Montego Bay, on the northwestern edge of Jamaica, is, according to a popular tourist slogan, “the complete resort.” Snorkeling. ATV safaris. Catamaran cruises. An outpost of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Golf. But I wasn’t here for any of that. I traveled to Jamaica, during a global pandemic, to experience, well, total nothingness. I came in pursuit of the feeling of nonexistence, chemically catalyzed by a tryptamine called 5-MeO-DMT, aka 5-MeO or Five. It’s also called Toad because it occurs naturally in the pustulelike glands of Bufo alvarius, a toad native to the Sonoran Desert. Most fancifully, 5-MeO-DMT is called The God Molecule because it facilitates full-blown mystical experiences, including an alleged communion with some higher-order, divine consciousness. It is the most powerful psychedelic on the planet. (5-MeO-DMT is illegal in the US and its full effects on one’s health are not known.) Freebased at low doses, it promises an extremely intense rejigging of waking consciousness. As the underground chemist Ken Nelson described the experience in a 1984 pamphlet: “You will be completely absorbed in a complex chemical event characterized by an overload of thoughts and perception, brief collapse of the EGO [sic], and loss of the space-time continuum.” Among users of psychedelics, this is referred to as “ego death,” which a team of researchers at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University say is marked by “a complete loss of subjective self-identity” and a feeling of “merging into the surrounding environment or the entire universe.” Alexander Shulgin, a chemist best known for first synthesizing MDMA, or ecstasy, described a more pointed reaction after smoking 30 milligrams of Five. “I was crawled up on my bed (in the fetal position) with my eyes closed,” he wrote, “squirming around, screaming (in my head) ‘Fuck! You killed yourself!’ I repeated this several times, very fearful of death.” Psychedelic tourism was, at least pre-COVID, trending. Gwyneth Paltrow dispatched her staffers to a magic mushroom retreat for an episode of her Netflix series The Goop Lab. Megan Fox recently told Jimmy Kimmel about visiting a Costa Rican resort serving ayahuasca, a ceremonial brew used by pan-Amazonian Indigenous groups; Lindsay Lohan is also an evangelist. According to Cameron Wenaus, cofounder of Retreat Guru (which he describes as “an Airbnb for psychedelic, and yoga, and meditation retreats”), such vacations are becoming normalized. “I mean, heck,” Wenaus told me from his home in Nelson, British Columbia, “now you can invest in psychedelics, as these companies are growing.” Biotechnology companies are now researching and developing psychedelic pharmaceuticals, with generous estimates speculating that the psychedelic drug market could be worth $10 billion by 2027. And as Wenaus noted, several companies are already attracting investors, whether on major stock exchanges like the Nasdaq or smaller exchanges trading in more specialized securities. One of these publicly traded concerns is Silo Wellness, which has its headquarters in Toronto. It sells a variety of package holidays hosted at luxury resorts around Jamaica, where many psychedelics remain unscheduled under Jamaica’s Dangerous Drugs Act. These retreats are mostly focused around psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. But there is also a more curious offering. “Take on the Hero’s Journey,” reads the online catalog copy, “with the most powerful entheogenic substance on the planet, ‘The God Molecule.’”
Psychedelic tourism can fairly be called “problematic.”
Such mind-expanding sojourns are nothing new. In 1955, the J.P. Morgan exec and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson trekked to Oaxaca, Mexico, to take part in a traditional Mazatec ritual involving psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson’s travelogue “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” was published in Life magazine two years later, seeding interest in indigenous psychedelic rituals among white, middle-class Americans. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a class of powerful, underground drugs reframed by mainstream medicine. I have heard stories from individuals whose lives have been enriched by these drugs and narrowed my gaze at a new class of profiteers looking to cash in on the increasing clinical and cultural acceptance of them. The psychedelic renaissance shows no sign of abating, and I’ve criticized its gentrifying effect on these drugs. Still, Silo’s Douglas Gordon invited me to take part in the company’s first 5-MeO retreat in Montego Bay, paid for by Silo. The offer was tantalizing, though it all seemed a bit ludicrous. I imagined the daily itinerary: At 9 a.m. some meditation, followed by a buffet lunch, and full ego death by 5 p.m. Psychedelic tourism can fairly be called “problematic.” In the decades since Wasson, plenty of white folks have trekked south of the border in pursuit of mind expansion. And that’s fine, when done respectfully. What can rankle is the co-opting of traditions developed by native tribes, some of which date back a thousand years. It’s not uncommon for a rich, white, twentysomething to have an experience with a drug like ayahuasca, recast themselves as some nouveau shaman, and then set about hawking a version of that experience. Retreat Guru’s Wenaus tracked growth in several newer psychedelic retreats at reaching 50%–73% in the two years before the pandemic. “My gut sense,” he told me, “is that there have been many new entrants into the space in the last few years, so competition has increased.” And growth means growing pains. Drugs prized for helping to heal the wounds of colonialism are now being colonized. This new cohort of tripper-tourists, as writer Mark Hay noted in 2020, “contribute to the wanton commodification and fetishization of the cultures whose practices they wish to insinuate themselves into.” Even Wasson’s original experience, it was later revealed, was underwritten by the CIA — all part of an ongoing psychedelic research project that included the psychological torture of unwitting clinical volunteers. In this sense, 5-MeO-DMT is unique. It sounds similar to N,N-dimethyltryptamine (also known as N,N-DMT, or just DMT), a key ingredient in any ayahuasca blend. But the similarities are mostly alphabetic; 5-MeO is radically different, chemically and culturally. Despite trace elements being found in some Amazonian tobacco powders, it has little documented ritual place among Indigenous cultures. Its recreational use wasn’t even widely reported until the 1970s. And it was not ruled illegal in the United States until 2011, when the US Drug Enforcement Administration added it to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, alongside cannabis, mescaline, LSD, and heroin. (The DEA’s official ruling noted, “The risks to the public health associated with the abuse of 5-MeO-DMT are similar to the risks associated with those of schedule I hallucinogens. There have been reports of emergency room admissions and a death associated with the abuse of 5-MeO-DMT.”) It also comes with no ancient playbook. Its biggest boosters are mostly super-nerdy clandestine chemists like Shulgin and Nelson, prodigious tinkerers whose experience with psychedelics is vast to the point of completionism. (Michael Pollan wrote about 5-MeO in his 2018 bestseller, How to Change Your Mind, a chronicle of the new landscape of psychedelics that has seemingly contributed to a marked uptick in psychedelic tourism.) Five, as far as psychedelic drugs go, remains more or less untainted by the stink of cultural appropriation. So what would a multiday retreat based on a drug that stimulates a wildly powerful but brief experience look like?
