🫠 Psychonaut POV

[5-min read] Q&A with Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, Global Impact Officer

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Natalie Lyla Ginsberg has seen a lot of injustice in the drug policy world. But it hasn’t shaken her optimism about psychedelics as catalysts for personal and societal change. In fact, it’s only motivated her to dig deeper as Global Impact Officer at MAPS.

We spoke to Natalie about what our healthcare and criminal justice systems have in common, how psychedelics might inspire sweeping change, and whether conflict resolution and peace are possible with psychedelics.

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Natalie Ginsberg Psychonaut POV
Can you share the journey that led you from advocating for cannabis policy reform in New York to your current role at MAPS?

My entire career was shaped by my initial work in and around the so-called justice system, where I saw firsthand how unfairly and disproportionately laws—particularly cannabis laws—were enforced for Black and Latinx New Yorkers. This led me to apply for my social work school field placement at Drug Policy Alliance. There, I got to work on successful campaigns to decriminalize cannabis and legalize medical cannabis in my home state of New York.

Between that experience and my time as an intern therapist in social work school working as a court-mandated therapist with folks arrested for prostitution, drug possession, and homelessness, I began to seriously question our society’s whole approach to mental health and criminal policy. The dominant paradigm seemed to focus only on managing or punishing symptoms or behaviors, rather than healing or discussing their root sources, especially on a societal and policy level.

At Drug Policy Alliance, research on psychedelics captured my attention. I became very interested in their potential to address the root causes of mental health issues and lead to both real healing and systems-level change. From what I’d seen, the conventional approach to addiction and mental illness was to assume a lifelong prognosis and default to long-term medication that rarely worked.

I joined MAPS in 2014, where I founded the policy and advocacy department and worked as its director. For the past decade, my work has involved movement building: educating different communities about psychedelic therapy and research, harm reduction, and the war on drugs; advocating and building systems for health equity; and working to bridge the divide between the broader drug policy reform movement and the psychedelic community.  

I was first drawn to psychedelics because of their ability to not only aid individual healing but also to inspire a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of personal and communal well-being. I've come to see psychedelics, including cannabis, as potential supplementary catalysts for broader societal change. As Global Impact Officer, I work for the responsible, equitable, and wise integration of psychedelics into our society and culture. My hope is that a world full of more healed, hopeful, creative, and loving people will birth better systems for us all.

Part of your job is to help national and world leaders set aside their political biases and have an objective look at psychedelic science. How do you do that?

Some of the strongest levers are personal connections with compelling firsthand experiences. It may sound simplistic, but leaders are people, too. They’re moved by stories of healing and transformation, especially when they come from trusted sources. We saw the same phenomenon with medical cannabis, and now the pattern is repeating itself with psychedelics. When you can back up these testimonials with rigorous scientific research and examples of regulatory progress in other countries, it helps influence legislators’ perceptions and, ultimately, policies. Remember former Texas Governor Rick Perry's change of heart after he learned about a fellow veteran's recovery with psychedelics?

We’ve also participated in international forums, such as the U.N.  Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, where we even co-hosted an educational panel with the government of the Czech Republic on psychedelic research. Presence at U.N. forums helps ground psychedelic research in a formal, recognized context for country delegates.

Given your extensive work in drug policy and social justice, what role do you see psychedelics playing in addressing the systemic issues of our society?

Psychedelics offer a radical departure from traditional mental health care. They present an opportunity for self-led healing and could reduce the need for constant—in some cases, lifelong—pharmaceutical intervention. This shift towards a more holistic and spiritual understanding of health could drive system-wide changes across healthcare, particularly in how treatments and prevention are covered by insurance. Even recognizing wellness practices as a form of healthcare and disease prevention would create wider access to affordable therapy.

Beyond individual healing, psychedelics can also help foster a broader societal transformation by expanding our perspectives on trauma, compassion, human interconnectedness, and social systems. A society with more healing and connection could lead to sweeping changes in how the systems of our society are built and sustained, for the better.

However, integrating psychedelic therapy into mainstream healthcare without succumbing to the pitfalls of a profit-maximizing capitalist system is still a concern. As the evolution of the cannabis, pharmaceutical, and prison industries has shown us, there are very real risks associated with prioritizing profit over patient care and community well-being. Commercialization could undermine psychedelics' holistic and transformative potential.

Despite these challenges, my hope is that the psychedelic movement will innovate models of care that transcend conventional capitalism. For instance, we have Public Benefit Corporations, which allow companies to prioritize public benefit over profit maximization, but hopefully there are even more transformative business innovations to come. It’s going to take a collective and deeply creative effort to develop a new health care paradigm that maximizes and doesn’t undermine the transformative promise of psychedelics.

Tell us about your psychedelic peace-building study with Imperial College. What were you hoping to find out about Palestinians and Israelis or even humanity more broadly?

Our study with Imperial College London interviewed Palestinians and Israelis who had sat in shared ayahuasca ceremony together. We were particularly interested in how psychedelics could help address the intergenerational and historical traumas contributing to the ongoing conflict. Could psychedelics offer hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, possibly by giving people the ability to envision a different future?  Could psychedelic ceremonies help people hear and connect with each other in unique, vulnerable ways?

Our interviews indicated that psychedelics can help bridge deep divides, in such a way that respects universal human connections as well as distinct experiences and massive power imbalances. Many participants spoke at length about the power of hearing Arabic and Hebrew music in ceremony. Not only did it help inspire connection to their own spiritual traditions; it allowed them to appreciate the beauty of the “others’” language.

There’s a trope that if everyone took psychedelics the world would be a better, more peaceful place. Do you believe that’s true?

While the idea that everyone using psychedelics would make the world a better place is appealing, I’d put a lot of caveats on that statement. Psychedelics are not a one-size-fits-all solution and should never ever be imposed on anyone, as their misuse can lead to serious harm. The true potential of psychedelics lies in their voluntary, safe, and culturally sensitive use, where people have the freedom to explore these substances in a way that feels right for them, whether that's within traditional ceremonies, Burning Man, or modern clinics.

Every culture has its own history and relationship with psychoactive plants and substances. We need to broaden the conversation to respect and understand the global heritage of plant medicines, beyond the well-discussed Central and South American traditions. For many people, connecting with their cultural and ancestral roots through psychedelics can be a profound aspect of the healing process. That’s certainly been the case for me as a Jewish person tracing Jewish mysticism and plant traditions. It can be powerful for people to access psychedelics in a manner that honors their personal and cultural backgrounds, especially if the experience is grounded in ancestral traditions.

I absolutely believe the world would be a better, more peaceful place if everyone had access to effective healing and grounded spirituality. To the degree that psychedelics could help with those processes, I do think responsible, wider-spread psychedelic use offers hope.

Want more from Natalie?

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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