Inside the Work of a New York Psychedelic Trip Guide

    Prometheus checked into a hotel in midtown Manhattan in 2018 with just a backpack, orange juice, and a bag of psilocybin mushrooms. Upstairs, he met Arlen for only his second time. They spent three hours together.

    “They had a tough decision to make in their life at that time,” Prometheus* told me. “But I can’t get into their personal business.”

    For two years, Prometheus has met New Yorkers throughout the city to trip on psychedelic drugs with them. It’s not just for fun—the trip buddies are his clients, and he their professional guide. Many of them have never used psychedelics before, or never had an enjoyable trip. His job is to help them safely through their psychedelic experience.

    There’s no easy way to describe the work Prometheus does. He has no professional or medical license. You could call him a therapist, a shaman or a tour guide. His clients primarily seek him out because of his personal experience and knowledge of psychedelics. At the same time, they may also be addressing mental health issues like depression or anxiety, or substance use disorders. Many of them are simply curious about exploring their consciousness or spirituality.

    But Prometheus calls himself a “dragoon”: While the word has its 17th century military meaning, he has his own definition: “It’s someone who explores their unconscious side, and I do that through Jungian psychology and psychedelics. I’m an explorer and a traveler, and I like to learn. What I like to learn about most is people, including myself.”

    “The number one compliment I get from people is, ‘That’s a good question!’”

    Prometheus, a young Black man, has used psychedelics throughout his adult life, but his first experience trying to trip-guide someone came in the Netherlands several years ago. He took psilocybin truffles with a friend who suffered from depression and alcohol addiction—but admits he didn’t know what he was doing at the time.

    “I think the core of this work is being a friend, by allowing people to open up and be safe to explore themselves and new perspectives,” he said. And he prides himself on his ability to ask questions. “The number one compliment I get from people is, ‘That’s a good question!’”

    Given the unregulated, ill-defined nature of trip-guiding, there’s no way to know how many guides operate in the US. Purely anecdotal evidence suggests that psychedelics’ increasing popularity is accompanied by more people providing such services, paid or not.

    Prometheus found his first psychedelic client by chance. After several years abroad, he returned to his home city of New York in 2018. He quickly found a local network of psychedelic enthusiasts, and met Arlen while volunteering at a psychedelic event. To his surprise, Arlen offered on the spot to pay Prometheus to guide him through his first experience.

    Prometheus jumped at the opportunity, but there were some logistics to figure out, including Arlen’s inexperience in obtaining drugs. Location, too: Arlen lived with his family, and Prometheus at the time was couch-surfing at his older sister’s house—so both homes were off-bounds.

    So Arlen booked the hotel where they could both meet and trip in solitude. Prometheus has since done the same with many of his other clients, or used AirBnB rooms. That helps both parties avoid any unwanted human interaction, especially from those who don’t approve of drugs.

    Prometheus, like so many of us, has found his work disrupted by the pandemic. “I’m very much a people person,” he said. “So this took away my sessions, my workshops and other income sources. Not many people will accept a stranger into their house now.”

    He doesn’t see his future clearly, but he sees a path. “I definitely believe in the power of people tripping together. It helps with bonding, it helps with growth—and it’s fun.”

     

    Set and Setting

    Over the past 30 years, scientific psychedelics organizations like MAPS or Usona have been researching clinical uses of drugs like MDMA for PTSD, or psilocybin for severe depression. Of course, these advances were preceded by Indigenous people’s recreational, medical and spiritual psychedelic traditions going back decades—and arguably, millennia.

    Clinical psychedelic research trials are known for their finely tuned protocols, with directions for how therapists conduct their psychedelic sessions for patients. They are designed, obviously, to minimize outside variables and collect good scientific data. But no two of Prometheus’s psychedelic sessions are ever the same.

    “I describe my method as like two souls crashing into each other and seeing what comes out the other side,” he said. “I am a chaotic person, and my method is too.” He didn’t even know about MAPS and their research when he started doing this work. (Nor, he claims, did he listen to Pink Floyd. “Which—now that I’ve heard Pink Floyd—holy shit!”)

