Mushroom rabbi grows psilocybin for congregation

Rabbi AP.jpeg
Posted at 12:33 PM, Feb 20, 2022

DENVER (AP) — On a picturesque autumn evening in early November, the sunset belied a briskness to the Denver breeze. But inside a nondescript brick building downtown, anticipation was heating up the air.

A group of 25 people sat in a circle on the floor, each with a ramen spoon full of a brownish paste. Among them was Rabbi Ben Gorelick, a fast-talking 42-year-old with a multi-colored mohawk. On that night, Gorelick’s tempo was a couple beats slower than usual as he calmly instructed those in the room to consume what was on the spoon — a customized mixture of psychedelic mushroom extract — and find a spot to lay on the floor as they prepared to “drop in” during a guided breathing exercise.

The people in the room were part of a spiritual group called The Sacred Tribe, which Gorelick founded in 2018 and which since has grown to more than 270 members. About once a month, Gorelick hosts a weekend-long retreat that creates space for people to explore “the relationship to self, community and God” using psilocybin mushrooms that his team grows in Denver.

“This is not what a normal conservative or reform synagogue looks like,” said Gorelick, adding that his approach falls in line with Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. “The goal is not to blast people to the moon. It’s to give people just enough of a threshold dose that they have that openness to connecting.”

Scenes like this have become more commonplace in the American underground, as shrooms and other psychedelics have experienced increased exposure and a recent renaissance in the research of their potential medical benefits. Denver, which became the first city to decriminalize personal possession and consumption of psilocybin in 2019, has been a leader in this movement and helped inspire a wave of similar initiatives from Oakland, California, to Washington, D.C.

Denver’s leaders are considering further liberalization and Colorado voters could even be asked this fall to legalize mushrooms statewide. But Gorelick’s Sacred Tribe, which pushes the boundaries of what’s legal as it explores the intersection of Judaism and psychedelics, is spotlighting the gap between city, state and federal law on psychedelics — and illustrates a key missing piece of the 2019 vote to decriminalize.

“We’re not trying to get the dealership pipeline going here,” Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds said. “But if it is decriminalized to possess it, well, how do you get it?”

On Jan. 10, police raided The Sacred Tribe’s cultivation facility in north Denver, where the group grew more than 35 strains of mushrooms for use at its events. Police arrested one employee and seized mushrooms and documents. Denver police also recently arrested Gorelick on suspicion of possession with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance, a first-degree felony, according to his arrest warrant affidavit.

Gorelick isn’t worried about legal consequences, saying he never sold or distributed mushrooms beyond the scope of The Sacred Tribe’s retreats, and that, furthermore, he believes the group is protected by a religious exemption.

“I don’t sell elsewhere, I don’t wholesale elsewhere. I have really, really rigid tracking systems for everything from spore to extract,” he said.

Under the parameters of decriminalization, it remains a crime to buy or sell psilocybin, and to grow it beyond a “personal” amount. Still, mushroom-related arrests are rare these days, according to a recent city report that found just five arrests for psilocybin-only since Denver made enforcement of laws against possession police’s lowest priority. (Psilocybin was listed in other arrests that included additional drugs, the report said.)

Simultaneously, activists have filed several ballot initiatives to legalize entheogenic plants such as psychedelic mushrooms for use in therapeutic settings statewide, meaning Colorado voters could also be asked to weigh in on the subject as soon as November.

As psilocybin and other psychedelics have achieved greater cultural acceptance, their use has proliferated in some medical circles to treat ailments such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The movement is rippling through religious and spiritual circles, too, as individuals seek deeper connections to their communities and a higher power.

A lack of oversight, however, has led to bad actors in the space, including doctors who have been accused of sexual misconduct while treating individuals under the influence. Because much of this work is done underground, nefarious behavior often goes undocumented or unreported, said Joey Gallagher, the Denver-based executive director of the nonprofit Psychedelic Club, which aims to create community around and educate the public about psychedelics. Advocates said they’re concerned instances of emotional and sexual abuse of people existing in a vulnerable psychedelic state could overshadow the benefits of psychedelics such as psilocybin.

“It’s actually been a worrying thing,” Gallagher said. “The psychedelic community 100% needs to step up more on calling out inappropriate behavior.”

— “Institutional religion is a dying creature”

Rabbi Gorelick, who was ordained by the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute in 2019, refers to The Sacred Tribe as a synagogue, but members do not need to be Jewish to join. In fact, many who attended the November event claimed no religious affiliation.

