Inside a spacious and light-filled retreat in the forest outside Portland, 30 students sat gazing into each other’s eyes.
A heavy silence filled the room, save for the occasional creaking chair. A soft voice urged the group to envision the pain and joy their fellow students had experienced during their lives, to view them as a friend, a child, a teacher. Some broke into grins, others teared up.
“We never get the opportunity to just look at somebody,” the instructor said.
The intense exercise was a fitting start to the day for students preparing for unconventional careers as facilitators in Oregon’s groundbreaking new psilocybin program.
The state is the first in the US to allow supervised use of the psychedelic for adults 21 and older. In a few months, the students, who include midwives, educators and retirees, could support people through a magic mushroom experience at one of Oregon’s 19 service centers.
But first, they’ll need to complete a program like the one taking place at InnerTrek – the first government-recognized licensed and operating training program in the world, according to staff. After they complete the training, they can go on to apply for their licenses with the state.
On a rainy Friday in November, a cohort gathered at InnerTrek’s rural campus for one of the program’s monthly in-person intensives. Some of the students were coming off their own group psilocybin trips, undertaken as part of their training. Seated in the wide space, they readied for a day that would include practical lectures on the state’s laws, as well as as scenario-based exercises designed to build their skills.
Stacey Lindberg, a homebirth midwife and hospice care worker in central Oregon, was inspired to attend InnerTrek in part due to her own experiences with psychedelics. The 45-year-old lost her father at a young age and was deeply depressed when a friend advised her to try LSD.
“From that day forward, I was not sad, really – I could see in everything I’ve experienced a gratitude, even for the hard things,” she said. “It shifted my whole trajectory of my whole life.”
History, ethics and acting
InnerTrek was founded by the original proponents of the ballot measure, Measure 109, that legalized supervised psilocybin use in Oregon. All facilitator schools must have their curriculum approved by the state.
Research has shown that supervised use of the drug can be an effective tool in alleviating symptoms of depression, PTSD and other conditions, but exploration of the drug’s therapeutic potential has been limited by stigma and a federal ban. A crackdown in the 1960s and Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” brought an end to what had been a fruitful period in the study of psychedelics and hampered research for decades.
InnerTrek views high-quality facilitators as core to an effort that they hope will revolutionize mental health care in the US and across the world.
“The facilitator community is the heart of this statewide program,” said Tom Eckert, the school’s founder and an architect of Measure 109. “This school is partly about knowledge and information, but it’s also about personal growth and defining this role in the culture through collective self-awareness and connection.”
During their state-mandated training, students are required to learn about everything from the history and pharmacology of psilocybin to the impact of US drug policy, as well as the ethics and safety of drug use. Today, the focus is on how they’ll manage small groups while also addressing individual needs and adhering to strict state rules about how they can interact with someone in an altered state of consciousness; facilitators can hug clients but cannot otherwise touch them beyond their hands, feet or shoulders.
Group settings are often more affordable for participants than individual experiences – a key concern when a solo psilocybin session can cost thousands of dollars – and provide a valuable healing space, an instructor, Jason Foster, tells students.
After a brief lecture, about a dozen students crowd around the chapel’s stage to simulate a challenging group session. A handful played facilitators, while others acted as clients who were struggling in some way, or eager to leave (under state law, clients must stay at a service center for a set period of time, depending on how much psilocybin they have consumed). Others acted loud and touchy toward those around them, and others feigned deep discomfort.
A psilocybin trip generally lasts between four and six hours, during which time the client can experience visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as changes to how they perceive themselves, time and space.
Tori Armbrust, the first licensed psilocybin manufacturer in Oregon, says psilocybin experiences are highly impactful and allow people to get out of some of their mental patterns and change their beliefs about themselves and other people. She’s described the experience as skiing down a hill; mushrooms, she says, can be like fresh snow on the mountain, allowing you to take new ways down.
