Oregon’s grand experiment in training psychedelic facilitators is facing a tangle of ambiguity and red tape.
It’s Valentine’s Day and Kaycie López Jones is wearing a pink hoodie emblazoned with “love” in block letters as she guides 15 students and one proto.life contributor through a mindful movement practice on Zoom. At 6pm, it’s dark outside as we stretch and sway to relieve the day’s tension. Students click their cameras back on as Jones introduces addiction researcher Angelica DeFalco, today’s history of systematic inequality class guest. These 15 students are enrolled in the Changa Institute, a newly licensed training program for psilocybin facilitators in Oregon.
“Bias permeates so many realms of our reality,” DeFalco says, describing how clinical treatment decisions tend to be informed by experiments on white people, often not a representative sample of society. She counsels future guides to “do our best to rectify systemic injustices” and advises, “Science is only one way of knowing things,” in a nod to Indigenous wisdom.
“Many white bodies are not exposed to BIPOC communities and culture,” Jones adds, referring to Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Then the conversation shifts to ways to include minority groups while avoiding tokenism. Students keep their cameras on, chiming in with questions.
“There’s a way to bring in a diverse perspective without being in a diverse neighborhood,” Jones says, pointing out that while she’s in Atlanta, her students are scattered throughout Oregon. They’re among the earliest participants in the institute’s psilocybin facilitator training program, one of the first psilocybin guide education offerings licensed by the state.
Oregon’s first formalized training programs for so-called psilocybin facilitators are up and running—sort of. The state has spent the past two years wading through legal, cultural, and regulatory concerns since the passage of the controversial Measure 109 in November 2020. The measure directed the Oregon Health Authority to start licensing psilocybin guides, which the state has dubbed “facilitators,” starting this January. Those licenses are now available, and the state has received just six applications, with at least 118 others in progress, but not yet submitted. That’s likely because few students have completed the 160 hours (120 classroom, 40 practicum) required for licensure.
Legalized psilocybin is still heavily restricted; there are no shroom dispensaries in the works to mirror cannabis providers. Instead, consumers can take psilocybin only at state-licensed service centers where a separately licensed psilocybin facilitator monitors them while they trip (once those licensed facilitators exist).
After decriminalizing small amounts of controlled drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and LSD, and legalizing psilocybin, Oregon has strictly monitored psilocybin activity since the measure was passed. When Shroom House, a psilocybin retailer, jumped the gun and boldly opened up in Portland earlier this year, lines stretched around the block, and the business earned over 200 Google reviews, many glowing.
Shroom House already had a store across the border in Vancouver, Canada, where a number of psilocybin shops have nudged the edges of legalization by operating in the open, albeit illegally. After the Portland shop made headlines, police raided Shroom House, seizing its assets, and arresting its owner.
Mushrooms containing psilocybin grow freely in Oregon’s temperate, damp conditions. But a psilocybin facilitator cannot legally harvest psychedelic mushrooms, even if they walk past them on the way into a service center. Instead, they must wait for the state to license psilocybin manufacturers. As more and more students walk through the doors—physical or virtual—of the 21 licensed psilocybin facilitator training programs (and counting), their founders are still wading through red tape.
First, they must have curricula approved by the Oregon Health Authority. Second, they have to identify a legal source of psilocybin if they hope to use it in training, as most do. (Licensing for manufacturers opened the same day as licensing for facilitators and service centers, creating a tricky timeline for schools that already began classes without knowing whether their suppliers will be licensed.) Then, they have to maintain their own licenses as training facilities which, confusingly, are overseen by a separate state agency that certifies higher education institutions. And finally, they must navigate uncertain timing as they await curriculum approval through one state agency, licensing through another, the questionable legal availability of psilocybin itself, and the flood of applicants eager to begin their education.
Akin to touring a host of college campuses, potential licensees must match their own needs with a startlingly broad range of educational options while navigating issues of cultural appropriation, racial equity, and finances; an average facilitator’s education costs $9,000–$10,000 for coursework and hands-on training in facilitating psilocybin sessions.
