On this week’s episode of Cover Story: Power Trip, collaborators Lily Kay Ross and Dave Nickels look into two instances of psychedelics-caused deaths to uncover the truth of what really happened. Ever since Michael Pollan’s 2018 book How to Change Your Mind landed on the Times best-seller list, more people have gotten comfortable with trying psychedelic drugs. But when something goes wrong, who is responsible? And who should be warning people about the dangers of these drugs in the first place?
To hear more about how money is shaping the study and legislation of psychedelics, listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, and find the full transcript below.
LILY KAY ROSS: We have been on a wild ride together. We’ve journeyed into the psychedelic underground, we have traversed the halls of psychedelic science, and now it’s time to take a step outside into the broad daylight of what could be your backyard or your local bookshop. Because psychedelics are taking a trip into the mainstream — and nothing has pushed that trip forward faster than a book that came out in 2018. It’s part love letter to psychedelics and part pop-psychedelic history. It’s Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind.
Michael Pollan is no psychonaut. He’s not wearing a lab coat. He’s the kind of person who can talk to folks who occasionally watch network news or Colbert. You might hear him on public radio. You know, for people reading Michael Pollan’s book, his enthusiasm is contagious, and they might hear that and think, I’d like to try this, too!
Inside the movement, there’s this thing that people call the Pollan Effect. It’s like after that book, the floodgates burst open, and there were all these newcomers on the scene — and it wasn’t a party vibe, it was people interested in wellness and personal growth. We’ve come across a lot of people who got into psychedelics after reading Pollan’s book. One of those people was a 74-year-old lawyer from California named Richard Burton.
JOHN JEFFERY: In our men’s group, usually he was the one who stirred the pot.
LILY: We spoke with Richard’s friend of almost 40 years. His name is John.
JOHN: Richard was exploring lots of things. He did therapy, he did meditation, he did yoga groups. He still had a nagging feeling — I know this — that there was something else there.
LILY: Reading Pollan’s book inspired Richard to find a local guide. He found a man named Sam Sohmer. On his website, Sam calls himself a “holistic counselor” and offers “ceremonial methods of accessing expanded states of consciousness.”
JOHN: He liked the person he was working with. He felt like he had a good connection with that person. He had shared that with me.
LILY: After a couple of sessions of getting to know each other, Richard’s guide introduces psychedelics.
JOHN: I think he did one session with ecstasy, he experienced it as positive, and he experienced it as “I want to proceed to mushrooms”
LILY: So Richard shows up on the morning of October 25, 2018. He gets ready for his session, takes the mushrooms, and then lies back and puts a mask over his eyes. Less than an hour goes by and Richard’s heart stops. A few days later, John heard the news from Richard’s brother.
JOHN: Ken told me that Richard had died, and I asked how, and he said, “It was the drugs.”
LILY: It all seemed pretty straightforward at first. The autopsy came out and said it was the drugs: “Probable acute psilocin cardiotoxicity due to ingestion of psilocybe mushrooms” — an “overdose.”
But then the story gets more complicated. A few months later, the coroner gets a phone call from someone he calls “an interested physician.” That person educates the coroner about mushrooms, and the coroner looks up some of the studies himself. And after reading those, the coroner changes the cause of death.
He concludes that the mushrooms didn’t directly cause his death; instead, he decides it was Richard’s heart problems that killed him and that the mushrooms contributed, which makes a lot of sense. You’d have to eat a lot of mushrooms to die from a mushroom overdose. But also — there just isn’t that much evidence about how psilocybin affects older people. There’s a lot we still don’t know.
But here’s something we do know, and it’s the key to a bigger picture. That random physician who called the coroner? He’s a trained psychedelic guide, and also the U.S. medical director for a company that provides boutique ketamine therapy and is ready to jump the moment psychedelic therapy becomes legal. Which is all to say that a physician interested in the psychedelic renaissance — and I mean interested — found out about someone dying on a trip. And even though he didn’t know the person at all, he tracked down the coroner and then called him up on the phone and got mushrooms off the hook.
