If the word “psychedelic” makes you think of tie-dyed hippies dancing at Woodstock ’69, think again.
Today, the use of magic mushrooms, LSD, ketamine, DMT and other hallucinogens has become science-based, health-focused, legal (sort of) and marketed at mainstream society.
Today, legal therapeutic psychedelics are taking ordinary people on extraordinary mental and spiritual journeys.
Investors have noticed the potential profits of psychedelics, creating the biggest stock market boom for a product since the cannabis craze of 2017.
Will, as some people expect, psychedelics follow the path of cannabis and become legal for recreational use?
Psychedelic drugs are having a moment – politically, economically and culturally. Media coverage of the science and business of psychedelics has become intense.
Along with Canada, several other countries and US states have legalized or decriminalized psychedelics to some degree, with more to follow. North American public opinion polls show that the stigma associated with psychedelics has declined in recent years and that most people support psychedelic therapy.
A few years ago, only a handful of small companies were involved with psychedelic therapy. Today, such firms are sprouting across North America. There are now hundreds of psychedelic companies out there, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in a high-flying new industry expected to soon be worth tens of billions of dollars. Investors have good reason to anticipate a profitable trip and are eagerly making bets on new, fast-growing companies.
For legal and cultural reasons, this industry is mostly based in Canada, the homeland of modern hallucinogens.
Vancouver and Toronto host the headquarters of such high-profile hallucinogen start-ups as Awakn, Mind Cure, MindMed, Field Trip, Cybin, Numinus, Havn, Empower, Revive, Braxia, Red Light, Psygen, Filament, Entheon, Tryp, Empower, Silo, Bright Minds, Neon Mind, Journey Centre and others.
When I spoke exclusively with the CEOs of the most interesting Canadian-led psychedelic companies for Shroom Boom, their passion and commitment convinced me that psychedelics, if used safely and responsibly, are a gift to all humanity and a story that must be told.
Shroom Boom tells the history of psychedelics through the lives of its Canadian pioneers. I have interviewed dozens of the patients, activists and CEOs who established Canada as a world leader in psychedelic therapy.
People like Thomas Hartle, a 52-year-old father in Saskatoon with terminal cancer, who was the first person in the world legally authorized to use psilocybin for palliative care. He ate dried magic mushrooms, mixed with honey. After his doctor-supervised experience, “My transition from this life to whatever the next place might be is not scary anymore,” Hartle said. “This is the most peaceful I have felt in months … Everything about the experience felt very welcoming … I got answers to the questions I didn’t even know I needed to ask.”
Like 67-year-old Mona Strelaeff of Victoria, BC, who suffered intense, treatment-resistant depression. A survivor of sexual abuse and breast cancer, she had recently lost a daughter in a car crash and was drinking hard, wanting to die. Then she heard from Health Canada that her application had been approved. Strelaeff would be the first person in the world legally authorized to use a hallucinogen for depression. She brewed some mushroom tea. Supervised by the same doctor who had helped Hartle, Strelaeff went “way back to when I was a little girl and all those things that happened to me,” she said. “I conquered those tough memories and after a while I realized I ain’t scared anymore … I was able to let go of my daughter because I know she’s safe. That was the spiritual experience that opened up the healing part of my journey … My family are seeing me enjoy my life, I laugh a lot and I’m finding joy in the little things.”
I also spoke exclusively with private-sector corporate leaders.
Like Entheon CEO Timothy Ko who, after his brother died of an opiate overdose, quit a career in cryptocurrency to devote his life to promoting DMT (a powerful hallucinogen nicknamed the “spirit molecule”) as a way to save addicts like his brother. Ko also used psychedelics to deal with his own drug addictions.
And Kelsey Ramsden, a cancer survivor, mother of three and Canada’s top female entrepreneur two years in a row, who used ketamine-based therapy to overcome mental health problems, then quit her work in construction to become the CEO of a nascent psychedelics firm, Mind Cure.
And Red Light CEO Todd Shapiro, a former “shock jock” radio DJ on Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge, known for walking around Union Station in just an adult diaper, who has reinvented himself as an international “magic truffle” tycoon, selling psilocybin-filled fungal roots in Canada, the US, Holland and Brazil.
And Daniel Carcillo, who played professional hockey for 12 seasons as an enforcer for NHL teams including the Chicago Blackhawks, winning two Stanley Cups but also suffering traumatic brain injury from 164 on-ice fights. Psilocybin therapy healed him and inspired him to found Wesana Health to help others living with brain injury.
Most chapters of Shroom Boom are based on my exclusive interviews with these and other Canadian psychedelic pioneers.
Let their experiencesopen your eyes to how Canada has helped to create today’s brave new world of psychedelic therapy.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; 2020.
A warm, sunny, August morning.
For Thomas Hartle, it will be a day of firsts.
The first time that this stage-four colon-cancer patient tries magic mushrooms.
The first time that anyone uses a hallucinogenic drug with the blessing of Health Canada.
And it will be the first time in about 60 years that a Canadian psychiatrist provides psychedelic therapy to a patient without breaking the law. The previous time was in the early 1960s, likely also in Saskatchewan.
Thomas Hartle is in his early 50s, fit-looking and handsome, with light brown hair cut short. Mellow and quick with a smile, Hartle wears a white t-shirt and soft black pants. He greets the morning visitors to his bright, airy Saskatoon home – Dr. Bruce Tobin, a Vancouver psychiatrist who led a fight to get Health Canada to allow psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) for palliative care, and three other guys: two of Hartle’s friends and Randall “Peg” Peters, a videographer working with TheraPsil, Tobin’s advocacy group.
Hartle’s wife and their two adult children had left the home earlier, giving Hartle time to “get the space ready”[i] before Tobin and the others arrived, including setting up the sound system to play a list of songs chosen by psychedelic experts at Johns Hopkins University. Consisting mostly of classical music, the playlist also includes “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, Enya’s “Storms in Africa” and it ends with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Hartle would hear the music through headphones as speakers played it for the others.
“I feel like I have prepared as well as I can in terms of my expectations,” Hartle later told me. “The night before, Bruce was here and we did the final pre-therapy session. We’ve had talk therapy for a few weeks prior to this day where we’ve discussed my expectations, the types of things that I can expect, some strategies if I run into a difficult spot during my session, topics like this. So I’m as well prepared as I can be for both the physical space and my mindset, I believe. I’m still nervous as heck. I’ve got a pulse of 136. While I may seem fairly calm on the video, that’s my normal way of being, but on the inside I’m extremely nervous and not really sure what to expect.”
The fifth and perhaps most important member of Hartle’s psychedelic support team is eight-year-old Ellie, his little white rescue dog, “who is always keeping me company when I’m going through things.”
Ellie is “very attentive to me, extremely affectionate, very protective,” he later said. “When I’m on chemo or doing psilocybin or anything else, she just never leaves my side. She’s also extremely jealous. I can’t even give my wife a hug without her feeling somehow she should be in on the action.”
Thomas and his team will use his house’s guest bedroom for the adventure. They all gather there, the cameraman setting up his equipment. Hartle, Tobin and Hartle’s friends have a big group hug, with Ellie watching with excitement from the bed and waggling her tail, then Hartle hugs each of the other men individually.
In a few minutes, Hartle will be the first person ever to take a psychedelic drug with the approval of Canada’s Minister of Health.
He pushes some pillows aside and sits cross-legged at the head of the bed, his wrists resting on a pillow on his knees. On the wall over his right shoulder is a painting of a forest river and over his left shoulder is a rack full of wine bottles.
Dr. Bruce Tobin – a tall, bearded psychiatrist in his 70s, wearing shorts and a light jacket – sits on a chair to Hartle’s left.
One of Hartle’s friends, John, sits on a chair to the right of the bed, under a window glowing with morning sunlight.
Ellie rests at the foot of the bed.
Hartle had previously filled many pharmaceutical-style capsules with dried and powdered shrooms, of the Psilocybe cubensis variety, home-grown by Hartle. Each transparent capsule holds a quarter of a gram of the blue-grey dust. Hartle reaches in a plastic bag of capsules to take out 10 – 2.5 grams altogether – and puts them in a small metal bowl. He sort of drinks the capsules from the bowl, washing them down with swigs from a water bottle.
Now there’s nothing to do but wait. Still feeling nervous, Thomas Hartle puts a light-blocking mask over his eyes and lays back on the bed, his head on a pillow, with loyal little Ellie resting by his feet.
The first song on the Johns Hopkins playlist is a guitar concerto by Vivaldi.
“I wait 45 minutes and am not really feeling the effects, so I take another 2.5 grams,” Hartle later said. “The effects of those are just starting to take hold after the second 45 minutes. So it’s been an hour and a half and because I’m not really feeling much of the effects, but the effects that I am feeling are a reduction in my anxiety and I’m feeling much more relaxed and secure, so at the hour and a half mark I take an additional two grams. So we’re up to a total of a seven-gram dose … The psilocybin begins to take effect for me very gently. I would say most of the effects that I start to feel would be a feeling of relaxation and a twitchiness in my legs in particular. That’s where I noticed it the most, in terms of restlessness.”
Under the mask, in the darkness of closed eyelids, Thomas starts seeing things.
Regina, Saskatchewan; 1968.
A 16-year-old unwed mother gave birth to Hartle, who was adopted by a couple from the small town of Abernathy, Saskatchewan. His father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. Thomas had an older brother, also adopted.
“I had an amazing childhood,” Hartle later said. “Extremely happy. We traveled. I was never abused … I’ve always been an optimistic person.”
Growing up with autistic tendencies, Thomas won prizes at his elementary school science fairs every year, with his research project on the human brain going all the way to the Canada-wide science fair. Thomas was also talented in track and field.
“But I was not necessarily that good socially,” he said. When he hit grade nine, he realized that his social awareness was weaker than most of his peers. He put a lot of effort and concentration into changing that. “I spent probably close to a year making adjustments to who I was in grade nine. I decided that I wanted to fit in better, so I started studying people and I came to a pretty good understanding of people, but people to me even now are quite often a bit of a calculation.”
Growing up in the 1970s, in North America’s post-hippie hangover, “My only real awareness of drugs was the propaganda,” Hartle recalled. “‘This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. People who do drugs are never going to succeed in life.'”
Hartle bought his first computer at 11 years old and taught himself how to program.
In college, he studied business administration with a computer science major.
“My career has really been technological from start to finish,” he said. “I’ve been an IT person literally my whole career.”
To earn money in his student days, Hartle worked as a cook, “which is my second passion. I just love cooking. So I do the majority of the cooking here at home and for me it’s kind of relaxing and Zen.”
After graduating, Hartle worked as a manager at the electrical services company Team Power Solutions, a Saskatoon Peterbilt truck dealership and the City of Prince Albert.
“I found that the managing of the people part of the job was what I really didn’t enjoy,” he said. “So I downgraded from being a manager to being one of the frontline people and reduced the amount of stress in my life. It’s more fun helping people solve their problems than it is trying to manage and control people for me.”
While living in Lloydminster, Hartle would often find himself travelling through Saskatoon on his way to see his parents in Abernathy. He would often visit a cousin who lived in Saskatoon, spending the night on the cousin’s sofa. This cousin had a roommate, who one day wrote a letter to Hartle, telling him of her feelings for him.
“She’s very smart, she’s very good with people, but she is not necessarily open with a lot of people in exposing her feelings,” Hartle later said. “When she opened up that part of herself to me was when I recognized that she was really very serious. If somebody is willing to open themselves up and commit to you like that, then it’s safe to trust your own feelings with somebody like that.”
They fell in love.
“While she is very beautiful to me and all of the important things that people find physically attractive, the physical attraction of anybody to me is secondary to who they are,” he said.
After two years living together, they married.
“We have never had an argument,” he said. “That isn’t to say that we don’t have our own opinions on things, but we’re always on the same team.”
Hartle tends to like art inspired by technology: e.g. The Matrix films, Star Trek, the Hackers soundtrack.
Hartle and his wife had two children, a son and a daughter. Both have autism, especially their son.
“He is verbal but definitely has difficulty communicating,” Hartle later said. “So the world is sometimes a difficult and unusual place for him. I spend a lot of time trying to explain some of the nuances of social interaction with him, when people say this, this is what they mean …
“He has trouble with things like a sarcastic sense of humor, for example. He doesn’t understand the difference between playfully teasing somebody and teasing with ill intention. So nuances like that are difficult for him. So we spend a lot of our time trying to help him out in that respect.
“My daughter is more so what they used to call Asperger’s. So it’s still on the autism spectrum but less pronounced in terms of outward appearance. So to chat with her, you may not really even notice that there’s anything different about her until you actually start to see her interact in some social situations. So, for example, growing up, she could not tell the difference with people at school that she believed were her friends and were acting in friendly ways, where from the outside you could obviously see that it’s children being extremely cruel …
“It’s almost easier for my son, being more pronounced on the autism spectrum. I find that other kids at school are a lot more kind with him as opposed to my daughter, who is just slightly off normal and, as a result, experiences a lot more social rejection …
“I couldn’t possibly have two autistic children without having some autistic tendencies myself. I do recognize that in me. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand people around me and human nature. So it’s given me some insights over the years into just the nature of how people are and how they interact, which I really wish I could pass along.”
In 2015, in his mid 30s, Hartle started experiencing severe pain in his intestines after eating.
“It was a category of pain that I was not aware even existed.”
He went to the emergency room. After a CT scan, a doctor said, “Congratulations, Mr. Hartle, you have Crohn’s disease.”
Thomas went to a gastroenterologist, who tried a colonoscopy. But the camera-probe could not get past a constriction in the intestines to see what was on the other side, Hartle later described, “so the gastro guy just agreed with the original assessment that it was Crohn’s disease and they started me on some immunosuppressive therapy to deal with Crohn’s.”
He spent a month in the hospital because he could no longer eat. “I did not eat anything at all and lost about 60 pounds,” he said. After he left the hospital, he was on a restricted diet.
Around this time, Hartle’s wife gave up her bath and body products retail business and went to school to study accounting, so that she could get a more stable income in case Hartle became unable to work long-term.
“In April of 2016, what was a partial obstruction turned into a full obstruction, so nothing passing through my intestines anymore and I went in for emergency surgery,” he said. “The original surgeon got swapped out for a different surgeon who happens to be an oncological surgeon. What was supposed to be a simple two-hour operation turned into a six-hour operation and I woke up expecting a little discomfort to discover that I actually had an ileostomy.”
An ileostomy is a surgical procedure in which the small intestine is connected to a hole in the skin of the patient’s belly, so that digested food leaves the body through this hole and is collected in a plastic bag (or “ostomy”) fastened to the skin.
During the operation, the doctor had removed parts of his small and large intestines.
The surgeon also took biopsies. It took six weeks for the results to come back. The family doctor’s office called Thomas and asked him to come in for the results. Thomas and his wife got in the van, Thomas driving them through the streets of Saskatoon.
“For the first time since I have gotten this ostomy attached to me, I had a failure of the adhesive,” Thomas said. “So the ostomy bag pops off of my stomach and when you are emotional and upset and things like that, your intestines kind of kick into high gear … I’ve got this volcano of poo erupting from my stomach and we’re trying to deal with that while I’m driving, using napkins and towels that we usually use for washing the car and things like that, trying to get me as cleaned up as possible while we’re on the way …
“We arrive at the doctor’s office. I am covered in poo and my wife goes in and the doctor is good enough to come out to the van to talk to me because obviously I can’t go in. So I’m sitting in my van covered in poo when I find out that I’ve got stage-four cancer …
“Not a good day.”
After chemotherapy, Hartle went in for surgery to reverse the ileostomy and investigate his guts. “The surgeon says that he can only see one spot remaining on my small intestine, which he removes. I come out of that second surgery thinking, I’m good, I’ve done what I needed to do. The surgeon has said he doesn’t see anything more in there and the surgeon has told me, go live your life.
“That was in 2017. So I’m really thinking, I’ve got this, I’ve figured out what I needed to do to beat cancer.
“Over the next two years, I find a return of some of the symptoms that I was experiencing, in particular, anemia, which I’m familiar with, the way that it makes me feel.
“So in 2019 I go into my family doctor with this concern about the anemia, not too sure what’s going on, and I get scheduled for another colonoscopy and they find two bleeding tumors in my large intestine.
“So I’m scheduled for my third surgery in the summer of 2019, where they intend on removing the rest of my large intestine.
“I go into that surgery with the belief that I may at that time either come out with a permanent colostomy bag or they may try to attach my small intestine to the rectum and I’ll have to deal with that going forward, some sort of a traumatic surgery that’s going to be life-changing.
“What actually happens during that surgery is, my surgeon opens me up and they check 51 different locations in the abdominal cavity and he finds tumors in 42 of those 51 places. So it isn’t just the two tumors on my large intestine. It’s cancer everywhere … The peritoneal tissues, large intestine, small intestine, some of the lymph.
“If he were to try to remove the tumors, he would have to remove my entire digestive system. So instead of doing the operation on my large intestine, he just cleaned up the incision line and closed me back up again. All of the tumors were still intact when he closed me back up again.”
When Hartle woke up and learned the bad news, he started feeling a lot of anxiety about what would happen to his family if he died. When he died. He feared dying, feared the idea of being dead.
And his family. His kids relied so much on him, more so than neurotypical children would. What would happen to them without their dad? Who would teach them about social interactions? How would their mom handle the two of them alone?
These questions about death and his family’s future – and other concerns, such as his fear of the nausea associated with chemotherapy – tormented Hartle with anxiety.
During and after his regular Friday afternoon chemotherapy sessions, Hartle would swallow capsules full of cannabis oil and meditate. He found that it reduced the awful nausea but would often make his anxiety even worse. A couple of times, the cannabis and the anxiety combined to send his heart rate shooting up so fast that he went to the emergency department, concerned it was a heart attack.
And the anxiety also led to migraines.
In 2017, while researching alternative cancer treatments, Hartle had learned of a study at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland dealing with the use of psilocybin to treat end of life distress. The study found that it had powerful positive effects on dying patients. Feeling optimistic at the time about his odds of surviving cancer, Hartle had not bothered to learn much more about this study at the time.