Psilocybin facilitator training programs offer few dorms or dining halls. And their various visions for molding psilocybin facilitators could not be more different. Here’s a sample of the ever-growing list of programs licensed to train psilocybin facilitators to guide shroom users through multi-hour psychedelic experiences.
A Columbia University graduate, Changa Institute founder Lisa Ginzburg says she’s already fielded a few complaints about her program. A handful of students found the rigorous Western-style education (think regular homework, reading assignments, and even a research paper) too difficult and not spiritual enough. Several dropped out. But in a sea of self-study programs, Ginzburg caps classes at 20, all of which are instructor-led. She says her typical participant is middle-aged and has personal experience with plant medicine. Ginzburg counts any type of medical background as a plus. She’s turned down plenty of younger, less experienced applicants, and she personally attends many classes, which are offered mostly on Zoom. Depending on when psilocybin becomes available, Ginzburg is also considering ketamine clinics or intensive breath work (one example is holotropic breathing) that induces altered mental states for Changa Institute’s practicum experiences. Ginzburg’s first cohort graduated on March 13.
A competitor that offers classes on a similar schedule is InnerTrek. They bill their center as a “beautifully wooded retreat” just outside Portland, and they partnered with a retreat center in Mexico for their practical training, in which students can use psilocybin in a monitored setting. Ginzburg is considering a similar partnership.
The justice warrior
Coco Noelle, a program manager at the Portland-based Alma Institute, is a reluctant supporter of Measure 109 because of unaddressed concerns over access and equity. She has a handful of psilocybin-enthusiast friends and colleagues who have chosen not to participate in Oregon’s new licensing program, which has been criticized for monetizing centuries-old Indigenous spiritual practices even as it creates financial barriers to legal psilocybin access (service center licenses cost $10,000 per year, which they recoup via fees for guided psilocybin sessions; facilitator licenses cost $2,000 per year). Noelle takes a “you have to start somewhere” approach.
“Hopefully, in time, building good relationships with people at the legislative level will create space in the future for us to be heard as far as reparations for Indigenous communities go,” she says. Noelle is especially interested in making psilocybin accessible to minorities, with an eye to healing intergenerational racial trauma.
“It’s not affordable for the average person to receive. But the average person desperately needs it.”
The Alma Institute curriculum meets Oregon Health Authority standards, with an added emphasis on teaching about the lived experience of people of color, how to be physically and emotionally present without judgment for a range of minority communities, and working with people with a history of trauma. Along with facilitator training, the institute ultimately intends to operate its own licensed service center where students can experience psilocybin themselves and gain experience by co-facilitating sessions for others.
Noelle acknowledges that neither the facilitator training nor the guided sessions themselves are cheap. Alma’s program is priced slightly higher than average at around $11,000, but they’re hoping to mitigate the high price tag by offering limited scholarships to students in need. They are also encouraging their graduates to offer sliding scale psilocybin services, estimated to cost people seeking the experience between $1,500 and $3,000 for the medicine session itself, along with several integration sessions. It’s unlikely, at least for now, that health insurance companies will cover the sessions.
“It’s not affordable for the average person to receive,” Noelle says of psilocybin sessions. “But the average person desperately needs it.”
The spiritual guide
Eli Jaxon-Bear had a life-changing experience with LSD in the 1970s, and has been on a mission ever since. An activist during the Vietnam War, he now is a therapist and spiritual leader in southern Oregon, a kind of guru of self-exploration, and the founder of the Leela School of Awakening in Ashland, which both trains therapists and offers spiritual guidance. When psychedelics first became illegal decades ago, he shifted his focus to techniques like hypnosis, meditation, and breathing exercises. Today, Jaxon-Bear believes he can help people have a personal awakening without psychedelics, but he’s still pursuing licensure as a psychedelic facilitator training program.
When Oregon legalized psilocybin, “I thought, oh my God, it’s 50 years coming,” Jaxon-Bear says. He supports the licensing program, pointing out that people in a hallucinogenic state are virtually defenseless, so abuse is possible. But he doesn’t feel that every psilocybin experience requires a guide.
