Jackson County, Oregon
First came Chrissi DelaCruz’s tough breakup with her boyfriend of nine years.
Then, her sister died.
The pain and loss led DelaCruz to traditional talk therapy. She also relied on alcohol.
But nothing really worked.
“I was feeling pretty sad and lonely and disconnected and was feeling pretty lost and hopeless in what I needed to do next in my life,” the 37-year-old told CNN.
Her next option would be a remedy the commercial real estate professional never imagined she’d end up advocating – and one that, while considered a therapeutic and healing drug by a growing number of health care professionals, has come under fire in Oregon ahead of next week’s election.
Psilocybin, also known as “magic mushrooms,” is a psychedelic used for centuries in ceremonies by traditional cultures, and interest in it by the modern medical and scientific community has grown since the ’50s.
DelaCruz signed up to try psilocybin to treat her mental health challenges in Jamaica – where using psychedelics is legal – on a retreat run by a company founded by an attorney in Oregon, where voters more than two years ago legalized its use on a protracted timeline, with licensing procedures set to launch in January.
As that date approaches, though, ballot measures Tuesday in roughly a third of the state’s counties and cities propose banning the psychedelic over concerns of a fraught rollout and problems it could stoke, from the substance’s effect on users to possible community consequences.
Opposing the bans and trying to educate voters about psilocybin are Oregonians – including the operator of the Jamaica center, Silo Wellness – who want to set up facilities in the state where it could be used under the strict guidelines already in place.
Before her Jamaica retreat, DelaCruz also wasn’t sure about psilocybin, even as Silo Wellness pledged an experience with psychedelics that would help find “peace and purpose.”
“I was totally nervous,” she admitted. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Scientists are still exploring the how and the why behind the connection between psychedelics and improved mental health. What is known is that just like common antidepressants called SSRIs, psilocybin attaches to receptors in the brain that trigger the release of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone.
But unlike antidepressants, which take at least a week to work and have to be taken daily, a psilocybin “trip” may improve mood in just one or two sessions. A single treatment with psilocybin reduced negative mood in people with treatment-resistant depression within three weeks, new research found.
“One of the most interesting things we’ve learned about the classic psychedelics is that they have a dramatic effect on the way brain systems synchronize, or move and groove together,” Matthew Johnson, a professor in psychedelics and consciousness at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told CNN earlier this year.
A common theory is the drugs somehow break down the brain’s typical boundaries, so parts of the brain that don’t normally connect to each other suddenly do. At the same time, areas of the brain locked into a cycle of depressive thoughts quiet. This may create a type of expanded consciousness, experts say, that appears to allow the depressed person to break free of self-criticism and see new possibilities.
Psilocybin can be taken in a pill form, smoked, ground and mixed with other foods, put into a smoothie or liquid, or even infused into chocolates and other sweets. A typical dose is a 25-milligram pill, which creates the full-blown psychedelic experience.
During most psilocybin studies, trained counselors are present to establish a supportive setting, set expectations and stop the trip from turning “bad,” which might feel like losing oneself or going crazy. They also help the person undergoing the experience organize and retain their new outlook on life via talk therapy.
DelaCruz and about a dozen others who met medical qualifications for the Silo Wellness retreat convened online regularly beginning two months before arriving in Jamaica in June to begin the five-day experience.
It included two psilocybin dosing sessions, dubbed “ceremonies.”
DelaCruz had it “in a powder form that was mixed with, like, a juice,” she said.
After 15 or 20 minutes, it took effect.
“It’s almost like I could see the life in everything around me,” she recalled. “It sounds weird, but it’s like (I could) feel what it really is like to feel alive.”
One of the sessions was “very hard” and “very emotional,” she said. But despite the increased anxiety and discomfort, it also was very effective.
“The biggest change was, I have more trust and confidence in myself through these ceremonies, therefore that allows me to reflect that back in my actions and in my thoughts and how I affect other people,” DelaCruz said.
“That proved to me that everything that I need to heal is within myself.”
The process, according to Silo Wellness CEO Mike Arnold, isn’t fun.
“(It) can be very, very uncomfortable most of the time, and you have to put in the work, too. So, after you’re done with it, even if you have a great session and you feel like you’re connected to nature and everything’s beautiful and easy … still, you gotta put in the work afterward.
“Like, there’s no magic here.”
Arnold founded Silo Wellness in 2018 after having what he described as a life-changing experience with psilocybin, then started the retreats in Jamaica.
How psilocybin may rewire the brain
In addition to a strict intake process that screens for underlying medical issues that might be worsened by psilocybin – such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – medical professionals on-site throughout the retreat keep close watch over participants before, during and after the ceremonies, he said.
“I think drugs are not the answer to anything,” Arnold said, but “certain molecules can be a tool to finding the answers if used appropriately and responsibly and safely.”