Richard Burton’s friends and family painted a picture of him as someone who left no stone unturned. He was curious. He was a lawyer who wanted to get to the truth. And if he were still alive, maybe he would wonder, Why was there so much fuss about a line on an autopsy instead of a closer look at the actual risks of a man in his age group with a possible heart condition doing a high dose of mushrooms? I have a new word in my back pocket: spin.
So far, Dave and I have talked about a bunch of reasons why people are not talking about the risks of psychedelic therapy. It’s like they want to put the best spin on it that they can. And sometimes that’s about true belief in the drug, and sometimes it’s a power trip. But there’s another motive we have not talked about yet: the money.
DAVE NICKLES: There’s a song, and the video — the whole thing — translates the mushroom hype of the moment into the most simple, kid-friendly lyrics. It’s sung by a woman named Tania de Jong. She and her husband, Peter Hunt, run a company that’s called Mind Medicine Australia, or MMA.
LILY: It’s not that MMA. It’s not mixed martial arts.
DAVE: That’s right.
LILY: Why don’t you tell us what it does, Dave?
DAVE: So they’re a bit all over the place, but one of the things they announced in 2021 was this intention to run a clinical trial on MDMA for PTSD. Essentially, they were looking to do this trial modeled on MAPS’s Phase 3 trials. So to do this, they’re partnering with a company that’s connected to right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel, who has his hands in a lot of psychedelic pots — but that tangled web could easily be its own series, so let’s just leave that for a moment. Basically, what you need to know is that MMA is aiming to raise a lot of money in the name of bringing psychedelic healing to the masses.
LILY: Here’s the deal: There is a whole parade of relatively new companies doing this stuff — COMPASS Pathways, ATAI, Field Trip. For the last couple of years, these companies have had hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at them. To research or patent or set up fancy, swanky treatment rooms in Toronto and New York City. Now, they’re pushing hard for psychedelic therapy to be legalized.
DAVE: And MMA is part of the push for legalization in Australia. I mean, it’s kind of mind-boggling because Peter Hunt is a multimillionaire former investment banker, and Tania is an opera singer who identifies as a “social entrepreneur” and “global speaker.” These are not scientists or doctors, but they are the type of people who have enough money to just kind of hire a bunch of people and start charging thousands of dollars for their psychedelic-therapy training certificate. It’s also worth pointing out that they list Françoise Bourzat as the first trainer on their psychedelic-certificate page. Françoise Bourzat — you know, the charming French practitioner of consciousness medicine from California who we introduced you to earlier in the show?
So I was like, Who were these people? And I went down the rabbit hole. On their website at the time, they had the logos of several Australian professional organizations under the headline “Accreditations”: the Australian Association for Social Workers, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the Australian Psychological Society. I reached out to all of these organizations, and it turned out that not a single one of them had accredited MMA’s certificate. So when I reached out, they said things along the lines of “We don’t know what you’re talking about” and “Whose website are we listed on?” In other cases, they said that they’d explicitly told MMA “no” or that they weren’t accrediting any outside training programs. And once those organizations were made aware of the listings, they asked MMA to remove their logos, which they did. As I was getting these responses, I thought it was bonkers, and the same day I emailed all of those groups, I got an email from Peter Hunt. And a few weeks later, we set a date to talk. And I did my best to chill myself out. So I called them.
PETER HUNT: We’ve got Dave Nickles here. G’day!
DAVE: Hello. How’s it going?
PETER: It’s going very well.
DAVE: They were polite.
PETER: Tell me about yourself.
DAVE: Oh, I’m just a guy who likes drugs, and I blow glass, and I was — I appreciate you getting in touch with me.
DAVE: He told me about himself.
PETER: I was an investment banker for probably 30 years. In the last part of my investment banking career, I started my own corporate advisory business called Caliburn. And then Mind Medicine is our fifth charity.
