Woven Science: Indigenous Communities

To better understand the role Indigenous Communities have played in shaping psychedelic medicine, and how we can give back to these communities, Blossom is conducting a series of interviews with experts in this field. Our editor-at-large, Iain Burgess, spoke to Jesse Hudson of Woven Science, who are giving back to these communities through their El Puente initiative.

Key Insights

  • Indigenous Communities have stewarded psychedelic plant medicine material and traditions for hundreds or thousands of years yet many of these communities continue to live in poverty. We should feel obliged to help these communities escape poverty and foster resilience regardless of our moral frameworks.
  • Anyone participating in capitalist enterprise related to psychedelics has a responsibility to give back. Initiatives such as Woven Science’s El Puente and Chacruna’s Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative, and the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund are working with Indigenous Communities and their leaders to give back effectively.
  • The patenting of psychedelics is unavoidable. Companies developing psychedelics derived from plant medicines used by indigenous peoples, such as a synthetic form of mescaline, can patent them in ways that include reciprocity with the peoples from whence they came.

Author: Iain Burgess is the lead researcher at Blossom. He studied Global Health (MSc) and Physiology (BSc) and has researched the various scientific, societal, cultural and political dynamics that have shaped our understanding of psychedelics throughout history.

Expert: Jesse Hudson is Chief Legal Officer at Woven Science and is spearheading their indigenous reciprocity initiative, El Puente. He is passionate about ensuring the indigenous communities whose religious and medical traditions have shaped the contemporary psychedelic sector get the recognition they deserve. He has first-hand experience working with these communities in the Amazon and preserving their cultural heritage.

The Importance of Reciprocity

Exactly seventy years following the global blanket ban on psychedelic research, psychedelics have well and truly re-entered the mainstream. The recent proliferation of news articles, companies and even celebrities admitting that they too have benefited from the healing potential of psychedelics, is facilitating a change in the narrative surrounding psychedelics. Accompanying this renewed interest in psychedelics is a vast amount of capital as companies seek to unlock the healing potential of these substances. 

The race to patent novel formulations and extraction methods of classic psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD and DMT is well underway. Proponents of psychedelic patents argue that the capital generated from patents is necessary to bring psychedelic-assisted therapy to the masses. While there is some merit to this, companies must also satisfy their investors as they seek returns on their investments. 

Debates surrounding patents and the possibility of creating an ethical psychedelic company are now dominating the discourse surrounding psychedelics as the prospect of medicalizing these substances is slowly becoming a reality. A recent scientific article from the POPLAR Initiative at Harvard Law School explores the implications of patenting psychedelics in detail. Central to their argument and this debate overall are the Indigenous Communities who laid the foundations for modern psychedelic research and clinical practice.

As much of the psychedelic community is aware, the use of these psychoactive plants predates written history. From mushrooms containing psilocybin to cacti rich in mescaline or leaves and vines loaded with DMT, psychoactive plants have been used across the globe by an array of different cultures for thousands of years. These plants tend to be used in rituals and ceremonial settings, with much of these practices helping to shape how we use psychedelics in modern research and subsequent therapy sessions. 

The psychedelic community has acknowledged its indigenous roots. However, as we now seek to transform the cultural heritage of Indigenous Communities into viable therapy options within the framework of western biomedicine, the psychedelic community runs the risk of losing touch with the original vanguards of psychedelic medicine. The psychedelic industry may be in its relative infancy, yet the need for novel treatments for mental health disorders is leading many to believe it’s only a matter of time before the industry reaches billions in revenue.

While pharmaceutical, biotechnology, drug discovery companies and more are set to profit in this space, Indigenous Communities are becoming increasingly alienated from their own cultural practices, the subsequent medical benefits, and the ensuing profits.

Many actors in the industry have stated that restitution to these communities will follow once their “novel proprietary formulation” of a given psychedelic have completed the drug development process and reaches the market. Only time will tell if there is any truth behind such statements. 

There currently exists a number of companies and initiatives that have found a way to work with Indigenous Communities and ensure they get not only recognition but also the restitution they deserve. One such company is Woven Science. Woven Science has set up El Puente, a non-profit that is working toward ensuring access and benefit-sharing of psychedelic medicine to Indigenous Communities. 

Recently, we at Blossom had the chance to catch up with Jesse Hudson who is spearheading Woven’s El Puente initiative. We asked Jesse his thoughts on the importance of giving back to Indigenous Communities, the best ways to do so as well as weighing in on the patent debate and much more. Check our interview with Jesse below.

