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5 Questions for Lily Kay Ross
In the first episode of a new investigative podcast series about psychedelics from New York Magazine called Power Trip, Lily Kay Ross says that her dad sat her down during her sophomore year of college and asked if she was on drugs. “And I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been taking a lot of acid and I think it saved my life,’” she says. Through her undergrad years, Ross became increasingly interested in psychedelics, and eventually began underground training to become a psychedelic guide. Later, she traveled to a small village in Ecuador to research shamanic practices, and her host — the village’s shaman — drugged and raped her. When she tried to speak out about it, her colleagues in the psychedelic world advised against it, voicing concerns that her story could delegitimize the use of psychedelics for healing and therapy.
Eventually, Ross connected with other people with stories about harm they experienced or witnessed in the psychedelic space. Their stories are the backbone of Power Trip, which was co-created by Ross and non-profit psychedelic media company Psymposia managing editor David Nickles. The Microdose spoke with Ross about the podcast and the conversations she hopes it spurs.
In previous writings and through the podcast, you’ve been open about your past in the psychedelic world: how you came up through the underground, your assault in the Amazon, and now, as a vocal critic of the field’s issues. I imagine it’d be easy to leave the psychedelic space completely, but you didn’t. Why is that, and has your perspective on psychedelics changed over time?
I've had a lot of psychedelic experiences in my life. Some of them have been neutral, some of them have been negative, and some of them have been positive. The ones that were positive were really positive and life affirming — they helped me get through really difficult things. There's a lot of interesting ideological and epistemological questions raised by the psychedelic experience; I still think they're interesting substances. For awhile, I had successfully extricated myself from the psychedelic world. I was on a very different career trajectory doing evidence-based sexual violence prevention and response work. But what brought me back in was starting to talk to more people, like Susan. [Editor’s note: Susan is a pseudonym for a person interviewed on the podcast about the disturbing psychedelic therapy methods she encountered while training to be an underground psychedelic therapist.]
I don't know what's going to happen on the other side of telling these stories. I don't have control over that. But the baseline is that I can sleep at night. I saw a thing that made me feel a sense of urgency. It's something that needed to be exposed.
Power Trip has used the phrase “psychedelic renaissance” to describe the state of the field. As we’re seeing psychedelics hitting the mainstream — decriminalization in Oregon, training for new therapists — what do you hope to see more of in the future?
I am a big fan of harm reduction. At the heart of this project, it's about inviting meaningful conversation around these issues. These are issues that have been really sidelined for a long time. And as these drugs have become so popularized — especially before there’s a medical setting in which people can take them — people are being ushered into the underground. It feels really important to get these stories out there and give the public an opportunity to grapple with them.
In general, the psychedelic field has been lacking in rigorous critical discourse. When you look at a lot of academic fields, you have histories: any paper will say, “We could talk about this term, which so-and-so said means this, and this other person contested that — and then this other person came in and had this kind of other approach, which borrows this from this guy and this other guy.” We are miles behind where a field should be if it's going to be scaling up distribution and treatment. I really hope that there is more of an appetite for critical engagement, because my experience and observation is that critical engagement is often shut down as though the “movement” can't withstand that. And I think that's incorrect.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
There’s been a lot of renewed attention on psychedelic therapy abuse over the last few months, and your podcast came out right in the midst of many conversations about the issue. Do you think there are any particular actions people or organizations can take to prevent psychedelic therapy abuse, or mitigate its after effects?
I was on a panel some years ago about psychedelics and male dominance in research and forms of violence and somebody in the audience said, ‘I think we need to be really gentle on ourselves, because this conversation and all this stuff is very, very new, and we don't know how to navigate this terrain. And I said, in response, that I'm always into gentleness — that's fine, no issue there — but there's actually a really robust feminist body of work dating back decades that we can learn a lot from: research based interventions in different forms of violence and abuse and harm, whether sexualized or not, and literature on responding to disclosures, and victim centered approaches.
There are phenomenal experts out there, but there are also a lot of people that will tell you they're experts, even if their credentials and their language do not signal that they are — which is problematic. This space, like so many spaces in late capitalism, has a lot of grifters. It's hard because everything that I could say about ways forward can also be faked, or turned into grifts. That's one of my biggest fears. I take a lot of refuge in Audre Lorde; in her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” where she's reflecting on this period where she was waiting for the results of cancer diagnosis and facing her own mortality, she says the only thing she regretted were her silences. She talked about the need to speak even at the risk that what you say is misunderstood or damaged in some way. That continues to be the imperative.
Your team has released the first half of Power Trip, with the second half to start airing in February. What will part 2 look like, and will you be continuing this work beyond that?
We've actually added a new episode to the first part — and then we'll catch a little breather. I really hope that people tune in to the podcast, and I really hope they tune in for part two. I can't say much about it because it's not published yet, but we're going to be talking a lot about psychedelic research and the institutions doing it.
We've found way more than could possibly fit into one season of a podcast, so we’re continuing to flesh out leads and talk to sources. In addition to that, there is some academic work that [the Psymposia team] will be working on based on our findings — we hope to contribute those to the field for discussion and debate.
One of the things I really want to stress is that if there's really going to be change [in the psychedelic field], this is the beginning. And I don't even mean this podcast. There are conversations being advanced right now that have been sidelined for so long.
What’s the response to the podcast been like so far?
There’s the old adage that journalism should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and I remind myself of that often in this work. Because what I’ve found is that the folks who approach me in ways that don’t feel good, or seem hostile towards the project, those people have demonstrable power and seem invested in maintaining it. The ones reaching out to say, hey, this is helpful, this is generative, those are the folks who have been hurt, who have been marginalized — and they’re telling me that they feel more emboldened to tell their own stories. If that’s the pattern of responses to Power Trip, I’m good with that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.