A major business in Oregon’s nascent psilocybin industry is melting down—leaving its employees jobless, and potentially abandoning students who’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars for courses.
While much is still unclear, local opposition to a large prospective psilocybin service center may have played a part. And the implosion of a company reportedly central to the development of Oregon’s psilocybin rules raises concerns for future access.
The Synthesis Institute described itself as “a global leader of the modern psychedelic movement,” focused on research, education and training. Under Oregon’s legal therapeutic-psilocybin model—currently in advanced stages of implementation after voters approved Measure 109 in 2020—the company was slated to open a psilocybin service center, where people could receive the drug in a therapeutic setting, later this year. And Synthesis was a significant provider of training for “facilitators.”
By law, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) must set basic training standards and requirements for these facilitators, whose role—once the nation’s first psilocybin service centers open later in 2023—will be to sit with a client throughout their trip, acting as the first safeguard should anything negative happen. Companies that offer training services must have their curricula approved by the OHA, though the agency does not regulate the courses or their cost. All facilitators must complete a course in order to earn their license. To date, 21 such training institutes have been approved in Oregon.
On March 1, Benjamin Ramm, a journalist, psychedelics author and eco-community founder, posted a Twitter thread describing problems facing the Synthesis Institute. “CEO Rachel Aidan has stepped down. The US operation has encountered some ‘difficulties’ and ‘challenges’,” he wrote. “I’ve now heard from multiple sources that bankruptcy is a serious possibility…”
On March 2, Ramm shared a screenshot of an email addressed to “colleagues” from Synthesis employee Rachel Lovie, discussing how senior leadership told employees there will be a “pause” but without offering details.
“Wow, Synthesis has just imploded! Everyone has received immediate termination notices by email.”
It read: “Kristi [a member of senior leadership team] also said that the ‘pause’ was for them to consult legal regarding the procedure for filing for bankruptcy in the USA and nothing more. She said there is no interest from other potential investors as far as she is aware.”
“It would appear that we have been mislead [sic] into thinking there may yet be some hope when it looks to me as if the situation is now irredeemable,” it continued; “…yesterday, the information given by Martijn [the new CEO] in the meeting was unclear and vaguely hopeful. I also conveyed to you that I still held a shred of optimism. Today, waking up with a clearer head, I no longer do.”
Ramm then shared the following message on LinkedIn from Lovie: “Wow, Synthesis has just imploded! Everyone has received immediate termination notices by email.”
The Synthesis Institute did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
Students Left Without Answers
Filter was able to speak with Cori Sue Morris, a psychedelic entrepreneur who enrolled in a “psychedelic practitioner core training” offered by Synthesis—a 13-month online course, priced from $9,000-11,200. The course makes you eligible to work as a retreat assistant for Synthesis, “positions with clinical trials, or jobs in other psychedelic organizations.”
According to Morris, everything seemed to be going well with the Synthesis classes—although, she noted, the company abruptly canceled an online conference in February that students were invited to attend.
But things took a turn for the worse on March 1, she said, when she received an email from Synthesis referring to “organizational and operational shifts.”
It raises the question of what will happen to the couple of hundred students who paid thousands for online courses.
“We do not have sufficient clarity on how the impending changes will impact our ability to continue supporting this program and as such, we need to pause the [online course],” it read. “We have informed the Program team and all Learning Facilitators this morning about the decision to pause the training and have advised them to not continue holding responsibility for their functions.”
Everything taken together—the sudden pause in the online course, potential bankruptcy, the departure of the CEO and termination of company staff—raises the question of what will happen to the couple of hundred students (according to Morris’s estimate) who paid thousands for online courses. Will classes be resumed, will they be refunded, or do they lose their money?
With no further communication from Synthesis, Morris then received a March 3 email from Retreat Guru—an online marketplace that connects users with international retreats for yoga, psilocybin, ayahuasca and other purposes.
The email announced that the company was partnering with Synthesis to continue the online psychedelic practitioner course. “This partnership ensures your training program is delivered in full and signifies how deeply we value this program and certification,” it read. “We will be sending out more details to come in the following days as we work hand in hand with the team at Synthesis and their key facilitators.”
It’s not immediately clear how an online marketplace would be qualified to train psilocybin facilitators. But on March 6, Morris received another email from Retreat Guru, telling her the course was on hold for a week, but promising that “the value of this training program and your certification is unaffected.” Retreat Guru said it was prioritizing making sure that program facilitators could continue their work and be paid anything they were owed.