DAVE: Then she kinda popped into the Zoom from the background.
PETER: This is Tania.
DAVE: And when I say “pop,” I mean popped because it was one of those bad virtual backgrounds. And she kept kind of glitching in and out of it because she was sort of like on the edge of the frame. Sort of there but not quite
DAVE: Good to meet you.
TANIA DE JONG: Hi, how are you?
DAVE: I’m doing well. How are you?
PETER: Not only has Tania started those charities, but she’s also a soprano.
DAVE: Ah yes!
PETER: She’s got a beautiful voice.
DAVE: Also really committed to the social sector.
PETER: So both of us have a big commitment to the social sector. We work in the sector for no return. So we don’t charge; we work full time.
DAVE: Well, Caliburn sold for like $200 million, right? So I imagine you’re sitting on a little chunk of change, no?
PETER: I think that’s a fair comment, David. I’ve been very lucky in life.
DAVE: And that’s how it went. Lots of do-gooder talk.
PETER: We want anyone in Australia who decides with their doctor that it’s an appropriate therapy to be able to access that therapy. Even if they have no money, even if they’re penniless, even if they’re homeless. We want no differentiation between the wealthy and people who are poor.
DAVE: I tried to ask them real questions.
Can you help me understand what’s going on with MMA’s accreditation for the —? If they didn’t give permission and you didn’t secure permission —?
TANIA: What happened with that was we have quite a lot of young people working for us —
DAVE: Hang on, you’re saying now that you haven’t been in contact with AASW?
TANIA: No, I haven’t been. Someone else on our team was in contact.
DAVE: You had the impression that Françoise was a psychotherapist. Can you help me understand why you were under that impression?
DAVE: But it didn’t matter what I asked them. I’m curious who did the vetting there.
PETER: Again, David, you’re giving us the capacity to recollect stuff that’s happened over the last three years —
DAVE: But are you saying —
PETER: Let me finish. We’re a fast-moving organization, and I’m pretty entrepreneurial and so is Tania. That’s how we’ve built MMA. And I don’t have the recall that you’re seeking at the moment.
DAVE: They just stuck to their talking points.
PETER: I tell you what, David — Tania and I spend probably 12 hours a day on Mind Medicine. And we do it because we want to help people. And we could just as easily have said, “Okay, we’re going to just take it easy for the rest of our lives and buy a beach house and just take life easy.”
LILY: Spin. Wheeee!
PETER: We respect the detective nature of what you’re trying to do, but we wake up every morning motivated by a desire to help people that are suffering. That’s why we’re doing this.
DAVE: Me too!
PETER: Okay. And if any mistakes have been made along the way — and I’ve no doubt we’ve made lots of mistakes, it’s the nature of being human — they’re being rectified!
LILY: And look, I’m sure that they love to help people, but the truth is what’s happening in the psychedelic world is no flood of altruism and charity work. A lot of people are realizing there is a lot of money to be made in psychedelics. And you can make money right now, even before they’re legalized, by setting up a training program. Any yahoo can just go sign up, pay their money, get their certificate, and start giving psychedelics to people.
DAVE: People like to accuse me of being anti-capitalist, and the reality is I’m an anarchist, like, that just means I oppose exploitation and coercive human relationships. So yes, I’m anti-capitalist because I don’t believe you can have capitalism without exploitation and coercion. So that’s my position. Some might call it my bias, but trust me on one small point: Where there’s money, there is spin. And when there’s a lot of money involved, people will spin even harder to avoid talking about even the worst stuff.
When Tania’s “Shroom Boom” music video came out early this year, a prominent psychedelics researcher in the U.K. posted a comment underneath it. She said, “If you are taking antidepressants, please do not stop taking them and eat loads of magic mushrooms. Please do not consider this song to be a health message from a responsible organization; it is most certainly not that.”