“I never had a guide or facilitator and I did probably a hundred different psychedelic experiences,” he says. His school, he says, is still waiting on its official licensure, but he’s eager to add any tool that could help him achieve his mission.
Experienced guides challenge the role of licensing
Psilocybin training programs are controversial. Psychedelic purists want full legalization and open access everywhere. Indigenous communities are concerned about the monetization of traditional spiritual practices. And many would have preferred that psychedelics remained illegal. Measure 109 passed with a slim majority in the state, with several state and national psychiatric groups opposing it, and suspicion from the state’s rural eastern half. After its passage, several Oregon cities and counties passed local measures to ban the therapeutic use of psilocybin, citing safety concerns and limited law enforcement.
Despite these barriers, the new legislation will likely increase access to psilocybin, at least for those privileged enough to afford it. One might also imagine that the same psychedelic underground that yielded dozens of psilocybin teachers, consultants, and experts who now populate boards and teaching rosters at psilocybin training programs will continue too, nonplussed by the swirl of legalization debates around them.
Plus, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s Angie Allbee, “We’re hoping that we have more licensees and that will actually bring down the cost of licenses” as more providers sign up. The agency’s psilocybin services section, which Allbee heads, is funded solely by licensing fees.
But even in the narrower range of above-board psychedelic providers, Oregon’s cookie-cutter approach, with facilitators trained to offer safe, non-traumatizing experiences replete with comfy couches, soft blankets, eye shades, headphones, and the euphemistically termed “purge” bucket, doesn’t resonate with everyone.
“The agenda of the licensing program is different than delivering the ultimate peak experience.”
Jodi Lomask is a self-taught psychedelic guide in California with 25 years of experience. Informed by her dance training and work as a choreographer, she rarely works indoors and views a psilocybin experience as a creative process.
“Psilocybin in particular is a very physical, grounding, natural, organic experience. It wants you to connect to nature, it wants your animal-plant self,” she says. Following a formula that dictates an indoor setting or even music, then, threatens to alter how the psilocybin experience unfolds.
“The agenda of the licensing program is different than delivering the ultimate peak experience,” Lomask says.
Meanwhile, California-based Andrew Penn also has decades of experience with psychedelics. The psychiatric nurse practitioner founded a nonprofit that encourages nurses to explore psychedelics, and he is watching Oregon’s efforts. Penn questions whether the state’s work toward inclusivity, which allows anyone with a high school diploma to become a psilocybin facilitator, could erode the specialized role of mental health therapists.
A licensed counselor or therapist in Oregon is required by state law to complete 2,400 hours of supervised clinical work. Psilocybin facilitators may be guiding people who suffer from the same indications that those medical professionals treat, like depression or PTSD, with as few as 40 practicum hours outside the classroom. Worse, some people may seek psilocybin therapy while suffering treatment-resistant forms of those mental illnesses after seeking help and medication from doctors. Complex cases that challenge highly trained clinicians could easily surpass the training these psilocybin guides have been provided. Clinicians like Penn are concerned providers would be unable to properly screen clients, or provide the specialized treatment people with mental health issues need.
“It’s kind of like having a Swiss army knife when you really need a proper screwdriver. It’s an okay tool, but it’s not really the best tool for the job,” he says of the gulf in training between psilocybin facilitators and licensed therapists. Yet, he admits that more access is a positive, and is still open to seeing Oregon’s program work.
Lomask says psilocybin facilitators aren’t a substitute for a therapist or psychiatrist, but another way to gain insight. “If somebody has a known mental illness, they probably already have a therapist, and they should probably keep that therapist,” she says. “This is something you should do if that therapist wants help accelerating their progress.”
A snapshot of Oregon programs in these early months can’t capture the potential of these programs, good and bad. But it’s a unique moment to witness as state health officials try to hold the reins of a program that, if well-regulated, hasn’t yet come to life and, in many ways, is still poorly defined. What’s most clear is the demand for psilocybin experiences—whether through underground societies, illegal retailers, or tightly regulated programs—is high, and growing.