“We are fully confident that the program will continue smoothly following this pause, however the greatest risk we face is if every student requests a refund this week,” the email continued. “Given that, I humbly request that you give our team this week to demonstrate to you how we will resume operations beginning next week, giving the training program the opportunity to live on.”
Morris told Filter that—based a Zoom call with the entire student body and her private conversations—students are divided about how they want this problem addressed.
“I was really upset about the people who spent their savings to try and change their lives. They were swindled. We all were.”
“There’s people who want their money back immediately because they don’t trust what’s happening,” she said, “and then there’s people who think the [credit card] chargebacks will tank Retreat Guru and they want to move forward and they’re encouraging others to not [request it].”
Morris has heard no further word from Synthesis since the March 1 email. “I was really upset about the people in my pod who spent their savings to try and change their lives,” she said. “They set out to build careers in this emerging industry, seeking a new path for purpose and livelihood. And they were swindled. We all were. It is really heartbreaking.”
The crisis inspired some of the students to form an organizing committee, which is now taking the lead in communicating with the companies on behalf of students, facilitators and other staff to seek a fair resolution.
“We are very sorry to hear that the Synthesis institute will be closing its training program and students are being impacted,” OHA Psilocybin Services Manager Angela Allbee told Filter. “While OHA reviews and approves psilocybin facilitator training program curriculum, OHA does not have regulatory authority over training programs.”
“Involved in Rule-Making From the Beginning”
The Synthesis Institute is a Netherlands-based company that specializes in “multiday, immersive, nature based retreats,” according to cofounder Myles Katz, as reported in Willamette Week. The company has three LLCs registered in Oregon, including Synthesis Digital, Mythic Properties and Oregon Retreat Centers. In June 2021 it purchased a 124-acre, $3.6 million property in Ashland, Oregon to offer psilocybin services. By September that year it had raised $10 million for the project.
“The rules for training programs were modeled very closely after Synthesis’ s existing curriculum, which you can imagine would give them a leg up.”
“My impression is that Synthesis has been involved in the rule-making process in Oregon from the very beginning,” Mason Marks, a law professor at Florida State University specializing in psychedelic law, told Filter. “Their training program was used as one of the templates for the training requirement that were incorporated into Oregon rules.”
“The rules for training programs were modeled very closely after Synthesis’s existing curriculum, which you can imagine would give them a leg up.”
There were other connections between Synthesis and the Measure 109 rollout. Marks identified at least two Synthesis employees who served on the rulemaking advisory committee. And Measure 109 co-sponsor Tom Eckert, the former chair of the psilocybin advisory board to the OHA, had a link to Synthesis through being in a relationship with its (now former) CEO, Rachel Aidan.
Eckert also invited Synthesis representatives to speak before the advisory board and praised their work. He resigned from the board in March 2022, after concerns were raised abut the possiblity of his political influence benefiting companies he was involved with.
Did an old-fashioned drug-war panic kill Synthesis’s multi-million dollar investment?
Did an old-fashioned drug-war panic kill Synthesis’s multi-million dollar investment? In Jackson County, where the company bought the $3.6 million Buckhorn Springs Resort property, some residents and lawmakers were hesitant to allow psychedelic businesses in rural areas and wanted them in downtown or business areas only. In December 2022, the county board voted to ban psilocybin services in rural, unincorporated areas and allow them only in commercial zones.
According to Marks, if it’s true that this county resolution killed the Synthesis retreat site, it means that Oregon just lost one of just a handful of service centers expected to open this year. It means lost jobs for facilitators and other license-holders, who were counting on providing services or otherwise working at the center. And it’s a loss for the people who would have wished to access psilocybin services there.
But it’s also a loss for the state of Oregon. The law requires that the psilocybin program under the OHA must be self-sustaining—meaning it must cover its own costs through licensing fees. If the Synthesis service center and now potentially hundreds of facilitators are out of the game, revenue will be significantly hit. And according to Marks, the program is already facing budget problems, forcing the OHA to ask lawmakers for an additional $6.6 million in the upcoming budget cycle just to keep the lights on for another year.
Altogether, while the conduct of Synthesis leadership is being questioned, the company’s demise could be troubling for all who want to see Oregon’s psilocybin therapy program succeed.
Photograph by gailhampshire via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0