By Jen Rose SmithJan. 7, 2021 at 12:02 p.m. MSTAdd to list
The palm-fringed beachfront and breezy cabanas at MycoMeditations are the stuff of glossy travel brochures, but the barefoot vacationers roaming the Jamaican retreat center this winter are seeking a different kind of trip entirely.
They’re here for facilitated sessions using psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms. One of a handful of established psilocybin retreat centers in the world, MycoMeditations was founded in 2015, and in the years since has seen surging interest in the reputed mental health benefits of psychedelics. Often, it’s from people surprised to find themselves seeking help from a mysterious fungus at all.
“In my life I had never done any psychedelic,” said Jessica Young, a 41-year-old executive from Atlanta, who flew to Jamaica for a MycoMeditations retreat in November 2019. “It’s pretty out of character for me.”
Like many Americans unfamiliar with crystal magic or jam band music, Young knew little about psychedelics before reading the best-selling 2018 book “How to Change Your Mind,” by journalist Michael Pollan.
In it, Pollan surveys recent research into psychedelics, which show promise for maladies from treatment-resistant depression to end-of-life distress. Such professorial passages alternate with Pollan’s eyebrow-raising personal experiences with psychedelics including psilocybin, LSD and the crystallized venom of a Sonoran Desert toad.
Young had just turned 40 when she read the book, and she was intrigued by the promise of personal growth that psilocybin seemed to offer. But despite the relative mainstreaming of psychedelics in recent years, psilocybin mushrooms are ranked alongside heroin as a Schedule 1 drug in the United States. To try them legally — an important stipulation for Young — she would have to look abroad.
“Psilocybin is not illegal here, and it’s one of the few places in the world where you can actually use these substances,” said Justin Townsend, MycoMeditations’ CEO and head facilitator. (The Netherlands, where a legal loophole allows for the sale of psilocybin sclerotia, or “truffles,” is another major destination.)
But over recent months, decriminalization efforts have opened a chink in the United States’ forbidding drug laws. In November, D.C. voters approved a ballot initiative to decriminalize the use of psilocybin mushrooms, while Oregonians approved the legal use of psilocybin in therapeutic settings. If restrictions continue to loosen, could stateside psychedelic getaways be America’s next big wellness-
Demand is there. Each month, the inbox of researcher Robin Carhart-Harris fills with requests, sometimes pleas, to join clinical trials at the Centre for Psychedelic Research that he heads at Imperial College London.
When it comes to the healing power of psychedelics, “demand vastly exceeds supply,” Carhart-Harris said. “They’re suffering, and they’re desperate, and other treatments maybe aren’t working.” When it launched in 2019, the center became the world’s first formal site focusing exclusively on psychedelic research; later that same year, Johns Hopkins opened the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
Promising findings about psychedelics include treatments for trauma, anorexia, treatment-
resistant depression, addiction and more. Many of those who contact Carhart-Harris in hopes of joining a clinical study are suffering from these. “Often it’s really sad,” he said. “A few a day is typical, and we can’t do anything.”
Retreats step into the void between the swelling interest in psychedelic therapy and the tightly controlled trials carried out at the new research centers. And those retreats run a remarkable gamut. Some employ the language, tone and sleekly modern aesthetic of upscale clinics; others are crunchy, off-grid hippie getaways with training lineages rooted in shamanism.
Carhart-Harris’s research has convinced him that psychedelics can facilitate profound transformations, and he’s optimistic about their use beyond the lab. When compared with other drugs — or even alcohol — psilocybin is remarkably safe. It’s not addictive, and toxicity is very low.
In 2018, Carhart-Harris and a team of other researchers published survey results focused on psychedelic experiences “in the wild” — people who got their own stash of drugs and launched into orbit without supervision from a PhD. Overall, respondents did well. “That aggregate data is tending toward improvement,” Carhart-Harris said. “Any negative changes in mental health outcomes are very much the anomaly.”
In addition to offering legal alternatives to an at-home trip, retreats provide support, with the possibility of post-trip counseling to help with “integration,” a meaning-making process many believe is essential. But Carhart-Harris also sees pitfalls in the drugs’ very promise. “It’s easy to see how powerful they are,” he said. “It’s unusual to find drugs, or any intervention, that could change people as reliably. That power requires some responsibility and careful thought around harnessing it safely.”
Writer Michelle Janikian, author of the 2019 book “Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion,” has volunteered at and participated in magic-mushroom retreats, and echoed Carhart-Harris’s caution. “Folks need to research their retreat leaders,” she said. “Do your homework first to make sure it’s a safe and integral place.”
But Janikian, like many in the world of psychedelics, welcomes the nascent push to legalize and decriminalize psilocybin in the United States. “I’m very excited to see how it continues to go — I think the recent passage in Oregon is going to have kind of a ripple effect.”
And many in the investor class see a bright future for magic mushrooms. In September, U.S. News & World Report speculated that psilocybin could beat out cannabis as a hot investment, citing a market analysis estimating the psilocybin market may grow to $100 billion.
Retreats could be part of that growth. Within days of the Oregon vote to legalize psilocybin use in therapeutic settings, Oregon-based Silo Wellness — which cultivates psychedelic mushrooms in Jamaica — announced an Oregon wellness retreat using the drug ketamine. For five socially distanced days in January, a small group will explore waterfalls, go white-water rafting, meditate and undergo three sessions of ketamine-assisted therapy led by naturopath Matthew Hicks.
Silo Wellness founder Mike Arnold described the ketamine sessions as the first legal psychedelic retreat to take place in the United States. (There’s a long-running underground of unsanctioned psychedelic retreats across the country.) Next, he’s planning psilocybin retreats in Jamaica and hopes that soon they’ll be taking place closer to home. Arnold, who would like to see the state become a psychedelic retreat destination, is staking his company on psilocybin’s potential to expand both markets and minds.
What will that mean for Americans? For Young, who traveled to Jamaica in 2019, the experience was transformative.
While she worried she would find a bunch of partying bros, her 2019 retreat was anything but. Instead, she was part of an 11-person cohort that included six women, more than one grandmother, medical and mental health professionals, scientists and a construction worker.
“Everyone was there with the intention to do some serious work,” Young said. So was she: Over three psilocybin sessions, Young said she grew in ways that years of therapy hadn’t achieved. In November 2020, she returned for a second retreat.
“I came out of that with this very deep knowing that this life force that’s all around us — what I would call love, essentially — is abundant, is ever present,” Young said. “I know that sounds like it comes from a pack of tarot cards. But for me, it’s profound.”