Psilocybin retreats are increasingly popular, seen as an option for Westerners in search of spiritual awakening and help healing from trauma, anxiety, or depression.
On a secluded beach in the small fishing village of Treasure Beach, Jamaica, 15 people file into an open-air pavilion and settle down on mats, chairs, and the floor. It’s been a long journey; they flew to Jamaica from the United States and then took a 2-1/2-hour shuttle from the airport to a serene beachfront property.
A facilitator gives each person a small capsule with a powder containing psilocybin, the drug found in psychedelic, or “magic,” mushrooms. It’s enough for beginners or intermediate users to have a psychedelic trip.
The participants pop the capsules into their mouths, then sit and wait.
Twenty minutes pass, then an hour. A woman named Denise begins crying uncontrollably. She can’t stop coughing and starts to feel like she’s choking, when a facilitator approaches her.
“I think you need to go outside and scream,” he tells her.
They head to a field that’s a short walk from the pavilion, and Denise screams into the distance while drifting in and out of hallucinations: beautiful trees blossoming around her, her legs sinking into mud, her grandparents looking at her as a baby swaddled in a crib.
Three hours later, Denise begins to come down from her psilocybin trip feeling blissful. She and her fellow retreatgoers will do this two more times during their 10-day stay with MycoMeditations, a retreat company that offers staff-assisted psychedelic-mushroom experiences.
In the US, psychedelics can’t be used legally outside of clinical trials. Overseas psilocybin experiences like MycoMeditations allow people to take matters into their own hands.
But the company, now in its second year of operation, has experienced growing pains related to concerns about staffing and safety, sources say.
Insider spoke with four retreatgoers, two former trip facilitators, and a former business partner of MycoMeditations’ founder, Eric Osborne. While they all said they believed his passion for mushrooms was real, two also said that passion clouded Osborne’s judgment when it came to how he conducted psychedelic-trip sessions and acted toward clients.
Former retreatgoers and facilitators said Osborne used mushrooms himself while watching over guests and consumed marijuana and alcohol during retreats. They were concerned with a lack of licensed therapists and nurses on staff (Osborne has since added some to his team) and a lack of access to medical facilities in case of emergency. Osborne told Insider he always planned to add therapists and nurses to his staff but didn’t have the resources to do so when MycoMeditations was founded.
These complaints aren’t unique to MycoMeditations. As long as psychedelic drugs remain largely illegal, the psychedelic-retreat industry lives in a gray area where protocols are up for debate and often considered after problems occur.
Magic-mushroom retreats are a fairly new concept
Studies on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics have suggested they could help people with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and act as an alternative or complementary treatment to traditional medications. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix show, “The Goop Lab,” has an episode centered on a psilocybin retreat in Jamaica.
In recent years, psilocybin-assisted retreats have popped up around the world, concentrated in places where the drug is legal, like Jamaica and the Netherlands, and places where the drug is illegal but unregulated and used often in Indigenous settings, like Mexico.
While these retreats often advertise the opportunity to take psychedelics in safe and controlled environments, the people who orchestrate visitors’ psychedelic trips are not always trained clinicians.
Osborne said he brought his first group to Jamaica in 2013, two years before he officially founded MycoMeditations. Now MycoMeditations offers weeklong retreats where customers participate in multiple psilocybin trips. Depending on their desired amenities, they pay from $4,000 to upwards of $10,000 for the experience, which includes food, a massage, a stay in a hotel or air-conditioned beachside hut, and an integration session where participants learn how to apply learnings from their psychedelic experiences to their lives.
Each “trip,” or session where psilocybin is given to retreatgoers, is done in a group setting, with 12 to 15 participants and five to seven facilitators, Osborne said.
As the founder of the company, Osborne also acts as the lead facilitator. Other facilitators observe participants as they trip and assist them if they need anything, like a tissue, fresh air, or reassuring words.
There’s more than one way to facilitate a mushroom trip
Facilitators in clinical trials are trained extensively and shadow other facilitators before working on their own to ensure uniformity and a sense of calm during sessions, Katherine MacLean, a research scientist who facilitated psilocybin trips for participants in Johns Hopkins clinical trials and acted as a guest facilitator at MycoMeditations for an all-women retreat, told Insider.
Nonclinical facilitators have said the drug should be disseminated to anyone who wants to try it. They may administer the drug illegally and include shamanic-inspired rituals in their sessions, and many say that every person’s trip should be individualized.
MycoMeditations seems to fit somewhere in the middle. The company offers the drug in a controlled — but not clinical — environment that Osborne created based on his experience growing, consuming, and tripping on mushrooms.
Osborne, a charismatic man with a goatee, a penchant for collared short-sleeved shirts, and a deep belief that magic mushrooms can change humanity for the better, founded MycoMeditations in 2015.