LILY: Sometimes this whole situation feels like a circus, and people just keep clapping along as long as the music is playing, even when someone is dying in the ring.
SUZI: We’re not going to stop this train. It is barreling so fast down the track, but it will be a public-health issue, right?
LILY: There’s another case I want to tell you about. This is about someone who also got drawn into the world of psychedelics as they were going mainstream. Her name was Jennee Rothman.
SKY: She had these old hiking boots that she had worn for at least 20 years.
LILY: And the way that her son, Sky, talks about her, it’s clear she was an awesome mom.
SKY: I think I was 10, maybe 9. It was the first backpacking trip I had ever been on. And before the trip, she kept talking about the hiking boots, like, “Oh, these are the best hiking boots I’ve ever owned. They’re so dependable.” And then about maybe a mile and a half down the trail, the bottom of the shoe fell off, and we didn’t bring duct tape. We didn’t bring anything to put the shoe back together. So she ripped the sole off the shoes so it wasn’t flapping, and she hiked the remaining, like, 25 miles of the trip basically in moccasins. She didn’t complain. She just pushed through. And I mean, there wasn’t even a thought in her mind that said like, “Yeah, maybe we should turn back and call this a day.” She just wanted to adventure. And she wanted me to have as good of a first backpacking experience as I could have.
LILY: By all accounts, Jen Rothman was a talented therapist living in California. She was somebody who was able to help clients that were dealing with the dark stuff. So she got excited when she heard about psychedelic-assisted therapy because she thought it might help them. She wanted to get trained in it so she would be ready when it was legal. But Jen Rothman died in 2019.
JOE: Yeah, I’m Jennee’s dad. My name is Joe.
SUZI: My name is Suzi, and I’m Jen’s older sister.
LILY: Jen battled the effects of Lyme disease for decades, so she was always seeking out ways to feel better.
JOE: She had not been able to get any kind of a solution to this problem from the medical establishment.
SUZI: She was very open to trying different supplements, different diets. She was searching.
LILY: And then around ten years ago, she got interested in psychedelic healing.
SCOT: She was always fascinated with it.
LILY: Scot was Jen’s husband for 23 years. And, he says, for a while, they both had an interest in psychedelics for healing.
SCOT: But she never immersed herself in it until somebody invited her into Jorge’s medicine circle.
LILY: That Jorge is Jorge Ferrer. He’s this Spanish psychologist, and at the time, he was teaching at the California Institute of Integral Studies, CIIS for short. That’s the place where I finished my undergrad. It’s in San Francisco — it’s an alternative institution — so it’s accredited, it’s creative, it’s sometimes a little bit out there. People go there to get degrees in different kinds of psychotherapy, like somatics or drama therapy. There are some other degrees, too. And it’s a place Dave and I have been skeptical about for a while.
DAVE: Weirdly, it’s sort of like the closest thing that psychedelics have to a trade school. And so many of the people that we have spoken to or investigated for this show have some sort of affiliation there. So, like, Françoise Bourzat, the charming “consciousness medicine” lady from the first half of the show, used to be faculty there. And Eyal Goren — Susan’s “I am the wolf” guy — was an assistant teacher there. The 74-year-old man who died, his guide got his degree there. And the “interested physician” who called the coroner in that case got a psychedelic certificate from there as well. Yensen and Dryer, who were Meaghan’s therapists, were advisers to that same psychedelic-certificate program.
LILY: So when Jen and Scot got the invitation to attend one of Jorge Ferrer’s after-hours healing circles —
SCOT: What he called Andean meditation.
LILY: Which he’d signed with his CIIS day job, fancy signature at the bottom — they decided it might be worth a shot to go.
SCOT: They took this brew and went to each person with a cup. The medicine that he worked with was called San Pedro.
DAVE: So San Pedro cactus contains mescaline and a bunch of other alkaloids.
SCOT: I had never taken it, and Jen had never taken it. And it was much more of an interactive medicine.
