Wel­come to the trip of your life: the rise of un­der­ground LSD guides

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Carey Dunne

Steve has cops in his fam­ily, so he doesn’t tell many peo­ple about his work as an un­der­ground psy­che­delic guide. The work takes up a sig­nif­i­cant amount of his time – around once a week, he’ll meet a client in their home or in a rented home, dose them with MDMA or hal­lu­cino­genic psilo­cy­bin mush­rooms, and sit with them while they trip for up to 10 hours – but he doesn’t tell his sib­lings, par­ents or room­mates about it, nor his fel­low psy­chol­ogy PhD stu­dents.

They would prob­a­bly never guess, ei­ther: Steve doesn’t dis­play any signs of in­volve­ment with a stig­ma­tized coun­ter­cul­ture that many Amer­i­cans still as­so­ciate with its flam­boy­ant 1960s fig­ure­heads. He’s a be­spec­ta­cled, soft­spo­ken for­mer busi­ness school stu­dent who plays in a brass band and works part-time as an over-the-phone men­tal health coun­selor. Af­ter one glass of wine, he says: “Whoa, I’m feel­ing a lit­tle drunk.”

But if you probe, he might tell you about the time he took psilo­cy­bin and a “snake god” en­tered his body and left him con­vuls­ing on the floor for an hour. (The snake god was benev­o­lent, he says, and the con­vuls­ing was cathar­tic, “a tremen­dous dis­charge of anx­ious en­ergy”.)

In early Oc­to­ber, Steve at­tended a Man­hat­tan con­fer­ence called Hori­zons: Per­spec­tives on Psychedelics, which bills it­self as the world’s “largest and long­est-run­ning an­nual gath­er­ing of the psy­che­delic com­mu­nity”. I went with my 51-yearold cousin, Tem­ple, a rel­a­tively main­stream psy­chother­a­pist. She had come to learn more about psy­che­delic-as­sisted psy­chother­apy, which un­der­ground guides like Steve fa­cil­i­tate il­le­gally. She hopes to in­cor­po­rate this type of ther­apy into her prac­tice if and when sub­stances such as psilo­cy­bin, MDMA, LSD and ayahuasca be­come le­gal.

Like many at­ten­dees, Tem­ple had re­cently read How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Con­scious­ness, Dy­ing, Ad­dic­tion, De­pres­sion, and Tran­scen­dence,a best­selling 2018 book by Michael Pol­lan. It con­vinced her that psy­che­delic-as­sisted psy­chother­apy “might re­ally be the way of the fu­ture”.

Indige­nous peo­ple are be­lieved to have used plant-based psychedelics for mil­len­nia; now, fac­tions of the western med­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment seem to be catch­ing on. But most psychedelics are still Sched­ule I con­trolled sub­stances, in the same cat­e­gory as heroin and co­caine; posses­sion or sale has been pun­ish­able by prison sen­tence since 1971. With rare ex­cep­tions, the only way you can legally con­sume psychedelics in the US is as a par­tic­i­pant in one of a few clin­i­cal re­search tri­als con­ducted at uni­ver­si­ties such as New York Univer­sity and Johns Hop­kins.

These stud­ies have yielded as­tound­ing re­sults: they sug­gest that, when ad­min­is­tered to care­fully screened pa­tients by trained health pro­fes­sion­als, psychedelics are safe and po­tent tools for al­le­vi­at­ing PTSD, ad­dic­tions, clus­ter headaches, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

Amid a bro­ken health­care sys­tem and ris­ing rates of opi­oid ad­dic­tion and sui­cide, Amer­i­cans are search­ing for al­ter­na­tive paths to heal­ing, which is where un­der­ground guides come in.The in­dus­try has its share of char­la­tans, but many guides hold them­selves to eth­i­cal stan­dards and pro­to­cols com­pa­ra­ble to those es­tab­lished in clin­i­cal set­tings.

Un­like psy­chother­a­pists, how­ever, un­der­ground guides have no ac­cred­ited ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, no li­cens­ing and no way to pub­licly mar­ket their ser­vices. How, then, does one make a ca­reer as a guide?

Steve was one of many guides I spoke to who de­scribed feel­ing spir­i­tu­ally “called” to do this work. Like doc­tors who pro­vided abor­tions pre-Roe v Wade, he breaks laws that he be­lieves are un­just; he con­sid­ers le­gal vi­o­la­tions a risky but nec­es­sary part of his quest to al­le­vi­ate peo­ple’s pain. He charges on a slid­ing scale that ranges from around $15 to $50 an hour.