Osborne said that he started to grow and consume psychedelic mushrooms illegally in 2011 and that when he felt he had the hang of it, he invited friends to trip while he acted as facilitator. In 2015, he was arrested on charges of growing magic mushrooms on his Indiana farm. He was later convicted of maintaining a common nuisance and sentenced to 2 1/2 years of probation.
In 2016, Osborne began holding retreats in Treasure Beach full time.
Osborne told Insider that “when used supportively, safely, the right dosing,” magic mushrooms “have the power to positively impact the lives of almost every single person on this planet.”
No one can agree on the ‘best’ way to facilitate
MacLean, Jonathan Thomson — a friend of MacLean’s and a former staff facilitator at MycoMeditations — and two women who attended a March 2018 all-women retreat hosted by MycoMeditations all told Insider they had concerns about Osborne’s own use of drugs and his facilitation style. The two women asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about risking their livelihoods.
One of the women chose to attend MycoMeditations’ all-women retreat — which featured MacLean and Eileen Hall, an integration specialist — because she’d followed MacLean’s work. (She’s a well-respected voice in the psychedelic-research community.) She said that once the trip sessions started, however, Osborne wanted to be present and share his thoughts on magic mushrooms; she had assumed it was a women-only experience, she said.
Another attendee said she had assumed that any male facilitators would greet them upon arrival and then excuse themselves so the women could be alone, but she soon realized Osborne didn’t want to step back.
MacLean said that she had to confront him about the situation and that he seemed hurt that some attendees didn’t want him there. After the confrontation, he stepped back during the remaining all-women trip sessions.
Osborne told Insider that MacLean requested that he and two other male facilitators who worked for MycoMeditations help out during the all-women retreat, along with the two female facilitators MacLean brought with her for the retreat.
“It was only after the guests arrived and following the first integration session that I discovered that the retreat guests had in fact not been made aware by Katherine that there would be three male facilitators present at the retreat. Many of the guests suffering male-inflicted trauma were exceedingly upset,” Osborne said in an email. “We were then asked to take a more peripheral role in case of emergencies, which we then did.”
During downtime, when psilocybin wasn’t being administered, a retreatgoer passed out, one of the attendees told Insider. Other retreatgoers who said they had medical training rushed to assist her.
The attendee who witnessed the woman pass out said Osborne told the group the incident wouldn’t have happened had he been allowed to be present for the entirety of the all-women sessions.
Thomson also expressed concerns about access to medical personnel. Though he never witnessed any emergencies that required a trip to the hospital, an instance where he punctured his foot with a thorn made him concerned about safety.
“You didn’t really have the proper first aid available on-site to deal with it,” he said, adding that “somebody offered me basically a Jamaican folk remedy and rubbed this fruit on” the wound.
After facilitating a retreat in August 2017, Thomson resigned from his position at MycoMeditations.
When asked about the fainting incident, Osborne said he recalled it, as well as another instance of a 20-something woman fainting during a retreat that same year.
“I will be perfectly honest with you and tell you that two people had fainted at MycoMeditations,” Osborne said. “They were both women in their 20s, and it has given me cause to wonder what’s going on there. What happened when they fainted?”
He said there are now two nurses on staff who are there to offer support to anyone who faints or has another medical emergency.
Osborne’s former business partner also worried about retreat safety
At first, Thomson said he enjoyed the camaraderie and sense of purpose that working with Osborne brought him. He thought of Osborne as a brother.
Over time, his perspective changed.
Thomson said that in addition to seeing Osborne consume beer and psilocybin while facilitating, Osborne’s facilitation style made him uncomfortable. If a participant was dealing with a stressful hallucination during their trip, Osborne would tell them that it was related to ancestral trauma or that they were being visited by dead family members, Thomson said.
“I can’t associate myself with this person because eventually something questionable is going to happen, and I’m going to have to be on the hook for having supported it, and I just could sort of project in the future…And how would I defend that? I was a part of it,” Thomson said of his thought process at the time.
Osborne said he’s never acted this way.
“I have never blamed anyone’s difficult experience on them. Someone else’s misunderstanding or misinterpretation is not my responsibility, but I have never and will never blame anyone’s challenging experience on them,” he said.
“Life happens — 650-plus people through these doors, and not one legitimate safety concern or accusation,” Osborne said. “If these two instances of someone fainting, and one instance of someone having diarrhea, and the possibility of me smoking cannabis are causes for safety alarm, I think we might want to look at who the critics are. What agenda are they serving, really?”
Osborne said he thinks that consuming psychedelic mushrooms makes someone a better facilitator
Osborne said facilitators who take mushrooms while watching over guests are able to better understand the trips the guests are working through than they would if they were sober, so he has multiple facilitators take mushrooms during retreat sessions.