But after the third surgery, his optimism was at a low. “2019 is where I really started to have that serious anxiety over the end of things, but I had heard about this study at Johns Hopkins,” he said. “I started looking for any kind of a program here in Canada that would offer access to this type of therapy because, going back and revisiting the Johns Hopkins stuff, they were talking about these 80% success rates with people who have had literally the exact same condition that I had, stage-four cancer and existential dread …
“Being illegal in Canada, there was literally nothing, absolutely no trials, no clinicians that I could find, no underground support or anything. But when I was looking for psilocybin and patients and things like that in Canada, I found TheraPsil. The TheraPsil website said, we’re looking for patients. So thinking that they might be an organization that offered this type of therapy, I signed up with them and had a chance to speak with them more and discovered that they were an advocacy group that were helping people to get these exemptions to get access to it, which for me really fit the bill. I was specifically looking for access to this and I thought, step one is going to be, get access to it and then find somebody who can help me actually get the therapy part of it, because of course you don’t just take a pill and you’re all better …
“I was fortunate enough that Bruce Tobin, one of the founders of TheraPsil, volunteered to be my therapist and I sort of went from there. So that was my introduction to TheraPsil and getting access to a section 56 exemption …
“TheraPsil actually assisted with filling out the emails for Health Canada, sending it off to them. We did a number of videos for social media to encourage them to move forward with granting these exemptions because at that time there had not been any exemptions granted. We waited about 100 days before we got a response from Health Canada on those. So that was a fairly anxious 100 days and I have to tell you, I was prepared that they were going to say no and I would have to do this under the table, so to speak. So I was very pleasantly surprised when Health Canada actually came through with the exemptions …
“I got an email from Health Canada with the exemption attached to it. I had a chance to read through the exemption and of course there’s conditions that are a part of it, as in I have to use the psilocybin in the presence of a medical professional and there’s limits on how much of it I can have on hand and restrictions on how I need to store it and keep track of it and things like that.
“That was a really positive, happy day for me.”
It was important for Hartle to experience psychedelic therapy legally, for reasons of safety and legitimacy. Without an exemption, he figured it would be hard to find a credible therapist to work with.
Despite his exemption, there were no legal sources for Thomas to get psilocybin, so he decided to become a fungus farmer. Magic mushroom spores, the fungal version of seeds, are legal to buy and sell in Canada because they do not contain psilocybin. Thomas ordered a grow kit online. It came with spores and instructions and containers and humidity bags and coir, a growth medium made of shredded coconut husks.
To grow magic mushrooms from a kit, you first put the spores in the fridge to keep cool. Then you put the coconut coir into a five-gallon pail and add some boiling water, letting it cool overnight to room temperature. The next day, you add grain covered with mushroom spores to the coconut coir, give it a good mix, then dump it into four shoebox-sized plastic containers and close their lids. During this whole process, it is important to keep everything very sterile, because mold spores from the air can wreck an entire batch. You put the containers into a warm, dark location. (Hartle used the tents that he grew legal, medicinal cannabis in.) The mushroom spores will grow into the coconut coir until the top of it becomes completely white and will start to form little knobs. At that time, you take the covers off the containers and expose them to 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, occasionally misting them with water, which will trigger the fungus to making fruiting bodies.
Within three weeks, Hartle had mushrooms ready to dry.
Lying blindfolded in his guestroom bed, Hartle sees amazingly immersive spaces, in red and green colours, inside his eyelids. “So a different piece of music produces a different space and then my consciousness just becomes those spaces. It’s not like you walk into a room and you’re in a room. You are the room. For me experientially, it felt as though I were experiencing a number of different universes from a personal firsthand perspective. I became these other places. Some of them were just interesting spaces with things to experience both physically, auditory, and visual. I can tell you what it feels like to be a galaxy.
“But none of those spaces had anything to do with my personality or my experience within this universe. At various times I had the presence of mind to remember that this reality existed, but I didn’t have any recollection of my family, let alone their names or what they looked like. I was just aware that I had a body, for example, and I knew that it had physical needs. So I would come and check on it from time to time the same way you would checking on a pet or a houseplant, but the rest of the time I was very busy with my consciousness experiencing things that had nothing to do with me.”
Some of the spaces have measurable dimensions. Now he is in a small space, about the size of a large walk-in closet. The upper part is covered with rainforest plants, including green bamboo shoots, while the lower part is covered with a tangle of orange, plumbing-style pipes. The plants and the pipes in this little space are all moving, writhing, like a living merger between technology and nature.
“The music in that particular space had a very intimate quality to it, where I could feel all of the things that I was,” Hartle said later.
He feels things touching him, but not his physical body.
Other spaces are bigger, even galaxy-sized. Now Hartle’s space is the extent to which his vision stretches. He is a disc galaxy, looking at the edge of another disc galaxy in the emptiness of the universe, two vast collections of stars slowly spinning.
“The sensation of being a galaxy is very different from the sensation of being a rainforest in kinetic terms and both of those are very different from the sensation of existing in your body.”
Emotionally, Hartle felt “pretty neutral and calm in all of those spaces. One of the things that I came back with from that experience was the realization that in every single one of those spaces, there wasn’t any sadness. There wasn’t any pain. There wasn’t any fear. There wasn’t any of the negative emotions and feelings that I would associate with this universe, with this existence. So for me, it really felt like the only place that these perceptually bad things exist was here, but the existence of those other spaces was kind of a hopeful thought for me because it sort of said, when you die, you could hit any of these other places and have any of these other experiences and they are all going to be a more healing space than what you experience here …
“But at the same time, having that realization here in this existence, it told me that if you can let go of those things here, then you can also have that sort of a healing experience here. It doesn’t have to be the way that you have been experiencing it …
“The big thing that I came out of that experience as I was coming down was the realization that the only universe I experienced where pain or sadness existed was this one. To me, having my consciousness exist in space that had nothing to do with this life or this body or any part of this universe was a very comforting feeling for me because I realized that the transition from living to dying might be as gentle as the transition from waking to dreaming without that sleep in the middle.
“Say you’ve got a bucket full of iron filings. Those iron filings don’t really have any form or function, but they exist. If you were to take those iron filings and you melt them down, you could form them into a tuning fork. So now they have a form and a function in the same way that the molecules that constitute my body individually don’t have a form or function, but at the moment they do and that form and function is my physical body.
“Now, if you take that tuning fork and you strike it on something, it will produce a tone. Once that tone has been created, it is a wave of energy in the air and is no longer dependent on the tuning fork for its existence. I believe that my consciousness, while it is initially created by the form and function that my body is, once created, it is no longer dependent on the existence of my body to exist.”
Six or so hours after Hartle’s first faint visions, the playlist comes to the last song – Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” – and he sits up, removing the blindfold and headphones.
There is some post-trip integration therapy with Dr. Tobin.
“I had some ideas about what I thought I would get out of this, but the actual feelings and experience of it are so much better,” Hartle later said. “The psilocybin, for me, was very gentle and effective.”[ii]
Hartle added that he felt, “The most peaceful I have felt in months … Everything about the experience felt very welcoming and kind … I got answers to the questions I didn’t even know I needed to ask.“[iii]
Before the trip, Hartle took an anxiety test and scored 36 out of 50, which is considered very high.
Afterwards, his anxiety score is only six.
That night, Hartle has his best sleep since his cancer diagnosis four years ago. He has much less anxiety in the following months. He is appreciating and enjoying his time spent with his family more. His migraines disappear. “It’s really, really amazing and good.”[iv]
But his anxiety does not go away completely.
Hartle takes a second mushroom trip in November 2020, again with Psilocybe cubensis and with the same setting and people – another positive, healing trip that helps him manage his anxiety.
For his third experience, though, he changes things. Hartle takes 4.5 grams of Panaeolus cyanescens mushrooms, a more powerful kind than P. cubensis, while at someone else’s house for an experience with shamanic ritual elements, led by a professional guide. The ritual elements include room decorations, traditional tribal music and chanting, Tibetan singing bowls and a purification ceremony involving feathers. The guide takes a more active approach than Dr. Tobin, who is not present, though – as per the terms of Hartle’s Health Canada exemption – another medical professional is. (Ellie isn’t here this time either.)
The dominant colours of Hartle’s first two trips were red, orange and green, while the third trip was dominated by yellows and blues. “I don’t think that there’s a particular meaning to the colors necessarily,” he said.
Hartle’s third trip is “more spiritual in its nature, as opposed to more clinical in the nature of the first two, so more of a journey of self-reflection and healing in terms of a spiritual perspective as opposed to healing in terms of a clinical perspective,” he later said.
“Generally, I focus on where I am experiencing difficulties and I try to look for healing in those directions. So for my first session it was the death and dying. For my third session, the noise that was taking place in my head was more focused on the idea that my family are going to miss me when I’m gone and the fact of my dying is going to be something that causes them harm and there isn’t really anything I can do to protect them from that.
“What I got out of the third session was the realization that I’m not actually doing anything to them to harm them. This is something that is happening to me in the same way that a car accident happens to people. There’s nothing that I’m actively doing that is causing harm to my family and there isn’t anything that I could stop doing that would prevent that. It sounds really obvious, but it’s that sort of a thing that is what I call a forehead-slappingly obvious realization that you get from a psychedelic session.”
Obvious or not, the insight gives Hartle great comfort and further eases his anxiety over his family.
“It sounds like such a simple, silly thing, I realize, but the realization that it’s not me that is doing anything to my family allows me to get that thought out of the way and now I can focus on, well, what can I do that will make that easier for them? Because there are absolutely things that I can do that will encourage them to look at the good memories, enjoying what we have had.”
When I first talk with Hartle on the phone, he had done his 63rd round of chemotherapy a few days earlier.
Ellie is nearby as we speak, Hartle tells me. He is sure that the dog can tell when he mentions her.
Regarding his health, “Things are actually going, I would say, exceptionally well,” he says. “I just had a CT scan yesterday and I have gotten positive results from that, so today is a really good day. On a general day-to-day basis, anxiety currently doesn’t really play much of a factor.
“These days, I’m thinking more about Christmas shopping than the idea of dying, which is the way it should be. It’s still stage-four cancer and there is no cure for it, but my response to treatment has been better than what most people experience. I’m actually seeing a reduction in the size of my tumors. On my last CT scan here, while my cancer is extremely difficult to detect on scans, what they can see is responding well to treatment. So that’s good.”
Weyburn, Saskatchewan; 1952.
Today is the first time that Professor Humphrey Osmond – a specialist in hallucinogenic drugs – will try some himself.
Osmond is in his late 30s, with metal-frame glasses and a round face. He has recently moved here from the UK. His posh English accent and fondness for three-piece suits give a prim and proper first impression, but his personality is outgoing and friendly and his ideas are bold and radical.
In 1952, with his wife Jane at their new home in Weyburn, Osmond tries mescaline for the first time. They go for a walk around the small town. During their stroll, Osborne gets paranoid and frightened.
“One house took my attention. It had a sinister quality, since from behind its drawn shades, people seemed to be looking out and their gaze was unfriendly,” he later wrote.
Osmond also saw a child’s face transform into that of a pig.
Two approaching pedestrians looked hump-backed and twisted.
“The wide spaces of the streets were dangerous, the houses threatening and the sun burned me.”[v]
Despite starting with a bad experience, Professor Osmond will try psychedelics again (and again and again) and his future experiences will be better. Osmond and his wife, sometimes also accompanied by Osmond’s colleagues and their spouses, will often take trips together in the 50s and early 60s, describing them in positive terms and encouraging others to try.[vi]
The first seeds of psychedelic therapy were planted by voters in Saskatchewan, who in 1944 elected the provincial Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party – the first socialist government in North America.
As a young man, CCF leader Tommy Douglas worked as an intern at Saskatchewan’s overcrowded, understaffed and dirty Weyburn Mental Hospital. As a university student, he wrote a master’s thesis about mentally ill women at the Weyburn hospital. Later, Douglas worked as a Baptist minister in the small, isolated town of Weyburn. During his whole life, Douglas would show a strong and consistent passion for helping sick people. As well, he was intimately familiar with the Weyburn Mental Hospital, then one of the worst such institutions in North America.
After the election, Douglas took the unusual step of combining the offices of Premier and Health Minister, personally directing radical reforms to public health in Saskatchewan, such as making treatment for mentally ill people (including addicts) free of charge.[vii] Douglas created Canada’s first government-funded mental health research program, while actively recruiting doctors and medical researchers from around the world to fill senior positions in Saskatchewan’s fast-growing mental health treatment system.[viii]
The CCF government in Saskatchewan, by embracing modern ideas and rejecting the “this is how we’ve always done it” approach, created a buzz and a sense of excitement that spread far beyond the province’s borders. Talented and ambitious people from across the country and the world heard about the new ways of thinking and the opportunities to do things differently in Saskatchewan, convincing many of them to move to a little-known rural province with no large cities.
The brain-gain was especially strong in the field of mental health, with Saskatchewan becoming an “ideological magnet, attracting people to a place where exciting and innovative experiments were developing in both policy and psychiatry.” A psychiatrist who moved to Weyburn from Kansas later said that he came because the sparse professional population reduced the stifling influence of bureaucracy and tradition, creating a “freedom for experimentation not found elsewhere.” Another psychologist in Winnipeg said that Saskatchewan had “a reputation for being a place where things happen,” which attracted vigorous, independent psychologists whose work set the pattern for the rest of Canada[ix] – and beyond.
One such immigrant was English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. Popular psychedelics author Michael Pollan would later call him a “little-known but pivotal figure in the history of psychedelic research, probably contributing more to our understanding of these compounds and their therapeutic potential than any other single researcher.”[x]
Osmond would work with Saskatchewan-born psychiatrist Abram Hoffer on the largest set of psychedelic experiments in the world.[xi]
It was a series of bold trials involving LSD and mescaline that psychedelic historian Erika Dyck would call “some of the largest, most enduring, and internationally significant experiments in the post-World War II period.”[xii]
Osmond would transform psychiatric therapy and, indirectly, the course of Western culture.
Along with his colleagues, Osmond fathered a new discipline that would, many decades later, fuel a billion-dollar stock market boom: psychedelic mental-health therapy.
Osmond was still working in the UK when he developed the theory that the use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD (invented by Swiss chemists in the 1940s and patented as a psychiatric drug) and mescaline (a natural hallucinogen derived from cacti, used ceremonially for millennia) could help scientists to understand mental illness, in particular schizophrenia. His hypothesis, based on the similarities he observed between drug hallucinations and the delusions of the mentally ill, was that the brains of mentally ill people produced chemicals similar, in effect, to LSD and mescaline. By taking hallucinogens, he believed, a sane person could temporarily observe insanity from the inside.
Osmond’s theory was rejected by his colleagues and the UK medical establishment, who held to the now-discredited Freudian model of mental illness and recoiled from chemical-based explanations of the mind. Osmond’s application for research funding in the UK was rejected, with the directors responsible for the decision literally laughing at Osmond in his presence.[xiii]
Frustrated and yearning to follow his inspiration, Osmond saw an ad in the Lancet medical journal for a job in Saskatchewan that included research funding. In 1951, he took his wife – who suffered from chronic depression[xiv] – halfway across the world, to start new lives in flat, cold Weyburn.
At first, Osmond disliked small-town Prairie life and called himself an exile. In a few years, however, when he was accustomed to Weyburn and had built a network of collaborators in the province, Osmond started boasting about Saskatchewan’s perfect conditions for research.[xv]
Osmond’s most important collaborator was Abram Hoffer, who also became a life-long friend.
Abram Hoffer joined the Saskatchewan Department of Public health in 1950, tasked with creating a provincial program for psychiatric research. He became the Director of the Department’s Psychiatric Services Branch in Regina.
Despite the 350 km that separated Hoffer in Regina from Osmond in Weyburn, as well as the limited telephone service at the time, they collaborated closely, through handwritten letters often sent daily.
Osmond and Hoffer’s major research dealt with adrenalin, a hormone which occurs naturally in the human body. Because the chemical structure of adrenalin is very similar to that of LSD, Osmond and Hoffer explored the idea that adrenalin could break down into a slightly different chemical, adrenochrome, which they suspected was a cause of psychiatric delusions and hallucinations.
They investigated and promoted this theory for many years, encountering much opposition and criticism.
Today, the scientific consensus is that Osmond and Hoffer’s major theory was wrong. Andrenochrome has no proven link to mental illness.
Does this undermine the importance of their work?
Not at all.
They and their colleagues published almost 200 experiments directly involving psychedelic drugs – which were donated by pharmaceutical companies and were not restricted by law at the time – and this work had lasting scientific value.
According to psychiatric historian Erika Dyck, “Saskatchewan researchers were prodigiously productive and much of the research was of high quality.”[xvi]
The American Psychiatric Association would call the Saskatchewan program “one of the finest of its kind in North America,” especially regarding the rehabilitation of psychiatric patients.[xvii]
Saskatchewan was widely hailed as a world leader in mental health, wrote psychedelic historian Patrick Barber. “Hallucinogenic drugs figured centrally in this research … [and] had groundbreaking scientific implications for research on not only the diseased mind but the healthy mind.”[xviii]
Scientists outside of Saskatchewan were studying psychedelics too, but Osmond and Hoffer’s efforts had the highest profile and the greatest long-term significance.
In one important experiment, Osmond and Hoffer provided LSD doses individually to about 700 men who wanted to stop drinking. Treatment took place in Weyburn, Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw. The influential report was the world’s first to study the effect of psychedelics on addicts.[xix] It found that more than half of the participants stopped drinking long-term after LSD-based therapy.
The researchers found that these patients generally showed much less response to LSD than did non-addicted volunteers, which required the doctors to give them “fairly large” does of 200-400 micrograms. Those who did not respond to that were given mescaline. At the height of the experience, two to four hours after ingesting the drug, the therapist would carry out a “prolonged interview” about the patient’s life problems, with the therapist making “strong suggestions” to stop drinking. Some patients showed signs of tension, depression, withdrawal, paranoia and nausea during their trip.