In a 2008 study, nearly 70% of volunteers who consumed psilocybin described it as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives. But a psilocybin journey can be intense, which is why facilitators play a vital role.
The weight of that responsibility was evident as students acted out their scenes in front of each other, forcing themselves to get in the headspace of someone experiencing a challenging trip.
The scenes tested those acting as “facilitators” on their ability to improvise. The room grew particularly quiet as one student, playing the role of an anxious client insisting on leaving the service center, said he felt judged.
The “facilitator” held his hand and encouraged him. “You made it here. That’s a big step,” he said in a gentle voice. The tension eased.
‘You’re really getting out of the way’
InnerTrek students come from a wide range of backgrounds, but all seem to have had their own transformative experiences with psychedelics. Take Peregrine Somerville, a 41-year-old who plays extreme metal. He said psychedelics served as his introduction to spirituality as a teenager.
“I know, from personal experience, how powerful psychedelics can be for transformation, growth, and also how dangerous they can be if it’s not sufficiently contained, supported,” he said. ”I see it as work that can really transform the culture in some important ways.”
Lindberg has worked with psychedelics with different Indigenous groups for about 25 years, she said. As soon as Oregon’s ballot measure passed, she was interested in becoming a facilitator, work she views as similar to her roles as a midwife and in hospice.
“You’re holding a space for a journey,” she said. “Being the midwife, you sit there in silence while seeing what’s needed next. I find myself doing the same things at a birth as I would at a mushroom journey.”
While psilocybin experiences are often described as therapy, Oregon is explicit that its non-medical program is not, as the law passed by voters allows for “supported adult use” rather than a therapeutic model.
“People can come in the door for services for any reason – anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction [or] ‘I just want to experience this’ or ‘I feel stuck’ or ‘I’m dealing with grief’,” said Angela Allbee, who oversees the state program. “There’s no prohibition in our rules for why.”
The state does not require facilitators to have any background as clinicians, such as psychotherapists or doctors. Licensed facilitators are only required to be Oregon residents of at least two years, 21 years of age or older and have a high school diploma. The accessible education requirements were by design, said Nate Howard, the InnerTrek director of operations, who played a large role in the development of the state’s program.
Advanced education and training doesn’t necessarily make a good facilitator,Howard said. “Because so much of it comes down to doing the opposite of what we’re often taught.
“A lot of this work revolves around respecting what we believe to be a truth – which is that individuals are the unquestioned experts on themselves and we have the tools and the ability in ourselves to overcome our own trauma.”
The term facilitator can often be misleading, Howard warns. They are not guides and their actual responsibilities are to offer preparation, structure and an opportunity for clients to talk about their experiences afterward. “Sometimes psilocybin or different plant medicines can take us to very faraway realms, so facilitators can be kind of a bridge to help people return,” Lindberg explained.
This safe space created by the facilitator is referred to as a “container”, what the student Tonja Latham-Gustin describes as an “imaginary safe bubble, where everybody gets to be exactly who they are, with no pretenses. No judgments.”
“You’re offering a safe, comfortable container,” Howard says of facilitators. “But in the actual session itself, you’re really getting out of the way. I think the hardest thing for me and for a lot of people is actually avoiding getting involved.”
After a lecture on psilocybin’s impacts on the body and how it interacts with common medications, the day was coming to a close. In about a month, students will wrap the program. Some, including Somerville and Lindberg, plan to become licensed facilitators in Oregon. Others, such as Latham-Gustin, aren’t seeking credentials and will instead take their knowledge back to their home states, where psilocybin remains illegal.
Lindberg hopes to eventually get a job in a service center after she helps in her last births in June. Demand from clients at service centers is high – some have waitlists in the thousands.
Her future clients already include a very special person: her own mother.
Lindberg says her mother has never had an experience with psychedelics, but legalization opened her up to the idea, and her mother asked her to be her facilitator. “That makes me really happy. She trusts me.”
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