Amy Bliss was raised Catholic but rejected organized religion as a young adult. John and Lena Swedell grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses but left the church many years ago. What these folks — and others who came to Denver for the weekend — share in common are a curiosity about psychedelics, a desire to learn more about themselves and a willingness to connect with like-minded individuals.

“The level of acceptance is radical acceptance,” Bliss said. “Bring who you are. And all of your faults and your, you know, impurities and ugliness and all of it. Bring it all. It’s all welcome.”

Since its inception, The Sacred Tribe has been growing primarily by word of mouth and through other events, such as breathing workshops, that are open to guests because they do not involve mushrooms. The group is funded through donations, Gorelick said, which go toward paying his staff and buying food for events.

To be able to join a retreat, prospective members must fill out an application, complete a medical questionnaire and some undergo an interview to ensure their goals align with the community, said Gorelick, who also co-owns a lifestyle brand called So Epic that promotes raves and electronic music concerts.

“I deny roughly 15% of applications into the community typically because people are looking for access to mushrooms as opposed to an exploration of connection,” he said, adding that psychedelics are just one part of The Sacred Tribe experience.

The retreat in November started with a substance-free dinner and interactive workshop on Friday night. Those taking mushrooms on Saturday returned to find the previous night’s tables replaced with brightly colored cushions covering the floor and the lighting dimmed. A sculpture covered with mosaicked pieces of colored mirror spun under a spotlight, sending fractured light dancing across the wall.

After circling up on the floor for introductions and intention-setting, Gorelick invited everyone to change into “comfy clothes” and approach him individually to receive “sacrament.” Once everyone had been served, The Sacred Tribe members synchronously consumed their spoon of extract and laid down on the floor for a guided breathing exercise. Gorelick put on a playlist curated by participants earlier in the evening and two songs in, the vibe in the room started to shift.

People began writhing between deep breaths. Moans of agony and ecstasy filled the room. Things escalated with the intensity of the music, leading to screaming and sobbing. One person did cartwheels across the room, as others gravitated towards the edges of the group and looked on with wide eyes.

Just when the scene appeared to be bordering on madness, the tempo of the music slowed down, casting a calmness throughout the space. Movements became softer and more fluid. Breathing became more natural.

After breathwork, as these sessions are called, the remainder of the night was free for members’ exploration — whether it be in a quiet space downstairs, in a room with music and visuals projected on the ceiling, or outside by the fire pit. Everyone who consumed mushrooms was required to stay the night and given the option of a second dose a few hours later. Sober members were on hand to facilitate should someone experience uncomfortable or negative emotions.

On Sunday morning, everyone was back seated on the floor for a discussion about their experiences and the takeaways they could apply to daily life.

Gallagher at the Psychedelic Club estimates the number of spiritual groups experimenting with psychedelics in this way is “immense,” but Gorelick is also tapping into a wider movement in the Jewish community.

Madison Margolin, co-founder and editor of psychedelics-focused publication DoubleBlind, helped create the Jewish Psychedelic Summit as a platform to talk about the intersection of religion and psychedelics. The inaugural two-day symposium, which was held virtually last May, brought together dozens of panelists from Jewish backgrounds and welcomed more than 1,100 attendees.

Discussions covered topics such as Jewish trauma and the potential of psychedelic healing, the history of psychedelics in ancient Jewish practice, and why ending the war on drugs is a Jewish imperative.

Though still niche, this approach is becoming more widespread and continually attracting folks from a variety of Jewish sects, Margolin said, in part because “institutional religion as we know it, from a reform or secular perspective, is a dying creature.”

“For many people, their psychedelic experiences are bringing them back to a different relationship with Judaism,” she said. These experiences also offer the opportunity to reflect and implement the soulful, mental and somatic effects of a trip to one’s life, a practice known as integration.

“I really think psychedelics are the future of Judaism in a way that there’s this common ground among people from all sorts of Jewish backgrounds and psychedelic consciousness becomes a meeting place for these people,” Margolin said. “Judaism as a religion can be a container for psychedelic states and also offers set and setting with which to have a psychedelic experience.”

— Intentional use of psychedelics is growing

“Set” and “setting” are two words that come up frequently in discussions about spirituality and psychedelic use. According to Matt Lowe, research director at Denver nonprofit Unlimited Sciences, “set” refers to the mindset a person has when they ingest psychedelics and “setting” refers to the environment in which they do it — two things that differentiate intention-driven use from recreational.

