DAMASCUS, Oregon (AP) — At a woodsy retreat center in Oregon, some 30 men and women are seated or lying down, masks covering their eyes and listening to serene music.
They are among the first crop of students being trained how to accompany patients tripping on psilocybin, as Oregon prepares to become the first U.S. state to offer controlled use of the psychedelic mushroom to the public.
Expected to be available to the public in mid- or late-2023, the program is charting a potential course for other states. Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 109 on psilocybin by an 11% margin in 2020.
In November, Colorado voters also passed a ballot measure allowing regulated use of "magic mushrooms" starting in 2024. On Dec. 16, California state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco introduced a bill to legalize psilocybin and other psychedelic substances.
"Psychedelics help people heal from trauma, depression & addiction," Wiener tweeted. "Why are they still illegal in California?"
InnerTrek, a Portland company, is now training around 100 students, in three groups, to be licensed "facilitators" who will create a safe space for dosing sessions and be a reassuring, but nonintrusive, presence. Some classes in the six-month, $7,900 course are online but others are in-person, held near Portland in a building resembling a mountain lodge with Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze nearby.
Because psilocybin use is still illegal, the only mushrooms at the training center were the shitake ones served in the miso soup at lunch.
Trainer Gina Gratza told the students that the space, or "container," for a dosing session at a licensed center should include a couch or mats for clients to sit or lie on, an eye mask, comfort items like a blanket and stuffed animals, a sketch pad, pencils and a bucket for vomiting. A session typically lasts at least six hours.
Music is an important part of the experience and should be available, from speakers or on headphones. (Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in Baltimore have developed a playlist that " seeks to express the sweeping arc of the typical medium- or high-dose psilocybin session.")
"You are here to support safe passage and hold the container that powers a release and an unfolding," Gratza told the students. "Be mindful of how you're speaking and what the energy of what you're putting out may be conveying."
Trainers emphasized that those taking psilocybin should be given the freedom to explore whatever emotions emerge during their inner journeys. They shouldn't be consoled if they're crying, for example. Expressing anger is fine but there should be agreement beforehand that there will be no throwing of objects or hitting.
"We're not guiding," Gratza said. "Let your participants' experiences unfold. Use words sparingly. Let participants come to their own insights and conclusions."
Tom Eckert, the architect of Ballot Measure 109, is now moving it along as InnerTrek's program director. He said it's not about people getting "high" for the sake of it, but to use psilocybin to improve lives.
Researchers believe psilocybin changes the way the brain organizes itself, permitting a user to adopt new attitudes more easily and help overcome depression, PTSD and other issues.
"What we're bringing forward here in Oregon is a platform for psilocybin services," Eckert said in an interview. "And service means a sequence of sessions in which a psilocybin experience is contextualized. So, there's preparation beforehand and integration afterwards. It's a therapeutic sequence."
Oregon is pioneering the regulated use of psychedelic mushrooms in the U.S., but psilocybin, peyote and other hallucinogenic substances have been used by the native peoples of Mexico and Central America to induce altered states of consciousness in healing rituals and religious ceremonies since pre-Columbian times.
Its cultivation and use is legal in a handful of other countries, including Jamaica, where some high-end mushroom resorts have sprung up. A program run by the Heroic Hearts Project, a veteran service organization, brings military vets with PTSD and athletes who have experienced trauma to the jungles of Peru for restorative sessions with ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic.
In October, the Canadian province of Alberta announced the first provincial regulations for psychedelic-assisted therapy. The new regulations, which take effect in January, require a psychiatrist to oversee any treatment, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Psilocybin remains illegal in the rest of Canada, but that hasn't stopped shops in Vancouver, British Columbia, from openly selling magic mushrooms. The police aren't getting involved and are instead targeting violent criminal organizations that produce and traffic harmful opioids, the CBC reported.
A shop in Portland called the Shroom House was also allegedly selling psilocybin openly until police busted the operation on Dec. 8 and arrested the store owner and manager.
In the last election, several rural counties in Oregon opted out of allowing psilocybin services in unincorporated areas within their borders, although several towns in those counties stayed in. Heavily populated counties with the state's biggest cities — Portland, Eugene, Bend and Salem — also did not opt out.
The Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association and the American Psychiatric Association opposed Measure 109, saying it "is unsafe and makes misleading promises to those Oregonians who are struggling with mental illness." You don't need to be a medical professional to get a facilitator license, they pointed out.
Eckert, though, said the status quo isn't working.
"We need a revolution in mental health care," Eckert said. "The current way we are working with mental health simply isn't cutting it, and we see that in the outcomes. We have something of a mental health crisis here in Oregon and beyond.
"I'm not trying to throw away the existing structure," he added. "There's definitely value there, but there's something missing, clearly."