugs
Are people of color more reluctant to try psychedelic therapy or is it something else?
"I think part of it is, we’re not afraid of psychedelic substances themselves, but you also have to look at the history on the War on Drugs and how it’s played out in our communities. You know, Crack being introduced into a lot of Black communities in the 70s and 80s, Heroin, and so it makes sense why some of us are suspicious of trying other drugs because we’ve seen how some of our community members, family members have suffered. And then psychedelic-assisted therapy’s a new thing and we already have issues with getting people to try therapy. Right? It’s harder to find a therapist of color and so those things have an impact on if it’s accessible. The cost of psychedelic therapy is expensive.
I think looking at the history of the medical field in the U.S., they have been an extended arm of the carceral system. When we think about the War on Drugs, we typically think about policing, prisons, that sort of thing, but we also have to think about the medical community and how they’ve upheld the War on Drugs. In some places, I know in New York, they used to drug test you after you give birth and if you tested positive for weed, then you could have your kids taken away.
And then we also have medical racism. These are all things that impact how we navigate these services. I also think a lot of medical professionals have been – I don’t want to say mandatory reporters – but sometimes they are and thus they treat drug users differently. We have to realize we’re integrating this psychedelic therapy into the systems that already have big, gaping flaws to them. And we’re inheriting that so we have to really think about how can we mitigate these flaws within our systems."
I read an article about a startup health plan Enthea working on the nation's first employee benefit for psychedelic-assisted therapy and will start with markets in New York City, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas. Healthcare statistics are often based on race. Are black people going to benefit from this in the same way white people will?
"My question is how does the insurance work with that? Because I feel like that will dictate whether or not employers want to go for that. It’s not the first time I’m hearing about employers paying for people’s psychedelic experiences. I can’t say necessarily what will happen, but I do think there will be some hesitancy there just because there’s a history of job discrimination for people that use drugs. I’m skeptical, I’m very skeptical and I also think a program like that will probably be geared more towards white-collar workers, you know, high-paid tech jobs. I think a lot of industries would probably frown upon that. I don’t think it’s a matter of if Black people will be discriminated against for seeking out those services, I think it’s more when, but also even before that, will they even be what Enthea is looking for."
People often think that psychedelic therapy is new, at least in Western medicine, though clinical studies have been going on for decades. Why do you think it took so long for the public to accept psychedelics as a form of therapy?
"Part of it is the cultural shift that we’ve been seeing in our society. I would point to cannabis. I think that a lot of people are like “Oh of course weed is legal!” Everyone wants weed legal, but they don’t see the opposition behind closed doors, the amount of work to legalize cannabis in, I don’t know even know 25 states now. When it came 20 years ago, those weren’t taken seriously on the Hill. That was seen as a fringe issue. “Like really? Weed?” What a lot of advocates did was make it respectable. They could give a 4-year-old kid that has epilepsy and has seizures, and no one’s going to say no to a 4-year-old kid benefitting from weed. And similar with veterans. Those demographics speak to a lot of people. Everyone can relate to wanting to take care of their sick kid, wanting to make sure we’re honoring our veterans.
That shift with cannabis also kind of fed the shift with psychedelics. I think that MAPS – MAPS has been leading the way on a lot of the research. They’ve built such a huge following and people really believe in their work because it’s shown a lot of promise. Myself, I was desperate for something when I was first getting into psychedelics, and I believe a lot of other people are. I think that folks are realizing some of these other pharmaceuticals don’t necessarily work well for them. Not saying they don’t work well for anyone, but for a lot of people, it hasn’t been a great solution. They’re looking for other ways to cope and given that these substances have been used for centuries, they like, “Oh, okay why not try it?” And then of course there’s been a lot of organizing in the psychedelic space like Decrim Nature, those kinds of groups that are creating ballet initiatives to deprioritize certain psychedelic substances. People hear about that and it piques their interest."
What’s planned for People of Color Psychedelics Collective this year?
"We’re aiming to do our conference next year, but we had a conference back in 2019 before the pandemic. That was called Empyrean and we totally had no money, [but] fundraised $10,000. The Eaten Hotel gifted us a space for free and we were really, really happy with the turnout. We had about 100 people come, people from far and wide. And so we’ve been kind of chilling on the conference front because of the pandemic, but I think we’re aiming to do something in 2024.
And then in terms of events, I have one event coming up in a few weeks the Deep Play Institute. They’re this really cool group. They have this regular monthly event called “The Existential Playground” and it’s just a place for play. I’m going to be facilitating an Existential Playground on February 28. It’s going to be on altered states and consciousness. And then we’re also going to be doing a panel – save the date, to be announced – on building grassroots movements and nonprofits. That’s what we got right now, there’s more to come. We’ve mostly been focused on fundraising and growing our team. We’re going to be expanding our team. I don’t think I mentioned this, but I am a 2022 [Open Society Foundation] Soros Justice fellow. My project is to build a coalition of like-minded, value-aligned organizations that individuals in the psychedelic space and other fields adjacent to it who want to shape the future of psychedelics."