Psychoactive drugs, by their very nature, can place people in exceptionally vulnerable positions. Combine that state with a penchant that some psychedelic facilitators have to assume a guru or cult-like leader role and you have a recipe for rampant abuse.
As the growing popularity of mind-manifesting drugs — including psilocybin, 5-MeO-DMT, ayahuasca, and MDMA — sweeps the mainstream worldwide in legal, gray, and underground markets, harm reduction is an important aspect to sort out.
Arguably one of the most potent psychoactive drugs available, the substance 5-MeO-DMT is becoming increasingly sought after (and more and more accessible) across North America and the globe. In fact, there’s so much interest in the compound that a clinical stage pharma company is focused on 5-MeO-DMT as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression, listing on Nasdaq with $315 million in capitalization.
Derived from the defense secretions of Incilius alvarius toads — and also manufactured synthetically — the compound is not considered a controlled substance in some countries, including Canada and Mexico. For that reason 5-MeO-DMT is readily obtainable for any adult to sample on holiday trips to locales like Tulum, providing a mind-blowing experience in 20 minutes or less. Effects of the drug tend to be within seconds of ingestion, producing ego loss, or a sense of dying, and a melding with the infinite essence of the universe. The consequences of such a stark expansion of consciousness can be massive and long lasting — some very positive and some positively terrifying. Harmful effects, which can be unpredictable, have been known to last for weeks, months, or sometimes years (called “reactivations”) and can include feelings of anxiety, depression, and paranoia, resulting in insomnia, loss of appetite and panic.
That’s not to say that there aren’t truly blissful and mystical experiences happening with 5-MeO-DMT that can change people’s lives for the better. Still, the complete detonation of one’s world view isn’t always the best idea to casually experience between rum & cokes at a foreign seaside party resort. It is wise to give some forethought to the kind of person providing the medicine, as well as consideration to a safe physical space and a “container” from which to experience it. Placing your psyche into the hands of someone you haven’t thoroughly evaluated can be like randomly hiring a surgeon to dice into your brain in your living room. Particularly for the psychedelic inexperienced, it’s wise to think about careful vetting of a potential caregiver. That said, it isn’t always easy to find a good guide. While there are an increasing number of good resources available online for diligent seekers of psychedelics, there isn’t yet a time-tested, psychedelic TripAdvisor providing detailed assessments of practitioners and how to go about finding a good one. Or more importantly, how to steer clear of a bad one.
A group called “5-MeO Harm Reduction Discussion,” which has over 6,000 engaged members, is the nearest thing available for those looking to understand the terrain and lessen the chances of a harmful 5-MeO-DMT experience. The primary focus of the group, says one of its admins, Ethereal Hope, is to “share information that will assist others in avoiding some of the more notorious bad actors in the community. Unfortunately, that means attention must be given to the less than positive experiences.”
The following is a discussion with Hope, who worked as a facilitator of 5-MeO-DMT at the Crossroads Treatment Center in Baja California, Mexico, and is currently a psychedelic integration practitioner, specializing in post 5-MeO integration emergencies. She explains how and why members of the group are encouraged to share their encounters with any facilitator that does not meet their needs.
David E. Carpenter: You had an experience working at Crossroads addiction clinic that helped you evolve as a 5-MeO-DMT caregiver. Can you describe that?
Hope: Crossroads was launching a weekend psycho-spiritual program for non-addicted individuals, and they were looking for outside facilitators with a spiritual approach to come in and run that program. When I went to tour the facility it was the day they served 5-MeO to the detox patients. While there I noticed that a patient had just had their 5-MeO-DMT experience and afterwards had no one to talk to. Patients and staff were walking around, but there was no one to receive and support the patient immediately after the experience. The person serving her had moved on to the next person and when they finished serving all of the patients they left for the day without offering any immediate integration support, or aftercare. From a caregiver standpoint, I found that really distressing. I met with the owner of the clinic and said, “I noticed that there really needs to be some on-site aftercare for all clients and patients, not just for the spiritual clients, especially on the day 5MeO is served.” I was at that time hired to run both programs, detox and spiritual, to be the on-site psychedelic educator and 5-MeO-DMT facilitator.
So those moments coming back from a 5-MeO-DMT experience are an important period to help people sort out what just happened?