As is the case with most guides, his own psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ences con­vinced him the job was worth the risk.

“Dur­ing an early guided psilo­cy­bin ses­sion, I re­al­ized I’d never ad­e­quately dealt with the pain caused by my par­ents’ divorce,” Steve says. “There was clearly still this 11-year-old part of my­self that was like, ‘I want to be part of a co­her­ent fam­ily unit.’ Dur­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence, I was given this vi­sion – there’s no way to say this that doesn’t sounds silly – but there was this mother fig­ure who was like, half-Vedic god­dess, with a mil­lion arms and a mil­lion eyes, and half-space alien, with gray skin. She was this space mother, sur­rounded by this space fam­ily, and she just beamed to me this in­cred­i­ble wel­com­ing feel­ing of, this is the divine fam­ily that you stem from.”

In ad­di­tion to keep­ing quiet about his work, Steve uses an en­crypted mes­sag­ing app to com­mu­ni­cate with clients – pre­cau­tions he takes to avoid the kind of le­gal trou­ble that has be­fallen some un­der­ground guides, such as Eric Os­borne, a for­mer mid­dle school

teacher from Ken­tucky.

The felon-turned-psilo­cy­bin re­treat en­tre­pre­neur

On a July af­ter­noon in 2015, state troop­ers showed up at Eric’s gourmet mush­room farm in In­di­ana with search war­rants.

They searched his house, then trawled through his mush­room fruit­ing cham­bers, in­spect­ing racks of shi­itakes, tur­key tails and reishis, which he sold to up­scale lo­cal res­tau­rants. Eric was con­fi­dent the po­lice would find noth­ing in­crim­i­nat­ing there – he grew his psilo­cy­bin mush­rooms far from his restau­rant-bound crops – but when he saw them head­ing to­wards the woods on his prop­erty, he pan­icked.

Two nights ear­lier, Eric and his then fi­ancee had sat around a camp­fire with a new friend, all trip­ping. A self-de­scribed “re­cov­er­ing Catholic” with a south­ern drawl who, in 2009, be­came In­di­ana’s first state-cer­ti­fied wild mush­room ex­pert, he had been of­fer­ing un­der­ground psilo­cy­bin ther­apy ses­sions for years. (He has no for­mal train­ing in psy­chol­ogy; he says the mush­rooms, which he’s con­sumed at high doses around 500 times, are his teach­ers.)

The friend had hoped a ses­sion might help re­solve a years-old trauma. Af­ter the mush­rooms took ef­fect, she went to lie down in her tent. Min­utes later, Eric saw a glow of head­lights through the trees. As a safety pre­cau­tion, he had hid­den the woman’s car keys in the house, but now, her car was speed­ing down his drive­way.

“My heart just dropped,” Eric says. “I was sure she was go­ing to die.”

Eric and his fi­ancee spent 14 hours search­ing for her be­fore she texted, say­ing she was safe. She had crashed into a ditch near the farm af­ter re­triev­ing a spare key hid­den un­der her car’s tran­som. No one was hurt, but af­ter po­lice found her, di­sheveled, she told them ev­ery­thing about Eric’s psilo­cy­bin op­er­a­tion to avoid be­ing charged with drug posses­sion.

“I knew the cops were com­ing for me,” Eric says. Be­fore they ar­rived, he stashed a pound of dried ‘Mr E’ psilo­cy­bin mush­rooms – a unique strain he had bred and named him­self and didn’t want to lose –in­side a hol­low log in the woods.

Some­how, the po­lice man­aged to find it: “That was the end, there.”

He spent a week in jail con­tem­plat­ing the ef­fects of the drug war on the men­tal health­care sys­tem. “The hor­ri­ble irony was, I sat in this cell with peo­ple who had drug ad­dic­tions that psilo­cy­bin can help rem­edy,” he says. Af­ter be­ing re­leased, he was put on house ar­rest with an an­kle mon­i­tor­for eight weeks, for­bid­den from speak­ing to his fi­ancee, whose par­ents had bailed her out of jail af­ter a day. He was fac­ing a min­i­mum of 10 years in prison for each of three B-felony charges – Sched­ule I sub­stance man­u­fac­tur­ing, dis­tri­bu­tion and posses­sion.

