As psilocybin decriminalization is making headlines across the US and MDMA is nearing the finish line for FDA approval, many people are excited about the prospect of legal psychedelic retreats where people can have a safe and well-facilitated psychedelic experience without having to break the law. In the Netherlands, psilocybin-containing truffles have been legal and widely available for a long time, and legal psilocybin centers are starting to crop up offering what folks in the US are fighting to make possible—safe, legal, and professional spaces for healing psychedelic experiences.
Martijn Schirp is the founder and Executive Director of Synthesis, a legal psilocybin center in Amsterdam that has partnered with both Imperial College London and the California Institute of Integral Studies. We spoke with Martijn about the genesis of Synthesis, the importance of psychedelic neuroscience, and why they have chosen to cater to professionals and offer the highest quality of safety and care possible.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Martjin. To start out, why don’t you give a brief overview of how Synthesis came to be.
My background is in interdisciplinary science and philosophy, and I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last 10 or 12 years. I co-founded and ran a blog and media company called High Existence where we covered topics like meditation, philosophy and science.
Before that, when I just got out of high school, I became a professional poker player with a poker coaching business, which was great, but it was very connected with a materialistic lifestyle and worldview. After a while, the lack of meaning in just creating more money and not offering any value back to the world kind of ate at me. I ended up getting quite sick, existentially confused, and I never really dealt with some of the past trauma and other things that happened in my family when I was younger. So I started this quest after poker to discover what was wrong with me and figure out how I could get better. Meditation and psychedelics came up multiple times, so I started traveling to meditation retreats and doing psychedelic ceremonies all over the world.
Psychedelics helped me connect with my emotions and my family history, and I realized how much I didn’t learn when I grew up about what makes life valuable, and what it’s like to be a good human being, how deeply interconnected life is. I started writing about that for High Existence and that kind of blew up over time. I developed retreats there called Apotheosis and created different courses to help people live a more meaningful life and have a more connected existence.
Then about two years ago at Breaking Convention in London, I was interviewing Dennis McKenna for a podcast. It became very clear in between the lines the he was urging the younger generation to take on leadership roles, and that inspired me to start building the framework and infrastructure to integrate these medicines and sacraments into society—both in a rational and scientific way, and in a way that honors the deep mystical awakenings people have and the indigenous knowledge of the right way to use them.
I’m Dutch, and in the Netherlands you can buy legal psilocybin truffles at “smart shops.” It suddenly clicked for me: “Why not create retreats here?” And so my co-founder and I started a pilot project in April 2018. We did three back-to-back retreats, which was very ambitious—looking back, it was probably too intense. But we got a team together, we made sure there was medical supervision, and we started by handing out the scientific literature around it to educate the people coming on retreat. It was a different way of reaching individuals who normally wouldn’t be exposed to psychedelics.
We were speaking at different business conferences about microdosing, and people would come up to us and ask, “Hey, can this help me? I drink too much.” or “I’m still suffering from this trauma, can psychedelics help?” or “I’m a lawyer and have major bouts with depression and I’ve heard about psychedelics, what is a place you would recommend?” Normally I would recommend them to the ayahuasca underground community that I was part of, and I would often hear “That’s not for me.” It was one or two steps too far. So we started asking what makes people feel comfortable and safe so they can actually open themselves up. And that’s how Synthesis was born.
A few months later, we put on another retreat where we changed a few things based on what we were learning, and it was even better received. We started doing research with Imperial College London and we got really interesting data from that, and then it became clear that somebody had to lead Synthesis full-time. So in August last year, we decided that I would be the executive director moving forward. I quit my CEO role at High Existence and we were approached by a few impact investors who were interested in supporting us, our vision, and psychedelics in general.
We found a venue in the Netherlands, a former church designed for transformational retreat experiences, and we started to hire some of the most competent and high-integrity people that we knew in the psychedelic community, in the Netherlands and the UK. We’ve grown to 24 people full-time now, and in a year have had close to 700 people come through with amazing transformations and healing happening. We have official partnerships with Imperial College London Psychedelic Research Group and with the California Institute of Integral Studies where their students come through to get their practicum hours with us.
Very cool. You guys recently appointed famed psychedelic neuroscientist Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris to your advisory board. I’d love to hear how that came about and how neuroscience can help to shape the offerings that you provide.