Absolutely. In the clinic I recognized that just because someone popped up and said, “Oh my God, oh my God, that was so great!” and hugged everybody, they weren’t really “back”. They weren’t rooted and grounded or integrated yet. They left this reality, traveled far away and returned, so a lot happened that they’ll need to integrate. I would say, “Okay, lay back down and close your eyes and take a deep breath.” Because they could reactivate, and start to consciously receive information and messages that are imperative to their integration process. When that extra time and support is not given, I have found it is one of the many contributing factors to people having challenging integration periods, and long term reactivations, which can be distressing for weeks, months, or even years.
When people seek integration help from you, it’s generally because of something like a reactivation that’s troubling them?
There are a multitude of reasons why someone would seek out a Psychedelic Integration Specialist for aftercare. A very common reason is a “reactivation,” which is the sense of being back in the experience partially or fully. It can manifest in a multitude of ways, but most typically it’s loss of sleep, general anxiety, panic, loss of appetite, listlessness and a fear that they may potentially be “stuck” with these intense sensations. These individuals are commonly not getting the aftercare that they need from their facilitator, and may have the feeling of being alone, and clueless about how to move on and heal from the experience itself.
Have you had people who come back to consciousness and feel off or out of place?
Yes. If they weren’t properly educated or informed on what they were consuming, along with all of the potential outcomes, as well as the real possibility for lingering after effects, which could disrupt their daily life. It’s really important that the individual who is entering into this space understands ALL of the potential physical reactions associated with 5MeO. One such reaction that is often not discussed is nudity. Typically, those individuals — when they return to themselves — have no awareness that they themselves disrobed, and can feel a flood of confusion, shame or remorse. If an individual was not informed that nudity is a potential outcome ahead of time, we can really see them suffer a severe trauma. I have worked with several people to whom this has happened. One client expressed that they weren’t informed that they could potentially disrobe, and when they came to awareness, they just didn’t feel that their body was respected. They were in shock at how they got naked, and suffered greatly with reactivations. It’s important that a person knows this could happen, and that they express their wishes should it happen. Who should leave the room? Do they want to be covered for modesty, or if a blanket would cause the feeling of shame? They may want their nudity embraced. Everyone views their body differently and we need to know the conscious person’s wishes, so that when they “come to awareness” they are not surprised, since a protocol was discussed.
You highlight in your group the need to expose “spiritual hustlers,” which I think was also the impetus for founding the group, right?
Yes, our group was originally founded to warn others about devious and harmful individuals traveling and causing harm. I joined as an administrator in its early stages, as I had seen these harms first hand and knew somehow we needed to get the word out. Now that the original mission of awareness has been somewhat accomplished, the group focus has shifted to share information that could help people avoid being the victim of criminal activities like theft, coercion, over-pricing for services, over-dosing, failure to offer aftercare or other frauds associated with anyone who claims to be a shaman, facilitator or practitioner. As well as to answer questions, providing education and integration support in an effort to minimize harm to the community.
Can you give a case of a practitioner who you felt was negligent?
One situation involved a woman new to psychedelics, who had signed up with a friend that was hosting a traveling 5-MeO-DMT facilitator. Her friend told her that the experience was the most amazing thing in the world. So that’s a common situation where a friend encourages someone to do it, but they aren’t sure they’re ready, or even what it really is. That’s a red flag. Then within less than a month before the ceremony her sibling passed away and she was also diagnosed with a serious terminal illness. She initially wanted to back out, she called her friend and said, “I’m sorry, I am dealing with a lot and I’m not in a good place.” She was essentially coerced into going forward, told she would lose her deposit, and was further guilted by the host, saying that the facilitator would back out on all the other people who paid their deposits if all 10 people weren’t attending.
She went through with it, was massively over-served a huge dose twice, woke up alone in a room, was very confused about her body position, and really unsure of what transpired during the session. She felt really unsupported by the facilitator who took no responsibility for over-serving her, and accused her of doing something wrong, essentially victim blaming. She was unable to sleep or eat, suffering severe reactivations, and days later was discovered in a store parking lot without any identifying information, wandering around aimlessly. She had no idea who, or where, she was. The facilitator had left town, never to be heard from again. She found me through the Facebook group.
How did you help her?
I just talked to her for several hours. The most important role of an integration specialist is to help the person feel seen, heard, felt, and just, you know, that human connection of you’re not alone, and sometimes validating that “Yeah, that shouldn’t have happened to you.” I help them analyze their experience, looking at where they feel unsettled and potential causes. I help them to shift their focus to the present moment, and ease their anxiety feedback loop. Then I offer tools to help them feel grounded, and become a lifeline to the hope that they will one day feel normal again.
