STeve has policemen in his family, so he does not tell many people about his work as an underground psychedelic guide. The work occupies a significant part of his time: about once a week, he meets a client at home or in a rented house, he takes them with MDMA or hallucinogenic mushrooms of psilocybin and sits with them while they are traveling for a maximum of 10 hours – but he does not tell his brothers, parents or roommates, or his fellow doctoral students in psychology.
They probably would not even guess it: Steve shows no sign of involvement in a stigmatized counterculture that many Americans still associate with his fiery figureheads of the '60s. He is a former bespectacled business school student who plays in a brass band and works part-time as a mental health counselor by telephone. After a glass of wine, he says, "Whoa, I feel a little drunk."
But if you probe, he could tell you about the time he took psilocybin and a "snake god" entered his body and left him convulsively on the ground for an hour. (The serpent god was benevolent, he says, and the convulsion was cathartic, "a tremendous surge of anxious energy").
At the beginning of October, Steve attended a Manhattan conference called Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics, which calls itself "the largest and longest annual gathering of the psychedelic community". I went with my 51-year-old cousin, Temple, a relatively important psychotherapist. She had come to learn more about psychedelic psychotherapy, that clandestine guides like Steve facilitate illegally. He hopes to incorporate this type of therapy into his practice if and when substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and ayahuasca become legal.
Like many participants, Temple had recently read How to change his mind: what the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, death, addictions, depression and transcendence, a bestseller of 2018 by Michael Pollan. He convinced her that psychedelic psychotherapy "could really be the way of the future".
Indigenous people are believed to have used plant psychedelics for millennia; now it seems that the factions of the Western medical establishment are catching on. But most psychedelics are still substances controlled by Table I, in the same category of heroin and cocaine; possession or sale has been punishable by detention since 1971. With rare exceptions, the only way to legally consume psychedelics in the United States is to participate in one of the few clinical trials conducted at universities such as New York University and John Hopkins.
These studies have produced stunning results: they suggest that, when given to patients carefully selected by qualified health professionals, psychedelics are safe and powerful tools to alleviate DPTS, addictions, cluster headaches, anxiety and the Depression.
In the midst of a broken health system and an increase in opioid dependency and suicide rates, Americans are looking for alternative routes to healing, which is where underground guides arrive. The industry has its share of charlatans, but many guides adhere to ethical standards and protocols comparable to those established in clinical settings.
Unlike psychotherapists, however, underground guides have no accredited training institutes, no license and no way to publicly market their services. How, then, do you make a career as a guide?
Steve was one of the many guides I spoke to who described feeling spiritually "called" to do this work. Like the doctors who provided pre-Roe abortions against Wade, they break the laws that they believe are unjust; considers legal violations a risky but necessary part of his research to alleviate people's pain. You charge on an escalator that ranges from around $ 15 to $ 50 an hour.
As with most of the guides, his psychedelic experiences convinced him that work was worth the risk.
"During an early guided psilocybin session, I realized that I had never adequately addressed the pain caused by my parents' divorce," says Steve. "There was clearly still this part of my 11 year old son who was kind," I want to be part of a consistent family unit. "During the experience, I was given this vision – there is no way of saying this that does not sound silly – but there was this maternal figure who was like a half-Vedic goddess, with a million arms and a million eyes and a half-space alien, with gray skin, it was this space mother, surrounded by this spatial family, and she has just transmitted this incredible feeling of welcome, this is the divine family from which you were born ".
In addition to keeping quiet about his work, Steve uses an encrypted messaging app to communicate with clients – the precautions he takes to avoid the kind of legal problem that he has hit on some underground guides, like Eric Osborne, a former teacher of Kentucky middle school.
The entrepreneur of psilocybin withdrawal turned into criminal
On a July afternoon in 2015, state troops showed up at Eric's gourmet mushroom farm, in Indiana, with search warrants.
They searched his home, then rummaged in his mushroom-shaped fruiting chambers, inspecting shiitake racks, turkey tails and reiski, which he sold to local luxury restaurants. Eric was confident that the police would not find anything incriminating there – he cultivated his psilocybe mushrooms far from his restaurant's crops – but when he saw them heading into the woods of his property, he was panicked.
Two nights ago, Eric and his girlfriend were sitting around a campfire with a new friend, all on a mission. A self-proclaimed "healing Catholic" with a southern accent that became the first Indian state-certified wild mushroom expert in 2009, had offered underground psilocybin therapy sessions for years. (He does not have a formal training in psychology, he says that mushrooms, which he consumed at high doses about 500 times, are his teachers).
The friend had hoped that a session could help solve a trauma of years. After the mushrooms took effect, she went to lie down in her tent. A few minutes later, Eric saw a glow of headlights in the trees. As a safety precaution, he had hidden the keys to the woman's car in the house, but now, his car was speeding up its driveway.
"My heart has just fallen," says Eric. "I was sure he was going to die."
