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Turning Trauma Into Advocacy

Alumnae News

How Ifetayo Harvey ’14 is using her own story to lead drug policy reform and destigmatize substance use


Published March 24, 2023

Ifetayo Harvey ’14 was 4 years old when her father was imprisoned for drug possession. When she was 12, he was released and immediately deported to Jamaica. Harvey did not meet him in person until 2008, when she was 16. Her father’s absence is one of many factors that shape the formidable presence Harvey has become as a leading advocate for drug policy reform. She is also the founder of the People of Color Psychedelic Collective, which seeks to educate and support people of color interested in what the group refers to as “the healing properties of psychedelics.”

The daughter of an immigrant and one of seven children raised by a mother in Charleston, South Carolina, Harvey personally understands how punitive drug legislation affects entire families. “To ignore the impact of incarceration on the family is to ignore how the drug war continues to dismantle Black and Latino communities,” she wrote in a 2013 op-ed titled “Children of Incarcerated Parents Bear the Weight of the War on Drugs.”

Harvey’s primary focus is harm reduction, an overarching philosophy and set of strategies intended to reduce the negative health, social, and legal consequences of substance use. Harm reduction recognizes that substance use is a part of people’s lives that will not be eradicated by campaigns to “Just Say No.” Instead, the model seeks to reduce stigmatization and support informed and responsible use of drugs that include psychedelics.

While psychoactive substances have been part of Indigenous cultures and Western counterculture for some time, the past decade has seen exponential growth and interest in psychedelics for medical treatment. But research shows many of the same communities that have been impacted by the war on drugs—along with other groups that have been marginalized and minoritized—are underrepresented in research, clinical trials, and psychedelic-assisted therapies. The reasons are interrelated and complex, but they include low cultural inclusivity and racial diversity within the research community; stigma related to mental disorders and substance use; and financial, social, and logistical barriers to access.

Harvey is helping to create a more just and inclusive movement that ensures diverse communities will not only have greater access, safety, and support but also receive culturally responsive care. As a Soros Justice Fellow, she is building a coalition of organizations and individuals collectively committed to highlighting the needs of people of color engaged with psychedelics.

This conversation was particularly meaningful to me as the founder of the Asian Psychedelic Collective, a space of belonging for Asians working in and with psychedelics. I spoke with Harvey about our shared interests as well as the consequences of racist drug policies and the stigma of psychedelics.

Before we go into your story, would you tell me the origins of your name?

Ifetayo is a Yoruba name from Nigeria. It has multiple meanings, ranging from ”love conquers all” to “love brings happiness.” For Black Americans, our names were taken away from us through enslavement, and we were given the names of our “masters” or “owners.” My mom chose to give me a Yoruba name as a way of reclaiming our heritage.

You majored in history and Africana studies, which you describe as “full circle” since Black history is U.S. history.

I see Black history as this continuum of the future and the past constantly engaging with each other.

The past meeting the future seems to be a theme in your personal history as well. I see it reflected in the college internship you did at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

I grew up in a conservative Christian culture, and had never heard or seen an organization speak about drugs or people who use drugs in a way that was nonstigmatizing. I felt really drawn to the DPA. It was at the DPA where I wrote the 2013 op-ed that was published in The Huffington Post and the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton.

You wrote: “2.7 million children are growing up in U.S. households in which one or more parents are incarcerated. Two-thirds of these parents are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, primarily drug offenses. One in nine Black children has an  incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.”

That was my first time writing publicly about my dad’s incarceration and how it impacted me.

“One in nine Black children has an  incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.”

And then, during your senior year, in 2013, you spoke about it at the opening plenary of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know there would be 1,100 people in the audience—and I did not expect to cry. Even though my father’s incarceration is a sensitive topic and a big part of my trauma, I underestimated how powerful it would be to share with a group of people.

What in your speech brought you to tears?

Something along the lines of, “My dad missed the basketball games, the PTA meetings”—basically making a point that my dad missed all the pivotal moments in my childhood because he was in prison. Saying that out loud made it real in a way that it hadn’t been before.

You say the origins of drug policy in the United States and the war on drugs are racist. How so?

