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Mind Shift

You’re not hallucinating. Bay Area advocates for the therapeutic and spiritual use of psychedelics are calling for legalization.


The FDA could allow Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to offer therapeutic psychedelic treatments as early as summer.

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Illustration of Françoise Bourzat, an adjunct faculty member at the California Institute of Integral Studies, who leads magic mushroom pilgrimages to Mexico for “shamanic counseling.”

Illustration: Chelsea Anspach

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Northern California has long been a mecca for psychonauts seeking higher consciousness via the wonders of modern chemistry, but there hasn’t been this much excitement around here since the heady days of the Summer of Love.

Those leading a decadeslong crusade to decriminalize the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs are poised to open their first clinic this summer in San Francisco, where patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder will be able to legally and openly hire specially trained therapists to lead them on healing journeys with MDMA, the psychoactive drug better known as ecstasy.

Advocates for the therapeutic and spiritual use of psychedelic drugs and “sacred plant medicines”—such as magic mushrooms and ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea brewed from two Amazonian plants—are following the path blazed by the robust cannabis trade, which, thanks to state-by-state campaigns to decriminalize medical marijuana, opened the door to legalized recreational pot. “It’s a fundamental human right to explore your own consciousness,” says Rick Doblin, executive director of the Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. “What I’d like to see is licensed legalization.”

Doblin has spent over 30 years and raised more than $30 million to fund clinical trials that were so successful, the Food and Drug Administration designated MDMA as a “breakthrough therapy” to help treat war veterans, victims of sexual abuse and others struggling with the aftershocks of severe emotional trauma. Psychedelic therapists see MDMA as an “empathogen” because of its ability to chemically activate the brain in a way that reduces fear and anxiety while increasing feelings of empathy, euphoria and compassion. That state of mind has proven to be fertile ground for those seeking psychological healing.

Two local clinics, one at UCSF and the other at San Francisco Insight and Integration Center, are already working with volunteer research subjects for the final round of clinical trials needed before the FDA reclassifies the banned drug and gives MAPS permission to market it as a legal medicine. That could happen by late 2021, but FDA rules could let MAPS begin offering the therapeutic treatment as early as this summer under “expanded access” rules allowing “compassionate use.” Doblin and company are now working to train a small army of MDMA guides.

Meanwhile, other foundations and would-be drug companies are sponsoring clinical trials in the U.S. and Europe using psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, which, like LSD, acts more like a classic hallucinogen. That research, including work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and New York University in Manhattan, is designed to rebrand psilocybin as medicine therapists could use to treat depression, alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse. But those trials are not as far along in the lengthy and costly approval process needed to transform an illegal drug into a therapeutic medicine.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have also studied the mystical feelings of oneness and divine connection that many healthy people experience with a safe, well-intentioned psychedelic journey. A clinical trial of 36 volunteers who’d never previously tripped found that more than two-thirds of them rated their psilocybin session as “among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lifetimes.”

Others seeking psychological healing and spiritual insight via psychedelics—but who don’t want to violate U.S. drug laws—are not waiting around for the government’s permission. They’re flocking to places like Mexico, Jamaica, Brazil, the Netherlands or Peru, where psychedelic tourists can legally participate in therapy sessions or shamanic circles with magic mushrooms, peyote or ayahuasca. Françoise Bourzat, who offers “shamanic counseling” out of offices in Noe Valley and on the Peninsula, has been leading magic mushroom pilgrimages to Mexico for the past 20 years. She works with medicine women of the Mazatec tribe in Huautla de Jiménez, a town in the state of Oaxaca. The mushroom cult in that remote village was “discovered” in a famous 1957 Life magazine profile of the healer María Sabina, who blended shamanic rituals and Catholic devotional practices.

“Taking a pill at Johns Hopkins is different than being on the land of the Mazatec,” Bourzat, whose book, Consciousness Medicine ($17.95, North Atlantic Books), will be released in June, says from her home, a cozy hideaway in the hills just north of La Honda, the San Mateo County town made famous in the 1960s as the headquarters for Ken Kesey and his LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters. “It’s not just going to a place where mushrooms are legal,” the French-born guide says of her Mexican sojourns. “It’s understanding their culture, eating their food, walking on their trails. It’s going to the church where the priest eats the mushrooms and understands the overlap between Christianity and mushroom spirituality.”

Those wanting a more first-world psychedelic vacation are booking retreat space in Amsterdam, where a growing number of expats are taking advantage of a loophole in Dutch law that allows the sale of “magic truffles.” These vegetative chunks of mycelium are not technically mushrooms, which were banned in the Netherlands in 2008, yet still contain psilocybin. In the Netherlands, truffles are openly sold as recreational drugs or as fuel for more therapeutic or spiritual journeys.

Daniel Shankin (Sitaram Das), a Marin County leadership coach and meditation teacher who helps people prepare for psychedelic trips and works with them to integrate the experience into the rest of their lives, was planning on taking a group of 10 people to the Netherlands this spring. While the organizers of the Dutch retreat business working with him call their weekend sessions “truffles therapy” retreats, Shankin stresses that his pilgrimage is not for people with serious mental illness. “I’m not a therapist,” he says. “I slide psychedelics under the umbrella of meditation—not the other way around. … We hope to give people a chance to explore psilocybin in a safe, comfortable and almost luxurious way.”

Closer to home, Shankin offers “psychedelic integration and spiritual coaching” through a business called Tam Integration. It’s not a place to take drugs, he says, but a space to “talk about the experience in a way that is high-minded and spiritually relevant. We want to provide tools to go into nonordinary states and maintain a grounded, heart-centered awareness,” he says, “to have better control over our mind when the stakes are high.”


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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