“The night our friend drove off was the most ter­ri­fy­ing, gut-wrench­ing mo­ment of my life, but in the eight weeks that fol­lowed, when I sat on those 87 acres alone, there were mo­ments of com­plete de­spair. I had to take my shot­guns to a neigh­bor,” he says. “I have un­cles who were cannabis grow­ers who spent years in prison. I was cer­tain I’d fol­low in their path.”

The judge at his trial was mer­ci­fully lib­eral, how­ever. The B-felonies were pleaded down. Eric was con­victed of “main­tain­ing a com­mon nui­sance” and sen­tenced to two and a half years pro­ba­tion.

“Yeah, that’s what I do – ‘main­tain­ing a com­mon nui­sance’,” he says. “I’ve turned it into a ca­reer now.”

He’s not jok­ing: in Oc­to­ber 2015, in­stead of quit­ting the mush­room world, he founded My­coMed­i­ta­tions, an above-board psilo­cy­bin-as­sisted ther­apy re­treat cen­ter in Ja­maica, one of the few coun­tries where psilo­cy­bin is le­gal.

“I felt I had no other op­tion,” he says. “The land­lord kicked me off the farm, I was work­ing in a Louisville restau­rant – I couldn’t go back to teach­ing with a felony – so I just pushed full speed into this. I felt like the medicine was so needed that I couldn’t not do it.”

In the three years since, about 400 peo­ple from around the world have at­tended My­coMed­i­ta­tions’ seven- to 10day group re­treats in Trea­sure Beach, on Ja­maica’s re­mote south­ern coast. Guests trip on psilo­cy­bin ev­ery other day in a fenced-in field sur­rounded by mango and co­conut trees. “All I do is just sit there with peo­ple, sup­port­ing them si­lently, some­times hold­ing their hands,” Eric says.

While ev­ery guide has a unique ap­proach, above-board and un­der­ground psy­che­delic-as­sisted ther­apy tends to fol­low a sim­i­lar struc­ture. Be­fore a trip, clients have prepara­tory ther­apy ses­sions with guides, dis­cussing their men­tal health is­sues and in­ten­tions for treat­ment. (Some guides won’t work with peo­ple who take psy­chi­atric med­i­ca­tions; they cau­tion that pre­scrip­tion an­tide­pres­sants can have po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous in­ter­ac­tions with cer­tain psychedelics, es­pe­cially ayahuasca.)

Dur­ing the trip, guides sit with the client, en­sur­ing their safety, and, if nec­es­sary, help­ing them nav­i­gate what re­searchers call “dif­fi­cult strug­gle ex­pe­ri­ences”.

“What we find in talk­ing with pa­tients is that this ‘dif­fi­cult strug­gle’ is not a bug in the ex­pe­ri­ence, but ac­tu­ally a fea­ture,” says Dr Alex Belser, who co-founded the psy­che­delic re­search team at NYU in 2006. “When they take these medicines, peo­ple go into dif­fi­cult places – they deal with past grief, trauma and suf­fer­ing, and feel those feel­ings in­tensely, for a time … With­out a strong sense of safety and trust with a ther­a­pist, that may lead to what’s been called a ‘bad trip’. But if there’s enough in­ten­tion put into sup­port­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s the be­gin­ning of an arc of heal­ing that can lead to some­thing ex­traor­di­nary.”

Af­ter a trip, guides fa­cil­i­tate “in­te­gra­tion” ses­sions, in which the client strives to in­cor­po­rate les­sons from the ex­pe­ri­ence into their ev­ery­day lives. At My­coMed­i­ta­tions, af­ter in­te­gra­tion ses­sions, guests get mas­sages and swim among sea tur­tles and co­ral reefs.

One at­tendee, a stage four can­cer pa­tient, felt so healed by the re­treat that she do­nated a year’s salary to Eric, which al­lowed him to quit his job at the Louisville restau­rant – he had been split­ting his time be­tween Ja­maica and Ken­tucky – to fo­cus full-time on the cen­ter. “Now she’s in re­mis­sion, trav­el­ing the coun­try fly-fish­ing in her Mercedes Win­nebago,” Eric says. “Mir­a­cles are be­com­ing – not mun­dane, but pretty nor­mal around here.”

The so­cial worker-turned-medicine woman

I meet Hum­ming­bird at Al­ice’s Tea Cup, an Al­ice in Won­der­land-themed cafe in Man­hat­tan. Wear­ing a laven­der shawl and a gold tur­tle-shaped brooch, Hum­ming­bird matches the decor. One of six chil­dren of Cuban im­mi­grant par­ents, she calls her­self a “medicine woman”; her ap­proach to guid­ing is cer­e­mo­nial rather than clin­i­cal.