LILY: Jorge’s invitation to this event, the email with his signature as a Professor of Transpersonal Psychology at CIIS, it included a long list of health claims. It said, “This meditation is traditionally believed to be able to heal an impressive array of physical and psychological conditions, including diabetes, chronic pain, cancer in certain stages, substance addictions, trauma, anxiety and stress, depression and bipolar disorders, and many psychosomatic maladies.”
LILY: Jen’s longtime friend Amy and her husband, Luc, also attended one of Jorge’s San Pedro circles.
AMY: You know, he’s a CIIS professor with decades of experience, and so I had some curiosity.
LILY: The invitation described it as mostly “open time.” Time for people to go deep inside themselves or interact with nature or each other, but Amy told us it seemed way too open for her.
AMY: It was so bad that I left and went for a walk in the woods with Luc for hours. And that also is a huge red flag, a person holding a ceremony shouldn’t allow participants who’ve ingested a mind-altering substance to walk off into the woods without at least having a conversation with them and seeing where they’re at.
LILY: Amy and Luc say the whole thing was more of a party vibe than a medicine ceremony. Scot and Amy and Luc all stopped going, but Jen found something that worked for her. And she kept going back.
AMY: She listened to some really difficult content as a therapist, as all therapists do. So she was with a lot of darkness and a lot of suffering and then she would go to these events and they would have these euphoric, really fun experiences and spend the weekend together and eat delicious food and go for walks.
LILY: Jorge had a real following. There were a bunch of people who were into his teachings about open relationships and into psychedelics. Jen started getting closer and closer to Jorge. Amy remembers Jen telling her about the first time Jorge kissed her — and she thought, Why was this guy who was the leader of the group coming on to one of the people in the group?
AMY: Jorge wasn’t Jen’s therapist, but what was he? All these boundaries are blurred and crossed, and there are no rules.
LILY: Jorge says Jen was no longer a participant; she was his assistant and co-facilitator. He says, “Jen and I initiated our relationship about two years before her passing. As she was still in a relationship with her husband, Scot Rothman, we proceeded in the most mindful and ethical way possible.”
SCOT: A little while after that, we separated. She said that we need to separate.
LILY: Her family and friends say they started hearing from her less and less.
JOE: We knew that she had developed this relationship.
LILY: But they didn’t know much else about it. she never introduced Jorge to her family.
JOE: It was as if something was going on that she was very deeply connected with, but she didn’t involve us in it.
SCOT: I saw her go through cycles of really high and super-excited and lit up and then crashed for a week. And it seemed to get a little worse the closer to her death. And I remember, you know, right before she died, there were fires here.
JOE: It was two days before. There had been an evacuation in Sonoma County, and she’d come down here.
SCOT: We were over at Jen’s mom and dad’s house, and she was —
JOE: She was very tired.
SCOT: She was bedridden most of that time.
LILY: On Halloween night in 2019, Jen and Jorge went out to a bar in Oakland. Later that night, Jen’s dad got a call.
JOE: My sleep was interrupted at 4 a.m. by a phone call. I got up and answered the phone, and the person on the other end said that he was from the coroner’s office in Oakland and that he was sorry to tell me that Jennee Rothman was dead. And it just was the last thing in the world that I expected. I remember asking the coroner, “Were drugs involved?” And he said, “Why would you think that?” And I said, “I knew that she’d been interested in using psychedelics for the treatment of psychological conditions. It’s possible that she was involved with drugs in some way or another.”
LILY: So the coroner did a toxicology test for Jen.
JOE: The first toxicology report that we got kind of informally from the coroner’s office said that they did not detect any drugs, but they detected a low sodium profile.
LILY: Which Joe looked up.
JOE: It came up as being something that was associated with drugs.
LILY: All that did was raise more questions for the family about what had happened that night. They’d known that Jen was doing psychedelics, but they didn’t know any of the details about what kind, or with whom, or how often. So around New Year’s, just a couple of months after Jen died, her mother wrote a letter to Jorge.