They found that setting – the auditory, visual and emotional stimuli – was key to the success of the experience, as was the training of the therapist. “We believe that it is absolutely necessary for every therapist to undergo the LSD experience,” the report said. “Doing so substantially increases understanding of the patient’s experience and the therapist’s attitude becomes much more accepting, thereby making him more effective not only during the experience but in terms of after-care.”
The report was based on the idea that effects of psychedelic drugs, in the right setting, would metaphorically shake up or soften a patient’s mind, making it possible for a therapist to help the patients rapidly reset or remold their mind in the way that the patient desired.
The report noted that the LSD experience does not lend itself easily to verbal description because it is outside the bounds of the usual experience for which language is intended and because it is mainly in the realm of emotions which are difficult to objectively describe at the best of times.
The researchers listed nine typical changes in the patients on LSD, with illustrative quotes.
1. A feeling of being at one with the universe. “I had finally understood by experience the feeling of union with the cosmos.”
2. The experience of being able to see oneself objectively, or a feeling that one has two identities. “If we had the gift to see others as us, well, I did this morning. There seemed to be two of me and there seems to be a conflict between these two.”
3. A change in the usual concept of self with concomitant change in the perceived body. “I have the feeling of leaving my body and drifting off into space. I have no worldly connections and felt as if I was only a spirit.”
4. Changes in perception of space and time. “I was looking deeply in the picture until the objects in the picture were beside me.” “At times each moment seemed to be a lifetime.”
5. Enhancement in the sensory fields. “The flower was a thing of inestimable beauty as was its scent. It quite transfixed me in essential contemplation, ecstasy and timelessness.”
6. Changes in thinking and understanding so that the subject feels he develops a profound understanding in the field of philosophy or religion. “I found I was outside our bounds of space and time and had an understanding of infinity.”
7. A wider range of emotions with rapid fluctuations. “During this period I was swept by every conceivable variety of pleasant emotion from my own feeling of well-being through feelings of sublimity and grandeur to a sensation of ecstasy.”
8. Increased sensitivity to the feelings of others. “I was conscious of an extremely acute sense of awareness of perception of another’s mood, almost thoughts. I likened it to the recognition of emotional atmosphere that the child or animal seem to have.”
9. Psychotic changes, including illusions and hallucinations, paranoid delusions of persecution and grandeur, thought disorder, perceptual distortion and severe anxiety.
The report concluded: “By being outside himself and not concerned about himself, he therefore becomes increasingly sensitive to the feelings of others and also comes to see associations and relationships much more readily … He gains great confidence in himself when he realizes that in essence he is infinite … He is able to find the solutions to his difficulties and sees these with conviction … It is much easier for him to accept himself completely.”[xx]
One patient said: “It allowed me to see myself as I really am … I recalled many of my war experiences. I even saw the crucifixion which would possibly indicate to me that my life is lacking in spiritualism. Many other outstanding incidents where I lied to people, lost jobs and affected the lives of many other people through my drinking passed through my mind.” He went on to become sober and complete university.[xxi]
Another patient said: “How can I explain the face – vile, repulsive and scary – that I took by the hand into the depth of hell from whence it came and then gently removed that scaly thing from the face and took it by the hand up into the light and saw the face in all its God-given beauty, so much beauty … [I] feel clean, fresh and good.”[xxii]
A doctor said of a third patient: “He had a momentary oneness with God. Had a vision while lying [down] with eyes closed of a spiral staircase with himself talking to another person. This appeared to have great meaning to him … He seems to have gained some insight and understanding of himself.”[xxiii]
There were a few bad trips. One patient had his LSD trip stopped by an injection of niacin (a chemical that Osmond and Hoffer had discovered could quickly end the effects of LSD) when a nurse heard him say: “There are some worms. They’re nodding at me. Am I dying? I must be dying because they’re eating my flesh … I can’t move. Am I dead?”[xxiv]
The success of LSD in treating alcohol abuse disorder was reported in both scientific journals and the mainstream media.
Osmond and Hoffer’s approach was, at first, enthusiastically supported by the Saskatchewan government.
Premier and Minister of Health Tommy Douglas applauded the psychiatric branch of the Ministry of Health for its pioneering innovation and he pushed policies that led to LSD therapy becoming one of the province’s regular treatment options.
Douglas said, “We are losing the old attitude that those who have fallen under alcohol are social lepers and work which is being done today by the psychiatrists is giving us a new sense of sympathy and understanding.”
He congratulated Osmond and Hoffer for their work and their discoveries.[xxv]
The Minister of Health after Douglas praised “the wonderful research that has been done in connection with the new drug LSD.”[xxvi]
40 years later in the 1990s, one of Osmond and Hoffer’s former patients in Saskatchewan would describe his LSD therapy as a life-changing event.
“I had a very definite spiritual experience. It is with me to this day and has changed my attitude to a number of things,” he said.
“It changed my sense of the world and my place in it.”
The one-time alcohol abuser was still not drinking, 40 years after his single LSD experience.[xxvii]
Osmond, Hoffer and doctors associated with them prescribed psychedelic drugs to hundreds of Saskatchewan out-patients with mental illnesses other than alcohol abuse, with positive results. Patients often gained new perspective, enabling them to see themselves and their behavior differently.
After a psychedelics session, many patients revealed life experiences to their therapist that they had not mentioned before, such as marriage problems, abuse, trauma or interpersonal conflict.
One previously-hostile patient described her LSD trip as “beautiful,” with her therapist noting a “remarkable” absence of hostility towards her family and friends.
Another said that after he tried LSD, “My relationship with everybody and everything, including myself, improved to such a degree that I am able to enjoy enough things as to balance and even outweigh the negative and depressive aspects of life.”[xxviii]
Weyburn psychiatrists experimented with group therapy sessions, with therapists and patients taking hallucinogens together.[xxix]
When the Saskatchewan psychedelic experiments began, almost nothing was known about LSD regarding side effects and appropriate dosage levels. Colleagues of Osmond and Hoffer studied the effects of LSD on the human body by taking it themselves and giving it to volunteers, then used their findings to write a guide to the use of LSD in psychotherapy. The guidebook, which many psychedelic experts still consider a masterpiece, included advice on designing the right environment for the trip – what is now known as “setting” and recognized as key to the effectiveness of psychedelic therapy.
To provide a setting conducive to psychedelic therapy, the guidebook recommended that therapists consider using religious imagery, stereo music, artistic paintings, mirrors, stroboscopic lights, photographs of relatives and other elements to encourage and enhance hallucinations.[xxx]
Years later, Osmond and Hoffer would publish a 600-page book called The Hallucinogens – a best-selling guide to psychedelic drugs that summarized the results of their many mescaline and LSD experiments, as well as their experiences with ololiuqui (seeds from a type of morning glory plant that contain LSA, a chemical similar to LSD), bufotenin (a drug extracted from the skin of certain toads) and various compounds similar to adrenaline.[xxxi]
Osmond was probably the first scientist to promote the idea of using psychedelics to aid terminal cancer patients while dying[xxxii] – an idea which would later play a central role in the evolution of psychedelic drug policy.
Even more important than the results of Osmond and Hoffer’s experiments and the experiments they inspired were the methods used. Other researchers into psychedelic drugs had consumed the drugs themselves out of curiousity, but Osmond and Hoffer took this further by arguing that all mental health researchers and therapists should take hallucinogens, as doing so would improve their empathy for people suffering mental delusions. “We will soon have an excellent case for asking Psychiatrists in training to take mescaline, LSD, etc.,” Osmond wrote.[xxxiii] He even urged desk-bound hospital administrators who rarely encountered patients to take LSD.[xxxiv] By getting better insight into what it feels like to be schizophrenic or psychotic, one could better see what was needed for the proper management of the disease, both in hospital wards and in the community, Osmond and Hoffer claimed.[xxxv] Osmond, Hoffer and other Saskatchewan mental health experts would often use mescaline and LSD as professional development, urging other scientists and health care practitioners to join them.
Experiencing an audio-recorded LSD trip (triggered by 100-200 mg of it, usually) was a rite of passage for almost everybody working in the mental health field in Saskatchewan during this time.[xxxvi]
A few scientists used LSD or mescaline over 120 times each, causing concern that they had become addicted. When these scientists stopped using these drugs and had no withdrawal symptoms, the addiction concerns were dismissed.[xxxvii]
Kay Parley, a Saskatchewan psychiatric nurse who had previously been a patient institutionalized for psychosis, often sat with nursing colleagues as they tried LSD. “Most of our professional staff who had taken LSD, wanted to find out how her patients felt, what it was like to have the senses distorted, to lose control of your own mind,” Parley later said. “I’ve seen quite a lot of LSD. I loved working with it. There was a time when I thought it might be a giant step to a higher consciousness … I still feel grateful that psychiatry discovered LSD, if only for a decade, because it led to so much more understanding of the mentally ill.”[xxxviii]
Some doctors at the Weyburn Mental Hospital would consume LSD and wander the psychiatric ward, trying to see the grim, smelly, overcrowded, lice-infested place through the eyes of a schizophrenic held there involuntarily.[xxxix]
Most of the drug-use was at private homes after dinner parties, with friends and family of the professionals often also involved. Such informal settings allowed a wide range of people to try these powerful molecules, creating interdisciplinary relationships and, Osmond claimed, an increased ability to understand different points of view.[xl]
In the early phases of Osmond and Hoffer’s research, they focused on using drugs to mimic the symptoms of mentally ill people. Osmond’s goals expanded to include “exploring the normal mind under unusual circumstances” and “examining the social, religious, and philosophical implications” of hallucinogens.[xli] Hoffer also began to argue that LSD had “vast philosophical and psychological implications.”[xlii]
Thousands of people would experiment with LSD and mescaline in Saskatchewan in the 1950s.[xliii]
Word of Osmond and Hoffer’s work spread through the international medical community.
Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology and great rival to Sigmund Freud, read about the goings-on in Weyburn, Saskatchewan with “vivid interest.”[xliv] Jung and Osmond would later meet in person in Switzerland to discuss psychedelics.
The widespread use of, and evangelism for, psychedelics in small-town Saskatchewan attracted interest outside the medical context. One influential person who read Osmond and Hoffer’s published research was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and many other critically-acclaimed books. In 1953, Huxley reached out to Osmond by mail. The two Englishmen began a correspondence that grew into friendship. When Huxley – who was almost blind at this time – wanted to take a psychedelic drug to expand his awareness and improve his writing, he asked Osmond for help.
Osmond agreed to provide Huxley with a hallucinogenic experience. In the summer of 1953, Osmond was scheduled to attend an American Psychiatric Association conference in Los Angeles. He accepted the offer to stay with Huxley and his wife. Osmond drove south with mescaline, crossing the US border with some nervousness about getting into trouble with a customs guard over the drug, even though there were no US laws against psychedelics at the time.
As Osmond approached Huxley’s Los Angeles home, he was nervous again, worried that his mescaline might inexplicably fail to have an effect on the famous author.
He also worried about going down in history as “the man who drove Aldous Huxley mad.”[xlv]
At 11:00 am on May 5, 1953, in the study of his home, Huxley stirred a .4 gram mescaline pill into a glass of water. Accompanied by his wife and Osmond, with a tape recorder at hand to preserve their commentary and conversations, Huxley drank the dissolved mescaline and sat back to await his first trip.
Half an hour after swallowing the drug I became aware of a slow dance of golden lights, he later wrote.
A little later there were sumptuous red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life. At another time the closing of my eyes revealed a complex of gray structures, within which pale bluish spheres kept emerging into intense solidity and, having emerged, would slide noiselessly upwards, out of sight …
The other world to which mescalin admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open. The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant …
I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers – a fullblown Belle of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal’s base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris … I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence …
A bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged … what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were – a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence. I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing – but of a breathing without returns to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning. Words like ‘grace’ and ‘transfiguration’ came to my mind …
When Huxley was gazing in rapt wonder at his own bookshelf, Osmond asked the high author, “What about spatial relationships?”
Huxley observed that the perspective looked odd and the walls of the room no longer seemed to meet in right angles.
Spatial relationships had ceased to matter very much, he later wrote. The mind does its perceiving in terms of intensity of existence, profundity of significance, relationships within a pattern. I saw the books, but was not at all concerned with their positions in space. What I noticed, what impressed itself upon my mind was the fact that all of them glowed with living light and that in some the glory was more manifest than in others.
Mescalin raises all colors to a higher power and makes the percipient aware of innumerable fine shades of difference, to which, at ordinary times, he is completely blind.
‘This is how one ought to see,’ I kept saying … ‘This is how one ought to see, how things really are.’ And yet there were reservations. For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else.
Confronted by a chair which looked like the Last Judgment … I found myself all at once on the brink of panic. This, I suddenly felt, was going too far. Too far, even though the going was into intenser beauty, deeper significance. The fear, as I analyze it in retrospect, was of being overwhelmed, of disintegrating under a pressure of reality greater than a mind, accustomed to living most of the time in a cosy world of symbols, could possibly bear.
As the intensity of the trip started to wane, “We walked out into the street. A large pale blue automobile was standing at the curb. At the sight of it, I was suddenly overcome by enormous merriment. What complacency, what an absurd self-satisfaction beamed from those bulging surfaces of glossiest enamel! … I laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks.”[xlvi]
Osmond took a photograph of Huxley standing stoned on the Hollywood hills, pointing a finger down at LA below.
Huxley’s famous first trip lasted about eight hours. He would later describe his mescaline and LSD experiences in two non-fiction books, The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956). Both were highly influential. Huxley’s books – along with his speeches, interviews and conversations – glamourized the drugs and persuaded countless other people to want to try them too.
Huxley would pass on psychedelic samples from Osmond to curious friends, many of them leaders in their professions who spread the word to others.
Huxley and Osmond discussed the use of psychedelics to help terminal cancer patients transition to death, both thinking it would be valuable. Osmond: “The dying need some direction which encourages letting go not only of their bodies but also of their past.”[xlvii]
They theorized that psychedelics work by temporarily lowering the barriers in the mind that normally filter out most of the information from the senses.[xlviii]
Huxley, after listening to Bach on LSD, pressed Osmond in a mailed letter to study the use of music in psychedelic mental-health therapy[xlix] – an idea that, decades later, would be studied in depth by researchers who would prove that music selection plays an important role in psychedelic therapy.
In the weeks before Yuri Gagarin became the first person to leave Earth, Osmond told Huxley that he had heard that the Soviet space program was considering giving the cosmonaut LSD to help him cope with the nothingness of space.[l]
In one letter, Huxley describes taking mescaline while undergoing “dianetic procedures” by a Scientologist. This led him, somehow, to the realization that “Love is the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.”[li] For the rest of his life, Huxley would preach the centrality of love to his mystical vision – a focus on love that would be echoed and amplified by a younger generation a few years later.
Huxley invited other cultural leaders to try LSD, including Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson credited his 1934 conversion to sobriety to the effects of taking belladonna (aka deadly nightshade), a toxic plant with hallucinogenic properties – where he encountered the “higher power” central to AA teachings – and was willing to try the LSD that Osmond helped him to obtain in 1956.[lii]
Wilson wrote that it helped him to “eliminate many barriers erected by the self, or ego, that stand in the way of one’s direct experiences of the cosmos.” After the trip ended, some effects continued: “I find myself with a heightened colour perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depressions.” Wilson, who was himself recovering from alcohol abuse, also pointed out that, “The vision and insights given by LSD could create a large incentive [for sobriety] … It can set up a shining goal on the positive side.”
Wilson’s endorsement of LSD for alcohol abuse was rejected by AA’s leadership, which discouraged Wilson from further experiments due to suspicion about LSD and concern that associating the group with a strange new drug might be controversial. Wilson quit the AA board in 1958 in order to be free to use and promote psychedelics.[liii]
During most of the 1950s, however, nobody used the word “psychedelic,” because it had not yet been invented. Various inconsistent terms were used to describe these chemicals, a problem that Aldous Huxley attempted to solve in a 1956 letter to Osmond, suggesting the word “phanerothymes” (Greek for “visible soul”).
Osmond replied to Huxley with a poem that counter-suggested “psychedelics” (Greek for “mind manifesting”):
To fathom hell or go angelic
Just take a pinch of psychedelic[liv]
Osmond presented the new name later in the year at a conference in New York and it caught on with his peers and the public, to Osmond’s surprise.
Huxley would take psychedelics for the rest of his life and worked them into the plot of his final novel, Island. He took LSD on his deathbed in 1963, saying that it took away his fear and bathed him in a vision of warmth and spiritual belonging.[lv]
Huxley’s enthusiasm for mescaline and LSD started a cultural trend of the spiritual/recreational use of psychedelics that would grow in the West until the mid 1960s, when the drugs – especially LSD – were embraced by the youth counterculture, sparking a moral panic and a legal/political backlash.
Osmond, Hoffer and their group were not the first to use psychedelics in North America. The Native American Church (NAC), which began in the southwest US in the early 1900s and now had a strong presence in Saskatchewan, ate peyote buds (a natural source of mescaline) ceremonially and also to treat people suffering from alcohol abuse disorder. When the NAC’s peyote use began to be demonized by non-Indigenous politicians, police and journalists, Osmond’s group decided to investigate. At North Battleford, they witnessed a NAC peyote ceremony, with Osmond and another scientist actively participating.
The NAC’s all-night peyote ritual influenced the Osmond group’s work. The event involved tobacco smoking, peyote button eating, drumming, singing, praying and meditation.[lvi]
The Indians have been very skillful in structuring their ceremony so that it best meets their needs. They are such masters of symbol, ceremony and ritual, that this is hardly surprising. It would be unwise and impertinent to ape their religion, which developed from their agony when they lost their hunting grounds at the end of the nineteenth century. Our needs are very different from theirs. So we must follow a different route.[lvii]
Osmond later speculated that White people might find ourselves subject to peoples who possess skills which we do not have. No one who had been with the Indians as I had been could feel superior to them.
