Interview with Natalie Ginsberg: Global Psychedelic Policy and Advocacy

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“Through my lens, so many problems in this world are driven by people acting from a reactionary place of fear and pain instead of from a place of compassion or love.” – Natalie Ginsberg

Joe and Kyle spoke with Natalie Ginsberg, Policy and Advocacy Manager at Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Natalie provides us with a summary on facets of the current state of global drug policy. She also discusses the role of racism and privilege in the psychedelic community in America. The following is an excerpt from our interview.  

Edited by: Alyssa Gursky

Natalie: This past year, the UN General Assembly met for the first time in 20 years to revisit international drug treaties. A special session was called on the world drug problem. There were a series of different meetings. Vienna hosts something called the, Commission on Narcotic Drugs, every year. First, there is a big gathering in Vienna where reformers, non-reformers, and people working both from civil society on drug policy come to meet with delegates from around the world and educate them.

They tried to move drug policy from a criminalization approach to a more public health and harm reduction kind of approach.That was also pretty inspiring, and it was definitely a bit frustrating in terms of progress.We would’ve liked the outcome document to reflect much more progressive drug policy stances, but they’re very influenced by countries like Russia and China, who are really not open to the harm reduction approaches at all.

Being there, you meet so many global representatives. For example, the so-called drug czar, but he doesn’t like that name. The National Drug Coordinator of Czech Republic, for example, is really supportive of psychedelic advocacy and was able to host a lot of more innovative, progressive events. The Colombian health minister gave a really powerful speech on the floor of the United Nations (UN), basically saying the drug war… using that Einstein quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” It was really epic for the minister from Columbia to be saying that to the whole UN.


Overall, for me, what was so, so valuable was really this coming together of the international reform community. Now, I work super-closely with advocates from Afghanistan, Mexico, and Nigeria. We’re much more in the same loop of what’s going on and learning about how we’re doing work in different countries is important because the UN is a really slow body that is quite reactionary, and it’s really driven forward by individual countries’ progress. The more we can support individual countries moving forward, the better chance we have for them to kind of influence the UN later.

Joe: Are there any star countries that you noticed that are really doing stuff that might not be on the radar yet?

Natalie: Bolivia actually legalized coca leaves and has done some really important work around protecting cultural indigenous plant medicines, like promoting the traditional use of these substances.

As I mentioned, the Czech Republic is really, I’d say, the leader on all things psychedelic that are not traditional, indigenous use. I would also say that even though Portugal gets a lot of attention for decriminalizing drugs, they actually weren’t the first place to do that. The Czech Republic has been decriminalizing drugs longer than Portugal, as has Spain. Portugal received a great deal of attention because they did it in response to a big opiate crisis. There’s some incredible results to show how dramatically things have shifted, but other countries have kind of taken that stance for a while, so there isn’t as much of a shift. But, they do have really promising results from not having a crazy drug war.

Spain is also really cool because of their cannabis social clubs. I was lucky to spend a few weeks in Barcelona this fall. They have these incredible spaces that basically was like a mix between coffee shop, co-worker space, maybe a little bar worked in there — just like a community space where you can go and become a club member.


Also, keep an eye on Colombia. When Ismail and I, my colleague from the policy team, were at the UN, we spoke to the Colombian health minister about MDMA therapy. He said, “Yeah, that sounds really promising.” I’m optimistic about that. They’re kind of still in the process of reforming their drug policies, and though they haven’t made as dramatic of strides as the other countries, a lot of the ministers and people doing work in Colombia are a lot more conscious. They see all of the horrible impacts of the drug war on their country and want to improve it. I think they will continue to do this work and lead some reform in South America.

Then also of course Canada is leading the way in so many ways on the drug policy front. From legalizing cannabis to really strongly supporting harm-reduction measures in response to opiate crises. I think Canada is going to be the leader on drug policy reform, and probably on a lot of other policies as well.

Joe: What else is going on in your world? Are you projected a couple years out to be working on some other interesting projects, or what do you see happening?

Natalie: I can speak about something that’s really near to my heart. In context of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, we are working to develop a study that would be focused on racial trauma, or PTSD from racism. We are working on another focusing on PTSD in trans communities as well. I’m really interested in talking about how social injustice can manifest in an individual as PTSD. I think that’s going to be a really important conversation.

