Problematic groups

As part of psychedelic.training’s harm reduction focus, we acknowledge the necessity of identifying and reducing abusive practices within the psychedelic community. This page discusses some issues commonly observed in recreational groups, psychedelic organizations, and groups with hierarchical power structures.

Users of many different paths seek out psychedelic medicine. Depending on their needs, individuals may seek out various kinds of psychedelic groups respectively. A group that one person finds useful and fervent may feel irrelevant or overwhelming to someone else. It is critical to work with a group that feels right for you. That being said, the guidelines below will assist in identifying groups with safe and risk-adverse practices.

Distinguish medical settings from recreational ones

Psychedelic users seeking therapeutic benefits should refer to medical resources, not recreational groups. Casual drug users often prioritize emotional, cognitive, and spiritual highs rather than sustained improvements to well-being. Recreational use exists in contrast to clinical settings, which offer far more psychological support.

While recreational use may evoke meaningful or healing experiences, psychedelics should nonetheless always be respected as powerful medicines. Clinical psychedelic therapy is conducted with considerable safety and medical forethought to ensure maximum therapeutic outcomes. Adhering to clinical research protocols helps avoid unnecessary risks.

It is common for users to take psychedelics for therapeutic purposes in a recreational situation while still expecting benefits associated with clinical settings. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in traumatic experiences, due to the user being unexpectedly overwhelmed or made vulnerable. Casual users often just want to have a good time, and may overlook users who are struggling or subjected to abusive behavior.[1][2]

Psychedelic tribalism

There is a tenuous association between psychedelics and cliquey, tribal, or cult-like group behavior. This should be taken seriously, especially when considering group whose members bond through regular psychedelic sessions. Psychedelics have played a role in many intentional communities, initiation rituals, and cultic organizations.[3][4][5] Mirroring the social effects of psychedelics, groups may feature intimate bonds, ideological nuance, or volatility.[6]

Groups are often justified in their idiosyncratic behavior. Due to the need to protect members in various ways, psychedelic groups may appear paranoid, exclusionary, or insular. Psychedelic group members often comprise a wide variety of psychological types, and may require additional privacy and emotional consideration in order to feel safely included. These demographics include:

  • members who are mentally ill or neurodiverse
  • trauma survivors
  • members constituting a local ethic/racial/religious minority
  • LGBTQ-identifying individuals, or those in the process of coming out
  • other niche and marginalized demographics seeking meaningful therapy

Additionally, groups may need to maintain heightened anonymity for professionals doing work within the psychedelic community while also maintaining their reputation in a conventional career path. Professionals overlapping with psychedelic groups often include:

  • artists, musicians, technicians, and other creatives
  • therapists and healers
  • researchers and clinicians

Identifying problematic group behaviors

The following patterns of behavior may suggest the presence of problematic behavior and a lack of accountability. Not all of the behaviors listed here necessarily constitute abuse themselves, but may be signs some group members are comfortable with escalating illegal activities, drug dependency, abusive behavior, or sexual coercion.

Abusive & cultic behavior

Abusive behavior should be defined carefully. Although some individuals may prefer the intimacy of a clique, tribe, or self-described cult, the privacy maintained around these practices can leave room for patterns of abuse.[7]

Some signs of problematic group behavior are listed below:

  • Promoting risky non-psychedelic drugs, physical abuse, sexual or romantic manipulation, harassment, or stalking of anyone.
  • Charismatic or egotistical leaders of social influence who self-legitimize their own beliefs.[8]
  • Maintaining a culture of secrecy for separate illicit or controversial dealings such as criticizing other community members, promoting addictive or high-risk drugs, selling drugs or sharing sources for obtaining them.
  • Vilifying ex-members and ex-participants, or openly criticizing or harassing members who associate with them. Punishing or harassing participants who are critical of organizational policy or facilitators. Threatening to expose members or destroy their reputation through blackmail.
  • Groups that involve a heavy ideological, political, or religious slant. Maintaining a culture of misinformation, fear, or threats, where members are easily excluded or banned.
  • Groups that encourage exchange of sexual favors, pressures users on their sexuality or orientation, or use sexuality as a source of shame or punishment.[9]
  • Members being dosed with drugs without their prior knowledge, misinformed as to what drugs they are ingesting, being pressured into using drugs (especially when they are already intoxicated), or any other violation of informed consent with regards to drug use. This also includes encouraging members to ingest drugs of unknown quality, origin, manufacture, or clinical utility.