In his notes, Osmond was more candid, revealing that the experience had caused him, at various times, fear, humiliation and a sense of being out of place and unwelcome. There was a ghost of brilliant colour in my eyes when I closed my lids. I felt remote and slightly depressed. The roof flap fluttered like a lost soul. The tipi is a microcosm, a tiny mirror for the universe.[lviii]
Duncan Blewett, the other scientist who participated in the ritual, wrote:
Peyotism, because of its nature, has frequently been called to question by various agencies and authorities. Its life and growth have met persistent opposition which has developed almost entirely out of ignorance or bigotry. The encroachment of white culture has brought disaster for the Indian … He is left in a situation in which he must develop a new and satisfying value system which can provide him with self-respect and with a sense of purpose. It is in this situation that peyotism developed … Indians have gone beyond the scientists of today in their use and control of the psychedelic experience.[lix]
In 1953, Canada’s national news magazine, Macleans, published one of the first news articles about psychedelics: “My 12 Hours as a MADMAN” by Sidney Katz, with illustrations (inspired by Katz’s reports of his experience) of a living room with furniture floating in the air and an Eastern-looking parade, including bright flags, decorated elephants, trapeze acrobats and a flying galley-ship.
Katz had volunteered for an LSD experiment at the Weyburn hospital, under the supervision of Osborne and other doctors.
On the morning of Thursday, June 18, 1953, I swallowed a drug which, for twelve unforgettable hours, turned me into a madman. For twelve hours I inhabited a nightmare world in which I experienced the torments of hell and the ecstasies of heaven.
I will never be able to describe fully what happened to me during my excursion into madness. There are no words in the English language designed to convey the sensations I felt or the visions, illusions, hallucinations, colors, patterns and dimensions which my disordered mind revealed.
I saw the faces of familiar friends turn into fleshless skulls and the heads of menacing witches, pigs and weasels. The gaily patterned carpet at my feet was transformed into a fabulous heaving mass of living matter, part vegetable, part animal. An ordinary sketch of a woman’s head and shoulders suddenly sprang to life. She moved her head from side to side, eyeing me critically, changing back and forth from woman into man. Her hair and her neckpiece became the nest of a thousand famished serpents who leaped out to devour me. The texture of my skin changed several times. After handling a painted card I could feel my body suffocating for want of air because my skin had turned to enamel. As I patted a black dog [Osmond’s pet Chihuahua, “Mescalina”], my arm grew heavy and sprouted a thick coat of glossy black fur.
I was repeatedly held in the grip of a terrifying hallucination in which I could feel and see my body convulse and shrink until all that remained was a hard sickly stone located in the left side of my abdomen, surrounded by a greenish-yellow vapor which poured across the floor of the room.
Time lost all meaning. Hours were telescoped into minutes; seconds stretched into hours. The room I was in changed with every breath I drew. Mysterious flashes of multicolored light came and went. The dimensions of the room, elasticlike, stretched and shrank. Pictures, chairs, curtains and lamps flew endlessly about, like planets in their orbits. My senses of feeling, smelling and hearing ran amuck. It was as though someone had rooted out the nerve nets in my brain, which control the senses, then joined them together again without thought of their proper placings.
A photo of Katz “as the violent phase ends” shows the young man sprawled sideways on the arm of a sofa, his face looking disturbed and disoriented. Katz’s article concluded with his agreement with the idea that LSD use could provide insights into mental illness.[lx]
But my hours of madness were not all filled with horror and frenzy. At times I beheld visions of dazzling beauty – visions so rapturous, so unearthly, that no artist will ever paint them. I lived in a paradise where the sky was a mass of jewels set in a background of shimmering aquamarine blue; where the clouds were apricot colored; where the air was filled with liquid golden arrows, glittering fountains of iridescent bubbles, filigree lace of pearl and silver, sheathes of rainbow light – all constantly changing in color, design, texture and dimension so that each scene was more lovely than the one which preceded it.[lxi]
At one point, when Osborne put a towel on Katz’s eyes as a blindfold, promising a “pleasant surprise,” the reporter was “transported to a temple at the gates of paradise, in which paraded tiny Oriental empresses in gowns studded with bright gems.”
Later, Katz looked out a hospital window and saw a “carnival of bands, floats, elephants, knights and clowns.”[lxii]
Osmond liked the article and sent a copy to Huxley, who found it very intriguing.
Many Macleans readers, however, were scandalized and disapproving – the first stirrings of the coming backlash.
So why did small-town Saskatchewan, of all places, become the global capital of mind-expanding drugs?
Hoffer said that Saskatchewan had a unique environment for medical research, saying that it became a world leader in mental health because its “unusually fertile climate for research … a climate of freedom” attracted top scientists and empowered them to explore fresh ideas.[lxiii]
One reason for this was political. The CCF government modernized and expanded the province’s entire health system, including the creation of new institutions dealing with psychological health. The provincial government showed compassion for the mentally ill and a willingness to embrace new ideas. Tommy Douglas, who was simultaneously both the Premier and the Minister of Health, strongly supported Saskatchewan’s mental health researchers, doctors and administrators, providing them with the funding and the freedom for experiments and treatment programs that would likely have been blocked by bureaucrats elsewhere. Douglas met and publicly praised Osmond.
Another cause was the province’s low population and vast size, which led to interdisciplinary cooperation. According to two historians of psychiatry in Saskatchewan, “Osmond worked in a rather isolated context. He was not in regular face-to-face meetings with other psychiatrists or researchers, but instead routinely worked and lived in a community that relied on developing relationships across traditional class and professional boundaries … Working in Saskatchewan both encouraged and forced interprofessional collaboration because there were no other options besides toiling alone.”[lxiv]
The networks of Osmond (in Weyburn) and Hoffer (in Regina and then Saskatoon) included scientists working in various fields, religious ministers, addiction treatment professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, artists and writers. In some cases, they bonded by taking LSD or mescaline together. Osmond, Hoffer and their psychedelic colleagues were inspired, supported and celebrated by these diverse Saskatchewan networks.
The historians quoted above concluded: “Osmond’s desire to blend approaches, borrowing from different methods, philosophies, and disciplines, was critical to the foundation of psychedelic science … Osmond’s psychedelic contributions could not have occurred without both the political reforms and a culture that encouraged crossing disciplinary lines.”[lxv]
In 1961, Saskatchewan’s psychedelic research program died.
Despite the over 1,000 scientific reports on LSD that had been published internationally by this time[lxvi], Osmond and Hoffer were increasingly under attack from rival psychiatrists and scientists.
News stories like “My 12 Hours as a MADMAN” made psychedelics scary.
Calls to prohibit psychedelics were increasing.
The provincial government, responding to such public concern, cut off funding for research into psychedelics.
Canada’s federal government, echoing a similar move in the US, put new and complicated regulations onto research into psychedelics, restricting it to a handful of government-approved scientists.[lxvii]
Osmond complained that the new rules meant he would have to write 15,000 forms and 4,800 letters a year to continue his research.[lxviii]
In 1961, a disappointed Osmond moved back to the UK.
But he never gave up his advocacy for psychedelic-based mental health therapy and is today considered the father of this medical discipline.
Laurie Brooks of Abbottsford, British Columbia was the second person ever to take a mushroom trip authorized by Health Canada.
Like the first, Thomas Hartle, Brooks had stage-four colon cancer.
She was in her early 50s, fit-looking, with an oval face, an appealing smile and short, tufted grey hair.
On October 20, 2020, she started her historic day with a small breakfast of toast and jam, having been told that eating fat or protein could interfere with the digestion of the magic mushrooms she’d be eating later.
Her husband, Glenn, drove her to the nearby home of her therapist, David Philips, and his wife, Adele Philips, who was a nurse and Brooks’s close friend.
They went down to a candle-lit basement rec room with a couch, a treadmill, a big picture on the wall of women’s hands holding the world and shelves of toys for the Philips’s grandkids.
Like Hartle, Brooks did a pre-trip video interview, but unlike him would not allow the documentary-making team to record her actual trip.
First they had a ceremony which involved smudging the room with sage and acknowledging the traditional Aboriginal ownership of the land. Philips pointed out that the house was located near a spot considered sacred by the pre-colonial residents.
Then came Brooks’s mushrooms, which had been chopped to a dry powder. Brooks mixed it with honey and ate it with a spoon. It was “a little bit chewy and kind of like toffee, it tasted like granola, it actually tasted pretty good,” she later said.
Brooks put on a blindfold and headphones that played what she later described as “Enya-type”[lxix] music.
“Adele sat on a footstool beside the couch that I was laying on and just held my hand. And at first I was really scared …
“My heart was fluttering like crazy and I had to talk myself down at first, like okay, you’re still just laying on the couch, you’re fine. And Adele’s here, she’s a nurse and she’s taking my heartrate and monitoring all of that stuff, so don’t worry about it.
“And then I started into my trip.”
Brooks was born in 1967 on Vancouver Island, a town called Port Alberni.
She was a quiet child, a good student who “just wanted my teachers to like me … I was a normal, happy kid” who liked “riding my bike or skateboarding, stuff like that. I was never into dolls.”
Her family went to church four times a week and she didn’t hear anything about psychedelics in the 70s and 80s, other than that “LSD makes you go crazy and jump out a window … And the image of the egg in the frying pan, ‘This is your brain on drugs.’”
While attending a conservative Christian college, she met and married Glenn Brooks, who worked as a pastor for a few years, before switching careers to become a self-employed carpenter.
Their first child was a son, followed by a daughter, then another son, then another daughter.
Then, an odd ache in her left leg.
“It felt heavy,” she said later. “I noticed I was walking weird. I went to the doctors and they couldn’t find anything. It was a process of a couple years, figuring out what was going on. But for the last three or four months before I was diagnosed, I was in so much pain. I could barely sit. I had to practice my Lamaze breathing just to drive my car back and forth to school and work, but still not even thinking that it was cancer. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought maybe I had a bad case of hemorrhoids or something. My mother-in-law was also sick with cancer at the time, so we were busy going over. She lived in Victoria, on the weekends we would go over and help with her care, and visit and stuff. So I just didn’t have time to even worry about it.”
She developed a very painful abscess and a weekend walk-in clinic doctor sent her to a hospital, where they drained it and put her on antibiotics.
“I was fine until I went off antibiotics and it started again and went back to the hospital. It was a Sunday and I had a female doctor and I’m pretty sure that’s why I was diagnosed …
“She was listening for my symptoms. She had me coming back for tests, and I’m just getting ready to go, and my husband said, ‘By the way, one other thing that we didn’t think about was she’s lost 15 pounds since Christmas. And it was the beginning of February, and she hasn’t been trying to lose weight.’”
The doctor said, “Oh, well, that’s something different. There’s something going on because a healthy body doesn’t lose weight without trying.”
So she sent Brooks for an ultrasound the next morning.
“Anyways, got the news on the Tuesday that it was cancer,” Brooks told me. “Colon cancer and it’s aggressive …
“I just remember the feeling when you hear the word, ‘cancer.’ It was like this white noise, swishing-sound in my head. Glenn and I just looked at each other and hugged each other and we can’t believe this is happening …
“I had to go for a colonoscopy and met with the surgeon the next day. He confirmed that it’s cancer and this is what’s going to happen. So it was a pretty traumatic day and a pretty traumatic week.”
Brooks had not heard about Dr. Tobin or TheraPsil at this point, but she knew a local psychiatrist, Dr. David Philips, who offered underground psychedelic therapy for palliative care patients. He and his wife agreed to help Brooks, despite the legal risks.
Brooks made some notes shortly after her October 2019 first trip.
I remember seeing a lot of kaleidoscope colours and images at first, she wrote. They kind of reminded me of the inflatable guys you see in front of car dealerships or car washes – the ones that dance around when they fill and then empty with air. It was quite entertaining at first, but after a while I started to feel a little annoyed. I remember feeling a little impatient, that I’d had enough and just wanted to get on with it. I started to feel really disoriented and confused, not sure where I was or what was going on. I was really glad to be holding Adele’s hand, feeling like that was my anchor.
Brooks asked to hold Dr. Philips’ hand too.
I needed to feel like I was still connected to earth. What I remember after that was being in the dark and it was cold. It was like I was floating around in space but there weren’t any stars, it was just pitch black. I know I was shivering and pulled the blanket tighter around me. I wondered if that’s what it was like to die and I didn’t like it. I was scared and felt so alone, that’s probably when I said out loud that I was alone. [Then] I was surrounded by warmth and knowledge that someone was there with me.
I saw an old native woman with braided grey hair and feathers in her braids. She had a warm blanket around her shoulders. I was still in the darkness but felt like she was guiding me down a path through the middle of the woods. It felt like there were scary things in the woods that were watching me, but I felt safe with her …
Soon it was totally light and so beautiful. I don’t actually remember any images, just light. At some point soon after that I was in a dark place struggling to get out. It was tight, I felt wet and slimy, it was so real I had to touch my arm to see if I was. I could hear people off in the distance rushing around. I finally realized that this was the re-birth [that Dr. Philips] had talked about and I relaxed, more like a curious observer. It seemed like as soon as I relaxed I was born.
I think I had at least 2 more birth experiences, but this time I was sitting on the side of the bed. It seemed like I was in a birthing chair in the delivery room. I started to throw up just like I did when I was in labour. I was hit with massive waves of sadness, grief and pain and I remember hearing someone wailing and crying and then realizing it was me. I wasn’t able to stop, I had to let it all out. It felt like all the pain, sadness and grief that I kept pushing down last year while going through cancer treatment was finally coming out.
I saw each of my kids and wept, feeling like I was saying goodbye to them. It was so painful and I felt like I was drowning for a while, then I remembered to breathe through it and it eventually subsided. The waves hit me again when I thought about Glenn and my friends but I was able to breathe and get through it.
Through my whole journey I kept circling back and visiting each one, and each time it seemed less painful and more joyful, just appreciating what each person was to me.
Brooks wrote of feeling a deep connection to both Dr. Philips and Adele Philips.
I started to ask where my kids were and then I saw them one by one. Maxx was in front of me, trying to be strong for me so that he could make sure I was alright. Cole was laying beside me on my right side, holding my hand and crying with me. Bailey was on my left side, and every time I saw her I felt such a rush of love and affection. I kept hearing a voice saying ‘Bailey is so precious, and I need to tell her’. I didn’t see Noa a lot, but I felt such affection and the need to hug her close …
Then I would see Glenn. I saw him as a lion pacing around outside our tent, making sure we were safe and had enough to eat. I saw him as a knight on horseback, riding ahead of us to make sure the road was safe and then coming back to get us. I felt such deep love and appreciation for everything he’s done for our family and for me. He’s been tireless. I also saw my close girlfriends …
I also felt like I was freed from my prison. I saw shackles around my wrists being broken open and prison doors being opened and realizing that I was free and didn’t need to live in that prison of guilt and shame anymore. I don’t remember exact images, but I remember feeling joy, contentment and love and knowing that’s what heaven is like. I felt such a huge rush of contentment near the end of my trip, knowing that the humans I gave birth to and raised are my greatest work, and that nothing else I’ve ever done really matters. Through it all I also kept feeling such huge love for Glenn and contentment with the life we’ve built together. The waves of sadness kept coming at me throughout, but each one was easier to handle and they were farther apart. At the end of my journey I was able to see each person in my life and just felt joy and appreciation for my friends and family and their support …
I’m free and don’t have to live in my prison anymore. I saw chains being broken and prison doors opening and I knew I was free. I also felt the light and love in the universe and how connected we are to God and to each other. I especially felt a deep connection to Mother Earth and the bonds we have as women, and the connection to my friends who are supporting me and holding me up. Third, I felt that I was able to let go of the grief, sadness and anxiety I was holding onto. I feel like cancer isn’t in front and all around me weighing me down anymore, that I can keep it in a box beside me. I need to take it out and face it once in a while, but it’s not overwhelming me. This has allowed me to be more open with Glenn and the kids and other family members so I don’t have to pretend anymore that everything’s ok when it’s not.
I wanted to be free of the guilt that I’ve carried with me, the need to be perfect and never make anyone angry or disappointed. I want to be able to just be me, open and honest, for whatever time I have left.
Brooks ended her notes with what she most wanted to retain:
The love and connection I felt with the universe and also to the people around me. Most of all, though, I want to feel the love and deep connection to Glenn and the kids every day.
Overall, Brook’s first trip was emotionally difficult.
“When I came out of it, I said I never want to do that again.”
In early 2020, about six months after her illegal first trip, Brooks first heard that Dr. Bruce Tobin his group TheraPsil were lobbying to get Health Canada to allow palliative care patients to use psychedelics.
That intrigued Brooks, knowing what her mushroom trip had meant to her and how much it helped. She asked if the group needed any help. “They just happened to be looking for patients to petition the government, and asked if I’d be interested in that and I said sure, and that’s where it all started …
“At that point I had just done my first mushroom trip and I had no intention of doing another one. But I applied for my Section 56 anyways, to make the point first of all, but also I thought, I don’t know, maybe I will want to do another one, so I’d like to do it legally and not put my friend at risk. So that’s what I did and I actually did do a second mushroom trip in October of 2020, that time legally.”
Brooks also appeared in TheraPsil’s advocacy work, including videos in which she addresses the Health Minister.
In a TheraPsil press release, Brooks is quoted: “It’s so wrong that people don’t have access to this drug. People are living with anxiety and emotional pain and studies show that psilocybin helps. Why are we not allowing people to have this drug but allow them to have other drugs that are so harmful? We have given people the right to [medical assistance in dying], but I’m not there yet. What about living? I believe I should have the right to live without anxiety and fear, to be able to enjoy whatever time I have left. Psilocybin can do that for me and for other Canadians who are dealing with the same issues.”[lxx]
When Brooks – along with Thomas Hartle and two other cancer patients who chose to remain anonymous – eventually did get Health Canada approval for psychedelic therapy, what convinced her to try psilocybin again was internal turmoil over learning that her cancer had returned and that she was facing a choice of more surgery.
“They’re telling me that this is really the only way to survive, but I don’t know if I want to do it,” she later said. “That was a big one for me in my second trip, how will I know what the right decision is?”
