By Brad Dunn —
Ariel Clark grew up in Michigan, with Odawa Anishinaabe lineage from her father’s side and French-American lineage from her mother’s. From a young age she was aware of her family’s struggles — with poverty, dislocation, addiction, cultural inequality — and she felt the only way to fix a broken system is from within the system itself. She was a gifted student, despite difficult health problems and periodic homelessness, and ultimately went to law school at UC Berkeley.
Today, Clark practices law at her firm Clark Howell LLP in Los Angeles, a business, corporate and regulatory firm, where she specializes in cannabis and psychedelics policy reform, as well as helping clients establish ethical and sustainable business models and protecting the religious and community use of psychedelics. She and her partner Nicole Howell also co-founded the Psychedelic Bar Association to bring together diverse legal viewpoints across the emerging industry. She is also General Legal Counsel of Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines and sits on the Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants. Clark recently discussed her personal path to healing, the guiding principles of her law firm, and her belief that we’re at a historic and sacred moment with psychedelics.
How did your lineage shape your childhood?
Indigenous people in this country have suffered tremendously from 500 years of colonization, which continues to this day. So many people died – at least 90%. Pretty much all our land was taken. Extensive campaigns were waged to force assimilation, genocidal practices were memorialized by laws that included making it illegal for us to practice our beliefs. It wasn’t until 1924 that Indigenous people in the US were granted citizenship, and it wasn’t until 1978 that we could legally practice our beliefs. My grandparents were forced into boarding schools, and there are a lot of other difficult stories. The difficulties inspired my activism, which started at a young age. My father was part of the American Indian Movement, which helped show the world we are here, we are visible, and we thrive despite what we’ve been through.
So, early in my life I saw clearly that the systems and laws in this country weren’t healthy. I imagined being a lawyer when I was a little kid, even though I’d never met a single lawyer, but I did idealize Vine Deloria and I remember his books on the shelf. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I even drew a picture of myself as a judge. I don’t know where that came from. But I knew I wanted to understand systems and legal frameworks so I could protect those who were being disenfranchised, which seemed like a whole lot of people. I thought, “OK, there’s this system, and you have to change it.” I felt in my heart that a more beautiful world was possible and somehow, we had to work together to make that possible. In any event, there’s more to my story than the suffering, but I share the suffering because it informs my connection with psychedelics, my practice of law and my dedication to policy reform.
How did the connection to psychedelics come about?
At first it was escapism, or maybe better said, it was survival. I experienced various traumas growing up – hurt people hurt people. When I was 13, I started suffering from chronic pain throughout my body. I had an infection in my spine, a tumor on my ovary, I almost died. I was suffering from deep trauma, and it was the beginning of decades of physical pain. For years, I couldn’t walk for more than 10 minutes before it hurt too much to continue. When I was in high school, I started escaping my circumstances and self-medicating with alcohol, cannabis, and psychedelics. They helped with the emotion and physical pain. I did the best I could, and it wasn’t until I was humbled by alcohol, in particular, and understood that is not healthy medicine for me, that I came into right relationship with cannabis and psychedelics.
Where did you find the help you were looking for?
I went into the woods alone. Literally. An inner voice told me I would find deep healing in nature. I went into the woods and rented a small cabin in northern California for a couple of weeks. No phone, no computer, no alcohol, no drugs. I sought only the strength of the Earth. I prayed. I cried. I ate healthy food. I sang for my healing. This was about seven years ago when I started down the healthy path. I call it the Red Road. It’s a path of integrity, humility, bravery, kindness, acting from a place of interconnectedness. I’ve walked the Red Road ever since then. It saved my life.
Soon after that experience, I felt a deep calling to psychedelics as healing medicine. I contacted a MAPS therapist and did some work with 5-MeO-DMT and mushrooms. I’ve sat in many prayer ceremonies and community gatherings, and I found healing for my legs when I dieted renaquilla, chuchuhuasi and ayahuasca. Psychedelics provide containers to process trauma and traumatic memories. The first time I sat with ayahuasca, I actually experienced colonization as my Anishinaabe family experienced it. This opened me up to healing that I didn’t realize was possible. It’s hard work, but it’s been deeply meaningful.
