Maybe White People Shouldn't Take Drugs From Indigenous Cultures

White people love to try drugs from other cultures. Just think of the scene in Zoolander when Hansel recounts a story to Derek about hallucinating that he’s falling off a mountain, and suddenly remembers he’s been “smoking peyote for six straight days.” Other iconic white guys in cinema have famously partaken: Tony Soprano, the stars of “Young Guns.” Ben Stiller experiments with ayahuasca in While We’re Young in an attempt to spice up his love life with his wife. There are enough examples of these scenes to say there is a trope in television and film of sending a reserved character on a spiritual awakening by having them experiment with psychedelic drugs. In other cases, it is a way to solidify a character’s New Age kookiness, as in the case of Hansel or Lily Tomlin’s character in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.” But while these scenes can be humorous, they also normalize and publicize the use of drugs that white people arguably don’t have a right to. 

Ayahuasca is one such drug that’s been particularly in vogue among white people lately; so much so that the New Yorker dubbed it the "drug of choice for the age of kale.” The hallucinogenic tea is traditionally brewed by the native groups of the Amazon rainforest for medicinal and shamanic purposes. Tribes in several Brazilian religions drink it as a spiritual rite. While some hipsters cook it up in their Bushwick kitchenettes, traditionalists insist that the drug only be tested in its native South America. Often when white characters in movies and television shows take ayahuasca or peyote, the medicinal and spiritual context is left out, perpetuating false beliefs about why indigenous communities use them to begin with.

Drug use can certainly fit into contemporary definitions of cultural appropriation, which is legally defined as "taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission," Susan Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, told Jezebel, "This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects."

Note Scafidi’s definition includes “traditional medicine." Of course, not all non-native people who take ayahuasca take the drug purely for recreational purposes; some want to pay homage to indigenous wisdom. But really, how many could that be, compared to those who simply want to follow in Jennifer Aniston’s footsteps?

Whatever their intent, the appropriation of ayahuasca has negatively impacted the economies of the communities they come from, particularly when tourists travel to pursue psychedelic drugs. In 2016, Vice reported on the impact of the ayahuasca craze in the Amazon, where community experts say it has commodified the practice in a way that cheapens the actual spiritual practice of ayahuasca. “As ayahuasca has become more and more popular with foreign tourists….we have found that pseudo shamans have sprung up everywhere to cater for the demand," Valerie Meikle, a Reiki master and holistic healer, told Vice. "This means that the ayahuasca rituals have obviously lost some of their original power and very often the ceremony is adapted to suit foreigners who are ready to pay high prices on low-quality rituals." The overall impact cheapens the very practice these tourists seek.

Peyote has also been appropriated by white drug enthusiasts in regions of Mexico. Vice writes: “Under Mexican law only the Wixárika can consume peyote, but New Age enthusiasts are eagerly simulating this experience by partaking in an illicit peyote-based tourist trap booming in nearby Real de Catorce. The dusty former ghost town is brimming with non-indigenous fixers offering tourists peyote and a place to trip. For the Wixárika, the trend adds insult to injury. ‘We’re upset that people come here and steal peyote because for us it’s a deity, not a drug,' [local representative Aukwe] Mijarez told Vice. 'It’s part of our identity and we respect it.'”

As more white tourists flock to these regions to take from local cultural practices, progressive organizations are increasingly vocal about protecting them. “We advise people to be very cautious about non-Indigenous controlled establishments that have anything to do with Indigenous peoples, their lands, cultures, and resources, period,” Agnes Portalewska, communications manager of Cultural Survival, a nonprofit that seeks to advance indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide, told AlterNet. “Ayahuasca, peyote, etc. are spiritual and cultural practices that are rooted in specific cultures and should not be commercialized and exploited, but protected as private community sacred practices."

“Cultural appropriation is a huge problem when it comes to Indigenous cultures, and especially spirituality," she added. "A huge part of this spiritual tourism is that the practice is taken out of context, exploited and commercialized.”

Some drugs have been so appropriated into white circles, we’ve forgotten we took them from other cultures in the first place. Psychedelic mushrooms grow across all continents, but became popular after Valentina and R. Gordon Wasson, a J.P. Morgan banker and his wife, wrote in Life Magazine in 1957 about their experience participating in an indigenous mushroom ceremony in Oaxaca, Mexico. Inspired by their account, Timothy Leary, the father of the psychedelic drug movement, traveled to Mexico to experience psilocybin mushrooms for himself, inspiring generations of hippies and drug enthusiasts to seek the far-out experience as well. Now you can find shrooms in the fanny pack of nearly any festival-goer at Coachella.

White people’s drug usage in general is filled with hypocrisies beyond the realm of cultural appropriation. Just look to the current irony of marijuana in the U.S.: while white men dominate the burgeoning legal industry, making millions in profits, black and brown people are still disproportionately punished for possessing and selling it.

Our increasingly globalized world means white people will continue to seek out things that do not belong to them, so to suggest we shouldn't appropriate drugs from other cultures is pretty futile. The only possible solution is the same one that’s been proposed for repairing acts of cultural appropriation in music, fashion and food: we need to pay proper tribute to the culture the practice comes from, honor its history and do everything possible to financially compensate the community from which it came.  

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