Iain: Could you please tell us a bit about your background and what sparked your interest in this particular area of psychedelics?

Jesse: My background is in anthropology, law, and international development. The catalytic moment happened in an all-boys boarding school in rural Virginia in 2005, the year I moved there from Hong Kong where I was born and raised. I try to keep the free-thinking spirit of the Hong Kong people close to my heart, so when my friend Carter said to me in his dorm room, “Trey Anastasio says take DMT and trip to another world” I was curious. I looked up “DMT” and found the erowid.org trip reports page; Rick Strassman’s book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, reporting on his trials with DMT in human subjects in the United States in 1999; Jeremy Narby’s book The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, reporting on his anthropological investigation into ayahuasca, whose active ingredient is DMT; Pablo Amaringo’s Ayahuasca Visions detailing in exquisite full-colour shamanic visions from ayahuasca use in the Amazon; and Wade Davis’ zombie anthropology adventure story, The Serpent and the Rainbow

Of all the fantasy books I read growing up, from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Harry Potter, none matched the compelling level of content in the books about ayahuasca and shamanism. Though non-fiction, they delve into a world stranger than fiction: the world of psychedelics.

But I believe armchair anthropologists deserve their fair share of derision and there is only so much one can accomplish nose-in-a-book in contemplation. After writing my anthropology thesis on the globalization of ayahuasca at the University of Colorado Boulder with fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon, I went to Tulane Law School in New Orleans to study law and international development, grounding my academic research and writing about indigenous peoples’ religious and medical traditions into advocacy for and economic impact on the same.  

During 2L summer of law school, when my classmates were at BigLaw firms in New York and D.C., I was in the Peruvian Amazon working for NGO Alianza Arkana on Shipibo-Conibo communities rights to free, prior, and informed consent under ILO Convention No. 169 for natural resource development projects on their lands, drinking their ayahuasca, and learning about their exquisite intellectual property, an ancestral pattern like a circuit board of consciousness called kené. Since then, working with a Shipibo lawyer I met down there while we were both law students, Demer Gonzales Vasquez, we launched a kené IP defense fund and mini-factory called Kene Rao and a Shipibo-owned co-op for ayahuasca agroforestry growing Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis, and other plants. 

I joined Woven as Chief Legal Officer in June of 2021 to help design El Puente, Woven’s foundation for reciprocity with indigenous peoples, from Vine Ventures, a venture capital fund where 50% of the profits go into non-profits. At El Puente, we are building bridges for access and benefit-sharing in order to build indigenous influence in the contemporary psychedelic sector through impact investing, policy advocacy, and co-ownership of companies and IP. 

Why do you think it is important to give back to Indigenous Communities?

Some indigenous communities have stewarded psychedelic plant medicine material and traditions for hundreds or thousands of years. But while the psychedelic sector booms, many of these same communities with endemic psychedelic use, like the Shipibo-Conibo with ayahuasca, the Huichol with peyote, and the Bantou with iboga, live in poverty. That is an asymmetry and an injustice. Whatever your moral framework, religious or not, unless you are a neoliberal capitalist nihilist or something similar, your obligation is to help the oppressed. Liberation theology, the preferred philosophy of the present pope, Pope Francis, demands it: that we work with these people, among the poorest of the poor (despite having rich lands and rich cultures), to alleviate their poverty and build a better world.    

Today, indigenous peoples’ lands contain a great wealth of the world’s biodiversity. In a time of climate crisis, investing into indigenous peoples can be one of the strongest levers to pull in rolling back the worst effects of climate change. But biodiversity is just one part of a larger whole that includes both nature and nurture. Cultural diversity, too, gives our species a key to survival, and nowhere is human cultural diversity more prevalent than among indigenous peoples.

While the psychedelic sector booms, many of these communities with endemic psychedelic use, like the Shipibo-Conibo with ayahuasca, the Huichol with peyote, and the Bantou with iboga, live in poverty. That is an asymmetry and an injustice. Whatever, your moral framework, religious or not, unless you are a neoliberal capitalist nihilist or something similar, your obligation is to help the oppressed.

In your opinion, what is the best way to give back to these Communities? Does a specific model exist which is shown to be more beneficial than others?

