By Dana Strauss and Monnica Williams.
A well-kept American secret is that the CIA-funded research that exploited incarcerated Black Americans along with other vulnerable groups in America’s hunt for a “mind-control” drug. Arising from fears that LSD could be used as a form of biochemical warfare during the cold war and that the Soviets had already developed their own techniques for mind-control, the CIA project called “MK Ultra” was created to test the potential of LSD for “mind control,” “brainwashing,” and as a “truth serum” for interrogating spies. MK Ultra provided ample fodder for intriguing material that was even used for the fictitious Marvel Universe. Projects like these were the inspiration for Captain America, with The Winter Soldier (aka Bucky Barnes) exemplifying the hopes of the MK Ultra sponsors.
What the research revealed
Our research team at the University of Ottawa examined early psychedelic research conducted in the United States (published between 1950-1980) to understand how and to what extent people of colour and other vulnerable groups were exploited during this first-wave of psychedelic research. Overall, we found that the researchers in these studies conducted torturous experiments in which people of colour, predominately incarcerated Black Americans, as well as people with psychotic disorders (hospitalized patients with schizophrenia) were given extremely high, frequent, and chronic doses of LSD and other psychedelics often without knowledge of what they were given or proper informed consent. In some cases, participants who asked to withdraw from the study were forced to stay. At one of the major research facilities, the Addiction Research Center (ARC; aka the “Narcotic Farm” pictured below) in Lexington, Kentucky, a site that functioned as a dual prison and research centre, Black prisoner research participants were given heroin as payment for participation that they could either redeem immediately or bank for later. This is particularly coercive given that many of the participants were there for drug-related offences. So the researchers might have been giving heroin to people with substance use disorders.
How to move forward, ethically speaking
These research abuses perpetrated by White, Western scientists have caused a deep cultural mistrust of Western science and White researchers and clinicians within communities of colour, and understandably so. It is, therefore, the responsibility of researchers and clinicians to take extra precautions so that participants of colour feel safe and comfortable in research and clinical settings. Many scholars have put forth guidelines for culturally-competent research methods (e.g., Eriacho, 2020; George et al., 2020; Williams et al., 2020). Such guidelines include ethnoracially diverse research and clinical teams, community-based participatory research, culturally-responsive therapeutic models and clinical settings, offering ethnoracially matched clinicians for participants, as well as anti-racism training for all members of the research and clinical teams.
Approaches to psychedelic research must change
Psychedelic research, like Western science and medicine, has historically been and continues to be a White-dominated field. In addition to the ethical concerns around excluding culturally diverse researchers, this means that resulting treatments may not be safe, effective, or accessible for a diverse society. As we embark on this next chapter of psychedelic research, it is imperative that the field is inclusive of historically excluded and exploited groups, particularly Black and Indigenous communities. First and foremost, inclusivity means genuine (non-tokenized) inclusion of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour across all levels of the research process, from participants to principal investigators. However, it also means treating all participants and experts in accordance with the principles outlined in the Belmont Report and with basic trust and respect, as well as publishing on culturally-inclusive topics. Another important part of inclusivity involves divesting our institutions and ourselves of Eurocentric worldviews that value Western philosophies above all other ways of knowing and healing. This piece is fundamental to honoring Indigenous communities through reciprocity. Finally, it is critical that current and future psychedelic researchers, especially White researchers, recognize and take responsibility to address the research abuses perpetrated against Black and Indigenous peoples and their ongoing impacts on these communities.
Note: You can support our research here.
Authors: Dana Strauss1, Sara de la Salle1, Jordan Sloshower2, Monnica T Williams1
1 Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
2 Psychiatry, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Competing Interests: The authors have no competing interests to disclose.
Social Media: @DrMonnica