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Growing popularity of therapeutic psychedelic experiences creates demand for underground guides

·4 min read
Using psychedelic drugs like MDMA or psilocybin for therapeutic purposes has been mostly limited to research trials in Canada.  (Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance - image credit)
Using psychedelic drugs like MDMA or psilocybin for therapeutic purposes has been mostly limited to research trials in Canada. (Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance - image credit)

Lidija Martinović Rekert is a Vancouver-based yoga practitioner, counsellor and meditation instructor.

And for $140 per hour, she will also be there for clients as they navigate a psychedelic experience on drugs like MDMA, LSD and psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms.

"My job, in the simplest of words, would be to let them relax into their body," Rekert said.

Demand for psychedelic experiences as a tool for personal development has been on the rise. But because of a dearth of accredited programs to facilitate these experiences, experts say there is a blossoming underground market for people like Rekert to offer their services.

In response to this, Mark Haden, the Vancouver-based executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Canada — or MAPS Canada — published a Manual for Psychedelic Guides last fall.

Mark Haden, executive director of MAPS Canada, says he's seen a surge of interest in psychedelic research from institutions across Canada.
Mark Haden, executive director of MAPS Canada, says he's seen a surge of interest in psychedelic research from institutions across Canada.

The manual offers advice on a variety of subjects, including dosage, time requirements and what to do if the participant becomes extremely emotional. It also includes a discussion on the types of people who should or shouldn't offer psychedelic therapy, or experience it.

"We really want to be very, very careful about who does the work," said Haden, an adjunct professor at UBC's School of Population and Public Health.

New legitimacy

Using psychedelics for personal growth isn't new.

First popularized in the 1960s as part of counter-culture of the time, therapeutic psychedelic use has been increasingly endorsed by mental health researchers and clinicians.

Organizations like Haden's have garnered extensive media coverage of their research and subsequent advocacy for using psychedelic drugs.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan was published by Penguin Random House in 2018.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan was published by Penguin Random House in 2018.

In 2018, writer Michael Pollan's New York Times bestselling book, How to Change Your Mind, brought additional attention to how researchers and clinicians have been using these drugs to treat conditions like depression, addiction and anxiety.

Haden says the popularity and demand for psychedelic experiences has led to an explosion of underground therapists and guides, with several dozen operating in Metro Vancouver alone.

Reducing risk

But he says some of them can be detrimental for researchers like him who want to legalize psychedelics and popularize the therapies through legal means, with accreditation and regulatory oversight.

"A lot of underground therapists are showing up and offering their services, and many of them do it really badly," Haden said.

"So it made sense to me to reduce the risk of really unfortunate things happening to people, to actually provide information to the world about how the work is done."

At particular risk, Haden says, are people seeking relief for post-traumatic stress disorder. Haden says the intensity of a psychedelic experience can easily become overwhelming, especially if people re-experience their source of pain.

"It's like taking 10 years of regular emotional therapy and compressing it into three sessions," he said. "So the intensity of that requires some real thought in order to manage it effectively."

Subtle communication

Rekert, who has collaborated with Haden in the past, has been offering what is sometimes referred to as "integrative therapy" since 2012, in addition to the other services she has offered for 20 years.

She meets with the client at least once before they go through the psychedelic experience, and then again afterward to help them process it. During a psychedelic session, she says, she is mostly there to bear witness.

"It's terribly boring for you to see what is happening," she said. "The communication is very subtle, just literally a few words."

Lidija Martinović Rekert has been offering post-psychedelic integration as part of her counselling practice, the Yoga Wheel, since 2012.
Lidija Martinović Rekert has been offering post-psychedelic integration as part of her counselling practice, the Yoga Wheel, since 2012.

Rekert emphasizes that she does not suggest any particular types of drugs to the two to three clients she sees each month for integrative therapy, nor does she help them buy or ingest them.

"I just ask them to tell me what they're taking," Rekert said.

Rekert carries a naloxone kit to administer in case her clients have ingested a drug that's been tainted with opioids. But she says she's never had to use it.

Mostly, she says, the sessions lead her clients to have profound, life-changing experiences.

"Everybody that I worked on who have taken substances have not stayed the same."