In 2020, Unlimited Sciences began collaborating with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research to conduct an observational study of psilocybin users to learn more about the context in which people consume the substance. The study has so far enrolled 6,800 people, who either used psilocybin in the six months prior to self-reporting survey data or planned to use it in the six months following their enrollment, and more than 900 have completed an initial survey, said Albert Garcia-Romeu, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

Among respondents, the largest share (40%) reported “self-exploration” as the primary reason for doing so, followed by those seeking to use psilocybin for their mental health (30%) and for therapy (10%).

“We’re definitely tapping into a number of people who are not only using it for guiding sessions or self-exploration for topics they find difficult, or to overcome grief, or to understand unity,” Lowe said. “We’re seeing people use it also to guide their religious experiences, or mystical experiences or spirituality.”

There’s evidence of indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica using hallucinogenic cactus, plants and fungi in healing rituals and religious ceremonies. And prior to the 1970s, researchers had been adamantly studying substances such as LSD and psilocybin in mystical and medical contexts, Lowe said. After President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1971, however, research and clinical trials came to a grinding halt.

Much like cannabis, it’s taken decades to reverse the stigma around psychedelics and investigate their benefits. Recent studies have yielded promising results in using psilocybin to treat depression, PTSD, anxiety among the terminally ill and even nicotine addiction. Modern research has also explored psychedelics as catalysts to religious experiences, Lowe said.

In Denver, Gorelick is preparing to administer a study in partnership with Canadian company Divergence Neuro that aims to collect biometric data about how psychedelic mushrooms affect the human body and brain, leveraging fungi grown by The Sacred Tribe.

Using a proprietary method, Gorelick’s team extracts and isolates psilocybin and 14 other alkaloids that can be administered to members based on their intentions for a journey — whether it be to make an internal connection, open their heart space or tackle challenges head-on, he said. Some like aeruginascin are linked to states of euphoria, Gorelick said, while others like baeocystin offer feelings of connectedness.

These assessments are, so far, based on anecdotal evidence from a group of “experienced psychonauts” who Gorelick has been surveying. Once a month, he provides participants with 1.5 grams and asks them to rate the effects on factors such as creativity, clarity, mind, body, spirit, visuals and more.

“Most of the time, I get all the results back and there’s at least enough correlation between the 29 people that shows these particular strains lend themselves to more heart connection, more somatic experience, or a more visual experience, or whatever,” Gorelick said.

The upcoming study aims to pair data to that anecdotal evidence by monitoring brain wave patterns, heart rate variability, respiration, gut flora response and other factors, Gorelick said. It’s expected to start later this year.

What makes his study unique is that the compounds are extracted from the fungi itself. Most medical research currently relies on synthetic psilocybin for consistent dosing, he said.

“We are, as far as I know, the only people in the world who have come up with a particular process that allows us to have a consistent dosing, but based on full mushroom extract. So I can say, not only is it 20 milligrams of psilocybin, it’s also 3 milligrams of psilocin, 12 milligrams of baeocystin, etc.,” Gorelick said. “So I can give that consistently every time, too.”

— Murky legal landscape remains

On the morning of Jan. 10, The Sacred Tribe’s warehouse underwent a routine fire inspection to secure operating permits. At 4:45 p.m. that afternoon, Denver police executed a search warrant regarding a complaint from the fire department about an active mushroom and psilocybin lab, according to the probable cause affidavit.

“Officers discovered grow tents inside, scales and multiple small white freezers with suspected mushroom bags sealed and stacked filling them to the top,” the affidavit stated. Police confiscated suspected mushrooms, both frozen and growing, as well as paperwork, notebooks and a digital scale, according to Gorelick’s arrest affidavit.

Police arrested a chemist who was contracted to design and work in the mushroom extraction lab, according to Gorelick. The Denver District Attorney’s Office charged the individual with possession with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance, a first-degree felony.

On Feb. 8, police arrested Gorelick after he turned himself in at the Denver Police Department. According to his arrest affidavit, police linked Gorelick to the raided warehouse after finding mail and two cars registered to him at the grow facility during their investigation. Gorelick’s name also was on the fire permit application, the affidavit stated.

The relationship between religion and drug use has been legally contentious for decades and became even more nuanced when Congress adopted the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, or RFRA, in 1993.

