Some Americans searching for alternative paths to healing have turned to psychedelics. But how does one forge a career as a guide when the substances are illegal?
by 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, soft-spoken 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-year-old 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 addictionand 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.
Read the full article here: The Guardian.