Some facilitators say this approach can diminish rather than heighten a person’s ability to care for others.
Joe Moore, one of the founders of Psychedelics Today, a platform that explores psychedelic research through blogs, podcasts, and events, attended a MycoMeditations retreat as a guest facilitator in May 2018.
Osborne “thinks that the best, and perhaps only, way to do sessions is while on mushrooms,” Moore said. “I refused to eat mushrooms with him.”
Moore added: “I experienced quite a bit of peer pressure from him to eat mushrooms as a facilitator, even though I was paid to be a facilitator, not to do drugs, you know.”
One of the female participants who spoke with Insider also said that Osborne and other facilitators smoked marijuana during downtime, while the participants were told not to unless they had extensive experience using both marijuana and psilocybin at the same time.
“Eric was rarely sober. He partook in mushrooms every night we did, to my understanding,” she said.
Osborne told Insider that he had consumed mushrooms alongside attendees and that it’s even part of his protocol.
“That’s actually part of our safety standards, that at least two of our facilitators consume a little bit of medicine with the clients,” Osborne said, referring to the mushrooms. “You know, from a base level of understanding, it can be considered an empathetic tool.”
Other people in the psychedelic community disagree.
Jim Keim, a trauma therapist and the founder of a psilocybin research company called OLP Therapeutics, said that in the modern facilitation setting, which is different from the shamanic setting used by Indigenous people, taking mushrooms while facilitating is a “big no-no” because it could impair the facilitator too much.
“If someone takes a bunch, you can’t run around, you can’t walk, you can’t be aware,” he said. “It would be the equivalent of trying to do a Shakespeare play while stoned. It’s just not going to happen.”
Keim said that even in the 40 shamanic psilocybin ceremonies he had witnessed, he had seen shamans take only small doses of the drug. Keim also said some shamans take a small dose of mushrooms every day, which eventually blunts their psychedelic effects.
“If you continually take mushrooms, they lose their effect,” Keim said. “That’s one of the reasons why they’re not addictive.”
Using the drugs too often while facilitating could undermine the retreat’s mission and attendees’ goals, MacLean said of Osborne’s approach.
“From my biased perspective, if you’re not sober most of the days of the month, it’s really hard to know whether you’re on track with being honest with your guests about the people who don’t have a great experience,” MacLean said. “It’s really hard to be the one facilitating, taking drugs all the time, and running the business — and, on top of that, being open to critical feedback.”
MycoMeditations hired staffers with psychology backgrounds following complaints about facilitator qualifications
At the time of the 2018 all-women retreat, none of the facilitators or personnel listed on the MycoMeditations website had a background in psychology or had worked in clinical settings involving people with mental illnesses.
Now MycoMeditations employs three licensed therapists. But Osborne said a psychology degree — or a degree of any kind — is not a requirement for becoming a good psychedelic facilitator.
“It’s first and foremost their authenticity and their commitment to serve, period,” Osborne said. “If you are authentic, compassionate, and committed to serve, then chances are you’ll be a really good support for people when they’re in need.”
One of the women who attended the all-women retreat said she would consider attending a retreat with MycoMeditations again, but only if Osborne didn’t act as a facilitator and if clinically trained therapists were the ones offering support and guidance.
Two people who attended other mixed-gender retreats at MycoMeditations told Insider they felt safe and cared for with the facilitators who were present.
Osborne said licensed therapists were “part of the plan all along.”
“Nothing made me decide to get therapists,” he said. “Nothing made me decide to get nurses any more than anything made me decide to hire any of our other staff. It was a matter of growth and a matter of time.”
‘It’s tough to talk about best practices when everything’s illegal’
For all the criticisms the retreatgoers and former facilitators mentioned, most people Insider interviewed said Osborne’s heart was in the right place. The retreat company offers an experience that is hard to come by, and if someone wants to know how psilocybin could help them, it’s one of the only ways to learn without breaking the law.
MycoMeditations continues to host retreats, though its 2020 dates are on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s tough to talk about best practices when everything’s illegal,” MacLean said. “Legally there are so few options that very desperate, vulnerable people will pay a lot of money to go to a foreign country and have what is potentially a life-disrupting process happen. It could be really good, it could actually be really bad, or it could be somewhere in between.”
Osborne said that MycoMeditations is a work in progress but that he’s running a safe operation.
“I would say that the greatest misconception that anybody could have about MycoMeditations is that we are unstructured or unsafe,” Osborne said. “It has been troubling to me there has been this hearsay, around-the-corner talk. Because there are lots of people out there that need help, and to discourage them from coming to a place that is safe and supportive like MycoMeditations, that is a psychedelic injustice.”