The trip began, as most things do nowadays, on Zoom. My fellow participants and I met the retreat’s facilitator, Joël Brierre, who has penetrating eyes and a wide, friendly smile. His body is an inventory of ink from various traditions: blocks of Sanskrit text, mandalas, thick Polynesian-style whorls. His background, he told me, was “yogic philosophy.” Joël told me that we wouldn’t be smoking actual toad venom, but rather a synthetic 5-MeO-DMT. This was just as well. For one thing, the oozes of Bufo alvarius, while no doubt “organic,” include other, potentially lethal, toxins. There’s a conservation issue too. The swelling interest in 5-MeO has led to the overharvesting of wild toads, which could be avoided with the use of lab-made versions. Some enthusiasts say the essence of the experience is spoiled by synthetics; they believe the toad’s “spirit” drives the trip. I was relieved to hear this isn’t Joël’s stance. Six days later, I opened a PDF sent to me by Victoria Wueschner, Joël’s partner “in life and medicine,” and the retreat’s cofacilitator. “The Initiates: Preparation Guide” read like a new age spirituality starter kit. It included references to “The Great Mystery” and to my forthcoming “Rebirth,” a quote from Oprah-approved spiritualist Eckhart Tolle (“The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ — and find that there is no death”), and an image of Morpheus from The Matrix. The guide stipulated that all participants fast for eight hours before the “ceremony,” in order to help prevent asphyxiating on vomit, which can be one of the risks with 5-MeO. “The clothing you choose to wear for your Rebirth is completely your choice,” it said, “some choose to wear all white.” My anxiety mounted in the days before my departure, as I began worrying more and more about the drug itself. I frantically researched 5-MeO and its effects. A 2019 study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands concluded that a single inhalation of the drug could produce “long-term changes in affect and cognition in volunteers,” including “sustained enhancement of satisfaction with life, mindfulness-related capacities, and a decrement of psychopathological symptoms.” Other prospects weren’t quite so positive. There was the noted risk of asphyxiation, but there was also the potential for “serotonin syndrome,” brought about when the chemical serotonin floods the brain, which can result in seizures, hyperthermia, and if left untreated, death. But our guides seemed vigilant about safety, and about protecting us from these negative outcomes. (What, I wondered, was the insurance policy on a psychedelic retreat where someone could choke on their own vomit and die?) More troubling, and less predictable, were the potential psychological effects of the drug. As Matthew Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Center For Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, explained to me, as with most psychedelics, the risks associated with 5-MeO have less to do with the compounds themselves than with the possibility of the redoubtable “bad trip,” which can lead to “someone doing something dangerous when they're panicking as a result of the effect.” On Erowid, a website relating psychedelic experiences, such bad trips abound. People speak of “unimaginable depths of terror” and “existential horror.” One user describes a feeling of “dissolving into shit.” Others report persistent nightmares and paranoia, lasting weeks after a single 5-MeO dose. Johnson told me, “There are some anecdotes of people having prolonged panic attacks after using it.”
My own mother fretted that this whole experience would somehow snap my brain in half.
Though he lived to tell the tale, Pollan’s experience with the drug also seemed pretty harrowing. His account in How to Change Your Mind is full of vivid descriptions of his ego “being blasted to confetti” and being “consumed in the flames of terror.” On Reddit, some people have worried that 5-MeO could precipitate full-blown schizophrenic breaks. While I knew the causal relationship between psychedelic use and mental illness was, according to existing research, tenuous, I couldn’t help but worry. Even if such direct connections are difficult to prove, the notion that psychedelics can cause psychosis, even in those without an existing predisposition, has endured. Just think of those old public service announcements depicting the brain as a frail eggshell and drugs as a piping hot pan eager to fry its contents. “I always think of Syd Barrett, the first singer of Pink Floyd,” Johnson said. “It was very clear that he showed the signs of schizophrenia, before he started dabbling heavily in acid — and it likely put him over the edge.” The ’60s-era hysteria around these drugs exploited the idea that a single bad trip could permanently dement the sensitive user. And there have simply been fewer research studies conducted about 5-MeO than other psychoactives, like psilocybin and MDMA. Even Shulgin’s notes on 5-MeO included reference to a friend who after smoking an “unknown amount” of the drug experienced “absolute ecstasy,” followed by breathing loss and intense panic. He ended up being treated, three days later, with antipsychotics. My own mother fretted that this whole experience would somehow snap my brain in half. It may have been an unreasonable fear, but it freaked me out all the same. I didn’t want to get pushed to the edge, let alone over it. I tried to temper my misgivings. After all, one naturally assumes a certain level of risk doing much of anything. You could choke on one of the shrimp in your cocktail. You could get hit by a bus crossing the street. We accept these hazards, especially when there’s a promise of reward: like the chance to slip the bonds of life’s routines and abiding sameness, if only for a few days, or a 15-minute trip.