The act was passed in response to a Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, a case involving two Native American men who were fired from their jobs and subsequently denied unemployment benefits for using peyote, even though it was part of their religious practice. The court decided the state’s law prohibiting peyote use was a law of general applicability, meaning it applied to everyone equally and would not be overturned because it interfered with religious practice in just a few instances.

According to Griffen Thorne, an attorney with the Harris Bricken law firm in Los Angeles, the ruling spawned widespread backlash and even conservative religious groups were critical of implications under the First Amendment. That led Congress to pass RFRA as a test that judges use to evaluate whether a law or government action infringes on religious liberties protected by the First Amendment.

RFRA has been applied in various contexts over the years, Thorne said, including in a 2006 case involving ayahuasca that set precedent for groups to be able to import and use controlled substances in a religious context. That essentially “left the door open” for other groups as well, Thorne said.

Organizations can also apply for a religious exemption with the Drug Enforcement Administration, but due to stipulations in the agency’s guidelines “the chances of that happening are like winning the Super Bowl,” Thorne said.

“A lot of people probably have legitimate religious practices that would be protected by the First Amendment, but you have a federal agency that’s extremely over-aggressive in how it regulates things and laws that actually prohibit things,” Thorne said, “so unless those people go to court and win, they’re probably still violating the law.”

Despite this ambiguity, federal law is explicit in prohibiting the cultivation of illegal substances, including psychedelic mushrooms, Thorne said. The only protections an organization might have would be at the state or local level.

A panel created to evaluate the effects of psilocybin decriminalization in Denver suggested loosening local laws further after concluding it “has not since presented any significant public health or safety risk in the city.” The panel recommended, among other things, that the City Council make both the communal use and the gifting of psilocybin among the lowest law enforcement priority.

Additionally, activists have filed several ballot initiatives to legalize entheogenic plants and fungi, including psilocybin, mescaline and dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, statewide, and create a regulated system for their use in therapeutic settings. Should they collect enough signatures, voters could see the measures on the November ballot.

Until then, tension between being able to legally use psilocybin and the illegality of buying or selling it creates more grey area. Councilman Hinds found the report on decriminalizing’s effects promising, especially given how many law enforcement representatives, including Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, contributed to the recommendations. When Mile High City voters adopted decriminalization via Initiative 301, the measure notably did not address how locals could or should obtain psilocybin. Hinds sees gifting as a step toward resolving this Catch-22.

“The committee met for more than a year and I don’t know if it was fully on board with exactly how people obtain psilocybin,” he said. “But if the City Council agrees with the report, then at least gifting personal amounts could become decriminalized here in the near future.”

But growing 35 strains appears “beyond the definition of personal use, in my opinion,” he added.

Still, clarity has been hard to come by even with substances that are legal, as Steve Berke, co-founder of the International Church of Cannabis in Denver, found out in 2017 when police charged him with public consumption of marijuana and a violation of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act.

The Church of Cannabis does not need a license for on-premise consumption because of its status as a religious nonprofit, Berke said, which enables its congregants, known as Elevationists, to smoke marijuana during private, members-only services. Despite the fact cannabis was legalized statewide several years prior to the church’s grand opening on April 20, 2017, police still came knocking. Berke went to court and was ultimately fined $50 for the two misdemeanors. (A Denver judge found another co-founder, Lee Molloy, not guilty on the same charges.)

The Church of Cannabis doesn’t grow its namesake plant or sell paraphernalia, so as not to be misconstrued as a marijuana business, Berke said. (Elevationists bring their own to consume.) Still, he cautioned that any religious organization using substances needs to ensure they’re in compliance with local, state and federal law.

“Religion doesn’t allow you to murder people on the street or sacrifice humans, so there are still boundaries you cannot cross,” Berke said. “If you’re doing anything with a Schedule 1 narcotic you need to be worried about the federal government. But in 2017, we knew the feds weren’t going after cannabis.”

While The Sacred Tribe’s mushroom growing operation remains on hold, the group is reconvening. Gorelick postponed retreats scheduled for January following the raid but is resuming them in February — sans sacrament. Still, Gorelick expects cultivation will begin again soon.

The rabbi isn’t worried about legal consequences — even after being detained — saying the group’s practices are protected by an inherent religious exemption. (The Sacred Tribe has not received a formal exemption from the DEA.) None of the mushrooms The Sacred Tribe grew were ever sold or used outside the context of its events, he said.

“The Sacred Tribe stands by our religious exemption and we believe in our religious exemption,” Gorelick said. “I am absolutely fully confident that at the conclusion of vetting of our processes that life will go back to normal.”