A great way to give back is through the El Puente model of direct impact grants and investments in projects owned and operated by indigenous peoples. If you can do it in a peer-to-peer manner, investing in people with whom you have direct contact, then that’s even better. Another way is through intermediaries who help to allocate and direct the flow of capital, like El Puente, Chacruna’s Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative, and the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund. Each has a unique model. El Puente, for example, focuses on project financing decisions guided by a council of indigenous leaders with veto powers. The Chacruna IRI focuses on creating a database of vetted NGOs and facilitating their fundraising efforts for a fee. 

In my opinion, the El Puente model–giving back through direct impact investing–is most beneficial and is the one I implement in my own personal life through Kene Rao and the ayahuasca farm. I believe donations foster dependency while investment fosters independence and self-reliance.   

Could you please tell us a bit about the work El Puente does and why initiatives like this are important?

Initiatives like El Puente foster a better kind of capitalism imbued with the kind of forward-thinking expressed by economist and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. When he won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2006 for his work on microcredit systems among women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh through Grameen Bank, Yunus said that in order to make capitalism work for the 21st Century we have to redefine it away from profit primacy towards making money solving social problems, framing capitalist enterprises as means to the end of fixing the world, tikkun olam.

El Puente does this by framing reciprocity as reparations and approaching it as impact investing. This is what the indigenous yagé (ayahuasca) advocacy organization UMIYAC told us when we interviewed them for the policy paper we just released: “we cannot talk about reciprocity until we first talk about reparations.” It’s clear that the two are part and parcel of healing the intergenerational traumas caused by colonialization, pandemics like smallpox that wiped out 90% of indigenous populations in many parts of the Americas, and systematic genocide. El Puente and initiatives like it are important parts of this healing because they not only facilitate flow of capital from psychedelics companies and other people to indigenous peoples as a form of reparations through grants and impact investments but also open the door to reciprocal flow of indigenous influence in the contemporary psychedelics sector. 

Given your experience, what do you know that these communities want for themselves in light of the medicalization of psychedelics? What would they like to see changed with the way things are done at present?

Indigenous interviewees for the El Puente policy paper had differing perspectives on what they wanted from the medicalization of psychedelics and what they would like to see changed. 

One respondent wanted IP law protections such as geographical indications and appellations of origin for ayahuasca, protecting it like champagne. Because of that, one of the four policy solutions we proposed in the paper and one of the core working groups we are forming to work with stakeholders like Maloca Internationale, UMIYAC, and Sacred Medicines in implementing is focused on appellations of origin. 

Another respondent wanted government recognition of the indigenous right to self-determination in the form of regulatory sandboxes for indigenous entrepreneurship, facilitating investment into indigenous-owned psychedelic businesses like retreat centers and plant farms. Because of that, another of the four policy solutions we proposed in the paper, accompanied by its working group, is regulatory sandboxes for indigenous entrepreneurship.   

The other two policy solutions proposed are biocultural conservation and ownership/financial sharing. If you are interested in working on any of these in working groups advised by indigenous leaders then reach out to us at [email protected].

I believe that anyone participating in capitalist enterprise related to psychedelics has a responsibility to give back. Not only to alleviate poverty but also to honor one of the core realizations of the psychedelic experience–our interconnectedness.

What advice would you give to people or companies in the industry who want to give back to these communities? Do they have a responsibility to give back? 

People and corporations (who are people too) looking to give back should join an El Puente working group and contribute to the collective effort. If they do not have time but have other resources to contribute, such as cash or equity, they can contribute those. I believe that anyone participating in capitalist enterprise related to psychedelics has a responsibility to give back. Not only to alleviate poverty but also to honour one of the core realizations of the psychedelic experience–our interconnectedness.

We are now aware that the patenting of psychedelics is unavoidable and some have already been granted. What do you think about the patenting of psychedelics? Is there any way to patent psychedelics in such a way that it gives back to the communities from where they originally came?

The patent system was designed to foster innovation by granting inventors a limited period of exclusivity (typically 20 years) to their IP before it moves into the public domain for anyone to use. When someone invents a novel psychedelic compound, say a previously nonexistent compound involving DMT, they should be able to decide whether to give it away to the public or own it independently for a limited time. 

Classic psychedelics like DMT, MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin are not patentable in themselves because they are already in the public domain. Because innovations related to them–such as a unique synthesis process or a novel method of use–are patentable, companies are incentivized to spend the millions of dollars necessary to bring them through big enough clinical trials that they get approved by regulators like the U.S. FDA. 