Problematic behavior online

Online communities necessitate special considerations for maintaining a safe, non-abusive space. Some examples of how problematic behavior can manifest online are:

  • Deleting records of logs of online groups, deleting moderation logs, providing biased access to logs or messages, or deleting/editing user messages to change the appearance of past conversations.
  • Inadequate screening of users with heightened psychological or medical risks, or users with a history of abuse or misconduct of any kind.
  • Inadequate screening of underage users, or older younger members who groom younger ones.[10][11]
  • Inviting group members to separate, private groups for the purpose of distributing drugs or facilitating sexual intimacy. Collecting or encouraging pornographic material from other users, which may be used for extortion.[12]
  • Meetups that revolve around drug use or sexual activity, rather than the group’s stated purpose.
  • Encouraging risky drug use.
  • Disparaging users seeking help for drug-related, issues including: addiction, worsening of psychological or physical symptoms, or exposure to traumatic memories.
  • Utilizing websites that provide encrypted, time-expiring text and image hosts for advertising drug sources or other illicit media.

Signs of a safe group

Signs of a safe psychedelic group or guide are:

  • members show respect for individual needs and maintain comfortable emotional, physical, and sexual boundaries
  • organizers admit mistakes, accept criticism, and uphold personal accountability
  • group values critical thinking, self-respect, individual growth, and personal autonomy
  • communication with family, community, and pre-existing friendships is encouraged
  • organization publicly discloses information about its organization structure, history, and finances
  • will not vilify ex-members or ex-participants, or forbid current participants from associating with them

In addition to these, online groups will demonstrate the following:

  • transparency on how user data is used and stored
  • meetups are concerned with peer support, research, or outreach efforts
  • disavowal of any illegal or illicit activities

Gaslighting & manipulation tactics

Gaslighting is a common tactic used to manipulate or conceal abuse by confusing victims into doubting their own experiences. Gaslighting is often accomplished by any of the following:

  • invalidating what the victim says
  • trivializing their worth
  • withholding information
  • verbal abuse (including jokes)
  • social isolation
  • any other attempts at undermining their self-confidence[13][14]

Especially when under the influence of psychedelics, these behaviors can be traumatizing to victims while remaining undetected by others. In order to help identify subtle manipulative behavior, some effects of gaslighting are listed below:

  • constantly second-guessing yourself, feeling confused, or as if something is wrong
  • feeling very sensitive throughout the day
  • frequently apologizing to people who hold power over you, avoiding abusive group members, feeling as if you can’t do anything right, or running over things you may have done wrong
  • lying to group members to avoid being put down or manipulated
  • paranoia about bringing up innocent conversation topics
  • making excuses to or withholding information from your friends or family
  • friends or family trying to protect you from the group
  • becoming furious with people you used to get along with

Gaslighting does not necessarily occur intentionally. Experts on emotional abuse often see manipulation as an emergent self-defense tactic, which may be employed unconsciously while trying to obtain the best for oneself. Due to personal traumas or personality factors, this may lead an individual to adopt abusive or coercive behavior. Once manipulative behavior becomes an individual’s norm, they may not recognize it as such, and further deny wrongdoing.[15]

Recovering from manipulation or gaslighting

Having one’s claims of abuse denied can be traumatizing in itself. If you were abused or manipulated by a psychedelic group, or while under the influence of psychedelic drugs, it may be difficult at first to find a way forward. It is strongly recommended that the individual seeks out a trauma specialist or integration therapist who understands the nature of gaslighting in a psychedelic setting, and who can help support any abuse that occurred.

