Psychedelic Perspectives: Top 3 Takeaways from our Conversation with Drug Reform advocate Ismail Ali
Esalen Team
April 5, 2021

Ismail Ali is the Policy & Advocacy Counsel for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), where his job is to advocate for the elimination of barriers to psychedelic therapy and research by developing and implementing legal and policy strategy. Ali joined Voices of Esalen’s Sam Stern recently for a wide-ranging discussion about the future of drug policy reform in the United States. Read on for our top three takeaways from their discussion, and then click over to listen to the podcast episode if you’d like to hear more.

TAKEAWAY 1: The United States has never been this close to legalizing psychedelics.

Ali laid out a compelling case for why therapeutic psychedelics might well become legally available sooner rather than later. He cited the recent bills that passed in Oregon that decriminalized drugs and created a regulated system for psilocybin services (“drug policy was like the Belle of the ball that week!”) as well five states legalizing cannabis as cause for “cautious optimism.”

Ali also credits the unique model MAPS is built upon — a public benefit corporation that’s owned by a non-profit — as cause for hope: “We’re in a position with this hybrid organization that we can pursue our drug development work entirely on donations....We will have probably approved MDMA for about a hundred million dollars — not a small amount of money, but it's quite small relative to the way that many new drugs are developed and put to the market.” MAPS’ status as a non-profit also allows them to do something that many corporations are hesitant to do, he said: “We can push back against the FDA.”

TAKEAWAY 2: New challenges require new solutions. 

The conversation around psychedelics is more nuanced than that around, say, cannabis, Ali explained: “I actually have noticed that with respect to other psychedelics and other medicines, there's been a lot less stigma and a lot less political baggage.”

He surmised that the accepting conversation around the legalization of psychedelics might stem from a lack of familiarity with words like “psilocybin,” increasing concern about the impact on mental health of recent societal traumas, or some combination of both. “One of the most interesting things I find,” he concludes, “is that I don't have to do as much persuasion as I thought I would have to do.”

TAKEAWAY 3: Drug law reform is a social justice issue.

“A lot of people are semi-familiar with the racialized history of drug prohibition over the last hundred or more years,” Ali explained. “But I think it started with the colonization of what we call the new world. Modern western culture emerged out of that, which involved genocide, involved slavery, but one of the things that's sometimes lost is the amount of cultural genocide that occurred, which is not just the killing of people, but it's also the eradication of concepts and culture, history, society and so on ... I think that on a really big scale, there's a reclaiming that's happening.”

And then there’s the question of unequal access to the potential new therapies under discussion. “There's a spectrum of how trauma has impacted society, and trauma has impacted certain demographics more than others,” Ali continued. “We have good evidence that people who are experiencing racialized trauma or gender-based violence are highly impacted by that trauma. These things all kind of compound on each other. So the idea that we could have legal access to super expensive psychedelics that only rich people will get access to, that feels like an injustice.”

Intrigued by what you’re reading? Listen to Ali’s Voices of Esalen episode and subscribe to the podcast to hear more conversations like these! If you’d like to dig even deeper into psychedelic medicine and learn more first hand, check out Entheowheel: The Ceremony and Science of Psilocybin – An Educational Workshop and Experiential Event.