I had a close call on the second night of the ayahuasca ceremony.
I saw my teenage self melting into particles and eventually disappearing altogether. I pulled off my sleep mask and saw the people around me shape-shifting into shadows. I thought I was dying, or perhaps losing my grip on reality.
Suddenly, Kat, my guide, appeared and began singing to me. I couldn’t make out the words, but the cadence was soothing. After a minute or two, the dread washed away and I settled back into a peaceful half-sleep.
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The 12 of us — nine women and three men — taking ayahuasca in a private home in San Diego were led by two trained guides: Kat and her partner, whom I’ll call Sarah since she requested anonymity due to legal concerns. Together they have more than 20 years of experience working with psychedelics, including ayahuasca, a plant concoction that contains the natural hallucinogen known as DMT.
Kat (her full name is Tina Kourtney) and Sarah work as a team serving psychedelic medicine every month or so in a different city. Their primary role is to create a space in which everyone feels secure enough to drop their emotional guards and open up to the drugs’ potential to change their attitudes, moods, and behaviors.
There’s a lot of unease heading into these ceremonies, especially for people who have never experimented with psychedelics. The fear of what you might see or feel can be overwhelming. But guides like Kat are your port in the storm. When things get turbulent, they respond with a steady, calm hand.
Though psychedelic drugs remain illegal, guided ceremonies, or sessions, are happening across the country, especially in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Guiding itself has become a viable profession, both underground and above, as more Americans seek out safe, structured environments to use psychedelics for spiritual growth and psychological healing. This new world of psychedelic-assisted therapy functions as a kind of parallel mental health service. Access to it remains limited, but it’s evolving quicker than you might expect.
A majority of Americans now support the legalization of marijuana, and while a 2016 public poll on psychedelics suggested they aren’t as favorable, it’s possible that attitudes will shift as the research findings on their therapeutic potential enter the mainstream. (Author Michael Pollan’s 2018 book How to Change Your Mind, about his own experiences with psychedelics, helped spread the word. Even Gwyneth Paltrow has acknowledged their potential in a recent New York Times interview.)
But what would a world in which psychedelics are legal look like? And what sort of cultural structures would we need to ensure that these drugs are used responsibly?
Psychedelic drugs like LSD seeped into American society in the 1960s, and the results were mixed at best. They certainly revolutionized the culture, but they ultimately left us with draconian drug laws and a cultural backlash that pushed psychedelics into the underground.
Today, however, a renaissance is underway. At institutions like John Hopkins University and New York University, clinical trials exploring psilocybin as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression, drug addiction, and other anxiety disorders are yielding hopeful results.
In October, the Food and Drug Administration took the extraordinary step of granting psilocybin therapy for depression a “breakthrough therapy” designation. That means the treatment has demonstrated such potential that the FDA has decided to expedite its development and review process. It’s a sign of how far the research and the public perception of psychedelics have come.
It’s because of this progress that we have to think seriously about what comes next and how we would integrate psychedelics into the broader culture. I’ve spent the past three months talking with guides, researchers, and therapists who are training clinicians to do psychedelic-assisted therapy. I’ve participated in underground ceremonies, and I’ve spoken to people who claim to have conquered their drug addictions after a single psychedelic experience.
Our current laws sanction various poisons, including booze and cigarettes. These are drugs that destroy lives and feed addictions. And yet one of the most striking things about the recent (limited) psychedelic research is that the drugs do not appear to be addictive or have adverse effects when a guide is involved. Many researchers believe these drugs, when used under the supervision of trained professionals, could revolutionize mental health care.
Taking entheogens can be like air travel: people do it all the time, it’s usually fine, but when it’s not fine, it’s sometimes very bad. We’ve been there. And that’s where an experienced guide can make the difference in the outcome.
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