    He continued, “Each session is mostly different but I try to bring my picnic box. You bring your fruit, your food, your music, your art supplies—try to bring whatever you could possibly need so your trip isn’t stressful. And then let things flow from there. It’s like freestyle.”

    “I generally choose to trip to bring myself to a dreamlike state, so the client can follow suit.”

    Like in the MAPS MDMA trials, Prometheus and his clients alternate between periods of talking and silence—always at the client’s discretion. But he’s much more like a trip buddy than a therapist. They sing together, dance and create an “atmosphere” around themselves.

    But the starkest difference between Prometheus and MAPS is that he does drugs with his clients–albeit a much smaller dose. “I generally choose to trip to bring myself to a dreamlike state, so the client can follow suit and let go of their preconceived notion of reality,” he explained.

    Another parallel between Prometheus and the MAPS method is integration, or follow-up after the trip. Two days after he and Arlen tripped in the hotel room, they met up again (sober) to talk about Arlen’s experience and what worked well for him. Besides helping the client process emotions and thoughts from the trip, it also helps Prometheus learn how to do his job better.

    Planning ahead for a trip is always important. Your mental or emotional mindset, and your physical environment or setting, will greatly influence how things turn out—for better or worse. Psychedelic users call this your “set and setting.” Choosing to trip in your grandma’s basement after a long workday will look very different from if you trip at the crack of dawn in your friend’s tent at a music festival.

    There’s no predictable rule when it comes to psychedelics. Everyones’ needs and preferences are different, and it’s important for both Prometheus and his clients to communicate before the trip. For each party to meet the other, where they’re at. In other words, harm reduction.

    But, that’s all assuming the drug you take is the one you asked for. It’s impossible to talk about any psychedelic use without addressing the drugs’ legal status.

     

    Trip-Guiding Under the War on Drugs

    The legality of psychedelics in the US is about as disorienting as a trip. Broadly speaking, psychedelics are not legal anywhere—with important exceptions.

    Cannabis, of course, is legal for recreational use in 11 states and Washington, DC, and for medical use in 33 states. It remains illegal as a Schedule I substance at the federal level, meaning it is not legal for any use, even with a doctor’s prescription. (The federal government is largely staying out of states who choose to legalize.)

    Salvia divinorum, a psychedelic plant, is not prohibited federally but is illegal in 13 states. Ketamine is a federal Schedule III controlled substance, which must be prescribed or administered by a doctor in a medical setting. Then: MDMA, psilocybin (“mushrooms”), LSD, DMT, mescaline (peyote, San Pedro), and ibogaine are all federal Schedule I substances.

    But there are some unusual exceptions even for these drugs: Certain religious or spiritual groups have successfully argued to the US Supreme Court that the First Amendment protects their right to use them. Generally speaking, though, a police officer will have no fucks to give if you tell them your Muslim faith allows you to possess a few hits of acid.

    In the realm of psychedelic therapy research, MAPS is the closest to finishing its clinical trials, but any final results are still subject to approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Were MDMA to become a legal medicine, it would of course have to be rescheduled within the Controlled Substances Act, at least to the less restricted Schedule II category.

    Finally: Three US cities—Denver, Oakland and Santa Cruz—have each decriminalized some groups of psychedelics like psilocybin and entheogens within the past year. But, as even the political organizers who birthed those successful initiatives will tell you, psychedelics are not legal to buy or sell in those cities. Local police are simply instructed to avoid making arrests for minor possession of these drugs.

    “If he were to abuse his role and inflict any kind of harm on his clients, how would they seek help?”

    In an unregulated market, neither Prometheus nor his clients are ever guaranteed they’re getting pure LSD or MDMA, and have to hope each bag of mushrooms is grown well and uncontaminated. They can use tools like reagent drug testing kits or fentanyl strips, but these aren’t completely accurate or comprehensive. And of course, they put themselves at risk of arrest and criminal charges any time they walk New York streets with psychedelic drugs in their pocket—a risk heightened when Prometheus is Black.