When she decided on a second trip, almost exactly a year after her first, “I was pretty nervous going into it, because the second time is way harder. I always say it’s like having a baby, the first time you know it’s going to hurt, but you have no idea what it’s like, the second time is worse because you know what you’re in for.”
Lying on the couch in the Philips’s basement rec room, Brook’s first legal trip began with feeling lightheaded, “like ooh, I’m starting to feel it now, something’s happening,” she told me later. “And just feeling a little bit of warmth inside …
“At first I was really nervous, so I was fighting it and I saw myself standing on a street corner and all these lights were passing by, racing by. And this voice said it’s okay, just whenever you’re ready, just step off the kerb and go. And I stood there and stood there and stood there, and finally went okay, I’m ready, and that’s when my trip started and I was off, it was something.”
Having recently learned that her cancer was back for the third time and having accepted that she was going to die, one of her motivations for this trip was wanting to seek some insight into life after death.
“I remember very early, like one of the first things in my trip, I just started laughing and giggling, and I thought oh, it’s so ridiculous to be afraid, I’ve absolutely nothing to be scared of …
“That set the stage for my whole trip. And all of a sudden I just remember being in this place and I can’t even describe it because I didn’t really see anything, it just was this grey, empty space.”
In the blackness inside her blindfold, Brooks saw two friends approach, each of them now holding one of Brooks’s hands.
“We were just sitting there enjoying the view, whatever it was. And I remember there was, like we were on a sitting in this space, on this ledge, this gigantic cavern or whether it was a cliff, sometimes it was a cliff overlooking like, on a mountain here in Abbotsford where I used to hike all the time. And other times it was in this underground cavern, and we were just sitting there, the three of us, and enjoying the Northern Lights in the sky and the view below us. It was just holy and sacred and it was, I don’t know, it just left me with this feeling of okay, I’m good.”
Later, she visualized being on a beach with all of her children.
One by one, she helped them get into a canoe and then she pushed them off from shore, saying, “It’s okay, you’re an adult now and you get to live your life and I’m not going to mother you anymore,” along with different messages for each child.
To one, she said, “This is your journey now and you get to decide what you want to do with your life and who you’re going to become. But know that as I’m pushing you off, I’m also holding you in my hands, in my arms, and I love you very much and I’ll always be there supporting you.”
The last song was “What a Wonderful World.”
Brooks talked about the trip with the Phillips’s.
She later told me, “My relationship with my kids has changed in the last year, especially my daughters. We’re so much closer.”
Regarding the decision about the surgery, Brook’s trip convinced her to not worry about it. When it came time to make a decision, she would deal with it then. “I’ve lived by that ever since,” she told me. “I’m going to be okay, no matter what.”
Brooks’ third mushroom experience was on a camping trip with her husband.
No psychotherapists, so Laurie’s legal exemption didn’t apply.
No nurses, video crews or shamans, either.
Just them and nature.
They ate some shrooms and “laughed ourselves silly,” Brooks told me later. “Just laughing together, after everything that we’ve been through the last three years, was good. It was what we needed.”
Timothy Ko (CEO of Entheon)
Douglas Ko was born in Calgary in 1979, followed five years later by a little brother, Timothy, who looked up to Douglas as a hero and role model.
Timothy would later become the CEO of Entheon Biomedical, a major psychedelic drug developer focused on using DMT to treat addiction.
Douglas took a different path.
Timothy remembered a happy childhood with his brother – “the world was just one large playground”[lxxi] – but later, in Doug’s and then Timothy’s adolescence, the home environment became highly charged with conflict, anxiety and neuroticism.
Part of this, Timothy later realized, was due to the conflict in expectations between his parents (who reflected Korean values and were very Christian) and their sons (who considered themselves Canadian and rejected much of their parents’s faith).
“But we found ways to cope, we found artistic outlets,” Timothy later said.
Timothy was great at creative writing.
Douglas loved music.
Both had straight black hair and deep, warm eyes; both were very smart.
Music was how Douglas explored his identity and emotions that his parents would consider inappropriate, Timothy later explained. Music was an outlet for Doug’s core emotions of anguish and anger. Douglas especially loved heavy-metal and hard-rock 1980s and 1990s bands with songs about rebellion and hedonism.
“That was something that my brother really found attractive and enticing.”
He also listened to empowered hip-hop music, for a time dressing in African-inspired fashions.
However, Douglas and Tim’s father did not appreciate his sons’ love of music, “considering it a distraction from the very nebulous and vague obligations and expectations a child should pursue, like being perfect in school and perfect in math and pursuing a career in engineering, finance, or medicine,” Timothy later explained.
“There was a bit of a crystalizing moment where my brother and I were listening to music, my father walked into our bedroom and in a moment of anger smashed my brother’s stereo because we were listening to Guns N’ Roses. That was one of the earlier traumas …
“I think something cemented in my brother in that moment to commit his life to music.”
Timothy added, “I’ll always have a profound gratitude for him unwittingly and inadvertently taking the brunt of being the test pilot for what it means to be the first second-generation child of a Korean family. He was the one where the awkwardness of social of integration, the awkwardness of having parents that don’t speak the native language, where it all fell on him, the process of working out, how do I relate to other kids whose parents are quote-un-quote normal. Or having more naturalized sense of expectation where my brother actually wore the brunt of that, of wanting to go out and play with his friends but our parents not thinking that was appropriate or not knowing what was safe, so he wore the brunt of that. In a lot of ways my brother did possess that rebellious spirit, where I was a little bit more to the side of just wanting safety and to not upset things. And so, within physiological family constructs, my brother was the black sheep in a lot of ways and I was the mascot that was there to smile and hold it all together and bring calm to everyone.”
During Doug’s teen years, when he was exploring new and exciting subcultures, he started smoking weed.
At around 16, he started going to raves, where psychedelic drugs were used recreationally.
Doug’s drug habit might not have gone beyond those relatively innocent beginnings, Timothy believes, if something bad hadn’t happened when Douglas was 17, just after high school graduation.
Douglas had acne scarring on his face. He was self-conscious, even obsessive about it. He wanted it fixed. He took a medication called Accutane for his acne scarring and active acne but did not know that a side effect of the drug was thinning skin. When Douglas got a laser resurfacing of his face, the drug had made it so his skin couldn’t recover from the laser. For years, Doug’s skin wouldn’t heal. His face was a constant open wound.
So his self-consciousness got infinitely worse.
He did not want anyone to see him.
“When that happened to his face, he didn’t view himself to be acceptable to society, no less to be lovable, that was a belief that really cemented in him for that period of time,” Timothy later said.
From the age of 17 to about 22, Douglas basically never left his parent’s basement except to go to dermatologist appointments.
Except for his family, Doug’s social fabric dissolved.
“I haven’t really spoken about this too much,” Timothy later said. “It was a strange period where seeing my brother suffering – and he truly was suffering in a really anguished, is this forever ever kind of way – he actually encouraged me and very much forcefully told me to go find him drugs. So, he must have been 18, at the age of about 13 when I was in Grade 8, he gave me money, told me to go ahead of school, told me to find someone who looks like a gangster and to ask him for weed. And so, I proceeded to get him weed through much trepidation and I brought it back to him. And then over the course of a couple of years that escalated into other things like exploration of other drugs like psilocybin and MDMA and cocaine. And there came a time where he and I were using drugs together …
“A lot of what I speak in public is centered around my brother but I also have a drug-addiction story.”
Douglas and Timothy hung out in their parents’ basement, secretly doing street drugs together, for about five years.
“It was truly hellish times, some of my later therapeutic work really had to center around that,” Timothy later said. “The sense of obligation, this confusion of this notion of love and duty, what is love supposed to contain and is love supposed to contain so much pain and abuse?”
He added, “Ultimately, it really did test the notion of family as well, that familial love really does obligate a person to carry out actions that are to the detriment of them. So, the better part of five years we existed like that and it was as dark as you can imagine. And then at some point towards the latter half, probably within the fifth year or so, my brother couldn’t stand living in the basement anymore. My parents couldn’t stand just having him exist there anymore and so they collectively made the decision for Douglas to go to Calgary and to live there for a time. His face had started to heal a little bit and his intention was to go to Calgary to start a new life somewhere new. He was born in Calgary, so the intention was just for him to go and arrive as a new person.”
But it wasn’t very long until Douglas was using street drugs and being mentally unwell in Calgary. He went to a Calgary psychiatric ward, where he found some good support. People there were able to help model his perspectives. Following the psych ward, he found “a breath of new life that really did instigate him forming some goals and dreams,” Timothy told me. “He took a dream of being involved within music and he ran with it …
“My brother was a fantastic mind, he was an amazing essayist, he was an amazing writer, he was a creative writer, he loved writing and wrote amazing cultural-critic essays and at that time he started pursuing that professionally,” Timothy said.
Douglas cultivated relationships on Myspace with music industry people.
He formed a record label, Summer Lovers Unlimited.
An Exclaim! magazine music critic wrote in 2008:
I’ve given a lot of love to Montreal-based label Summer Lovers Unlimited, and for good reason. More than any Canadian label I know of, SLU has its finger on the pulse, and in its relatively short life, owner Douglas Ko has released music by proven successes the Teenagers, Dandi Wind, Crystal Castles and the Tough Alliance, as well as future blog sensations like Put the Rifle Down, Duchess Says, Twin Crystals and Apache Beat. You can now add Vancouver’s Terror Bird to that impressive pile.
“Douglas was throwing parties and releasing records, getting vinyl pressed, flying people up to shows,” Timothy said.
His drug use was rampant, which fit in perfectly with the culture of the indie-electro music scene of 2002-2008.
“My brother descended further into addiction,” Timothy said.
He added, “I was actually the person that introduced my brother to OxyContin.”
“When I graduated high school, I cultivated a pretty nasty cocaine habit,” Timothy later said. “My brother actually got me to smoke crack cocaine with him when I was about 16 years old …
“I was sent to Korea right after grade 12 [at age 17], I lived there for while trying to be abstinent …
“Some wacky things happened, I could write my own book about it. But ultimately when I came back to Canada three or four years later, I still carried that habit with me and my parents got so concerned with the things I was doing, inconsistencies, that my brother actually took on the role of big brother, came to live with me and take care of me and do things for me and just to ensure that I wasn’t spiraling out into the depths of insanity.”
The brothers soon started using drugs together again.
Both got involved with a rough part of Vancouver’s drug subculture. One time, someone shot a gun at Timothy and another time Timothy was kidnapped and held captive for three days.
At the age of 25 or 26, Timothy went into rehab for a bad heroin problem.
“I got better after about a two month stay and some work with Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Timothy did not have a booze problem; AA helps people addicted to things other than alcohol, he explained to me later.
“But my brother descended further into hard-core drug use …
“My brother’s music label collapsed, he wasn’t shipping out the records that he needed to, and his life effectively collapsed.”
Over the next eight years or so, Douglas went to at least four different drug-treatment centers.
He went back living in his parents’ house. He stole and sold their jewelry. They couldn’t handle the situation anymore. So they tried to set him up in his own apartment, with Tim’s help, hoping Douglas could get clean and get employed.
Timothy – who by then was several years sober – became his brother’s keeper.
“I was there trying to guide that process and trying to take him to AA meetings and to get him into drug treatment and ensure that he had enough food and money to just carry out the basic functions of living while he was trying to get sober. Helping take him to methadone clinics and everything but then he found a way to game that and so I would buy him groceries and bring him petty cash and he would spend all the petty cash on drugs and sell the groceries.”
Drug treatment didn’t work with Doug, Timothy believed, because Douglas had “social awkwardness that didn’t allow him to subscribe to the collectivist rules of traditional 12-step recovery. A willingness and ability to access one’s own case history for resentments and mistakes, for example, or an openness to identifying one’s own character defects.
“The nature of my brother’s social dynamics were such that he got overwhelmed in certain social situations but then the nature of his trauma also didn’t really enable for a clear and objective view of things that he’d done or things that had been done to him.
“There would be a lot of trauma reactivity where he would shut down and couldn’t access those memories and that’s the crushing reality of a lot of those programs is that, as they try to probe deeper into the very necessary qualities of a person’s life that they need to view objectively and to get the right perspectives on, for certain deeply traumatized people, as they try to interrogate those things, anxiety levels can rise, barriers go up, they can start to disassociate.”
That was a recurrent theme over the course of the last two or three years that Timothy cared for Doug.
Again and again, Douglas would get kicked out of a drug-treatment center after a relapse.
Douglas ended up on the streets of the east side of Vancouver, developing a psychosis and apparently not sleeping for months at a time.
At least once, Douglas tried to commit suicide.
He ended up at the Burnaby Centre concurrent-disorders facility, where patients are treated for a combination of substance-abuse and mental-health conditions.
“To try to stabilize my brother, he was prescribed high-powered anti-depressants, anxiolytics, anti-psychotics,” Timothy said. “My brother was on such a [prescription] drug load that he became nearly catatonic, very non-responsive and very subdued to the point that he couldn’t meaningfully really engage with people. And when he did engage with me, he was effectively just in a psychosis, in an obsession loop about his face.”
Douglas tried electroconvulsive therapy, which seemed to help his depression.
“I got to have my brother back for about six months,” Timothy said. “There was still that obsession but there did seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel. But as he got back into his character, so did his desire for [street] drugs. Just as he was starting to come up for air.”
In March, 2019, Douglas left the mental health institution on a day-pass.
He bought some fentanyl.
He returned to the mental health institution.
Later that day, he had a fatal overdose there.
Doug’s death “broke me apart, it really shattered my sense that there was an ever-loving plan for me, it really made me question my faith,” Timothy later said.
Timothy was earning good money in the cryptocurrency sector, but soon after Doug’s death, Timothy abandoned crypto to start his own psychedelics company, Entheon Biomedical, which would focus on treating addiction with DMT.
“There’s no magic bullet to cure the world of its ills but I deeply believe psychedelics are the best option that we have,” he told me.
Timothy wanted to use psychedelics to help people like Douglas.
He believed that if psychedelic therapy had been an option for his brother, Douglas might have done better, maybe not died.
Part of that belief came from reading research studies, but part came from his own personal experience a few years previously.
After a few years of doing well, in 2015 or so Timothy was struggling with mental health issues and using opioids again.
He felt that life wasn’t worth living and that everyone would disappoint him eventually.
“I was really teetering on the edge of a dark place,” he said. “I was undergoing some trauma-focused therapy and it wasn’t providing me any relief. I was really teetering on the edge of, dare I say it even, suicide.”
During this dangerous moment in his life, Timothy met a woman he had once befriended at AA. Neither was attending AA meetings anymore. She gave Timothy some DMT.
Alone and at home, Timothy smoked the DMT two or three times an evening over almost two weeks.
Initially, he had no therapeutic intention with the DMT. “It was in pursuit of an addictive style of use where I said, hey, fuck it, whatever.”
But, accidentally, he found something much deeper than a new kind of high.
“I witnessed kaleidoscopic interconnectedness … both visually as well as emotionally to this notion of belonging to a singularity of energy and consciousness that abounds and permeates everything. Just a sense of connectedness to the realm of possibility beyond, a sense of connectedness to God …
“By virtue of these experiences I was able to, for the first time, achieve some of the breakthroughs that I was unable to achieve through traditional therapy.
“I’m a talker, sometimes I can engage in therapy and the exercise is less about actually gaining relief but actually giving structure to the narrative and telling a convincing tale.
“But with DMT it’s in a very wordless, sometimes difficult, sometimes super challenging experience. Images, feelings and memories came up in a very abstracted way that allowed me to confront things about my world view, about what it meant to be a man, as a very angry person. I’d learned anger from my father. I’d learned anger from my brother …
“I was able to look back at my father and not as this person that I hated or I was resentful at, but I was actually able to, in this series of tableaus, look at my father as a child that wasn’t nurtured by his own parents. I was able to access a memory related to my father telling me, later when I was a bit older in my 20s saying, ‘I know that we have mental illness in my family because I didn’t even know my aunt and uncle. I had an uncle that killed himself due to the pressures of living under my grandfather.’
“All of these things started coming in, in interesting and sometimes difficult, very emotional tableaus. Without word, without narrative, I was able to view my father, or an image representing my father, and feel a deep sadness for him, a sadness that was very liberating. Because it was also a sadness that I could apply to myself where through no fault of anyone’s we all carry these huge expectations about what we need to be, how we need to prove ourselves and it’s crushing, and it results in all these deformities.
“So, yes, allowing myself to feel that forgiveness of my father I was also unburdened of a sense of obligation I had for myself. And as I was able to view my father and my brother and myself through softer eyes …
“We’re all just blades of grass, being blown by the wind, in a field of many …
“And that filled me with a sense of wonder and hope that was profoundly encouraging …
“I grew up very religiously and had a very skewed view of God growing up as a very punitive and cosmic judge and that we had to pray away my wrongs.
“DMT and psychedelics really did imbue me with an evolved sense where God is not punitive, but God is this ever present well-spring of hope that wants to encourage life, wants to make sure that plants bloom again in spring, is the force that wants to have me flourish and be satisfied in life.”
Timothy had heard about the 12-step recovery progam’s call for belief in a higher power, unburdening oneself from resentments and making amends for shameful acts, but only with DMT did those abstract concepts really hit home for him.
“Addicts carry this notion of the world sucks because look at all the wrong that’s been done to me and then I suck because look at all I’ve done wrong to the world.”
DMT helped Timothy overcome this way of thinking.
“I know for myself psychedelics have the power to elicit these massively transformational experiences,” he later said. “It really did give me that breath of fresh air that I needed and I then proceeded to re-enter Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Timothy considers himself an anomaly, in that he received lasting benefit from a psychedelic experience that was not intended to be therapeutic, did not involve a mental health professional or guide and paid no attention to “set and setting.”
Timothy’s later trips would be closer to the therapeutic norm.
Other than psychedelics, he has not used drugs since his AA friend gave him that DMT.
By early 2021, Timothy Ko was the CEO of a successful company in the high-flying psychedelics sector, Entheon Biomedical.
During this time, Ko continued his psychedelic journey by going to a well-structured retreat involving psilocybin.
