The Risky Business of Psychedelic Therapy

A hard look at commercial hallucinogenic retreats

Mark Wilding
Elemental
Published in
8 min readJul 15, 2019

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Illustration: George Greaves

OnOn a Wednesday evening in March 2019, I stood in the basement of a budget hotel in central London as a former accountant named Arron used a wooden pipe to blow shamanic snuff into my nose. It was two short blasts: one for each nostril. The snuff was rapé, a traditional shamanic medicine originating from the Amazon, which is legal in the U.K. I felt light-headed as I took my seat among 40 other attendees and waited for the conference to begin. We were gathered to learn about psychedelic substances and how they might change our lives.

Chill-out music played softly from the back of the room. A woman sneezed. As underground trains rumbled beneath us, Arron’s colleague led us in a guided meditation. “Let’s take a moment to arrive, to open ourselves up, and just receive,” he said, before handing us over to Arron for the evening’s main presentation. Arron, who was around 30 years old and wearing a tight white T-shirt and stonewashed jeans, spoke softly, with an accent from the north of England. He told us he worked at Inner Mastery International, an organization that hosts psychedelic retreats across Europe and South America and is expanding globally. “The retreats that we run around the world use a number of entheogens,” he said, listing substances with exotic-sounding names — ayahuasca, kambo, iboga, bufo — that could offer us a new perspective on life. “They enter you into a state of expanded consciousness,” he said. “From that state, we can begin to perceive things about ourselves, about our lives, that we wouldn’t see before.”

When psychedelic drugs — most notably LSD — gained popularity in the 1960s, there was excitement about their therapeutic potential. That enthusiasm was swiftly followed by a political backlash that ultimately shuttered the nascent research into psychedelics worldwide. But science appears to be on the verge of a psychedelic renaissance. Research is slowly ramping up again, and over the last 15 years, psychedelics and other illicit drugs have been reexamined for their healing qualities. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, appears to help people with cancer deal with the fear of death, and it shows promise as a means of curbing addictions. MDMA is believed to help sufferers of PTSD

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