We’ve been working with the Imperial team for over a year, and they have really shined with integrity and passion, so we are very happy to be working more and more with them. Robin has been critical in advising us on how to set up the studies we’ve been doing to measure the outcomes of our programs. Over time, it made sense for us to have that direct line to him on a permanent basis, as well as to show the community that we have the support of someone who has done pioneering work in this field and on the neuroscience behind it.
Many people are hearing about psychedelics and think they might work for them, but they are on the fence because it is a big unknown. They want to know if it is safe and what will happen in their brain and what long term changes to expect. I don’t know anyone better than Robin to reassure them and answer those questions. And beyond the neuroscience, he also oversees depression and nature-relatedness studies, and we’d love to better understand what happens to individuals before and after doing a retreat.
Other than the retreat itself, do you bookend the experience with preparation and integration coaching or activities?
When you first apply, you fill out an application and go through a very extensive medical check, and that’s for us to know your medical history and what kind of medications you use and make sure it’s really safe. Right now, unfortunately, we have to say “No” to 40% of all people who apply, and that’s simply because A) we don’t have enough information to ensure safety, and B) we haven’t built the infrastructure yet to help the more high-risk individuals. So that’s something we’re working on—to include more people, but in a very safe way. One misstep happening could set back this whole space significantly, so we take that responsibility very seriously.
Once a person is approved by the medical screener, the first step is to jump on a call for about 45 minutes, and that’s for us to really understand who you are, what are your hopes and expectations, what kind of preparation work you’ve already done, and what kind of spiritual practice or therapy you are involved in. It’s really important for us to learn that potential participants are ready for retreat. Mis-timing a psychedelic experience is not a good thing. If your expectations are too high, it’s not a good thing. If we have trouble building rapport, it’s probably not a good thing. We also want to know if they have a community and support network that they can go to afterwards. It all depends on the individual of course. If you’re really high-functioning with very few issues, less checks and balances are needed, but for some of the more vulnerable population, we have to make sure that this is a good idea for them.
We share many kinds of preparation documents beforehand, with reading, listening and watching material. We encourage journaling practices, meditation, breathwork, long walks in nature, and finding creative ways to connect with yourself, your community, and nature. The more work you can do beforehand, the less anxiety you will have on retreat, and the more you can surrender willingly and courageously to confront some of the shadow aspects that might come up.
That’s all happening before our retreats, and then on retreat there are group workshops and one-on-one conversations with the lead facilitator, so participants can share intentions in a group and also in privacy and in confidence. The first day is all about preparation, and then later days include the ceremonies themselves and the integration afterwards.
After a retreat is over, we always make ourselves available for people to reach out to us. There’s an integration group call that checks in with everyone and lets people share what is coming up for them and what might be challenging. If they need any additional help, we have a network of psychedelic-friendly doctors and therapists that we can refer people to.
I’m curious why you decided to focus on treating professionals. What led to that decision?
It became very clear in the beginning that to follow the standards we feel are necessary for safety, it was going to be very costly. For example, on our medical check and intake calls we spend around 350 euros per person. Professionals have the most disposable income, so we’re targeting that population first in order for us to build an infrastructure that can scale over time.
Our aim is to reduce costs in the long run, but we’re still far removed from that. If you compare us to other treatment models and other costs that normally get paired with mental disorders, we’re actually relatively cheap. There are no insurance companies yet that are willing to reimburse people for this, but we expect that to change in the future.
That makes sense—if you want to provide the very highest standard of safety and quality, you need to target people who can afford it. It’s kind of like the Tesla model of starting with the expensive Roadster and working backwards to the Model 3.
Exactly, and I think every car should be electric, but you know, it’s just not a reality off the bat, so you need to start somewhere. I know we’re on the more expensive end, but we do have scholarships available and offer discounts up to 50%, sometimes even 100% in certain cases if people come through clinical studies and they need ongoing psychedelic assisted care and can’t get it anywhere else.
We are aiming for high-end, high-quality first. I look at some of the other players in this field in the Netherlands who are already undercutting each other on price—then quality drops, people are burned out, and that leads to worse outcomes. Yes, it’s cheaper financially, but the risks go up significantly and that in the end will cost us more. But the eventual aim is to have this form of healing available universally.
To lean more about the legal psilocybin center Synthesis, visit their website here.