Anti-racist work within the psychedelic community is really important. A lot of people I know are these peace-loving, hippie types who have really beautiful ideals, but don’t necessarily know the details or the reality of certain situations. I’ve heard from so many amazing, well-intentioned people in this community, “I don’t see race. All people are the same.” I think the concept is beautiful and well-intentioned, but that’s also really ignoring the experience of people of color in this country.

Unfortunately, police officers do see race. Breaking that conversation open I think is immensely important. If we’re a community that really talks about healing and working in solidarity with other social justice movements, I think that is really essential. I have seen more and more progress on that front, but I just want to definitely flag that because I think we have a lot of room to improve in that space.

Joe: What does that look like to you? How could we heal a bit? I know the research itself is very white, really kind of bland, but in terms of diversity, how do we heal that? What do you see?

Natalie: Yes, the research is quite white, unfortunately. This study focusing on racial trauma, we’re working with Dr. Monica Williams in process, but she’s a leading researcher on PTSD from racism. Working with experts and therapists of color to do outreach to their own communities. We have to work with communities and not just go in and be like, “Why don’t you come into our space?” We have to be willing to meet people where they are and really listen, and hear what different communities need from us and how we can best work with them. I think really the best way, when you ask how can we heal, it’s really we as white, psychedelic enthusiasts need to do our own work  We need to do our own reading and need to start asking questions. And not questions just of people of color, and asking them to do this emotional labor for us, but maybe other white people who are doing this work who might be able to help support this process.

It’s a really long, difficult process that requires a lot of self-reflection, which is why I think there’s so much potential in our psychedelic community.We’re a community so focused on being conscious and self-reflection. All of these things that are essential to understanding racial consciousness, and the impact of racism on white people. There’s a lot of hugely harmful impacts of racism in white people, the way that sexism deeply harms men in patriarchy. I think it’s really important that we are doing some of our own work. That is a difficult process but a healing one, The more conscious we are of things, I believe that is really a way to move towards healing.

Returning war veterans are incredibly traumatized and don’t have adequate support, but yet compared to someone living in a poor, black neighborhood in Atlanta … There was a study that returning war veterans had way lower rates of PTSD than people living in this community. These people are also underdiagnosed, and don’t have the resources that even… It’s just interesting context because certainly, we dramatically need to improve our support for veterans as well, but even just stepping back and seeing that there’s so many people suffering from PTSD who have no access, or no even language to understand what they’re going through.

Kyle: Do you have any last-minute advice for students or anyone that is interested in getting involved with policy work? Because now, maybe, with this fear of the new administration taking over, we don’t really know what the climate is going to look like.

Natalie: In this political climate, it’s more important than ever to do work also outside of the so-called direct political system. Advocacy even means talking to your family or friends, creating a cultural space to support this political work is the most important thing we can do. This ties back into the conversation about the whiteness and privilege of the psychedelic space. I totally understand that there are such a span of people who are able to speak openly about this in certain contexts. You can be at risk for losing your job, your children, and certainly people of color are far higher risk for being arrested for drugs or things like that. I think that’s a really powerful part of recognizing being conscious of your privilege in this community — if you feel safe enough to speak in certain communities and speak out, that it’s super-important to do that and use that privilege to move the conversation forward. There’s so many ways for people to get involved. MAPS alone has a million volunteer opportunities, or we’ll help you host a global psychedelic dinner if you want help inviting people in your community, and having things to talk about. I encourage people also to just think of whatever they’re most passionate about and do that, and see how psychedelics can intersect with that, and how they can speak in their space.

Check out the full audio interview with Natalie Ginsberg here.

Transcribed by:

About Natalie Ginsberg

Natalie earned her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University in 2014, and her Bachelor’s in History from Yale University in 2011. At Columbia, Natalie served as a Policy Fellow at the Drug Policy Alliance, where she helped legalize medical marijuana in her home state of New York, and worked to end New York’s racist marijuana arrests. Natalie has also worked as a court-mandated therapist for individuals arrested for prostitution and drug-related offenses, and as a middle school guidance counselor at an NYC public school. Natalie’s clinical work with trauma survivors spurred her interest in psychedelic-assisted therapy, which she believes can ease a wide variety of both mental and physical ailments by addressing the root cause of individuals’ difficulties, rather than their symptoms. Through her work at MAPS, Natalie advocates for research to provide evidence-based alternatives to both the war on drugs and the current mental health paradigm.