“I brought an intention into that retreat to gain some closure, to gain some insights about what the significance of my brother’s death was,” he later told me.
“And it was one of the most difficult psychedelic sessions I’ve been a part of, it really was heart shattering, it broke me apart, it absolutely broke me apart and squeezed every bit of sorrow that was within me out and I cried for the better part of four or five hours.
“But then after I was imbued with this sense of appreciation. All of the anguish and sorrow, that sorrow that I needed to feel about my brother, it allowed me to experience how deeply I missed my brother. How deeply I missed my brother was a translation for how deeply I loved my brother.
“The psychedelic experience goes into the realm that the heart and the conscious mind won’t allow us to. Consciously, I couldn’t allow myself to feel the deepest depths of sorrow but under the influence of psychedelics in a safe environment, I was able to.
“It allowed me through that pain to get to that sense of love and appreciation and that helped to crystalize this notion that though he may be gone, I’m so blessed to have experienced that purity of love for someone and so it really felt like a gift.”
Kelsey Ramsden (CEO of Mind Cure)
Two-time female Canadian entrepreneur of the year Kelsey Ramsay started her business career as a highway robber.
She was only seven at the time. Ramsay and her brother, age four, lived on a cul-de-sac in Kelowna, BC. They would block the only entrance to their street with their dad’s construction-site barricades and charge neighbours returning home from work 25 cents to get to their own driveways.
When this confident young entrepreneur’s family was the first in the neighbourhood to get a VCR, Ramsay launched another not-quite-legal start-up business: selling tickets to local kids to watch movies at her house. Ramsay also sold cassette mixtapes of copyrighted music by Green Day, Nirvana and other bands she discovered before her peers did.
Later, she worked as a 14-year-old flag girl in Alaska, slowing highway traffic around a construction site run by her father.
A C student in high school, she barely managed to get into university – and did so only because “that’s where all the best parties were,” she later wrote.[lxxiv] She did recreational psychedelic drugs during her post-secondary education. Taking a relatively low dose of magic mushrooms would first give her a little bit of nausea, sort of like carsickness, followed by an “elevation of spirit … Very rarely did I get into full on hallucinations, but my sense of touch would be a little bit different. Generally I would do this kind of thing in the woods … My sense of connection to nature and other people was elevated … A few giggles, a few moments of awe, looking up at the stars and going, ‘This is really quite a thing that we’re riding on this blue marble in space.'”[lxxv]
Preferring partying to studying, she was often put onto academic probation but managed to earn a degree in economics.
At her graduation ceremony, Ramsden thought, “That’s it? All that strife and emotional turmoil, years of feeling like I wasn’t good enough, and all I got was this piece of paper? … Is this all life is, a series of hoops to jump? If so, I knew one thing: my soul would die.”[lxxvi]
She travelled alone in India, then hung around Vancouver, puffing Purple Kush cannabis with her younger brother[lxxvii], when they both decided to go to business school.
Ramsay scraped into the well-regarded MBA program at London, Ontario’s Western University, then graduating and getting a job in Ontario as a consultant – but she wasn’t happy.
“I [was] alone in a room for hours on end. I was a workhorse feeding off what society told me was good money and ego.”[lxxviii]
In her self-published book Success Hangover, Ramsden would describe the emptiness “that follows a big win or accomplishment.”[lxxix]
After six months, she found herself crying whenever she thought about her job. “Hating my job and realizing that I was losing my real self in my corporate shell evoked in me a deep sorrowful sob full of shame and hopelessness. How could a life that looked so great from the outside be so unsatisfying?”[lxxx]
So she quit the consulting job. “I had an instant wave of relief – immediately followed by panic about how I’d maintain this lifestyle.”[lxxxi]
She moved back to BC to start her own construction company, following her father’s footsteps. 28 years old, $130,000 in debt, she spent her days supervising her employees as they built residential projects or highways and her nights, often spent in a trailer beside a construction site, reading about the human brain.
Part of her interest in the brain was from the fact that she’d had multiple concussions in her life.[lxxxii]
She realized that a key to understanding her own mind was understanding play and how it opens minds and affects one’s creativity, innovation, and independent thought.[lxxxiii]
Despite her casual attitude – she was known for going barefoot in the boardroom – the pressure on Ramsden was intense and sometimes overwhelming. When she was in her lawyer’s office, about to sign her construction company’s first $1 million contract, she was shaking, with sweaty hands[lxxxiv], and threw up in the lawyer’s wire-mesh wastebasket.[lxxxv]
When she was back at the lawyer’s to sign her first $10 million deal, she had her baby on her hip and asked a banker to hold him while she signed.[lxxxvi]
Her company built roads, bridges, dams and airports in Canada, the US and the Caribbean.[lxxxvii]
“I was beginning to buckle under the stress and pressure I had put on myself to not only be a super mom but also a high-octane entrepreneur,” she wrote, describing the “negotiation I had been having with myself about my ability to manage the life I had built … There is a toll on the body and mind that comes from keeping the throttle at full tilt. For a long time, I never knew how to pull back on the throttle.”[lxxxviii]
By 2012, Ramsay’s construction company was bringing in about $50 million a year[lxxxix] – this was when Profit magazine first honoured her as Canada’s female entrepreneur of the year – but she felt like a performing actor and wondered why she wasn’t happy. She wrote, “Most successful people have been in this place, and yet no one ever assumed they were unsatisfied, living unfulfilled lives … By playing it safe, we’ve attached our own shackles. How do we get out?”[xc]
She soon had an insight: ambitious people like herself “keep coming back for ‘more’ even once we’ve achieved our goals … Perhaps it’s in the discomfort of pursuit that the ambitious feel most comfortable … When what we have mastered becomes mundane, we feel pain.”[xci]
After winning the entrepreneur award for the second time, Ramsden felt dread and self-irrelevance for the next year and a half.
She started making spontaneous changes in her life. Driving different routes to work each day. Changing her hair colour from blonde to red. Ordering foods in restaurants that she normally would not. Moving from BC back to London, Ontario.
As an invited speaker at MBA graduations, she would say, to the initial confusion of the students and their parents, “You’re graduating just like all the other people around you. You’ve leveled up and become mediocre.”[xcii]
Ramsden would argue from a convocation podium that if the assembled MBA graduates did not use their own unique tools to “create a cool new business,” they would be stuck in mediocrity and be boring.[xciii]
In 2012, soon after giving birth to her third child, Ramsden’s doctor told her, “You have cancer and cannot go back to work. You have to have surgery and will need to rest for two months. No lifting, no stress, no work.”[xciv]
When Ramsden learned that she had glass cell carcinoma of the cervix[xcv], with only a 17% chance of survival[xcvi], “I went into a state of overwhelm. I wanted to overhaul my status quo and create a new default future – one that would make me feel alive and in control again.”[xcvii]
She handed control of her construction company to her brother (who was also heading a men’s underwear company at the time) and wrote her own eulogy.[xcviii]
After the successful surgery to remove the large tumor, she felt like she had been born again.[xcix]
She survived the cancer. After it was gone, colours seemed brighter in Ramsden’s eyes.[c]
“Cancer was a great gift,” she said. “It taught me that life is too short to be stuck.”
But she still felt hollow. Traditional psychotherapy did not work. She felt depressed and sometimes suicidal.[ci] She investigated alternative ways to deal with her feeling of hollowness which led her to psychedelic therapy.[cii]
After two years of researching the topic, she tried it.
First, microdosing LSD or psilocybin. “I was on a four days on, three days off regime and for me, it gave me that ten percent extra so that I didn’t have to have an extra coffee,” she said, crediting the microdosing with giving her “a little bit of focus, a little bit of clarity.”[ciii]
Then, while listening to Joe Rogan and other podcasts, she learned about someone offering psilocybin-based therapy. Ramsden contacted that person, who guided her as she tried psychedelic therapy for the first time.[civ]
“Before my very first hero dose psilocybin journey, I remember thinking, ‘I’ve had mushrooms before, no problem.'”
Her therapist has instructed her to raise her hand when she first felt something. She shot up a hand like an eager schoolgirl. That was when the mask and headphones went on.
“It was predominantly this experience of geodesic shapes, colour, some in black and white and this real overcoming of my senses. As soon as I got the music onboarded, I started to go into a totally different experience, guided by the music, I started to go on this journey almost as though I was flying to places in my growing up years that I felt tremendously connected to – kind of like coming home to self. The in the middle there was a part where I saw myself when I was eight and I looked myself in the eye … It was the most clarifying, connecting moment of understanding myself and seeing my purpose for being and what lights me up, where I get my energy and my source and the thing that I bring into the world … The coming down took a lot longer than I had been accustomed to in other experiences, but for the most part, I was entirely free and able to engage fully in whatever was coming up for me, there was no fear, a lot of wholehearted, truthful recognition.”
She added, “When I came out of that journey, I was never more decisive, productive, clear in my business and my life.”[cv]
On another psilocybin trip, she felt universal.[cviii]
She did have one bad trip, in the spring of 2020, just a few weeks before Mind Cure went public.
“As much as I knew I was in control and this must pass, and there’s someone here in charge of my safety … I got to rewitness some things I wasn’t particularly excited to be involved in.”
However, the bad trip had a good lining, in that a month afterwards, “I was able to have some really well-considered conversations that I had been avoiding for most of my life,” she said. “The transformation in my ability to address some of the most challenging things in how I’ve come to be the adult that I am, would not have been unlocked had I had not endured that five hours of unpleasantness … It’s worth it.”[cix]
All of this made her realize that she had a “naked mind, fully charged, that is at the root of my thirst for life,” she said. “It is my life’s drug” helping her reach wholeness.[cx]
By reorienting her and reminding her who she really was,[cxi] psychedelic therapy transformed her life.
She later told me, “So I retired [from construction] and became a patient of psychedelics and psychotherapy myself and decided that the only thing I would come out of retirement to do would be to found and make a company in this space. So, of course, with a little bit of business acumen and watching the space come together, it seemed like the right thing to do would be to start Mind Cure, so that’s what we did.”[cxii]
Soon she was Mind Cure’s CEO, declaring that “the growing industry of psychedelics and new mental health treatments requires a paradigm shift away from the old way of doing things. I have done things differently as a leader throughout my career. This industry needs more individualization. Richer scientific rigor. More empathy and trust that is earned. This is how I plan to lead Mind Cure.”[cxiii]
Ramsden made the company’s business pitch to investors and the media.
Canada is the “budding flower for research into psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy,” she said. “Canada is the home base for research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, as exemptions and scientific breakthroughs continue to push us that much closer to solutions and medically recognized uses for psychedelics.”
She attributed this to the global mental health crisis, the recent success of the cannabis industry and the revival of historic psychedelic studies.[cxiv]
Ramsden was especially enthusiastic about treating addicts with ibogaine, which is “known to reduce the withdrawal symptoms,” she told me. “Patients who’ve utilized ibogaine have talked about having no experience of withdrawal … And then, secondarily, reduce cravings. So people who go through the ibogaine process, after one treatment, come out having alleviated any return of cravings for the [addictive] drug.”[cxv]
Once the regulations around psychedelics change, “we’ll be able to unlock insurance payments,” she predicted, arguing that psychedelics will save insurers money by working better than traditional drugs.
She called for an end to the stigma around psychedelics.
“Story moves culture,” she said. “The more people like me, a typical 40-something-year-old woman and mother of three, start talking about psychedelic therapy, the faster it will normalize.”[cxvi]
“As with the cannabis industry, change may start slow, but as the research barrels in, the snowball will get rolling,” she predicted.[cxvii]
“Imagine people in control of their minds.”[cxviii]
Headquartered on Vancouver’s Richard’s Street, Mind Cure Health was listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange, the US-based OTC Market and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in 2020, under the trading symbol MCUR.
Its first corporate documents mentioned plans to evaluate the potential of magic mushrooms, but Mind Cure’s initial focus was on selling “functional,” non-psychedelic mushroom powders under the “Moonbeam Mushrooms” trademark. These supplements were claimed to be a “true superfood,” strengthening the immune system, increasing energy and boosting resistance to stress. Mind Cure planned to sell three sub-brands of functional mushrooms – Focus, Energy and Protection. All were said to be organic, gluten-free, non-GMO and vegan.
Later, Mind Cure dropped the Moonshine brand and renamed each of the products after the mushroom used in it: Lion’s Mane, Reishi and Turkey Tail.[cxix]
Then Mind Cure changed its mind again, declaring that it would release supplements under the names Teen (for stressed-out teens), Mindful Preparation (for people getting ready for psychedelic therapy) and Mindful Integration (for people after psychedelic therapy).[cxx]
Eventually, the company sort of went back to its original plan, naming its three supplements Focus, Energy and Immunity.
Soon after that, Mind Cure abandoned its functional mushrooms supplements plan completely, having sold zero.[cxxi]
The company would focus on psychedelics to treat pain, in particular headaches.
Mind Cure’s new psychedelic focus led it to buy 13% of Calgary-based ATMA Journey Centers, the first for-profit company in Canada to treat a patient under a s. 56 exemption.
ATMA agreed to use Mind Cure’s software platform for psychedelic patients and therapists, iSTRYM, across its network of clinics, providing valuable data to Mind Cure.[cxxii] Ramsden joined ATMA’s board of directors.[cxxiii] “It’s part of our strategy to partner with people who are front of market,” Ramsden told me.[cxxiv]
In February, 2021, Mind Cure made its first public mis-step, attracting unwanted attention from the managers of the OTC Market.
Mind Cure had hired a public relations firm, Sandstone, which had paid the National Inflation Association (NIA) for favourable media coverage about Mind Cure.
The NIA’s very strange website was full of hyped-up puff pieces about various companies, mostly small, obscure miners.
On February 17, the NIA published two articles praising Mind Cure’s functional mushroom products, calling the company “the #1 highest quality publicly traded mushroom company” with “a large line-up of products [sic] with many new products set for launch in 2021 and best of all MCUR’s products can legally be sold throughout North America!”
Blurbs at the end of the articles noted that the “NIA has received compensation from Sandstone Media of USD $50,000 cash for a six-month MCUR marketing contract.”[cxxv]
When these paid hype articles appeared, Mind Cure stock was sinking. After, the stock’s trading volume increased. Contacted by the OTC and asked to explain, Mind Cure issued a press release –”Mind Cure comments on recent promotional activity” – admitting that it had paid Sandstone $1,960,632.
Mind Cure denied any involvement in the NIA articles, denied that the articles caused the increase in the trading volume for its stocks and wrote, “The Company does not believe that statements in the Articles are false or misleading.”
Mind Cure admitted to having hired five PR companies, including Sandstone.[cxxvi]
Also in February, Mind Cure – which now had ten employees[cxxvii] – started the process of manufacturing pharmaceutical grade ibogaine for research.
This drug – which has been used ceremonially in West Africa for centuries at least – is extracted from roots of the wild iboga shrub, native to the Congo and Gabon, but the plant face extinction from habitat loss and growing global demand. A source of synthetic ibogaine might save the endangered iboga shrub, as well providing more standardization. The Mind Cure press release called ibogaine “among the most powerful anti-addiction drugs, particularly when used with proper supervision and support.”[cxxviii]
Mind Cure suggested that ibogaine could treat addiction by repairing and resetting the brain’s reward system and could heal Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by stimulating the growth of new brain cells.[cxxix]
“We are very excited about the potential to manufacture and provide a high-quality synthetic product for promising research avenues, without impacting the natural supply of this amazing psychedelic that needs to be protected,” Ramsden said.[cxxx]
By June, the company had succeeded in manufacturing synthetic ibogaine.
“We are the first among our peers to announce that type of news,” Ramsden told me. “Now we’re scaling up so that we’re able to provide ibogaine to researchers. Ultimately, it’s our goal to be a good drug provision partner to the people who want to treat against indications for ibogaine. And we’re preclinical on some investigations with ibogaine ourselves.[cxxxi]
The company also revealed to investors that in its first 15 months, it had earned zero revenue and had spent over $10 million – much of that on investor relations and marketing.[cxxxii] The stock-market valuation of the company was $32 million.
Another announcement in the fall of 2021 was that Mind Cure was starting to research the use of therapy involving MDMA (“ecstasy”) to treat women with persistently low sexual desire.
“We have identified a gap in the market to help women seeking improved desire,” Mind Cure said in a corporate presentation. “Desire is a product of the mind and we believe that MDMA can treat the root causes of HSDD [hypoactive sexual desire disorder] which are often linked to trauma or negative experiences. MDMA has been reported to increase sexual desire and satisfaction.”[cxxxiii]
Ramsden announced, “What we’re hoping to achieve is a new paradigm of care. The things that are currently on the market don’t address the mental aspects of desire. Anecdotally, MDMA has been reported to increase sexual desire and satisfaction.”[cxxxiv]
In March 2022, Mind Cure announced it would no longer carry on any psychedelic-related business, noting that “the additional capital required to execute the Company’s business plan is unlikely to be found under the current and foreseeable market conditions and that none of the strategic alternatives available to the Company necessitated ongoing developmental expenditures. Accordingly, the Board has taken the decision to immediately eliminate all expenditures outside those required to preserve the value of the Company’s assets, including its public company status with Canadian securities regulators and cash and cash equivalents of approximately $10.57 million.”[cxxxv]
The author of Success Hangover had failed.
Todd Shapiro (CEO of Red Light)
When Todd Shapiro was going to high school in Toronto, he and his friends started an annual tradition that would last well into their university years.