Companies developing psychedelics derived from plant medicines used by indigenous peoples, such as a synthetic form of mescaline, can patent them in ways that include reciprocity with the peoples from whence they came. For example, such a company could include a royalty agreement with the Native American Church and a Huichol governmental agency similar to the HG&H Pharmaceuticals’ royalty agreement with agents of the San bushmen for an anti-anxiety drug derived from Sceletium tortuosum (Kanna).  

Companies in the psychedelic space are continuing to emerge. These companies are bringing with them novel formulations and synthetic derivatives of what could be considered the cultural heritage of Indigenous Communities. Do you think that these synthetic derivatives take away from certain aspects of psychedelic medicine?

When Albert Hofmann gave synthetic psilocybin to Maria Sabina, a Mazatec woman made famous for serving psychedelic mushrooms to JP Morgan Banker L. Gordon Wasson in the 1950s, Sabina said that the synthetic drug contained the spirit of the mushroom. 

One argument in favour of synthetic derivatives is that they alleviate environmental pressures on indigenous lands where plant medicines are naturally occurring, such as Wiraxá where peyote grows. A counterpoint to that is that increased adoption of synthetic derivatives leads to decreased interest in their natural counterparts, which can have adverse impacts on indigenous communities cultivating, harvesting, and serving them. 

UMIYAC said to us that they consider synthetic yagé (ayahuasca), and any ayahuasca not grown in the Amazon and served in the Amazon in the traditional way to not be ayahuasca. It’s something else, like a wax figurine or sparkling white wine, not champagne.   

The work of companies like MAPS and the Usona Institute shows that it is possible to commercialize drugs outside of the dominant pathways of drug development. Do you think this sort of work could be extended to include reciprocity to Indigenous Communities? If so, how?

MAPS recently launched a wholly-owned for-profit subsidiary, MAPS PBC. Similarly, Compass Pathways began as a non-profit then converted to a for-profit. Some speculate that Usona Institute will do the same. What this trend highlights is a natural hybridization of nonprofit and for-profit models in the psychedelic sector. Companies emerge with for-profit structures but non-profit values.

Funds and foundations are taking similar paths, like the one we are taking with El Puente. El Puente makes grants and investments in projects owned and operated by indigenous peoples. Sometimes these are grants into non-profits. Other times they are investments in for-profits. I believe this hybrid, blended model is the winning one and it can be extended to include reciprocity with indigenous communities in a number of ways: grants and investments in projects owned and operated by indigenous peoples; indigenous inclusiveness in clinical trials like the University of Wisconsin-Madison is working on; ownership sharing like Journey Colab is doing with their trust; benefit-sharing agreements like HG&H Pharma have with the San; and free, prior, and informed consent processes of community consultation as mandated by the UNDRIP and its implementing legislation.   

Companies developing psychedelics derived from plant medicines used by indigenous peoples, such as a synthetic form of mescaline, can patent them in ways that include reciprocity with the peoples from whence they came.

Many actors in the industry say that they will give back to these communities once their drugs are over the line. What do you think is stopping them from doing it now?

Naysayers may say, “How can our company give back without having any revenues?” To which I would say it’s easy. Companies whose drugs are not generating revenues yet can give back by contributing their equity (their shares) to indigenous-led groups or foundations like El Puente, contributing their time and expertise to projects and working groups, making grants from their treasuries in furtherance of fostering partnerships achieving their business purposes, including indigenous people in their clinical trials, and seeking indigenous peoples’ advice for their drug development programs well before their drugs are over the line.  

Our Final Thoughts

As psychedelics become increasingly entangled with the world of western biomedicine and the capitalist system, it is important that the contributions of Indigenous Communities do not go unnoticed. Anyone working in the psychedelic space should feel obliged to give back to these communities. 

While patents are unavoidable, it is possible to patent psychedelics in such a way that Indigenous Communities who have helped to shape modern psychedelic research and practice, get the restitution they deserve. Moreover, giving back can be more than cash donations. Equity, expertise and your time are invaluable and can be used to help build sustainable communities, foster resilience and escape poverty.

Initiatives like El Puente make the process of giving back easy. By working with these communities and their leaders it ensures that donations are used effectively and where they are most needed. If you would like to get in touch with the team at El Puente and see how you can contribute, you can reach out to them at [email protected].

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