Although it can be difficult at first, it is important to rebuilding one’s sense of safety and trust. Below are several suggestions for this process:

  • Cease contact. Remove the abusers or group from your life completely, and do not reconnect in any way.
  • Call it what it is. Affirm to yourself that you were abused, and who you were abused by. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to make sense of what happened.
  • Feel feelings. Honor any emotions that may come with acknowledging your abuse. Allow yourself to cry and express yourself as needed.
  • Get help. Reach out to a trauma specialist, integration therapist, family member, trusted friend, or spiritual guide
  • Don’t retaliate. Do not try to get revenge, it will keep you attached and probably backfire.
  • Move on. Develop new relationships, find new friends who respect you, and attempt to move forwards. Surround yourself with love, and make choices that empower you.
  • Learn from your experience. Read books or watch lectures on gaslighting and emotional abuse, and use your experience to recognize warning signs in the future.
  • Be patient with yourself. You may be paranoid or fearful for some while, or beat yourself up. When you make mistakes, give yourself the compassion that your abusers didn’t. Find value in personal qualities that made your vulnerable. Believe that that things will improve in time.[16][17][18]

Works cited

  1. Doblin, R. (2015, March 4). Rick Doblin: Psychedelic Healing with Marijuana, MDMA, Psilocybin, & Ayahuasca – #200. Bulletproof channel on YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/MEk_4wwvSLE?t=2150.
  2. Mayorga, O. and Smith, P. (2019, May 19). Forgiving psychedelic abusers should never be at the expense of their victims. Psymposia. Retrieved from https://www.psymposia.com/magazine/forgiving-psychedelic-abusers/.
  3. Douglas, James. (2017). Inside the bizarre 1960s cult, The Family: LSD, yoga and UFOs. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/13/the-family-great-white-brotherhood-australia-melbourne-cult-anne-hamilton-byrne
  4. Windolf, Jim. (2007). Sex, drugs, and soybeans. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/05/thefarm200705.
  5. Neiswender, Mary. (1971). Manson Girl’s Acid Trips Detailed. CieldoDrive.com. Retrieved from http://www.cielodrive.com/archive/manson-girls-acid-trips-detailed/.
  6. Bieberman, L. (1967, August 5). The Psychedelic Experience. The New Republic, inc. Retrieved from http://www.luminist.org/archives/bieberman_psychedelic_experience.htm.
  7. Rosedale, Herbert. (2015). “On Using the Term ‘Cult'”. ICSA Today, 6(3), pp. 4-6. International Cultic Studies Association. Retrieved from https://www.icsahome.com/articles/onusingtermcult.
  8. Langone, M.D. (2015, November 3). Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups. International Cultic Studies Association. Retrieved from https://www.icsahome.com/articles/characteristics.
  9. “”Child sexual exploitation.” (2019, August 26). National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Retrieved from https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/child-sexual-exploitation/.
  10. Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, Michele L. Ybarra (February–March 2008). Online “Predators” and Their Victims (PDF) (Vol 63 ed.). American Psychological Association. pp. 111–128. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-632111.pdf.
  11. “Grooming.” (2019, August 26). National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Retrieved from https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/grooming/.
  12. “Dangerous Connections: Youth Face a Risk of Sextortion Online.” (2019, May 30). Federal Beureau of Investigation. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/stop-sextortion-youth-face-risk-online-053019.
  13. Evans, P. (1996). The verbally abusive relationship: how to recognize it and how to respond. Expanded 2nd ed. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media Corporation.
  14. Shearman, S. (2017, March 30). “Cyberbullying in the workplace: ‘I became paranoid.'” The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2017/mar/30/cyberbullying-in-the-workplace-i-became-paranoid.
  15. Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect: how to spot and survive the hidden manipulations other people use to control your life. New York: Morgan Road Books.
  16. Johnson, M. (2019, March 28). “6 Unexpected Ways I’ve Healed From Gaslighting Abuse and Learned to Trust Myself Again.” Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/03/healed-from-gaslighting-abuse/.
  17. Gillihan, S. J. (2019, April 26). How to recover from gaslighting. WebMD. Retrieved from https://blogs.webmd.com/mental-health/20190426/how-to-recover-from-gaslighting.
  18. Coburn, J. (2019, April 4). How to heal after the emotional abuse of gaslighting. The Mighty. Retrieved from https://themighty.com/2019/04/how-to-recover-from-gaslighting-emotional-abuse/.