They would all go up north for a weekend for a canoe trip or a stay at someone’s cottage, where they would eat a “shit ton” of magic mushrooms and “trip out.” Using the easy-to-acquire fungus as a party drug, “We would have some of the best nights of our lives,” Shapiro later said. “I had very special moments with my very close friends … A lot of great communication that happened. I remember going from room to room and being just as excited going from one room that had a stucco ceiling to one that had a hardwood floor.” He enjoyed questioning his friends on their experiences. “What did you explore and what did you see?” He also loved the after-glow period. These northern trips in Shapiro’s late teens and early twenties were “beautiful moments that we still cherish and talk about today.”[cxxxvi]
Shapiro graduated from York University’s sociology program at 27, then worked for an air conditioning and heating business. Living in a friend’s basement apartment, “I was upset and depressed and not knowing what to do with my life,” he said.[cxxxvii]
His personality was lively and entertaining when with friends “at the bar or whatever,” he said, but “super insecure and shy” in other situations. He was especially uncomfortable around cameras and microphones, but his friends pushed him to go into entertainment. “They were like, ‘You should do more you for everybody else other than just our little group here passing the joints around in a garage.'”[cxxxviii]
So he started with the radio and TV program at Seneca College. In 1999, while still a student, his friends urged him to apply to be a contestant on the romantic reality TV show Blind Date. Shapiro made his pitch in CityTV’s “Speaker’s Corner” video booth and was accepted, beating out over 10,000 other applicants.
After the show aired, the Canadian daters were invited onto the CityTV-affiliated Humble and Fred Show on Toronto radio station 102.1, The Edge. A fan of the DJ duo, Shapiro told them what he was studying and asked to be an intern. “Come back tomorrow,” Humble said.[cxxxix]
That started a 20-plus year career in radio. When Humble and Fred left 102.1, Shapiro started working on the Dean Blundell Show, first as a side-kick, then as a co-host on the morning-zoo-style program.
Known on-air as “Toddy Tickles,” “Re-Todd” and “Todd on the Street,” Shapiro became infamous for outrageous on-air antics, such as walking around Toronto’s University Station wearing nothing but an adult diaper. He sneaked into hotels and banged on the doors of out-of-town hockey players on game day against the Toronto Maple Leafs, trying to disturb their sleep. He interviewed homeless people in a rude, nasty way. Shapiro interviewed his own grandmother in an old age home, asking bizarre questions about her sex life.
“I definitely was encouraged to push the boundaries,” Shapiro later said, to be “the best of the bad.”[cxl]
Shapiro and Blundell were rebuked by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for sanctioning violence in a discussion about a fist-fight at a Remembrance Day ceremony, by praising someone for beating up a protestor and by calling protesters “bitches,” “skanks” and a “prick.” In 2004, Blundell and Shapiro were suspended without pay for ignoring requests from management to end an interview in which a guest was urinating on the studio floor.[cxli]
A labour-court judge would write that the “shock jock” conversations between Shapiro and Blundell were “regarded by some as crude, juvenile, ignorant, sexist or bigoted.”[cxlii]
The labour court got involved in 2013 after Blundell and Shapiro’s relationship ended in an ugly way. According to legal papers filed by Shapiro, Blundell had become increasingly abusive towards him. After Blundell learned that Shapiro had spoken to the program director about Blundell, Blundell became enraged at Shapiro and yelled swear-words at him and punched a wall, Shapiro claimed. When Shapiro raised the matter with senior management, he was fired because the two could not work together anymore and Blundell was more important, Shapiro claimed, saying that his firing was reprisal for complaining about Blundell.[cxliii]
Despite being famous, driving a Porche, living in a luxury downtown condo and being a “playboy” who met women in the booths-and-bottle-service nightclub scene, Shapiro had suffered from anxiety and depression for years. His lifestyle “wasn’t causing me much fulfillment.”[cxliv]
After being let go after 14 years at 102.1, “I was crushed” he said. But he soon got his own show on Sirius XM satellite radio, along with a new attitude. “We may sometimes still be juvenile, but we’re never mean-spirited,” he said. “I still want to make people laugh, but not … by wearing a man-diaper.”[cxlv]
Shapiro would later express regret for his behaviour on the Blundell show. “People make mistakes, we fuck up once in a while, can’t we become better and can’t we just say yeah, we’ve grown from that, that was a terrible decision?”[cxlvi]
Shapiro was driving his car when I interviewed him. He said over the phone that, during his seven years on Sirius XM, he had a contract in which he sold the ads for his show. “Some of the clients I went after were ones that couldn’t really advertise on mainstream radio,” he told me. “So I’d go after cannabis companies or I’d go after crypto companies. Really interesting stuff. And through that I learnt a lot about capital markets. And all of these companies wanted to pay in things like options or shares because they didn’t have as much capital available. Because of that, I really liked [investing in small companies]. It was something that was new and intriguing to me.”[cxlvii]
He started to work as a branding consultant with companies in both of those sectors, also getting into stock-market day trading.[cxlviii]
Canadian cannabis dealer Canopy Growth, which would later be worth $25 billion,[cxlix] hired Shapiro as its brand ambassador. Shapiro would MC big shindigs at Canopy’s Smith Falls, Ontario weed farm. At one event there, which featured a Snoop Dogg concert, Shapiro would see Canopy CEO Bruce Linton, blowing up beach balls and tossing them to the crowd enjoying the music. It impressed Shapiro that Linton was hard-working and humble enough to do that. Linton and Shapiro developed a friendship and a mentor/protege relationship.[cl]
Despite Linton having had a bad shroom trip – he hallucinated a horrific vision of severed blue jay heads piled in a bucket of KFC[cli] – Linton already saw psychedelics as an industry of the future, one in which he could apply his skills and connections.
Another new friend was Canadian comedian Russell Peters, who spoke on the show about his struggles with depression.[clii]
Shapiro was intrigued by his interview with Daniel Carcillo, a hockey player who won two Stanley Cups then suffered from post-concussion syndrome. Carcillo had been suicidal, he told Shapiro, until he tried a large dose of magic mushrooms that saved his life and inspired him to start Wesana Health, a successful psychedelic therapy company.
Shapiro also interviewed and befriended Tony Clement, a stridently anti-drug Conservative politician and former federal Health Minister. Clement left politics after the public learned of his habit of sending people explicit sex-videos of himself.
Shapiro told me, “What led me into psychedelics was, through my media background, meeting so many people, interviewing top celebrities, athletes and actors. A lot of these conversations kept coming back to mental health. People struggling with anxiety and all this kind of stuff. A lot of people would open up, even on air, talking about microdosing. ‘Have you tried this? Have you tried psychedelics, not to get high but to help with calmness and anxiety?’ I just fell in love with it. I read about it. I, myself, am an anxious guy. And I tried [microdosing psilocybin] and it really worked for me.”[cliii]
He “started to use it a little bit more, but not like the tripped-out days I did in college,” Shapiro said. He would only microdose, i.e. taking a small amount at a time, not enough to cause hallucinatory effects.
“You’re not getting distorted views of lights and your phone’s not bending on you … Things aren’t distorted or weird or crazy.” He realized that “This is working for me. This is helping with my focus. This is helping me park my anxiety and my fears.” He credited it with helping him to be more connected to other people. “I have a one year old and a five year old … With the kids I really connected, you see life through their eyes … I sat with my wife and we had a two hour conversation and no-one put up their guard and we didn’t freak out if the baby is crying in the other room, we just sort of enjoyed living in that moment.”[cliv]
In a past visit to the Netherlands, Shapiro had tripped on magic truffles.
Which are not the savoury truffles that people eat in gourmet restaurants. Rather, magic truffles are nut-like lumps of underground mycelium (the fungal version of plant roots) that are grown by psilocybe fungi to store nutrients underground. They are distinct from magic mushrooms, which sprout aboveground to release spores to reproduce.
Due to a quirky wording of the law found in no other country, magic truffles were completely legal in Holland, while magic mushrooms were banned, even though both of them contained psilocybin and both were parts of the same organism.
Shapiro went to the Netherlands and tried microdosing magic truffles. They were sold in 20-30 gram packages that were not pre-portioned for microdosing, so he picked it apart and took small pieces at a time. He would eat a gram of truffle in the morning “to help me connect, to help me live in the moment, to help my anxiety.” The microdosing effect was “an exaggerated version of yourself in a very healthy way, [with] zero hangover,” he said.[clv] He became passionate about microdosing and decided to tell the world about it.[clvi]
“I was losing my passion for media and I thought to myself, if I could ever try to make a difference in this world – I have two small children – what would it be? It hit me that I wanted to try to be a voice to speak for the people wanting access [to psychedelics] now.”[clvii]
That was how Shapiro decided to start a psychedelics company.
Learning about capital markets became another passion. He realized that he had a deep network of celebrities and others that he had never tried to exploit. He reached out to Linton and others. “For the first time in my life, I asked people for money.” He raised four million Canadian dollars by 2020, when he started Red Light Holland.[clviii]
The name, inspired by Amsterdam’s legal prostitution district, was chosen for its sex appeal and because Shapiro hoped it to be polarizing and controversial, which would draw attention to the brand.[clix]
Shapiro became Red Light’s CEO. He recruited guests from his radio show to join his board of directors. Linton did so, as did anti-drug-politician and hypocrite Tony Clement.
Shapiro and Linton talked every day, Shapiro told me.[clx]
Clement “is a former Health Minister of Canada,” he also informed me. “He is also the former Minister of Industry – so he’s vastly experienced and vastly knowledgeable in all aspects of business. And while Tony actually can’t lobby, I believe, for about five years after stepping down from a politician, he’s obviously super connected. So while he can’t lobby, he can open up his Rolodex to us.”[clxi]
Comedian Russell Peters became Red Light’s chief creative officer.
Shapiro left satellite radio later that year, to concentrate on his increasingly successful company.
Red Light became a publicly-traded company in May 2020 through a take over of Added Capital, a company listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CSE) that had no income or assets.
The shell company – which had previously been named Northern Financial, Digital Gem, American Gem and Dolphin Explorations – changed its name again, to Red Light Holland.
This tactic let Shapiro’s company enter the capital market without the paperwork and regulatory scrutiny of an initial public offering.
The renamed company had its headquarters on Toronto’s Adelaide Street and traded under the ticker symbol TRIP.
Red Light’s CSE filing said that the company’s management believed there was “a sizeable legal market for fresh, unprocessed truffles within the Netherlands, and further, believes that there is a promising prospect for a strong, legal recreational truffles industry to emerge over time, globally … The truffles industry (and consumer perceptions thereof) will likely undergo a paradigm shift that is analogous to the change experienced by the cannabis industry … The recent wave of deregulation and legalization of recreational cannabis across the globe will provide jurisdictions with the impetus to shift their focus to truffles … [Red Light is] optimistic about the future of psychedelics.”
In addition to recreational use, Red Light also indicated an interest in psilocybin’s use as medicine, referring to the $15 billion-dollar global anti-depressant market as a “promising opportunity to capitalize on.”
Also in May 2020, Red Light made a deal with an established Dutch magic truffle company to introduce Red Light branded truffles to the Holland market. The plan was for this company to grow, package and distribute to “smart shops” (retailers specializing in psychedelics) two kinds of magic truffles on Red Light’s behalf, with psilocybe cubensis truffles branded as Red Light’s “Bicycle Day” and psilocybe tampanesis branded as Red Light’s “Bliss.”
Red Light business plan was to “disrupt existing norms” on the branding, packaging and marketing of truffles to consumers.
Also that May, the company leased a 3,000 square building in Horst, Holland, where it planned to start growing its own as soon as possible. To comply with Holland’s Opium Act (which dealt with all illegal drugs, not just opium), Red Light told potential investors it would grow its crops in sealed, airtight bags, creating a precise and controlled environment to stop truffles from turning into illegal mushrooms.[clxii]
In June, Red Light started trading on the Frankfurt stock exchange, also under the symbol TRIP. Being on a German market “will provide the company with access to a larger number of potential investors and help expand the company’s shareholder base within Europe,” Shapiro said.[clxiii]
The Horst building was ready sooner than expected and began growing three kinds of psychedelic fungus that July: psilocybe tampanensis, psilocybe galindoe and psilocybe mexicana. The plan for the first batch was to grow 100,000 grams by late October.[clxiv] (Which equals 100 kilograms or 240 pounds: the weight of a very large man.)
Shapiro quickly soured on the names “Bicycle Day” and “Bliss,” deciding to sell truffles under the “iMicrodose” brand instead.
In a striking black, orange and purple box – with a logo that looked like a combination light bulb, flower and human brain – on September 25 the first packages of iMicrodose truffles went on sale at three smart shops and on-line. The boxes contained 15 grams, divided into one-gram units for microdosing. “This is truly a magical day,” Shapiro said.[clxv] He celebrated with a $50,000[clxvi] live-streamed launch party in Amsterdam for “press, artists, thought-leaders, successful entrepreneurs, local celebrities and social media influencers, as well as … local live artists and DJs.”[clxvii]
Russell Peters was scheduled to attend the party and there try psilocybin for the first time but was unable to get into Europe due to Covid-19 restrictions.[clxviii]
Red Light next announced plans to buy a Dutch wholesale distributor specializing in psychedelics, cannabis and related items for about $2 million. This same company would, in October 2020, buy most of the 85,000 grams of Red Light’s first truffle harvest.[clxix]
The first harvest was 15% less than the 100,000 grams originally anticipated, partially due to spoilage.[clxx]
They quickly “planted” the next crop, which they estimated would be more than ten times bigger than the first: a million-gram harvest of magic truffles[clxxi], enough for a million days of microdosing.
Red Light explained to investors:
The cultivation of truffles begins with the sealed airtight bags, which contain the necessary substrate, and spores. The sealed airtight bags, with the aforementioned contents, must remain in a temperature controlled room for approximately 16 weeks, at which point they are ready for harvest. However, once the truffles are ready for harvest, they do not need to be harvested immediately, but rather can be harvested over a time period of up to 8 weeks. Harvesting entails opening the sealed airtight bags and separating the truffles from the substrate using a mesh. Following the mesh separation, the truffles are washed to further remove any substrate from the truffles. Once all substrate is removed from the truffles, a spinner is used to help remove excess water. Truffles are then laid out to dry until most external moisture has evaporated. Once the truffles are sufficiently dry, they are weighed and packaged into vacuum sealed bags and stored in a fridge that holds a temperature between 2-4 degrees Celsius.[clxxii]
Shapiro – who during his time in Amsterdam would “microdose a ton,” in addition to his usual 2-3 glasses of wine each night[clxxiii] – and his management team kept a close watch on legal changes regarding psychedelics around the world, looking for an opportunity to become the first player in a new market.
When voters in the US state of Oregon voted to legalize psilocybin, Red Light quickly made a deal with Vancouver-based cannabis firm Halo Labs for a joint partnership to enter Oregon’s medical psilocybin market. “We feel we could become a model for the development of psilocybin products for the Oregon market to be used to potentially treat chronic mental health issues like anxiety, depression and addiction,” Shapiro said.[clxxiv]
Spying its next international opportunity, Red Light hooked up with Disruptive Pharma, a Latin American focused pharmaceutical investment company, for a joint venture to provide magic truffles to Brazil. With 200 million people, “Brazil’s market is huge,” Shapiro said. “We look forward to bringing our knowledge in growing magic truffles for the purpose of cultivating, manufacturing and distributing in Brazil.”[clxxv]
Red Light next announced its hiring of a Canadian lobbying firm to convince the Canadian government to give Red Light an exemption to use psilocybin in mental health clinical studies.[clxxvi]
“Being a Canadian company, we’re bullish on the idea that Canada might legalize magic mushrooms much like they did with cannabis,” Shapiro told me. “There’s no predicting if, or when, it can happen, but it’s following some of the same paths. Before cannabis was legal, they had an exemption 56. It was a Health Canada approved exemption for people to use cannabis for things like cancer or if they were terminally ill or had AIDS … And we’re starting to see Canada give these very same exemption 56 licenses for individuals to use psilocybin for those same reasons. We think that’s precedent-setting and we applaud, obviously, if someone is terminally ill and wants to come to terms with dying. Does that mean, though, that somebody suffering from trauma shouldn’t also have access? Or someone who just has mild anxiety shouldn’t have access?”
Shaprio’s company ended 2020 with its boldest announcement yet: its intention to buy Mera Life Sciences, a medical research firm in the southern Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Like Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan, St. Vincent’s government was trying to make the country an international leader in modern medical research. The St. Vincent government gave Mera Life Sciences licences to import and to conduct research on psilocybin, ketamine, MDMA, DMT, ibogaine and mescaline – licences Shapiro’s company would acquire with Mera Life.
“The emerging modern plant-based medicinal research industry in the Caribbean is the future and St. Vincent and the Grenadines is leading on this path,” said St. Vincent’s Minister of Agriculture, Saboto Caesar, pointing out that his country “has been able to attract experts interested in exploring the medicinal value of indigenous plants, cannabis and other plants that may thrive in tropical conditions and possess medicinal properties.”
“We are the people’s company and we want to work closely with countries willing to develop plant and fungus based remedies,” Shapiro said. “We now understand that St. Vincent and the Grenadines shares our vision.”[clxxvii]
Shapiro retained local lawyers and had discussions with the St. Vincent government to identify the approvals, permits and licences needed to set up a new research facility there (at an estimated $2.5 million cost, in addition to Mera’s price-tag).[clxxviii]
While the St. Vincent deal was being negotiated, Shapiro got some good news – the government of Brazil had given authorization for Red Light’s iMicrodose packs to be imported into Brazil for a patient prescribed psilocybin by a doctor in a system similar to Canada’s Health Canada’s s. 56 exemptions. The Brazil authorization was to supply psilocybin for a single patient who had specifically requested psilocybin in the form of iMicrodose.
“This is a monumental day for the company,” Shapiro said. “The first time having our product prescribed by a doctor for medical use … One micro step for man, one macro leap for mankind.”[clxxix]
More good news came in March, when Red Light completed its first import into Canada of Holland-grown magic truffles under a Health Canada permit, to be studied by a Canadian research lab.
“Today is another ground-breaking, precedent-setting and defining leap forward for the entire psychedelic sector,” Shapiro said. “Very proud to have our Netherlands-grown magic truffles … in Canada. They’ve arrived home.”[clxxx]
Red Light’s return to Canada continued the next month, when it announced its purchase of Happy Caps Mushroom Farm in Halifax. This farm grew food mushrooms and grow-at-home food mushroom kits. Both sides of its business could, if allowed by law, easily switch from food mushrooms to magic mushrooms.
Shapiro shouted, “Now this gets me excited!”
