Ask someone today what they know about psychedelics, and their answer would probably be very different than it would’ve been 10 or 20 years ago. Rather than seen simply as a dangerous countercultural vice, many people have heard about the wave of ongoing, contemporary research into psychedelics, or maybe they know someone who’s open about their psychedelic use. This more balanced understanding of psychedelics is thanks not only to the scientists and organizations behind the new wave of psychedelic research, but also to committed psychedelic advocates who try to bring understanding and knowledge of psychedelics to new audiences.
One such ambassador on the cusp of this wave is Ashley Booth, a scientist, event producer, and founder of the Aware Project, an organization based in Los Angeles working to change the face and stigmas of psychedelia through education and community discourse. Ashley also works as a psychospiritual counselor at an ibogaine clinic in Mexico and recently started a psychedelic integration service called InnerSpace Integration. We spoke with Ashley this week about her work and the importance of regular people from all walks of life speaking openly about their psychedelic experiences.
Stepping on the Psychedelic Path
Ashley began her career in the field of oceanographic science and has only recently taken to psychedelic support and advocacy full time. She told us about how an experience with 5-MeO-DMT inspired her to quit her job as a physical oceanographer and advocate for psychedelics:
“I had a 5-MeO-DMT experience about 3 years ago, and it was the single most important experience of my life. I had a really profound spiritual experience and a mystical awakening, and it was really challenging to integrate that into my existing life. Part of what came out of that experience was a feeling that it was a crime against humanity that people don’t have access to substances like this should they want it, and I felt really compelled to support people in learning more about psychedelics and how to use them responsibly.”
Ashley started giving presentations at festivals and conferences, using her background to present contemporary psychedelic research from a scientific perspective. The Aware Project started Bicycle Day LA in January 2015, an event celebrating Albert Hofmann’s first experience with LSD, and began to put on psychedelic awareness salons around Los Angeles.
While oceanography and psychedelics might seem unrelated, Ashley shared the unifying factor that ties the two together for her: “I realized I had spent most of my life trying to save animals and save plants, but it became clear to me we won’t save any of those things until we heal people. So my focus shifted to that.”
Coming Out of the Psychedelic Closet
One of the Aware Project’s core missions is to encourage people to “come out” about their experiences with psychedelics and not keep that part of themselves hidden away. When I asked Ashley about the importance of coming out to others about being a psychedelic user, she emphasized some key points:
“We need to break up stereotypes. Part of what I embody myself is I’m a scientist who has their shit together, I’ve done a lot of school and am supporting myself, and I do psychedelics. Another aspect of it is letting go of culturally imposed shame. When we are told that people who do drugs are bad or criminals or deadbeats, even those of us who defy that stereotype can unwillingly carry some embarrassment, and in coming out of the closet we release that shame. I am not ashamed of my use because it’s changed my life in ways that are so beautiful and divine that it cannot be wrong. There is no doubt in that for me. I think giving up that shame is a huge thing.”
Not only is “coming out” an empowering exercise for individuals, but it also helps others to identify psychedelics with real people, rather than conveniently stereotyping them. Using cannabis legalization as an example, Ashley shared a poll she read several years ago asking people if they supported medical marijuana: “The people who were more in favor were, unsurprisingly, people who knew others who needed and used medical marijuana.” She went on to explain why this is so important:
“When you have a human connection, it’s not just ‘some person’ who’s using psychedelics — it’s your sister or your cousin or your coworker. It becomes a real person that has a face and emotions and feelings. Then it’s a lot harder to put psychedelic users in a generic, faceless box. You can tell people facts and show them the science until you’re blue in the face, but unless there is some kind of human connection and something relatable, people won’t change their mind. The science will open them up to ideas, but when you talk about your own personal experiences and say ‘psychedelics changed my life in this way’, the other person can feel it, and that conveys much more than the words themselves.”
Looking Ahead to Integration
A theme we hear more and more in the psychedelic community is the importance and current lack of proper integration support for people who take psychedelics. One psychedelic experience can take a lifetime to integrate, and without the right kind of resources available to people, it can be a missed opportunity for deeper personal change. Ashley and her friends are helping to fill this need with a new venture called InnerSpace Integration, which she describes as a way to help people who “are planning on having or have already had a powerful altered-state experience, and assisting them with counseling, community support, and small group meetings.” This kind of support will help people be educated, responsible, and ready to do the necessary work to get the most out of their psychedelic experience, both before and after it happens. Sharing best practices and providing aftercare in this way is what drives our cultural attitude surrounding psychedelics from elementary towards maturity.
Ashley’s work and the Aware Project are making a real difference in the conversation surrounding psychedelics, and we are grateful for the good work they’re doing. Looking forward to the future and putting this all into context, Ashley alluded to the big picture at stake here: “These substances are a key part of human evolution, and most of society doesn’t know that yet — but they will soon.”