The Masters of Bad Trips

By Lily Kay Ross, PhD|November 11, 2021

As proponents of psychedelics begin to grapple with legacies of abuse, it’s time to learn from victims themselves. Psymposia is co-producing an investigative podcast series, Power Trip, with New York Magazine.

Will Hall is not alone. I have spoken to many victims of practitioners who use psychedelic drugs to manipulate, exploit, and abuse the people who come to them for help.

All of the victims have stories to tell. The chorus of their voices tells the story not just of abuse — its contours and implications — but of silencing, and the psychedelic community’s collusion in keeping abuse hidden. In the name of protecting the so-called Psychedelic Renaissance, its proponents have asked victims to be quiet, to turn inward for answers, to educate their abusers, or to report what’s happened into a vacuum. The cost is us, the victims, collateral damage — made to feel like we are alone.

The problem is not bad apples, it’s bad ideas. For nearly two years, David Nickles and I have been digging. We’ve found that these bad ideas permeate the roots, bark, leaves, and soil of the whole orchard. They go back to the earliest days of psychedelic research and psychedelics as a cultural phenomenon within industrial contexts. Abuse has been here all along.

We victims have been here, too. We have been here for decades. We have fought back, complained, and resisted in pockets of isolation. We have tucked ourselves away and tended to our wounds on our own. Some of us have not survived. But in the last two years, we have begun to find each other and shine a light on abuse and its legacy. 

Some of the early stories of psychedelic abuse involved state torture. Documented stories of psychedelic sexual abuse date back to the 1980s, with the infamous cases of Rick Ingrasci and Franco Di Leo. Richard Yensen and Donna Dreyer abused a participant in the MAPS clinical trials. There are allegations of abuse against Francoise Bourzat and Aharon Grossbard, two co-founders of The Center for Consciousness Medicine, a training institution for psychedelic guides.

Ingrasci was the first prominent figure exposed for using psychedelics as a tool for sexual abuse. His case is also an early example of the psychedelic community’s capacity to sweep abuse under the rug. According to Will Hall,

Searching through the voluminous historical publications, studies, wikis, and reports in the psychedelics research world, however, I could find no accounting for or repudiation of Ingrasci by his colleagues. Not a word. No reckoning, no statement of support for Ingrasci’s victims, no gratitude for them coming forward, no “what does this mean for us.”

At a certain point, ignorance is willful. The psychedelic community has refused to learn critical lessons about ethics and safety. Today, that failure is threatening people’s lives.

Thirty years after the story of Ingrasci’s abuse broke in the press, I hope that we are starting to witness a reckoning. The response to Will Hall’s allegations has been swift. Social media flurries abound along with Signal and Discord threads, listservs, and countless private conversations, including at a recent Gathering of the Guides. Institutions and community members are issuing public statements. For example, Addressing Abuse and Repair: An Open Letter to the Psychedelic Community calls for an independent ethics council, transformative justice processes, reporting pathways, investigations, and “pathways back to community engagement” for abusers. 

Protecting people’s livelihoods, even if they’ve engaged in abuse, appears to be at the heart of  the current discussion.

We are having these conversations at the dawn of medicalization. The current discourse in the community, including the Open Letter, makes some thoughtful points about the issue more broadly. More people are joining a chorus calling for cultural change. After decades of silence, something is happening.

Still, I keep thinking about the impulse towards restoration and repair, “restorative” or “transformative” justice, and healing. As a victim of psychedelic abuse, I have been trying to draw attention to this issue for a decade. My concern is that the community may seek resolution, repair, and restoration as shortcuts. Moving too quickly toward repair rushes past us — the victims and survivors. It suppresses the realities of harm and impedes diagnosing the underlying problems.

Before we get to repair and restoration, justice and healing, I believe we have to look — without flinching — at what has happened, underground and above it, roots and stem. We have to look at abuse and its consequences in the lives of victims. We have to look at the cover story — the techniques of silencing and enabling that have allowed this abuse to go unchecked for decades. 

We have to diagnose the problem if we are to have any hope of finding a meaningful path forward that doesn’t leave victims behind.

These are the kinds of stories and issues we at Psymposia have been researching for years. That’s why Psymposia is co-producing Power Trip, the first season of New York Magazine’s investigative podcast series, Cover Story. We hope you will listen.

If you have a story to tell, please get in touch with us

This podcast sets out to explore the risks as well as the potential benefits of psychedelic drugs. We tell the untold stories because we believe the safety and integrity of this movement depends on listening to those who have been harmed and silenced. 

One part of the Open Letter keeps ringing in my ears. “We feel compelled to speak out. We cannot stay silent…” I’m glad people are speaking up now. As someone who tried to speak up a decade ago and was told by so many in this community to keep my head down and my mouth shut, I have to admit I feel a slight sting. But those words also give me hope. I am so glad you are ready to speak out. I hope you’re also ready to listen.

Hey! Before you go… Psymposia is a 501(c)(3) non-profit media organization that offers critical perspectives on drugs, politics, and culture. We strive to ask challenging questions, and we’re committed to independent reporting, critical analysis, and holding those who wield power accountable.

Our perspectives are informed by critical analysis of the systemic crises of capitalism that have directly contributed to the unmitigated growth of addiction, depression, suicide, and the unraveling of our social relations. The same economic elite and powerful corporate interests who have profited from causing these problems are now proposing “solutions”—solutions which both line their pockets and mask the necessity of structural change.   

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