Happy Caps’s chief marketing officer yelled back: “We are making mushroom growing easy and accessible, and Red Light Holland gets that!”[clxxxi]
(Exclamation marks are not usually found in corporate press releases.)
Later, when the Happy Caps deal was finalized, Shapiro said, “Growing your own mushrooms is going from the ground to the moon,” and that he believes that soon Canadian adults will be able to legally grow their own magic mushrooms and magic truffles at home.[clxxxii]
Shapiro added, “I’ve got a six year old at home who absolutely loves his Happy Caps home mushroom grow kit and every day his mushrooms are growing and he thinks he’s a little farmer and he’s so excited to learn more about the farming space and this brings me so much joy.”[clxxxiii]
Red Light entered into a controlling partnership with another food mushroom producer on Canada’s east coast, Acadian Exotic Mushrooms. It was located at Eel River Crossing in New Brunswick and able to produce 5,000 pounds of shiitake mushrooms per week. The sellers of the farm agreed to buy all the mushrooms from the farm for the next three years at a minimal price, Shapiro said, “effectively guaranteeing revenue for the partnership! I also envision throwing some kick ass concerts on the owned land!”[clxxxiv]
All seemed to be going well for Red Light.
But then disaster struck – followed by bitter disappointments.
Shapiro had been spending a lot of time in the tropical paradise of St. Vincent, starting with a two-week Covid-19 quarantine, as he pushed for the Mera Life deal. He grew very fond of the beauty of the nation and its people.[clxxxv]
Red Light seemed about to take another dramatic step forward in international expansion when it announced plans to merge with Creso Pharma, a Australian cannabis company, to form a new company called HighBrid Lab. The combined cannabis/psychedelics company would be worth $347 million, according to a Red Light press release, and would continue to trade on the CSE under the TRIP ticker symbol. Three of HighBrid’s directors were to be from Red Light and three from Creso, with Bruce Linton as the seventh and chair. Shapiro would be the first CEO of the new company.[clxxxvi]
Creso had “rewarded our aggressive approach in the psychedelic sector by agreeing to pay us a significant premium to our share price and market cap,” Shapio boasted.[clxxxvii]
This would be the first major merger in the psychedelic sector and Red Light’s competitors took notice.
“We are very pleased to have worked through over one third of the 1,000,000 gram grow … and look forward to continuing to harvest and sell truffles through the summer and into the fall,” Shapiro said.[cxc]
Red Light’s total value (“market capitalization”) reached $160 million.[cxci]
Despite the many problems associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, it seemed like everything was going Red Light’s way.
Todd Shapiro was in St. Vincent on April 9, 2021. He had finished his Covid-19 quarantine a few weeks earlier and was meeting with Mera representatives and government officials, discussing details of the proposed deal, also conducting media interviews on Zoom[cxcii] … when the island of St. Vincent literally exploded.
A volcano on the northern tip of the island erupted, repeatedly, sending burning gases, lava and dust down, covering two thirds of the land. About 30,000 people had their homes destroyed and the entire island lost access to electricity and clean water.
The natural disaster forced Shapiro to flee the island.[cxciii] The St. Vincent government was too busy dealing with the urgent humanitarian crisis to discuss the psychedelic take-over, delaying the deal indefinitely.
Would the volcano disaster change things in the country so much that acquiring Mera Life Sciences and building a lab in St. Vincent was no longer possible?
Around the same time, Shapiro got more disappointing news. Due to bureaucratic delays, the iMicrodose truffles shipped from the farm in Horst, Holland to Brazil spoiled before reaching the requesting patient. Red Light had to try again and hope to avoid another ruinous delay by Brazilian customs authorities.[cxciv]
Even more disappointment: the big merger deal with the Australian cannabis company Creso fell apart. The press release said that Red Light and Creso had “mutually agreed” to end the deal because of “various impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic, including significant travel restrictions.” It also pointed blame at “integration difficulties [that] would limit the anticipated synergies.”
Shapiro said that Red Light is “continuing our search for other M&A opportunities as we are confident that our large cash balance puts us in a position of strength as potential progressive regulatory changes in the North American psychedelic and recreational cannabis sectors open up.”[cxcv]
Despite his positive spin, Red Light’s CEO could not hide the fact that the first big attempted merger in the global psychedelic industry – so celebrated and hyped by both parties – had failed.
After this string of bad news for Red Light, things started to improve.
The company successfully imported into Canada another shipment of magic truffles from Holland.
This second shipment contained 1,500 grams – 500 grams each of three psilocybe fungal varieties – and was the largest legal importation and the largest legal sale of magic truffles in Canadian history.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Shapiro noted.[cxcvi]
And as international aid helped St. Vincent to recover from the volcano situation, ongoing negotiations with Mera led to a breakthrough. In late summer 2021, Red Light announced a final agreement for it to buy the smaller company and its collection of psychedelic licences. Red Light paid with its own shares, not cash. Mera was to have its name changed to “Scarlette Lillie Science and Innovation.”
Scarlette is the name of Shapiro’s daughter.
As the island nation rebuilt, St. Vincent’s Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar praised Red Light as a “pioneer of the nascent competitive modern medicinal and wellness industry.”
Caesar thanked Shapiro’s company for its $53,000 donation to post-volcano reconstruction and its “long-term investment, partnership and commitment to the people and economy of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”[cxcvii]
With licences, a lab and the support of a progressive government that can be compared to Saskatchewan’s CCF government in the 1950s, Red Light was suddenly positioned to make as big a splash in the medical psychedelics sector as it had in the recreational sector.
“In closing the acquisition of Mera, we’ve also executed on two other major initiatives: accessing new markets where possible and finalizing the addition of applied sciences capabilities to our business,” Shapiro said.
“Having spent a significant amount of time working with the major stakeholders in St. Vincent and the Grenadines over the last six months, I am confident that this acquisition will allow us to broaden our scope for research and development, production and patient access of psychedelic compounds in groundbreaking ways.
“We are proud of being international pioneers and our quest to expand into progressive and emerging psychedelic markets in various countries has just begun.”[cxcviii]
Daniel Carcillo (CEO of Wesana)
When Daniel Carcillo was playing left wing in the National Hockey League, he earned that nickname for his frequent moments of explosive on-ice violence.
From 2007 to 2009, “Carbomb” Carcillo led the NHL in penalties: many of them for assaulting other players and, once, elbowing a referee in the face.
He also attacked other players and officials with words, hurling racist, homophobic and a wide variety of other insults during games.
He got into over 149 bare-knuckle fist-fights while playing in the NHL.
A tough enforcer who could occasionally score a goal, Carcillo had a high-profile, well-paid, 429-game-long professional hockey career, playing for the Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks, winning the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015.
His picture appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
But there was a big price-tag.
He retired from the NHL with a broken body and mind.
Soon, Carcillo was planning suicide.
He wasn’t always “Carbomb.”
Born in 1985, Daniel Carcillo grew up in a small Ontario town, King City, about an hour’s drive north of Toronto.
Carcillo learned to skate at age four.
He was drawn to hockey because of its “speed, competition, physicality and unity within the team,” he later wrote in a preface to the book Major Misconduct: The Human Cost of Fighting in Hockey.
“When I watched Hockey Night in Canada, famous commentators Don Cherry and Ron MacLean highlighted and honoured big hits and fights the most. Looking back on my career and life, I can now see that I was trained from a young age to play the game of hockey with the goal of taking away my opponent’s will to play. You lean on your opponent through physical force until they hesitate to go for the puck. Because of Don Cherry and his videos, kids like me were siting at home in front of the TV subconsciously absorbing a narrative … that hate and rivalries are more important than scoring more goals than the other team. That fighting and physical contact are integral components of the sport of hockey.”[cxcix]
Carcillo’s family did not teach him emotional understanding and how to express one’s feelings, he later said, and the lack of an emotional outlet at home led to hockey filling that void. “Hockey appealed to me because all of a sudden I had an avenue to express all of this frustration and confusion and anger I had built up within me from a very early age.”[cc]
Carcillo had two loves as a kid: hockey and the Catholic church. Saturday nights were for hockey and on Sunday mornings he was an altar boy.
“I was super religious,” he later said. “I wanted to be a priest. I went to priesthood school when I was younger. And at 12, I had a fucking decision to make, man – going to Sunday hockey tournaments or continuing in the youth group and the church. And I chose hockey, man. I was an angry, confused kid and hockey’s a great outlet if you have anger.”[cci]
Drawn into hockey because of the emotional release it offered, Carcillo’s hard work and natural talent enable him to excel in the junior leagues.
He had good experiences in the juniors, but also suffered horrific abuse.
In a later lawsuit against several junior leagues and teams, Carcillo claimed:
Canadian major junior hockey has been plagued by rampant hazing, bullying, and abuse of underage players, by coaches, team staff and senior players …
The Defendants perpetuated a toxic environment that condones violent, discriminatory, racist, sexualized, and homophobic conduct, including physical and sexual assault, on the underage players they are obligated to protect.
Most players enter the Leagues at the age of 16 or 17 and many play to the age of 20. Some players enter the league as young as 15. The majority of these children leave their homes and families to play hockey for a team in a different town or city, far from their parents. They are billeted with a local family and attend the local high school. They are young, impressionable and vulnerable. They are completely inculcated into the culture of their Team and the Leagues. They are deeply incentivized to comply with League and Team culture by the potential to be drafted to the NHL. The power imbalance between these children and the older players, coaches, Team and League officials is extreme.
The opportunities for abuse of power are omnipresent, and the Defendants have failed in their duties to protect the children under their care. The result is decades of rampant child abuse which has left [Carcillo and the other plaintiffs] with emotional and physical injuries that are entirely unrelated to hockey.
Carcillo claimed that when he played for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting in 2002-2003, he and other rookies were abused every day by older Sarnia players and staff.
According to his statement of claim, Carcillo was forced to sit naked in the shower room while other players urinated and spat on them; frequently hit on his bare buttocks with a sawed-off goalie stick, causing large welts and open sores; locked naked in a bus bathroom with seven other naked rookies for hours, as the older players poured urine and spit on them through a vent; repeatedly put into a laundry bin on wheels, which would be crashed into a wall, causing injuries; forced to take part in sexual acts at orgies while the older players watched; and more, often involving bodily fluids or sexualization.
Carcillo was aware of other players who were forced into even more demeaning and disgusting acts of perverse hazing.
Carcillo’s experience during his rookie year left him permanently traumatized, he later claimed. He suffered severe mental health issues which were not present before the abuse he endured. He continues to suffer from these mental health issues to this day.[ccii]
Before entering the NHL, Carcillo was not known as a tough guy. He dished out a lot of bodychecks but had few fights. “He was such a beautiful player,” one coach later said of him. “He wasn’t this bruiser that you see, this Carbomb guy. He was just an incredible goal scorer.”[cciii]
However, long before Carcillo became “Carbomb,” he became an obnoxious bully.
“It’s some kind of rite of passage to be able to degrade a minor,” he later said. “It’s easy to be abused and it’s easy to do it to the next person.”
When Carcillo played junior hockey with a Black player, future NHL winger Anthony Stewart, Carcillo and other players would chant “White power!” at Stewart. Stewart said that Carcillo used to call him “nigger” and show a swastika to him. Carcillo treated Black player Wayne Simmonds in a similar way.
A minor league referee would later write to Carcillo: “You were one of the worst people I dealt with in the game of hockey. You were awful to all of us.”[cciv]
In 2005-2006, Carcillo was old enough and good enough to turn professional. Before starting his first year in the American Hockey League, he gained 20 pounds of muscle in the off-season, having decided that increasing his ability to fight would increase his value.
“If I can add enforcer to my resume, that will get me to the NHL quicker and help me stay around longer,” he later observed. “Little did I know I would eventually be pigeonholed into a role that would nearly kill me and rob me of much of the joy of playing hockey at the professional level. I can now see how the subconscious messages I received as a child right through my teens about how to nobly play the game of hockey, combined with the abusive events of my rookie season, shaped me into the reckless, angry and higly volatile hockey player who was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. This mindset was both my best weapon and my biggest flaw.”[ccv]
“I was an abuser, I was a bully, I was a racist, homophobic piece of fucking shit.”[ccvi]
Daniel Carcillo deliberately injured many opposing players (and one referee) and the NHL suspended or fined him nine times over his career.
Carcillo’s traumas, especially those from his rookie year in Sarnia, “were the reasons why I played the way I did. The way I managed it was by beating people up on the ice. That was the ‘Carbomb.’”[ccvii]
A 2015 editorial in the Hockey News called Carcillo an “unrepentant [and] reckless player with a history of delivering dangerous, injurious hits” who deserved a long suspension for a “dirty cross-check” on Winnipeg Jets forward Mathieu Perreault.[ccviii]
“Carbomb” was loved by fans and teammates but suffered unbearable, unsustainable stress.[ccix] He abused alcohol until, at age 23, he was convicted of driving under the influence and went to rehab to give up drinking. At 25, he went to rehab again, this time for opiate addiction.[ccx]
The most turbulent season of Carcillo’s career was his last, 2014-2015. It started well. In November, his wife gave birth to his first child, a son.
In February, Carcillo’s best friend and Blackhawks team-mate Steve Montador killed himself at the age of 35. The pair had bonded over their similar experiences with substance abuse and severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). Carcillo’s brain damage – mainly from bare-knuckled punches to the left side of his helmetless head – did not seem as severe as Montador’s, but the two shared symptoms: insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, head pressure, headaches, impaired vision, light sensitivity and difficulties with problem-solving, concentration and impulse control.[ccxi]
In March, Carcillo suffered his seventh diagnosed concussion.
After, “I couldn’t look at my phone for a week because of the light sensitivity. I had a newborn son at home and I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted everyone to leave me alone.”[ccxii]
In June 2015, he won his second and last Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks.
Soon after that, Carcillo decided to retire at age 30, mainly due to TBI.
“I fell into a deep depression and I was an unreachable, lost soul for seven months. When I retired, I was spiritually, mentally and physically dead.”
The urge for suicide, the urge to follow Steve Montador, became overwhelming.[ccxiii]
“I spent three weeks making plans to take my own life,” he says of this time. “I felt I had become a burden … and I thought my family would be better off without me.”[ccxiv]
Carcillo reached out for help. Over the next few years, he spent about $200,000 on different kinds of TBI treatment. Concussion clinics, brain banks, CT pathologists, neurologists, acupuncture, hyperbaric changers, self deprivation and more. Nothing helped him much or for long.
“The pharmaceuticals that were prescribed to me increased my suicidal ideation,” Carcillo told me in our interview. “So I stopped those pretty quickly … I got to this point in early 2019 where I was almost broke, almost divorced, and luckily I have a strong wife who managed to stay with me and stick by me. We have three kids under the age of five. And with TBI, when you can’t figure it out, and you’re a passionate advocate like I was, and you feel like you’ve tried everything, you become hopeless. And that’s when the suicidal ideation really started to become real. And you start to make plans to unburden yourself and unburden your family from what they’re seeing.”[ccxv]
In 2019, a former Flyers teammate and fellow enforcer, Riley Cote, read Carcillo’s description of his struggles on Twitter and reached out. Cote invited Carcillo to a farm to learn about CBD (a chemical from cannabis) and psilocybin. At the end of the tour of the farm, Cote surprised Carcillo by offering a traditional psilocybin ceremony on the spot.[ccxvi]
He took 5.6 grams; a so-called “hero dose.” The experience was powerful but unpleasant. “It was the most difficult two and a half hours of my life by far,” Carcillo later said.[ccxvii]
But “it changed my life,” Carcillo also later said. “It stimulated my brain. It did all of the things that the concussion clinics were supposed to do for me. And it was a natural form of medicine.”[ccxviii]
The day after the experience, he wandered around the farm without sunglasses, as his light sensitivity had much reduced. “And then I found myself FaceTiming my wife and my kids more often because I wanted to, I just couldn’t wait to race back to hug them. I just felt more connected. I felt like my brain fog was lifting and just really remarkable, remarkable things in a very short amount of time.”[ccxix]
After that, he started microdosing every third day.
Soon, Carcillo’s doctors would report that his brain and blood scans were normal for the first time since before his seventh concussion.
For the first time in many years, he was feeling great: confident and happy and at peace.
“When I got through about six months,” he told me, “my face completely changed, my attitude was completely different. I was just night and day. I wasn’t dealing with anxiety and depression.”[ccxx]
He travelled to Peru with US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for an ayahuasca retreat. On this trip, he felt a visit from his deceased grandparents.
He started reaching out to everyone he could remember bullying or otherwise harming. He apologized to many people, including Anthony Stewart and Wayne Simmonds, who both forgave him.
“You just look in the mirror and you think of the situations that you have guilt over and then you go and make amends,” he said. “Tell your friends to contact me, so I can apologize. If I’ve wronged you, come forward and if you want to do it in a public manner, no problem.”[ccxxi]
Psychedelics had defused the “Carbomb.”
Now, he wanted to help others.
He had once, as a goon, protected the other players on his team with his fists; now Carcillo dreamt of using psychedelics to protect the estimated millions TBI sufferers in North America, hundreds of thousands of whom die each year from it.
“I dove into the science and realized that [psychedelics] could be the first novel care option for TBI survivors … And then I just started to put the pieces of the puzzle in place to make this a reality and build a championship team around me.”[ccxxii]
Partnering with cannabis-industry entrepreneur Chad Bronstein, Carcillo started Wesana Health in May of 2020 with the goal of advancing psilocybin-based TBI treatment.
Carcillo is the largest shareholder in Wesana but does not own a majority of it.
Wesana has 24 employees, Carcillo told me. It researches psilocybin therapy while delivering legal ketamine therapy at its three US clinics.
Wesana raised $20 million in its first year, went public on the Canadian Stock Exchange and announced plans for human clinical trials.
“I came to this through a personal journey,” he told me. “I know that every other CEO claims that. But I’ve lived it …
“At Wesana, we have a championship team, and I feel blessed to be a part of that, to be at the helm of that and to be working on alleviating suffering.” …
Complete version of Shroom Boom: Canada’s Psychedelic Pioneers at: