When Ifetayo Harvey was four years old (she is now 24), her father (a Jamaican immigrant) was locked away for eight years and subsequently deported back to his home country after being charged with cocaine trafficking. While she was able to communicate with him via letters during his imprisonment and deportation, this is a far-cry from the kind of guidance and support a developing child needs. Her mother was left to raise seven children alone and Ifetayo, found herself confused and hurt. In spite of these perceived shortcomings, she was able to get active in Drug Policy Reform, graduate from Smith College with a degree in History and African Studies, and secure a job at the prestigious Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) where she works with Dr. Rick Doblin, who has become a legend in psychedelia.
It is disappointing because Ifetayo’s struggle is one of many as there are millions of children in the U.S that are dealing with an incarcerated parent(s). These instances create confusion for the child and is considered anathema amongst their peer group, unless those peers are suffering from the same type of trauma. What is so disgusting about this entire ordeal, in my opinion, is the antiquated “witch hunt” mentality that is still prevalent in Western society. Miseducation and disinformation has convinced a sizable portion of the American public to invest in an idea (and system) that is a direct assault on personal liberty. These people worship this system as if it was a sentient, hyper-omniscient being that should, under no circumstances, be broken or questioned. Not only are these laws draconian, but it’s downright foolish for any nation with the supposed goal of social progress to incarcerate so many non-violent offenders.
The legislation is stilted in favor of the rich majority and those who are “unfortunate” enough to have a too much pigmentation, deal with greater legal issues and face stiffer sentences. Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana despite using the drug at a rate similar to white Americans. And that’s being generous because some states (Illinois and Minnesota for instance) have these rates as high as eight times. It’s an effective way to funnel the less fortunate into the for profit Prison Industrial Complex and create propagandist drone-bots that fall prey to the black and white “you do the crime, you do the time” narrative. In Portugal, the government decided to focus on decriminalization and rehabilitation to cut down on recidivism and it has been a resounding success.
Interestingly enough, this is not treated as an obvious issue with U.S legislation and seen as an opportunity to promote solidarity (and maybe even a bit of anarchy), but instead devolves into a kind of come out party for closeted bigots to proclaim that the victims are intellectually inferior or sub-human. For whatever reason, it does not seem to bother most people that their fellow Americans are being hauled away for activity that shouldn’t be illegal in the first place. I’ve found it to be quite ironic that the Land of the Free has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. We currently have over two million citizens in prison, which is more than that of China, despite China having nearly double our entire population. It’s almost a sociological platitude at this point, but the war is pointless, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and creates illicit underground activity that leads to more senseless imprisonment, psychological and emotional damage, and death.
Offenders aren’t the only ones effected by this initiative either. The War hinders medical progress as well, rendering it anti-science, anti-human, and anti-enlightenment. We have a very limited understanding of what some of these substances are capable of due to strict embargoes on research. Some studies being performed by individuals like Dr. Roland Griffiths out of Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Peter Gasser out of Switzerland are discovering that psychedelics can regrow brain cells, alleviate anxiety associated with death, and cure alcoholism. While this news is undoubtedly positive, it elicits questions about how advanced psychotropic medicines would have been up until this point if research had been approached with a laissez-faire attitude. Although I am weary of big pharma having a monopoly on production and research, (these substances could be tampered with to make them addictive, similar to that of tobacco) it would be nice to see more long term clinical trials being performed in a safe setting.
In this interview, Ifetayo touches on some of the ideas I mentioned above, discusses her role at MAPS, and gives some of her opinions on how we can restructure drug policy.
Prox: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from and why did you decide to get active in the fight against drug policy?
Ifetayo: My name is Ifetayo Harvey. I am a writer, public speaker, advocate and Executive Assistant at the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. I’m from Charleston, South Carolina and I’ve held an interest in activism since elementary school. In 2013, I interned at the Drug Policy Alliance and learned about Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Drug Policy Alliance, and MAPS. I decided to get active in ending the War on Drugs because I know that it is really an attack on black and brown people.
Prox: How difficult was it for you growing up without your dad? Has this made it more difficult for you connect with people or is it easier because you have a greater appreciation for genuine connections?
Ifetayo: I can’t quantify or qualify how difficult it was growing up without my father. I don’t have many experiences to compare his absence to since I lost him at the age of four. I’ll never know what it feels like to grow up with him. When I was younger, I had difficulties trusting people. I’ve always been very empathetic towards others and this allowed me to nurture my connections with people. Maintaining those connections however, was another story. I value consistency and when someone violates that, my fear of abandonment is triggered. Over time, I realized that my dad’s absence shaped me into a more genuine person and that I gravitate towards genuine people.
Prox: What kind of a toll did this take on the rest of your family?
Ifetayo: My family experienced the severity of the War on Drugs after my dad’s incarceration. We dealt with targeting and surveillance from law enforcement agencies even after my dad was locked away and continue to experience that till this day. My mom raised seven kids so she took care of everything from cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, and coordinating family visits and vacations.
Prox: Could you explain how you obtained the job at MAPS? Did you choose to join the association because you felt that this was the next logical step towards your goals?
Ifetayo: My work at Drug Policy Alliance garnered some attention within the media. I published my story of growing up with an incarcerated parent in the Huffington Post, Alternet.com, and two regional newspapers. I spoke at the Opening Plenary of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in 2013 and NPR interviewed me on that same subject in 2014 after I graduated. While at the Reform Conference in 2013, I learned more about MAPS and Heffter’s work around mushrooms & anxiety for people with life threatening illnesses. At the time, I was fighting my own battle (and working towards healing) and decided that I would incorporate some psychedelic principals into my life. A week or so later, I had my first mushroom trip and the next semester, I used MAPS research for a term paper. By now, I had realized that I am great at counseling people and that psychedelics are one of the modalities that I want to use to gain knowledge and be able to educate others about. Luckily, a friend and former coworker of mine introduced me to Rick Doblin and other MAPS staff and from there, I was hired.
Prox: Could you detail that first mushroom trip for me as well? What were some things you learned and how have you incorporated that information into your life?
Ifetayo: I ingested 3.5 grams of Mushrooms by myself and went on a walk with a friend in the woods. While there, I was inundated with the beauty of nature and the trauma that I endured. The Mushrooms forced me to face my pain and understand that healing is a process. The overwhelming feeling and anxiety caused me to purge in the woods and after that, I felt a little better, yet still overwhelmed. I went back to my dorm and realized that I was tripping. The posters on my wall flickered with glitter and my friend’s face took on some different forms. This is when I began to radically accept my trip and it was there, that I began to see the world in a new light. At this point in my life, it had been a year since I felt an authentic sense of happiness and when I was on Mushrooms, I felt incredibly happy and excited about living. I was surprised that they didn’t take me through my trauma, but instead showed me a beautiful world and my wonderful friends who supported me through the healing process. After my trip winded down, I felt drained of energy and to some extent, that’s how I feel at the end of every day. This experience taught me that my existence in this world is exhausting and that I need to give myself more credit for choosing to live every day. I learned that self-care means being responsible for your needs.
Prox: What is the overall aim of MAPS? What are some of the things that you do there?
Ifetayo: At MAPS we’re dedicated to researching and educating the public on the medical, legal and cultural contexts within the use of psychedelics. I work closely with Rick on managing his work, public interfacing with AskMAPS, and participate in speaking engagements such as my recent presentation at the Women and Entheogens Conference in Cleveland, OH.
Prox: How invaluable is it to work directly with someone as iconic as Rick Doblin?
Ifetayo: That’s an interesting question. I guess I won’t know until I stop working with him. That said, I’ve learned a great deal on various topics ranging from running a non-profit organization and psychedelic healing, to the intricacies of clinical research. I appreciate Rick’s down to earth attitude and focus.
Prox: In your opinion, what are some of the inherent issues with current drug policy?
Ifetayo: My issues with current drug policy are as follows:
Prohibition: Prohibition does not make the world a safer place. In fact, it makes our communities more dangerous. People will use and/or sell drugs regardless of legality. The government’s aim should be to provide people with a safe environment and educate them about the substances they’re using.
Criminalization: This does not make our communities any safer either. Locking people away in cages is barbaric and when a parent goes to prison, their family (and community) goes as well.
Lack of education: Spreading misinformation about substances and substance use is harmful.
Prox: Why do minorities seem to be hit harder by these kind of policies despite caucasians using these substances at a very similar rate?
Ifetayo: The War on Drugs is an attack on black and brown people primarily. Black people are arrested and locked up at rates that are disproportionate to those of their white counterparts. You must also factor in that the very foundations of our drug policies are racist. The criminalization of marijuana and cocaine was conceived and compounded due to the white majority’s fear of black and brown communities gaining power.
Prox: Where do you think we should begin in regards to curtailing some of the issues created by the War on Drugs?
Ifetayo: We should begin to listen to the voices of people who have been impacted the most by these damaging and misguided policies. Those of us who aren’t as greatly affected should listen to those who are. People truly underestimate the value of being an active listener. If the voices of the marginalized are heard and they're given power over resources, we’d have clearer and more progressive policies.
Prox: In a country that has essentially been indoctrinated against drug use (even though Alcohol, Sugar, Caffeine, and Pharmaceutical Drugs are extremely dangerous and addictive) how do we begin to reeducate people about the medicinal value that these substances may possess and harm reduction?
Ifetayo: Honest conversations within our families, communities, and schools. More research is needed as well, however, the NIDA (National Institute of Drug Abuse) monopoly hinders MAPS research on substances like Marijuana. Unfortunately, I don’t trust the government to disseminate the proper information (and education) to the public. That’s why we need grassroots community initiatives.
Prox: What is your own personal philosophy on using?
Ifetayo: My philosophy is sovereignty over consciousness. Adults should have the capacity to decide what they put in their body.
Prox: What are some of your favorite hobbies?
Ifetayo: I enjoy playing and listening to music. I played brass instruments for 11 years (trumpet and baritone), I love going to the beach, and spending time with my big family (4 brothers, 2 sisters, 3 nieces, and 2 nephews). I also enjoy traveling, both domestically and internationally.
Prox: How is your relationship with your father now?
Ifetayo: Since my father’s release from prison and deportation, our relationship has grown. While he was in prison we only communicated through letters. No calls or visits. Since then, I’ve visited him in Jamaica and we talk weekly by phone. I’ve come to understand myself, my Jamaican heritage, and my father more through developing a relationship with him.
Prox: Is there any advice that you have for anyone who has lost a parent to the prison system?
Ifetayo: I don’t have much advice besides: Never give up, stay strong. I do have condolences to offer. I’m sorry for your loss, you’re not alone in this, and this is not your fault; you did not deserve this. I’m here to listen to any person who has lost their parent to the system.
Prox: What's next for you? Are there any projects that you're currently involved in that you'd like to talk about?
Ifetayo: As of now, I have a few projects in the works but nothing I'd like to talk about just yet. I'm speaking at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference on a panel called "Advocacy for Drug Sellers" on November 21st in Washington D.C. at the Crystal Marriott Hotel.
For more information on Ifetayo and MAPS, click here.