With regard to choosing a facilitator, how do you advise people to move through this?
First, I say, “Stay away from YouTube.” Because often what you’re seeing on YouTube, specifically with 5-MeO-DMT, is not what we would necessarily consider to be safe ceremonies. Most safe facilitators are not filming what should be a sacred and private ceremony. You have to ask yourself if what you are watching is actually a promo video. Second, traveling facilitators who are serving hundreds of people in a city and then leaving town tend to not offer sufficient aftercare, which is an ethics breach in my opinion. They are typically trying to serve as many people as they can. Next is to educate yourself. Read, ask questions, and learn about what it is you are about to partake in. You should be able to interview the actual facilitator who will be serving you. If you are told only amazing things and not told about potential side effects or outcomes, be very concerned. A safe facilitator will be honest about potential less than pleasant outcomes, and provide a commitment to ongoing aftercare should you need it. If it feels like a too good to be true sales pitch, that’s something to consider.
I’ve seen those videos, unfortunately.
Yeah, I don’t recommend watching them because you can’t unsee it.
Also, if somebody is coming to psychedelics and they’re new to them, they shouldn’t start with 5-MeO-DMT. Unless they’ve been meditating with Buddhist monks for the last three years. It’s just not the place to start. I recommend starting with low dose mushrooms, just to see if they even like the feeling of psychedelics. Society and media have way over-sensationalized this one medicine and people have gravitated towards it because it’s often viewed as a low commitment, which is not true. It is THE most powerful psychedelic we know of on the planet. Even though it’s fast acting, it’s intense and could be life altering.
What do you say to people who are attracted to 5-MeO-DMT because it seems like a low commitment at 20 to 30 minutes long?
Well it’s just that, it “seems” low commitment, but that 20 minutes could potentially disrupt your life. People think it’s a quick and easy in-and-out by comparison to something like ayahuasca, where you’ve got to go on a special diet, it’s a 6 hour experience, and you’ve got to commit for two to three days or travel for a week to the jungle. People gravitate towards 5-MeO-DMT because the short duration doesn’t feel like a big obligation on the surface. It could be the most beautiful experience of your life, or the most terrifying; set and setting absolutely effect outcomes.
What are some questions people should ask of facilitators to vet them?
How long has the facilitator been serving? Where is the ceremony going to be held? Who am I going to be with? How many people will be there? Is the ceremony gender balanced? How long is my session? What medicine is being served, what’s the source and at what dose? Do they screen people for possible contraindications like pharmaceuticals or mental health concerns? What is their emergency plan? Are they trained in CPR? Will paramedics be called if there is extreme physical distress? What kind of aftercare is provided? Are they directly available for calls after the experience? Do they work with a mental health professional should more specialized aftercare be needed?
I remember a doctor, who I had assisted at one time early in my career, who ultimately ended up having many complaints from his clients. He asked for my help years later with a “difficult case.” I sat him down and said, “Listen, you need to raise your rates and hire a mental health professional, because I’m getting phone calls from your clients.” If a practitioner can’t provide that aftercare, they need to raise their rates and hire an integration specialist because it’s irresponsible to not provide quality aftercare. I shouldn’t be repeatedly getting calls from your client population.
Just because someone says they’ve served a lot of people doesn’t mean they’re following safe protocols.
Are there any other red flags you’d look for?
Not having a really personal pre-screening call with the actual medicine server and one size fits all dosing, or super high doses, are huge red flags. Large group ceremonies by traveling facilitators. Lack of gender balance, or men serving women alone. Coercion is another huge red flag. If the person serving you — and I mean this right up through to the moment before you inhale the 5-MeO-DMT — if the person serving you is not willing to release you from agreeing to do it, don’t do it with them! You need to be able to back out at the last minute. If you are sitting in front of the substance and you get this feeling of, ‘I don’t think this is right,’ then it’s not, DON’T DO IT! There’s no rush. Really the best thing you can do is to step away and find another way to seek that healing you’re looking for. If it’s not a resounding YES, then it’s a hell NO! There’s no middle ground here. It has to be in your soul, in your body, in your knowingness a 100 percent yes.
How can someone get help if they feel they have been harmed by an experience, or get more information?
Fortunately for society there has been a real renaissance in the psychedelic space, with an amazing array of integration support systems that have been developed, along with a variety of online groups.
If someone is in need of support they can reach out to: www.5meohelp.com and they will be connected with integration tools and support.