We can look at the earliest drug laws in the U.S. and see that a lot of them were created as a result of immigration—basically white fear as a reaction to people of color coming into their towns and working, or also starting to use those substances.

The earliest laws around cannabis are in California, and a lot of them came up when people started to have an issue with Mexican immigrants. Opium laws in California were associated with Chinese immigrants. Cocaine laws in the South were associated with Black people. So, when Nixon came on the scene, and you had the civil rights movement and anti-war movement, drugs were an easy way to target those movements, because everyone uses drugs. Coffee, sugar, alcohol—people can make the argument that those also alter your state of consciousness. It was about targeting certain drugs that were associated with certain minorities: cocaine, crack, methamphetamine. We all know that white folks were using drugs at the same rate, if not more, than people of color, but they just weren’t being targeted.

And that hasn’t changed. Black and white Americans still sell and use drugs at similar rates, but Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses. This disparity is reflected in policing, incarceration rates, and sentencing.

It was never about keeping us safe. The war on drugs is about controlling people and making up reasons to criminalize people and profit off of it. Because it was framed as “Drugs are bad, you shouldn’t use drugs,” and “People who use drugs are criminals, people who sell drugs are criminals,” drugs were an easy way to put more funding into police departments. That was the policy in the U.S. and still is.

And it casts a long shadow on those who’ve been involved with these substances as being somehow nefarious.

But if you look at history, all of these substances have been used for therapeutic or medicinal reasons or even just recreationally, to relax or take the edge off.

“The war on drugs is about controlling people and making up reasons to criminalize people and profit off of it.”

Which we could argue an anti-anxiety medication or a glass of wine also does.


Certain substances are being seen differently than others, even if they have resonant impacts.

Carl Hart says this in his book [High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society]. He puts the chemical compounds of meth and Adderall next to each other, and they’re very similar. Like you said, it’s all about how we frame the perception of these drugs. Our prison rates have skyrocketed since the ’70s and ’80s and become an entire industry. When I started working at the DPA, I started realizing how big this is, how my story is one of many stories—how there are so many kids like me growing up with a parent in prison or growing up having a parent deported over a joint.

The International Drug Policy Reform Conference also opened the door to your psychedelic exploration.

There was a panel on end-of-life treatment with psychedelics for people who have terminal illnesses and anxiety around their death. They mentioned how, when the patients took LSD, it helped them feel a sense of joy and acceptance around their death. I had never tried psychedelics before on a recreational level or anything. But after the conference was over, I went back to school and asked my friends, “How do I do mushrooms?” I wanted the lowdown on how these things work.

Which you learned through a joyful and healing mushroom experience.

During my trip, I think I had expectations that I was going to be working through my trauma, depression, and suicidal ideation. But it was more like I felt very childlike. I was laughing. I was crying. I felt refreshed. In a way, I was escaping the moment that I was in but also being reminded of the moment—of the beauty of life, the beauty all around us.

Each experience is so different and can bring the healing we need—if we have access and support. Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind has helped by bringing increased attention to psychedelics in the Global North, but his narrative positions psychedelics as a movement of white people—particularly white men—despite the fact that every psychedelic substance has Indigenous origins or has been directly influenced by Global South cultures.

People like Michael Pollan don’t see women as authorities on psychedelics, especially not women of color. A lot of folks saw him as a vehicle for mainstreaming psychedelics in a way that was good for the movement. For folks like myself who are more critical, I have to play both sides. I can sit down and watch his Netflix special with my mom or my family as a way to introduce the topic of conversation. But at the same time, from an insider’s perspective, there are some things where he should consult people who are actually in the field.

So, how do we get women, particularly those of color, recognized?

If Smith taught me anything, it is that we can do anything that we put our minds to. We’re more capable and more powerful. We have to stop silencing ourselves, stop denying ourselves opportunities. We have to say people’s names in rooms we are in, give people credit where credit is due, name our teachers, name the women who help us get to where we are.

You helped organize a phone call about diversity and inclusion in psychedelics where the discussion shifted focus to white supremacy and how psychedelics could help rid neo-Nazis of their racism.

It was a mixed group of people on a very casual call—no real agenda other than to connect. But some folks started talking about how we should give Nazis acid [LSD] to help them not be Nazis, and I got really frustrated. I’m here to help our people, and that’s it. I’m not gonna waste my time talking about racist white people in spaces that are for us.