    The drug war also prevents any regulation of the kind of work Prometheus does. He takes his responsibilities seriously. But if he were to abuse his role and inflict any kind of harm on his clients—physical, psychological, sexual or otherwise—how would they seek help? What if he simply didn’t do his job right and it jeopardized their health or life?

    They couldn’t easily go to the police, even if they wanted to, when both people were using illegal drugs. There’s no professional board or association they could appeal to that would investigate him or remove his license. They couldn’t sue him if he defrauded them. Maybe they couldn’t even tell their family about what happened because of stigma around drug use.

    These are all risks for Prometheus, too, if his clients harm him. And none of this is hypothetical–the broader psychedelic community has struggled for years with issues of abuse and accountability. Legalizing drugs, alone, wouldn’t solve these problems–but it would provide clients and guides with more tools to address them.

    The psychedelic medicine approach, championed by groups like MAPS, has its own problems. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is projected to cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. Though nearly two in 10 American adults suffer from a mental health disorder like depression or PTSD, it’s highly unlikely that all who would want medical MDMA would have access, even if it were legalized.

    For a real-world example of this, just look at the FDA-approved esketamine (closely related to ketamine) medication, Spravato. It is available only to those who have failed other depression treatments, and must be given in an approved doctor’s office and under their supervision. Or, look at the large gap between the numbers of people who want medical marijuana in a state like New Mexico, versus the smaller amount who actually end up getting it.

     

    Money and the Revolution

    Prometheus is also struggling with the accessibility question. “New York requires you to monetize all your interests—because rent is so high,” he said. “When I go out and I feel comfortable, I tell people this is who I am and this is what I do. I let people come to me and ask me.” His prices range on a sliding scale, as he encourages a “pay what you can” system.

    “Psychedelics and money always feel weird,” he said. “I’m pushed more by the experience than the money, [but] the need for money is a reality.”

    Prometheus admits that his clients are usually higher-income, older people within socially conservative circles, though he has done many trips with lower-income folks. It’s worthwhile to ask how a service like his can be affordable to all groups of people. But it is still dramatically cheaper than something like the MAPS MDMA therapy.

    Prometheus wants to see a larger proliferation of both psychedelics and the knowledge of how to use them. “Younger people have more access to psychedelics,” he said. “There’s people like me who could be paid to trip-guide, but it’s also as simple as friends trip-guiding friends. It can become so ubiquitous that people will know how to do this or know who to go to for help that isn’t too far removed from their community.”

    While he supports legalization or decriminalization measures like those in Denver, he opposes models that don’t actively seek to improve access. He also doesn’t think we should wait until these drugs are legal before we start doing the work to educate ourselves about them.

    It’s a less centralized approach than that advocated by MAPS and others, and Prometheus believes that ultimately more people will get to use psychedelics this way. He does acknowledge the inherent risks of underground psychedelic use. But he believes that by spreading knowledge about safety and responsible use, communities can organically and democratically create tools to enrich themselves.

    Besides the pandemic, Prometheus’s psychedelic guide work has slowed down for another reason. Since late May, he has thrown himself into the mass protests in New York City against police murder of Black people.

    Most recently, he took part in the Occupy City Hall demonstrations calling to defund billions of dollars from the New York Police Department budget. He explained his role as helping deescalate conflict or tension between protestors, and bringing art supplies to help people express themselves.

    And of course, there’s drugs. “Weed is a part of this revolution,” he said. “It’s something people are fighting to have access to and does good for the community. I think psychedelics are also in that way. I see myself as helping people learn how to use them responsibly. Or through talking, tarot cards, getting in nature, music—whatever works for people to help them find their center.”

    Throughout the spring and summer, he’s done just that. “New York City makes this work easier because it has access—both to the people to learn from and the psychedelics themselves.”

    “I think my favorite place to trip is Jacob Riis Beach. The water on psychedelics is nice—and it’s fun.”

     


     

    * Names and some minor identifying details have been changed to protect sources’ privacy.

    Correction, August 21: This article has been updated to reflect that Spravato consists of esketamine, rather than ketamine.

    Photograph of Rockaway Beach by spurekar via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

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