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Should Sacred Plant Medicines Have Standing? The Original Instructions and Western Jurisprudence

By Keith Williams and Ariel Clark

The resurgence of interest in psychedelics, or sacred plant and fungal medicines and their psychoactive constituents, has been described as a kind of “renaissance” much like the European renaissance that blossomed between the 14th – 17th centuries. The comparison is apt—for, in addition to a flowering of learning and human achievement, the psychedelic renaissance, like its namesake, is only possible because of the underlying extractivist colonial logic informing activity in this domain. We are both writing as people with ancestry from Indigenous communities, and we have a profound interest in respecting, honoring, and becoming-with our more-than-human kin. A business-as-usual approach to the so-called psychedelic renaissance will only reinforce the harmful extractivism inherent in contemporary global capitalist culture and will foreclose the kind of collective healing possible with reciprocity as an orienting principle. This post offers a brief sketch of the potential for Rights of Nature legislation to safeguard these sacred medicines by recognizing them as rights holders unto themselves and by embedding into law a relational positionality of respect and responsibility with our plant and fungal kin.

The Rights of Nature (RoN) movement seeks to secure legal rights for elements of the natural world to exist, flourish, and evolve within Western or Western-influenced juridical systems. The first law protecting the rights of nature was passed in 2006 to protect the existence and flourishing of natural communities in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, in response to a proposed toxic sludge dump. Since then, RoN legislation has been passed across Turtle Island (or North and Central America), and in Aotearoa, India, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Columbia. Most notably, the government of Ecuador has enshrined the rights of nature, or Pachamama, into their constitution. Article 71 of the Ecuadorian constitution recognizes nature as having “the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Indigenous communities across the United States have been at the forefront of the RoN movement. In 2018 the White Earth Band of Ojibwe adopted a law to protect the rights of manoomin, or wild rice in Minnesota. This is the first plant species to be protected by RoN law and the first RoN legislation to be adopted by a tribal legal system.

The values inherent in the RoN movement are consistent with aspects of Indigenous values, particularly Indigenous notions of relationality that situate humanity as one of many equal and integral members of the polyvocal symphony of existence. While the contemporary globalized world has made significant advances towards recognizing the legal RoN through various RoN initiatives, it is important to remember that the values underpinning the RoN movement are neither new nor an invention of Western jurisprudence; rather, they are encoded in the Original Instructions or Natural Law common to Indigenous Peoples across the planet. The Original Instructions, which outline our responsibilities to Creation, advise us to express gratitude and live in a way that sustains and respects life. Every being has their own set of Original Instructions, and part of our role, as humans, is to ensure that we do not compromise the personhood of other beings, and their abilities to fulfill their own obligations to Creation.

Sacred plant medicines, like other culturally important plants and fungi, are implicated in a profound biocultural matrix that includes humans and other elements of Creation. This perspective raises a number of questions that affect ongoing debates in the field, such as: does converting ayahuasca into tablet form, growing peyote and Psilocybe mushrooms indoors under artificial conditions, or extracting Psilocybin from the sacred mushrooms (as is most commonly used in clinical trials), interfere with those organisms’ ability to flourish? Does our interference with their ability to lead good lives compromise our relationship with Creation? These questions lead us to an underlying question, articulated using different words earlier in this post: can an extractivist, medicalized model yield collective and planetary healing that is needed at this time of climate crisis, mass extinctions, loss of habitats and ecosystem functions, global conflict, and rising inequality?

The persistence and flourishing of sacred plant medicines are threatened, like many of the other RoN beneficiaries, where those plants and associated cultural practices evolve. Examples include agricultural and commercial development in the Peyote Gardens of Texas, potential mining threats to peyote habitat in Northern Mexico, climate change and agricultural expansion into vulnerable Psilocybe habitat in Mexico, and overharvesting of ayahuasca admixture plants in the Amazon River basin to accommodate the booming interest among Westerners for ayahuasca retreats. Most RoN beneficiaries are located in specific geographic regions, whether we are referring to rivers, wetlands, ha:san (saguaro cactus), or manoomin (wild rice). Unlike most of the other RoN beneficiaries, sacred plant and fungal medicines have been both disarticulated from place due to global capitalist exchange, while at the same time are anchored to their locales of origin. Can the RoN movement accommodate the complexities of the discontinuous and cross-jurisdictional nature of the globalized psychedelic “renaissance,” including the Original Instructions of different Indigenous groups?

Multiple international legal instruments could inform RoN associated with sacred plant medicines. In 2007, the United Nations passed the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which clearly articulates Indigenous Peoples’ rights to traditional medicines and the territories on which those medicines grow. The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity’s Nagoya Protocol (2014) stipulates Indigenous rights to “genetic resources” and access to the benefits accruing from their development and commercialization. Much like Western jurisprudence, these legal instruments assume a utilitarian and even economized view of the natural world. Is there room within, or adjacent to, the Western legal tradition for the Original Instructions, to recognize these sacred medicines as persons and as kin? How might Tribes and other Indigenous communities use RoN laws to protect their sacred medicines? RoN legislation for sacred plant and fungal medicines could help to protect these relatives so that ancient and ongoing biocultural relationships with the medicines can continue for the benefit of human beings, the medicines, and all our relations, despite the various anthropogenic pressures that threaten our collective wellbeing. The profound healing needed at this moment in our planetary history can only be achieved through respectful and compassionate reciprocal relationships with the more-than-human, including the medicines.

Keith Williams is an Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University; a visiting researcher at the Naut sa Mawt Centre for Psychedelic Research at Vancouver Island University; and adjunct faculty in the Research Department at First Nations Technical Institute.

Ariel Clark is a Partner at Clark Howell LLP and Founding Board Member of The Psychedelic Bar Association.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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