SCOT: Jen’s mom sent a letter asking several questions about the last hours of her life.
SUZI: “What did you guys do? Did she have fun? What were her last moments like?” All of these things.
LILY: And Jorge wrote back.
SCOT: It wasn’t written to a grieving mother. It was written as a narrative.
LILY: And it truly read like a story. In his version, the night Jen died, there weren’t any psychedelics involved, and Jen died in a moment of profound spiritual healing. He wrote, “Her face was radiant, her eyes very open, her heart energy fully present.” He told her mother that “she felt to me to be full of love, joy, and freedom.” But the letter was long. Jorge included much more than that. He wrote pages of things that most mothers would just not want to know. He wrote about their relationship, Jen’s marriage, even her intimate life.
SUZI: I just can’t describe how off it was and how inappropriate. It was just very bizarre.
LILY: Jorge’s letter put forward his theory of how Jen died: “My sense is that her passing must be related to the condition called Lyme carditis. I can only suppose that the stress of that week plus the worsening of her condition (of which I was unaware) led to what happened.” And then he sent that to a group of friends with a note saying, “Please feel free to forward.” Eventually, the letter got around to a lot of people, which he later told Jen’s dad he regretted. But still, to Jen’s family, the whole thing seemed like a strategy.
SUZI: To me, it looked like a signal. “This is the story, this is what happened.”
LILY: They started looking for more information.
SUZI: And this was hard for us because we were invading Jen’s privacy, right? But in a way, we had an obligation to figure out what had happened.
LILY: They started listening to her voice-mails. Reading her texts. Looking at her planners. Her friend Amy searched through some of her stuff.
AMY: She had a small trailer that she was living in part time. I cleaned that out, so I also was privy to, like, her diaries and everything that was her current life separated from Scot.
SUZI: On September 15, 2018, it just said, “San Pedro.” The next weekend, it says, “San Pedro/HG.”
SUZI: So this is the first time that we saw a mention of this.
LILY: This term started showing up all over the place. Eventually, they figured out it stood for “Holy Grail.”
AMY: She sent me text messages about how Jorge introduced her to this substance called the Holy Grail. And it was just completely life altering. It was so healing.
LILY: Dave has a bit of insight into this drug, the one that Jorge referred to as the Holy Grail.
DAVE: Yeah, 5-APB. 5-APB is a drug that’s similar to MDMA. It hasn’t been studied in humans, but it was initially synthesized in the search for a safer alternative.
LILY: And according to Jen’s diaries, that’s what Jorge had told her. She journals about how excited she is about the therapeutic potential and about using it with her clients. And then, a few months later —
SUZI: There are some text messages, and they’re between Jen and somebody else: “Jen, I’m feeling like what’s happening here on the deepest level is not good. The HG triggered deep wounds for people.”
LILY: There’s one journal entry from September 2019, a month before her death. She’s writing about Jorge and the 5-APB.
SUZI: She says — this is a quote — “Not good. Who am I fooling? I’m not taking good care here. Where is my discernment? I’m not sure this is good for me. This ‘open’ stuff, the medicines. He loves me when he’s on medicine so much. I don’t doubt it’s true. But then me bracing, bracing, bracing. I don’t know if I can do it. I feel concerned.”
LILY: October 31st, 2019, the same night Jen died —
SUZI: There was a text exchange between Jen and Jorge that day. I don’t have the exact quotes in front of me, but essentially she was starving. She was exhausted. And then she wrote something like, “Do you have any food there?” And he answered, “I could order you some food, but it’s best not to eat with the med.”
DAVE: Jorge says that the med he’s referring to is this thing called Phenibut, which is a legal drug that he explains as a kind of supplement for memory and focus. It reduces anxiety; it can cause euphoria, increased sociability, things like that. So that’s sort of his explanation for the texts.