This is why I’m so impassioned about this work. I see psychedelics now merging with the mainstream, and they are teachers and healers that offer us a new way of seeing and healing, and an answer to our global crisis on consciousness and connectedness.
How have your personal experiences shaped your career and your law firm?
I believe it’s very important to recognize that we each bring our own cultural lens and lineages to issues of laws, business, therapy, healing, and ethics. The naming of our lineages and cultural lenses is a critical starting point for stakeholders shaping the psychedelics ecosystem. Psychedelics are intersectional and our community contains a variety and diversity of stakeholders. My cultural lens sees humancentric extractivism and economic inequality as a large contributor to the global crisis we’re in. The Earth provides such abundance, and there is enough of all the things to go around, yet eight billionaires own 50% of the world’s wealth. The economic reality is not only appalling, it has created a crisis of consciousness and connectedness. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can pass laws, do business, and build ecosystems and industries from a healed place and that is what I dedicate my career and life to. I see companies like Patagonia that recently announced that the Earth is the company’s only shareholder, structured through a Purpose Trust. I see the emergence of the Rights of Nature, which gives legal personhood status to ecosystems. Corporations were granted personhood status in this country, which to me is a much further leap of the imagination than giving nature personhood status. It’s the embodiment of all living things. We’re in a paradigm shift, with purpose-driven business models, laws putting nature in its truer place, and we’re at this most critical moment in so many ways – in the psychedelic ecosystem and on the Earth.
Our firm works with people who are aware of this paradigm shift: Entrepreneurs, companies, healers, therapists, retreat centers, churches, community containers, who want to provide psychedelic services, and who know that “business-as-usual” simply can’t continue. We have to stop putting profit over and above everything else. We can have real purpose-driven businesses that are both profitable and include broader stakeholders.
What kind of business models do you help your clients create?
There are lots of ways to build an ethical corporate foundation. The structure can be a regular corporation with a Perpetual Purpose Trust component. It could be a Public Benefit Corporation and/or B Corp certified. It could have steward-ownership model. But these aren’t quick answers. All companies and people in psychedelics need to engage with Benefit Honoring and Indigenous Reciprocity. We spend real time talking through all of this with potential clients. If they aren’t interested in building these types of models, then they’re probably not the right fit for us.
You’ve been working in cannabis law for over 15 years. What have you learned from it?
So much. Being in the front-row of cannabis law reform in California, which involved actively participating in lawmaking, implementation, and working with clients before and after legalization, I saw the arc of a plant and an unregulated ecosystem go through the systems of law, politics, and late-stage, Western-style capitalism. So, I am on high alert with psychedelics law reform. All stakeholders must have an equal seat at the law and policy table. The drafting and implementation process must be inclusive and transparent. Some stakeholders, like Indigenous, BIPOC, poor, differently-abled, and other historically disenfranchised stakeholders, which includes the Earth, her ecosystems, and her plants, must be considered even more as we undertake law reform. Or we will create more trauma and more harmful laws and oppressive systems. We need to insist companies consider all stakeholders, not just profits for shareholders, and this needs to be a condition of licensure and an industry standard. Otherwise, again, like with cannabis, we will just replicate the same thing, again and again. We need good government that is committed to the success of the ecosystem, as more broadly defined, and ease in regulation, low taxation, and the end of the Drug War once and for all.
Is that how you see the psychedelics industry developing?
That is one possible future. We’re at a very important, historic, and sacred moment with psychedelics. As psychedelics converge with the mainstream, we need to have very complex and challenging conversations around law reform, implementation, and regulation. These can be understandably heated conversations, but we need to have them from a centered and connected place. And again, we need to recognize that we all view these questions from different cultural lenses.
Will we get everything right? No. We’re not going to fix it all. But here’s what I believe: We are doing work for the great, great grandchildren we will never meet. Think about it – your children, their children, and the world they will live in. We are planting these seeds. We’re part of a process. Yes, we might see a hyper-capitalist race to the bottom. That could happen to psychedelics like everything else. But there’s still an opportunity for us to do things differently and impactfully. When you’re making the actual laws, that’s when you have the greatest opportunity to lay the groundwork for the change that needs to happen.