Eric and his girlfriend spent 14 hours looking for her before she wrote, saying she was safe. It had crashed into a ditch near the farm after recovering a spare key hidden under the crossbar of his car. No one was injured, but after the police found it messy, they told them all about Eric's psilocybin operation to avoid being accused of drug possession.
"I knew the cops were coming for me," Eric says. Before they arrived, he hid a pound of dried psilocybin mushrooms "Mr E" – a unique strain he had bred and that was called and he did not want to lose – inside a hollow trunk in the woods.
Somehow, the police managed to find it: "This was the end, there."
He spent a week in prison contemplating the effects of the war on drugs on the mental health system. "The horrible irony was, I sat in this cell with people who were addicted to drugs that psilocybin can help remedy," he says. After being released, he was placed under house arrest with an ankle monitor for eight weeks, forbidden to talk to his girlfriend, whose parents had dumped her out of prison after a day. He was facing a minimum of 10 years in prison for each of the three criminal charges B – Schedule I production, distribution and possession of the substances.
"The night our friend left was the most terrifying, tormenting 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 guns to a neighbor, "he says. "I have uncles who were cannabis growers who spent years in prison, I was sure I would follow their path."
The judge at his trial was however liberal. The B crimes have been trampled. Eric was convicted of "maintaining a common disorder" and sentenced to two and a half years of probation.
"Yes, that's what I do -" keep a common nuisance ", he says. "I turned into a career now."
He is not joking: in October 2015, instead of leaving the mushroom world, he founded MycoMeditations, a psilocybin-assisted therapeutic withdrawal center mentioned above in Jamaica, one of the few countries where psilocybin is legal.
"I felt I had no other choice," he says. "The landlord threw me out of the farm, I was working in a restaurant in Louisville – I could not go back to teaching with a crime – so I just pushed at full speed I felt that the medicine was so necessary that I could not do it" .
Over the next three years, around 400 people from around the world participated in the seven or ten-day group retreats of MycoMeditations at Treasure Beach, on Jamaica's remote south coast. Guests travel on Psilocybin every other day in a fenced field surrounded by mango and coconut trees. "All I do is just sit there with people, supporting them in silence, sometimes holding hands," Eric says.
While each guide has a unique approach, psychedelic therapy upside down and underground tends to follow a similar structure. Before a trip, clients have preparatory therapy sessions with the guides, discussing their mental health problems and intentions for treatment. (Some guides do not work with people taking psychiatric drugs, they warn that prescription antidepressants may have potentially dangerous interactions with some psychedelics, particularly ayahuasca).
During the journey, the guides sit with the client, ensuring their safety and, if necessary, helping them navigate what the researchers call "difficult experiences of struggle".
"What we find in talking with patients is that this" difficult struggle "is not a bug in the experience, but actually a characteristic", says dr. Alex Belser, co-founder of the psychedelic research group at NYU in 2006. "When you take these medicines, people go into difficult places – they face the past pain, trauma and suffering, and they feel those feelings intensely, for a while .. Without a strong sense of security and trust with a therapist, this can lead to what has been termed an "ugly journey" but if there is enough intention to support that experience, it is the beginning of an arch of healing that can lead to something extraordinary. "
After a trip, the guides facilitate the "integration" sessions, in which the client strives to incorporate the lessons of experience into his daily life. At MycoMeditations, after the integration sessions, guests receive massages and swim among sea turtles and coral reefs.
One participant, a stage four cancer patient, felt so relieved of his retirement that he gave Eric a year's salary, which allowed him to quit his job at the Louisville restaurant – he was splitting his time between Jamaica and Kentucky – to fully concentrate -time in the middle. "Now he is in remission, he is traveling in the country with fly fishing in his Mercedes Winnebago," says Eric. "Miracles are becoming – not trivial, but rather normal around here."
The social worker turned into a woman of medicine
I meet Hummingbird with Alice's Tea Cup, a coffee-themed Alice in Wonderland in Manhattan. Wearing a lavender shawl and a gold-tortoise brooch, Hummingbird combines the decor. One of the six children of Cuban immigrant parents, he calls himself a "woman of medicine"; his driving approach is ceremonial rather than clinical.
As a teenager in New Jersey in the 1980s, she was a cheerleader star and an enthusiastic participant of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (Dare) program. From the age of 10, he had dreamed of becoming a social worker; after obtaining her master's degree, she "practiced practically all the social work" she could find, including working in a methadone clinic and as a family therapist in the Bronx. "I was very eyed," he says. "Rather the idealist, I wanted to change the system."
After several years, however, "apathy was building," he says. "I was very dissatisfied with the system, I was burning, very serious bronchial infections, flus".
During one of these diseases, while running a program aimed at reducing the recurrence of the psychiatric hospital, she tried to treat herself with the herbs – elderberry root and slimy elm – instead of going to a doctor. This prompted a kind of fever dream, he says, "I'm having cold sweats and chills, and I feel this weight on me – this being, making this melted noise, in a language I now understand much better. call myself. I wake up and say, "OK, I'm leaving my job".
Shortly after his departure, a friend took her to a ceremony in the Upstate of New York and introduced her to "abuela", as many devotees call ayahuasca, a plant-based tea containing the hallucinogen. natural DMT. "At that point, I had tried everything – mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine – but this was different," says Hummingbird. "The sky opened up. At the end of a catwalk of stars there was this feeling, like, it's you home. I was inundated with tears of gratitude. And I started talking in this other language, chirping, talking to the birds in the woods. "
In sabbatical, he traveled in a backpack in Guatemala, where he participated in eight other ayahuasca ceremonies led by indigenous people curanderas. "When I returned to my luxurious home, I was shocked by the lifestyle of the United States," he says. "I could not believe I would get involved in this system."
Instead of returning to social work, he studied indigenous healing traditions with a New York shaman, Irma StarSpirit Turtle Woman. In 2015, after adopting a "medicine name" – Hummingbird, translated from Zunzun, the nickname of her Cuban grandmother – she began to conduct the ayahuasca ceremonies.
At the ceremonies, which cost $ 230 a night, Hummingbird is blowing a snuff called rapis the nose of his guests, then he serves the ayahuasca and sings icaros – medical songs – while they are eliminated. "There's a lot of crying, laughter, vomiting, urine, sweat – [what I call] Â € œStare wellâ € | ", He says.
It also offers sananga, psychoactive eye drops that burn like habanero chilli, and Kambo, a drug derived from the venom of the giant monkey frog of the Amazon.
Hummingbird's work with the psychiatric health system left her concerned that the ancient spiritual traditions surrounding psychedelics could be set aside in the medicalization process. Despite attempts by psychedelic researchers to quantify results with tools such as the "Questionnaire on mystical experience", travel experiences – such as encounters with "serpent deities" – tend to fall out of the realm of contemporary scientific understanding.
"Abuela is an ever-changing amount," says Hummingbird. "There are no final results, which science loves to have."
The former working nurse who helps people "give birth to themselves"
Since the publication of his book, Pollan's readers have bombarded him with requests for referrals to clandestine guides – requests that he refuses to protect his sources.
"The request [for psychedelic therapy] far exceeds the supply and care we have, both in clinical trials and in the underground, "Pollan told Horizons." I was impressed by how many people really suffer. I would like people to simply go to 1-800-Underground Guide.
Steve's time is full; he finds himself repudiating about three quarters of his referrals, 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 medical use. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted a "designation of revolutionary therapy" to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, recognizing that "it could demonstrate a substantial improvement over existing therapies" and agreeing to accelerate its development and revision. In October, Johns Hopkins University researchers recommended that psilocybin be reclassified into an IV program with accepted medical use.
The push for legalization has received bipartisan support: Rebekah Mercer, a republican billionaire and co-owner of Breitbart, has recently donated $ 1m to the multidisciplinary association of psychedelic studies (Maps), a nonprofit organization that leads much of today's psychedelic research.
In anticipation of expanded access, the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco offers a training and certification program for physicians and mental health professionals who hope to eventually facilitate psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. .
I'm a super joyful person now & # 39;
While underground guides tend to firmly support decriminalization, some, like Jackie, claim that even if psychedelics should be medically legalized, they would continue to work underground.
"I do not want to work under the medical model," says Jackie. "It's too regimented for me."
Before becoming a guide, Jackie worked as a birthplace and a professional nurse. "I used to sit with people while giving birth to humans," he says. "Now I sit with the people who give birth to themselves".
After leaving his "tumultuous and messy family" at 17, he tried LSD for the first time with the man he would later marry. While raising her children in the 80s, she suffered from "persistent emotional pain" and tried everything to cure her: decades of psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, neurofeedback, self-help seminars. 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 vomiting on the jungle floor, I was like:" Thank you, that's why I came here " , He says. "Later, I felt as if all the trauma stuck in my body had been released."
On his return home, he broke up with his psychotherapist. "I did not feel the need to go back," he says. "I'm a super joyful person now." He started attending Horizons and training as a guide with different mentors.
Now, at 57, he works full-time as a guide for two or four clients a month, at his New England home or at Airbnb, charging several thousand dollars for 48-hour sessions and "unlimited post-integration" travel".
Many of his clients are "brilliant entrepreneurs"; most, he says, has little experience with drugs. It gets word of mouth referral from all over the world and also guides newbie guides.
"As clandestine therapists, we have to think, what if the worst thing happened and we went to jail?" He says. "But if I went to jail, I think I would still find a way to serve, and I know it sounds like woo-woo, but somehow I feel protected by mushrooms."
• The names of Steve and Jackie have been changed to protect their anonymity