As a teenager in New Jer­sey in the 1980s, she was a star cheer­leader and an en­thu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pant in the Drug Abuse Re­sis­tance Ed­u­ca­tion (Dare) pro­gram. Since age 10, she’d dreamed of be­com­ing a so­cial worker; af­ter get­ting her mas­ter’s, she “tried ba­si­cally ev­ery so­cial work job” she could find, in­clud­ing work­ing at a methadone clinic and as a fam­ily ther­a­pist in the Bronx. “I was very goo­gly-eyed,” she says. “Quite the ide­al­ist. I wanted to change the sys­tem.”

Af­ter sev­eral years, though, “ap­a­thy was build­ing”, she says. “I was very dis­sat­is­fied with the sys­tem, get­ting burnt out, very ill – con­stant bronchial in­fec­tions, flus.”

Dur­ing one such ill­ness, while she was man­ag­ing a pro­gram aimed at re­duc­ing psy­chi­atric hospi­tal re­cidi­vism, she tried treat­ing her­self with herbs – el­der­berry root and slip­pery elm – in­stead of vis­it­ing a doc­tor. This in­duced a fever dream of sorts, she says: “I’m hav­ing cold sweats and chills, and I feel this weight on me – this be­ing, mak­ing this purring noise, in a lan­guage I now un­der­stand a lot bet­ter. It was call­ing me. I wake up and say: ‘OK, I’m leav­ing my job.’”

Shortly af­ter she quit, a friend took her to a cer­e­mony in Up­state New York and in­tro­duced her to “abuela”, as many devo­tees call ayahuasca, a plant-based tea con­tain­ing the nat­u­ral hal­lu­cino­gen DMT. “By then, I’d tried ev­ery­thing – mush­rooms, LSD, ec­stasy, co­caine – but this was dif­fer­ent,” Hum­ming­bird says. “The sky opened up. At the end of a walk­way of stars was this feel­ing, like, you’re home. I was flooded with tears of grat­i­tude. And I started talk­ing in this other lan­guage, chirp­ing away, talk­ing to birds in the woods.”

On sab­bat­i­cal, she back­packed through Gu­atemala, where she at­tended eight more ayahuasca ceremonies led by indige­nous cu­ran­deras. “When I came back to my lux­u­ri­ous home, I was shocked at the US way of life,” she says. “I couldn’t be­lieve I’d let my­self be­come part of this sys­tem.”

In­stead of re­turn­ing to so­cial work, she stud­ied indige­nous heal­ing tra­di­tions with a New York-based shaman, Irma StarSpirit Tur­tle Woman. In 2015, af­ter adopt­ing a “medicine name” – Hum­ming­bird, trans­lated from Zun­zún,her Cuban grand­mother’s nick­name – she be­gan lead­ing ayahuasca ceremonies her­self.

At ceremonies, which cost $230 a night, Hum­ming­bird blows a to­bacco snuff called rapé up the noses of her guests, then serves ayahuasca and sings icaros – medicine songs – while they purge. “There’s a lot of cry­ing, laugh­ing, vom­it­ing, uri­nat­ing, sweat­ing – [what I call] ‘get­ting well’,” she says.

Also on of­fer is sananga, a psy­choac­tive eye drop that burns like ha­banero chilis, and Kambo, a drug made from the venom of the Ama­zo­nian gi­ant mon­key frog.

Hum­ming­bird’s work with the psy­chi­atric health­care sys­tem left her con­cerned that the mil­len­nia-old spir­i­tual tra­di­tions sur­round­ing psychedelics risk be­ing side­lined in the process of med­i­cal­iza­tion. De­spite psy­che­delic re­searchers’ at­tempts to quan­tify re­sults with tools like the “Mys­ti­cal Ex­pe­ri­ence Ques­tion­naire”, trip ex­pe­ri­ences – such as en­coun­ters with “snake-gods” – tend to fall out­side the realm of con­tem­po­rary sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing.

“Abuela is an ever-evolv­ing quan­tity,” Hum­ming­bird says. “There are no fi­nal end re­sults, which science loves to have.”

The for­mer la­bor nurse who helps peo­ple ‘give birth to them­selves’

Since his book’s pub­li­ca­tion, Pol­lan’s read­ers have bom­barded him with re­quests for re­fer­rals to un­der­ground guides – re­quests he turns down to pro­tect his sources.