In 2020, Oregon became the first US state to legalize psilocybin for personal use for those over age 21. More than 1.2 million residents, or 55.7% of voters, voted in favor of legalizing it, with most of those opposed living in the rural eastern and southern parts of the state.
Yet unlike cannabis, which in Oregon and other states can be used at home, psilocybin must be administered at licensed “service centers” under the direction of trained “facilitators,” who must meet criteria including age and residency and pass regulations exams and background checks but need not have a medical background. Not required to be on hand in Oregon are counselors or therapists who support talk therapy and could help avert a “bad” trip.
Though the vote was two years ago, the application process to become a service center or facilitator is slated to start in January, and participants would have to complete a “preparation session” before receiving any psilocybin and have a designated driver after treatment. The rules also require any center to have a safety and security plan in place for each client and allow for, but do not require, a “client support person” to be present during the session.
Even under the tight rules, Arnold wants to bring Silo Wellness’s Jamaica retreat model to Oregon and has identified New Frontier Ranch in rural southern Jackson County as an ideal setting. He’d grow the mushrooms on-site in a small, indoor, lab-like space – separate from living quarters – where a bathtub-sized container could supply his retreats for an entire year.
Farther north, in McMinnville, Oregon, farmer Jason Lampman is eyeing the potential on a much smaller scale. He’s hoping to make his 1-acre orchard a psilocybin “service center” and treat people on-site, growing the mushrooms in a retrofitted shipping container and hosting clients for a few hours each in a yurt.
“There are laws and rules that are written out,” Lampman said. “This is safe, (and) it is extremely expensive to get into this and there are very strict rules.”
Lampman estimates he’ll spend nearly $50,000 to get licensed and trained, in addition to building infrastructure to comply. He hopes he’ll be able to recoup the investment swiftly and add to profits from his other small crops, like hemp, hazelnuts and apples.
Asked if he worries about giving doses of psilocybin on the same property where his wife and their three toddlers live, Lampman pointed directly across the street to his neighbor’s lush vineyard.
“There’s a winery right there,” he said. “People can drink as much alcohol as they want and drive down this road. I think that’s a way more concerning conversation that I’m gonna have.”
While Oregon legalized psilocybin use more than two years ago, roughly a third of the state’s counties and cities are now proposing ballot measures Tuesday to ban the psychedelic in their communities.
“We just want to say no; we want to opt out for a while,” said Stayton Mayor Henry Porter. “The health, safety and welfare of the community, that’s my main responsibility.”
After seven terms as mayor and more than three decades as a high school civics teacher, Porter’s worry is rooted in the lingering unknowns surrounding psilocybin, he said, adding he fears the January start date for state applications is too soon.
“I don’t know what it does. I don’t know how it would be controlled. I don’t know how to keep kids away from it,” he said. “I guess it’s the fear of things we don’t understand.”
A neighbor of New Frontier Ranch, where Arnold hopes to set up his retreat, echoes a similar concern.
“I don’t really know a lot about it. … That’s part of the problem,” said Mary Anne Crandall, who supports a local ban on psilocybin following the rocky 2015 cannabis rollout. She and others in Jackson County recalled promises by lawmakers and cannabis advocates that legalization of that drug would eradicate cartel influence and stop illegal grows.
Instead, Crandall said, “it’s made it worse,” adding they’ve seen an influx of human trafficking and a depletion of water resources.
Still reeling, “we feel like we don’t have a voice in what’s going on” now with psilocybin, Crandall said.
Oregon officials did not respond to CNN’s specific questions about human trafficking and water use in the marijuana industry but recently started requiring those working on grow farms to report suspected human and sex trafficking.
Meantime, Angela Allbee, who helps manage the Oregon Psilocybin Services Section of the state’s public health division, acknowledged “many lessons learned” from the state’s cannabis rollout and touted the robust rulemaking and feedback processes implemented this time around for psilocybin.
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s election, Mike Arnold and other psilocybin advocates are urgently educating voters on the industry as he envisions it.
“These folks are scared and they’re concerned and rightfully so because they had experiences with another ballot measure that promised good things that didn’t necessarily deliver,” he said.
Arnold is confident the rollout for psilocybin will not be a repeat of cannabis in Oregon – in part, he argued, because of where the profit is made.
“It comes down to the economic basis of the two industries: Cannabis is a product, a commodity,” he said. “And psilocybin is a service industry.”
It’s a service Chrissi DelaCruz views not only as mind-altering but also life-changing.
“There were a lot of different reasons (I went on the Jamaica retreat), and it was not to just go and trip out and have a good time,” DelaCruz said. “I was battling internally.”
“It was a big release for me, and there definitely was a lot of processing and healing that I was able to do during the ceremony and then especially afterward, too,” she said.
Since the retreat, DelaCruz has reconciled with her longtime partner and no longer finds herself incessantly seeking external validation. She’s also reduced her reliance on alcohol.
“And that’s just because I feel better without it now,” she said.