LILY: It’s worth noting that some of the people she was with that night were part of a WhatsApp group chat referring to themselves as a “Holy Grail tribe.” Regular toxicology tests don’t screen for 5-APB because it’s so obscure, but after Jen’s family learned about how much Jen had been taking, they requested a special tox report looking specifically for that drug. And the test came back positive. Jen died with 5-APB in her system. The drug Jorge called Holy Grail.
When the coroner’s report came out, it listed the cause of death as “complications of 5-APB and other substance abuse.” There was no mention of Jen’s heart having anything to do with her death and no evidence at all that Lyme was a factor. According to the CDC, there have been 11 cases of fatal Lyme carditis worldwide from 1985 to 2019.
DAVE: So “complications” with 5-APB kind of functions like MDMA, in that it makes you release a whole lot of serotonin. And such a high level of serotonin messes with the hormones which help your kidneys regulate the ion content of your blood. And studies show that this effect is much more likely to occur in women. So basically what happens is that if you drink a whole bunch of water on a drug like this —
JOE: The fluids dilute the ions in the blood, and that causes the brain to swell.
DAVE: In Jorge’s retelling of their night out, Jen was dancing —
JOE: And she had glasses of water and a beer.
DAVE: With 5-APB in her system —
JOE: It would’ve caused a rapid decrease in blood sodium.
DAVE: And left untreated, that ultimately would have resulted in her death.
JOE: As near as we can tell, that’s — that’s probably what happened.
LILY: Jorge never fully accepted that version of events. He never accepted that it was the drugs that killed her. In emails back and forth with Jen’s dad, he denied even knowing what 5-APB was. He later claimed that was because of a typo. He wrote to us recently that he still “strongly suspects” that it was something to do with “a heart compromised by Lyme,” plus the stress and exhaustion from the fire evacuations.
SUZI: Even after we had the toxicology report that found 5-APB, he never owned up to it, ever.
LILY: The reason Jen’s family and friends were even willing to tell us this story in the first place is that they want people to know that something like what happened to Jen could happen to someone that you know.
AMY: You may feel strong and capable as an individual, like Jen was, but that group mind-set is very powerful, and it can be very healing and it can be very dangerous.
LILY: And they want people to see how powerful Jen’s desire for 5-APB was once she started using it — whether or not it was physically addictive.
JOE: I think it’s the sort of thing that if you take these sorts of drugs, you need to know what to expect if something goes wrong.
LILY: They want people to know that certain people have unique risks if they’re taking these drugs.
JOE: if you drink a lot of water after having taken the drug and gotten your antidiuretic hormones messed up? You can kill yourself. That’s important stuff to know.
LILY: And they want people to know that there are symptoms you can look out for: Thirst, exhaustion, seizures, and vomiting — the stuff that was in Jen’s texts and the police report. And there are other things, too, like if you call 911, in a lot of places there are laws that will protect you from being arrested even if you’re using drugs.
AMY: There are so many people right now claiming to be, like, shamans and medicine people. You’re dealing with people’s psyches but also their bodies.
SUZI: No shaming, no whatever. This is something that people are gonna want to use. This is something people are going to want to do. I mean, it will be a public-health issue. What tools do we give people to navigate this new world? This is the Wild West right now. So how do we make it less like that?
LILY: In July of 2020, Jen’s family reached out to the one institution they thought could hold someone accountable and do something about this: CIIS, where Jorge Ferrer was a teacher.
SUZI: We said, “He was with her when she died. He provided her with this drug. Over time, it’s what killed her.” And they came back with, “Sorry for your loss, but that’s a personal matter.”
LILY: So then the family sends an actual PowerPoint presentation of all the evidence they’ve collected: the text messages, the journal entries, the letters, everything they had about Jen and Jorge and the 5-APB.
SUZI: When they received that, they were sort of like, “Okay, this is something we can’t ignore.”