“The de­mand [for psy­che­delic ther­apy] far out­weighs the sup­ply and care we have, whether in clin­i­cal tri­als or in the un­der­ground,” Pol­lan said at Hori­zons. “I was struck by how many peo­ple are re­ally suf­fer­ing. I wish peo­ple could just go to 1-800-Un­der­ground Guide.

Steve’s sched­ule is at ca­pac­ity; he finds him­self turn­ing away roughly three-quar­ters of re­fer­rals he gets, some of which come from li­censed psy­chother­a­pists, who may risk los­ing their li­censes by pur­su­ing in­ter­ests in il­le­gal sub­stances.

But many are op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of le­gal­iza­tion for medic­i­nal use.In 2017, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA) granted “break­through ther­apy des­ig­na­tion” to MDMA-as­sisted psy­chother­apy for PTSD, ac­knowl­edg­ing that it “may demon­strate sub­stan­tial im­prove­ment over ex­ist­ing ther­a­pies” and agree­ing to ex­pe­dite its devel­op­ment and re­view. In Oc­to­ber, re­searchers from Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity rec­om­mended that psilo­cy­bin be re­clas­si­fied to a sched­ule IV drug, with ac­cepted med­i­cal use.

The push for le­gal­iza­tion has re­ceived bi­par­ti­san sup­port: Re­bekah Mercer, the bil­lion­aire Re­pub­li­can and co-owner of Bre­it­bart, re­cently do­nated $1m to the Mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary As­so­ci­a­tion of Psy­che­delic Stud­ies (Maps), a not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion con­duct­ing much of to­day’s psy­che­delic re­search.

In an­tic­i­pa­tion of ex­panded ac­cess, the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute for In­te­gral Stud­ies, in San Fran­cisco, of­fers a train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram for med­i­cal and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als who hope to even­tu­ally fa­cil­i­tate le­gal psy­che­delic-as­sisted ther­apy.

‘I’m a su­per joy­ful per­son now’ While un­der­ground guides tend to fiercely sup­port de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion, a few, such as Jackie, say that even if psychedelics were to be le­gal­ized med­i­cally, they would con­tinue to work un­der­ground.

“I don’t want to work un­der the med­i­cal model,” Jackie says. “It’s too reg­i­mented for me.”

Be­fore she be­came a guide, Jackie worked as a birth doula and a reg­is­tered la­bor and de­liv­ery nurse. “I used to sit with peo­ple as they gave birth to hu­mans,” she says. “Now I sit with peo­ple as they give birth to them­selves.”

Af­ter leav­ing her “tu­mul­tuous, fucked-up fam­ily” at 17, she tried LSD for the first time with the man she would later marry. While rais­ing her kids in the 1980s, she suf­fered from “per­sis­tent emo­tional pain” and tried ev­ery­thing to treat it: decades of psy­chother­apy, yoga, med­i­ta­tion, neu­ro­feed­back, self-help work­shops. Noth­ing worked.

In 2016, on the rec­om­men­da­tion of her 30-year-old daugh­ter, she at­tended a shaman-led ayahuasca re­treat in Costa Rica. “Even as I was throw­ing up on the jun­gle floor, I was like: ‘Thank you. This is why I came here,’” she says. “Af­ter­ward, I felt like all the trauma stuck in­side my body had been re­leased.”

Upon re­turn­ing home, she broke up with her psy­chother­a­pist. “I haven’t felt a need to go back,” she says. “I’m a su­per joy­ful per­son now.” She be­gan at­tend­ing Hori­zons and train­ing as a guide with sev­eral men­tors.

Now, at 57, she works full-time as a guide for two to four clients a month, ei­ther in her New Eng­land home or an Airbnb, charg­ing sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars for 48-hour ses­sions and “un­lim­ited post-trip in­te­gra­tion”.

Many of her clients are “ge­nius en­trepreneurs”; most, she says, have lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with drugs. She gets word-of-mouth re­fer­rals from all over the world and also men­tors new­bie guides.

“As un­der­ground ther­a­pists, we have to think, what if the worst thing hap­pened and we went to jail?” she says. “But if I went to jail, I think I’d still find a way to serve. And I know it sounds woo-woo, but I some­how feel pro­tected by the mush­rooms.”

• Steve and Jackie’s names have been changed to pro­tect their anonymity

‘I know it sounds woo-woo, but I some­how feel pro­tected by the mush­rooms.’ Il­lus­tra­tion: James Clapham

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