That call directly inspired you to create an organization devoted solely to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] community: the People of Color Psychedelic Collective.

When you’re in a mixed space, whiteness tends to dominate. Anytime people of color try to center themselves in their own narratives, white people tend to deflect or detract from whatever point that’s being made. It wasn’t enough to just sit up and complain about it. We had to take action.

The nonprofit I founded—the Asian Psychedelic Collective—was born out of a similar frustration: that in mixed spaces and, honestly, also in some BIPOC spaces, Asians seem to disappear. Our vision is to anchor in what Black feminist theorist bell hooks wrote about beloved community: that it is formed “not only by the eradication of difference, but by its affirmation … by reclaiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.”

The terms “people of color” and “BIPOC” are incomplete terms. They don’t fully describe us. It’s important for folks who aren’t white to recognize their commonalities but also embrace their differences, because there are issues and experiences that are specific. For you as an Indian American, in psychedelic space your experience is different than mine. You know the history and context behind the iconography and music.

The lived experience of being a South Asian immigrant in the United States is unique. The symbols of Hindu gods and the Sikh prayers my grandmother would recite have been turned into New Age decoration and background music. We had to make sacrifices to assimilate.

Exactly. Because that’s your culture. And, for me, I know that I’m five generations removed from enslavement. I see very clearly the remnants of enslavement in my family and my community. I grew up 8 miles down the road from several plantations.

And, as someone who’s Black American and Jamaican, I see diaspora rifts between Black Americans and Caribbean and continental Africans. It’s a tactic of our colonizers to divide and conquer. We saw that in Jamaica when Indian indentured servants were brought over after Black people were free. That whole dynamic was used to divide us and not see, like, “Hey, we’re both colonized peoples, enslaved peoples. Let’s work together and try to do something different to improve our conditions.”

“I know that I’m five generations removed from enslavement. I see very clearly the remnants of enslavement in my family and my community. I grew up 8 miles down the road from several plantations.”

In psychedelics, we need a diversity of community and a diversity of connection. Paint a vision of what you’d like to see.

A path for community-based healing that’s not so clinical: being able to sit in a circle led by a facilitator or a practitioner. There is a role for that, especially given the history of racism in the medical field and our health care system. If we open up possibilities with a community-centered model, we make it more affordable and more accessible for the everyday person. And I think recreational experiences can be therapeutic for folks. Recognizing that requires us to be more balanced in how we talk about psychedelics. They aren’t all good. They aren’t all risk-free. If we only have the medicalization model legalized, or the medicalization model and the community model legalized, there are still going to be people who use substances outside of those realms. We need to keep them safe too.

Psychedelics 101

Psychedelics are a class of substances known to alter consciousness and perception that have been used in sacred rituals and healing for centuries. Indigenous communities— including the Mazatec of Mexico, Shipibo of the Amazon, Bwiti practitioners in Gabon, and members of the Native American church—have worked with psychoactive substances derived from plants, fungi, and animals to cure illness, commune with spirits, and forge deeper connection.

The exploration of psychedelics in a Westernized medical context is attributed to Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who synthesized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938. Decades later, the term “psychedelic,” drawn from Greek terms for “mind” (psykē) and “make visible” or “reveal” (dēloun), was introduced by Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond. Osmond’s research on LSD showed that lab-produced molecules generated profound changes in awareness—what shamans and other Indigenous healers had experienced in earth medicines.

Mind-altering substances including LSD, ketamine, psilocybin, ayahuasca, MDMA, DMT, and iboga—sourced from nature and synthesized in labs—are now being studied and used for the treatment of a wide range of mental and physical health conditions. Psychedelics initiate a cascade of neurobiological changes and have shown promising outcomes in clinical trials on the management of anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, addiction, pain management, and end-of-life and palliative care.

To date, Oregon and Colorado have voted to legalize certain psychedelics for therapeutic use. Some cities— including Northampton—and states have passed decriminalization measures that could result in legalization in the future. Approval of MDMA and psilocybin treatments for PTSD and depression by the Food and Drug Administration is expected within the next two years.—Simran Sethi ’92

Simran Sethi ’92 is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal.

This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

Photographs by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn