Alexander Betsos

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The International Drug Policy Reform Conference takes place on the colonized territories of the Nacotchtank Native American people. Yet sitting in the crowded plenary hall I could not help but notice an absence of Indigenous voices anywhere. It has been amazing to hear all the voices of people of colour at the conference, but coming from a country that has been so engaged in removing Native American voices, it felt like a missed opportunity and a failure of our own to acknowledge the multiple lives impacted by the war on drugs. This is why I was excited when I saw the panel entitled: “What do Religious, Cultural and Indigenous Rights Have to do With Drug Policy Reform” as a workshop being held to open the morning.

As a student studying anthropology and sociology, the amount of sociologists and anthropologists on this panel excited me. On the one hand, it was a shame that this would be one of the few times indigenous rights would be mentioned, but on the other it meant at least it would be included within the conversation. This was actually the first time a panel on indigeneity was featured at the conference. I hope it will not be the last. Particularly among the psychedelic community, the use of plant medicines in facilitating care for those with problematic relationships to substances. It should also be no surprise that some of the precursors to a lot of the illicit substances such as cocaine and heroin, come from plants with long cultural histories. On the panel was a man named Yawa Bane who was from the Kaxinawá tribe located in Northern Brazil and Peru. He was wearing what I imagine to be the clothes of his people, with jeans and running shoes underneath. His face was painted red, and he wore a beautiful bloomage with a gradient of colour running down the sides. He spoke of the use of ayahuasca (which he called Huni) by all the indigenous peoples of the surrounding area, centering Huni practices as something inherently important within his life. Huni means “power of the forest” something that seemed to speak to the experience of Huni itself. He refused to call it a tradition, but saw it as a practice that currently exists and is continued. He also identified no problem with the usage of Huni by non-indigenous people. Anyone who may have come into this room looking for the last remnants of indigeneity was going to be left changed. He said that ayahuasca was the teacher of teachers; it shows us our reality and not to forget who we are.

Next, Aura Maria Puyana Mutis who was a sociologist discussed the socioeconomic relations that frame the war on drugs in South America. She discussed how indigenous workers in Peru and Bolivia were involved in the manufacturing of cocaine for the black market due to a lack of economic opportunities within the region. She argued that agricultural workers were doubly exploited first by capitalism, and their inability to find work, and secondly by the black market in their manufacturing of cocaine. Strictly framing her argument within a political economic lens, she argued that we cannot understand the cultural and social ramifications of the drug war without understand the deep underlying class and economic effects in the area. Most workers in the region are not mobsters but farmers. Then she turned towards broader geopolitical policy and pointed out that the voices of those most impacted on the production side of the drug war were rarely consulted. They were thousands of miles away from the real implications of their social policies. Yet when the army comes into town to destroy your coca, or fumigates the area based on United States drug policy it leaves environmental degradation and the inability to find new work.

The moderator further complicated the story of indigeneity and substance use by speaking about her research as an anthropologist. She discussed the environmental implications of legalization. Peyote the plant used to manufacture mescaline, and one with long term indigenous usage within Mexico is seen as a plant which may go extinct. It can take years for a cactus to grow, and they only grow under certain specific conditions. If they were to become legal, they would still need to stay highly controlled, and would need to be fostered and taken care for. No free market solutions for this plant. When she spoke about traditional drug use, she discussed a controversial point. By limiting peyote to indigenous peoples only, she argued we just recreated the colonial norm, which had long allowed peyote usage due to the consideration that they were not people, and therefore not bound by the same laws. I am still grappling with this argument myself, but one of the important things she did say is that to talk about cultural drug use is a silly proposition. All drug use is cultural, as humans are intimately tied to their culture. Whose culture and where they interact is a question that was left out of the discussion.

While there were two other speakers at the talk, I would like to focus on a question brought up by one of the audience members, and one that I hope will tie us back to Canada. After the Martin Collazo and a representative from the Global Rastafarian Youth talked, someone in the audience raised their hand to respond to a question, and asked where were the Native American’s in this panel? This was the very question I had been asking myself, but it really hit home when the person in the crowd who was Native American passionately brought up the reasons she felt excluded at the conference. As someone of European descent, I do not have an experiential connection to colonialism outside of being a colonizer. While I love anthropology and sociology, the fact that this was one of the only panels to consider indigeneity but not even American indigeneity I think points to the larger societal issue with the war on drugs. It excludes certain voices, and includes others. In that process, we bought into the narrative of the Other, of the essentialization of Indigenous peoples of the America’s and also bought into the erasure. When the person who had organized the panel apologized, the speaker said “I don’t want apologies, I want accountability”.

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