LILY: The president of CIIS said she was going to form a committee and see if there was evidence of gross misconduct. She also said that she would put Jorge on leave. The other thing that she added was this: that she’d assigned someone to draft a new “ethical guidelines policy … with regard to psychedelics … that would govern faculty and staff.” CIIS now tells us, “There were no changes made to the school’s policies as a result of the Jorge Ferrer case.” As for Jorge, they did do something.
JOE: They suggested that Jorge resign.
LILY: In their most recent statement to us, they said they allowed him to resign rather than be formally investigated. Jorge told us, “The decision was cordial and collaborative, and I was offered very good conditions in gratitude for my 20 years of service to the university.” Jorge’s separation from CIIS was mutually quiet.
JOE: There wasn’t any public acknowledgment that this happened.
LILY: In Jorge’s responses to us, he said that he “chose to resign to protect my university.” He goes on, “I still don’t want any potentially damaging publicity for my former university. I would ask you to consider leaving CIIS out of your program.” Jorge left, no fuss or hullabaloo, no bad press for CIIS. Over the last few years, CIIS has continued to ride the psychedelic train to greater prominence. Just last week, Yale School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins, and NYU announced they’re working with the director of CIIS’s Psychedelic Center to develop training and educational materials for medical professionals.
And Jorge went back to Spain to start a couples-therapy practice. He’s now listed as an instructor for a new psychedelic-training institute. And he’s published a new book about Transcending Monogamy and Polyamory that he dedicated “To Jenny, the love of my life, who lived in love and died in freedom.” Jen’s family and friends found the inscription both false and painful.
AMY: I wish the circumstances were different. I wish there was communication and honesty and sharing of facts. Just the sheer fact of Jorge’s narrative that Jen died in bliss and freedom when, in fact, she was having seizures and had already said she was freezing and exhausted and starving earlier that day. None of us have ever wanted anything other than the truth of what happened to someone we love. That’s it. It’s that simple.
SUZI: Since we found ourselves in this situation, the conversation around psychedelics has changed. It’s become much more, um, optimistic.
LILY: Since Jen died, her family and friends have watched the world latch on to psychedelics. They’ve seen the hype around Michael Pollan’s book just grow and grow.
SUZI: I love Michael Pollan. I’ve read most of his books, but I can’t believe how positive he is about this.
LILY: In their search to hold something or someone accountable, several people that we’ve talked to have written letters to Michael Pollan. They’ve asked if maybe he could use his platform to raise awareness about the risks around psychedelics. John, who was Richard Burton’s friend, wrote:
JOHN: “A major concern I share along with Richard’s family and friends is: Why have your writings failed to adequately or deeply discuss the physical and psycho-spiritual risks that accompany psychedelic therapy?”
LILY: Meaghan Buisson, the MAPS participant from the last two episodes.
MEAGHAN: I had a Zoom conversation with him where I went through the data and said, “This is what I’m concerned about. Where do I go? What do I do? Who do I call?”
LILY: And Jen Rothman’s dad.
JOE: I thought that Michael would be potentially a good ally in this.
LILY: Michael listened to the people who called him, he forwarded their letters and put them in touch with key people. They all told us that. And he’s also included more footnotes of caution in his interviews and talks. But it doesn’t compare to the roar of celebration. Jen’s sister Suzi wrote to us recently. She told us, “I fear we are standing on a precipice of many more stories like Jen’s.”
DAVE: We’re talking about a nascent industry that people are claiming is going to be worth billions of dollars in the coming years; they’re talking about scaling these treatments up to millions and millions and millions of people. If we can’t talk about the real-world harms that are taking place, how can we hope to even begin to work to prevent them?
LILY: This movement is moving fast. It’s growing like a mushroom. And in the midst of all of this, I’ve had people contact me and say, “Hey, Lily, I’ve been thinking about doing psychedelic therapy. Should I?”
Next time in the final episode of Power Trip, we’re going to answer that question in a bunch of different ways.