‘They threatened me with bankruptcy’: Employees and academics silenced over issues at major psychedelics charity

Inside the underground world of psychedelic therapy and the controversial charity pushing hard to bring the treatment into the mainstream.

Nine relative strangers are about to embark on a psychedelic voyage in bushland on Sydney's outskirts.

Their organiser is a self-styled guru offering healing and hope in the form of bags of green-grey powdered cactus dust — the psychedelic drug mescaline.

The drug is illegal in Australia, but those here appear unfazed. They say the benefits are worth the risks.

Some are simply here for an adventure, but for many there's something deeper.

Mescaline is illegal in Australia.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images: US National Archives, Library of Congress, State Library of Queensland, Biodiversity Heritage Library, NASA)

They're traumatised, struggling with life, and hoping to break through the pain.

"It's like a big reset on your brain," one participant, Jenny explains.

"It's like you're a computer that's been going, going, going, going, going, and then you just push the reset button and then you kind of start again."

It's not her first time seeking healing through psychedelics but it's her first with mescaline. It's clear she's anxious.

She lines up with the others and quickly swallows a mix of gluggy cactus powder and organic apple juice. The group plans to hike through the national park until nightfall.

Within an hour, Jenny's feeling the effects.

"It's kind of a big reset on life," she offers.

"I think this medicine, what it does, it takes the logic away. You just get into your body and you forget what it's like being in your body because we fall into these …" she trails off, staring into the distance.

"Ah, I can't do this." She's crying.

Collage of black and white photographs of two women diving off the top of a large multi-coloured mushroom illustration.
Psilocybin is one of the psychedelic drugs which has been trialed.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images: Biodiversity Heritag Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd, NASA)

Around the country people like Jenny are being drawn to the hope and hype of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), LSD and MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy).

The hope that psychedelics might hold the key to treating a range of mental health issues — from anxiety to depression and PTSD — isn't without merit. There are clinical trials happening around the world, including in Australia, which are showing promising results.

But some scientists say there's far more work to be done before these powerful drugs can be made safely available to the masses.

The banker and the opera singer

At a health and wellness retreat on the Sunshine Coast, investment banker Peter Hunt and his wife, opera singer Tania de Jong, have been fasting for several days and are hoping to re-energise their mission.

Their psychedelic journey began on a trip to the Netherlands a few years earlier, where they ingested a large legal dose of psychedelic drugs known as "Psilohuascha" through a private therapist.

"It was wild," Peter says.

"It was like nothing I'd experienced before."

A collage of a dozens of multi-coloured mushrooms in front of the feet of Peter and Tania who are pictured sitting.
Peter Hunt and Tania de Jong.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins)

Tania describes it as "one of the most profound experiences in our lives".

It inspired them to found Australia's only registered charity advocating for the use of psychedelic therapy to treat mental illness, Mind Medicine Australia (MMA).

In just three years, they've established a for-profit training institute, a telephone hotline, and are lobbying to get psychedelics legalised for therapeutic use in clinical settings.

"We see a lot of people out there who are suffering, and we're determined to bring these therapies into the medical system so psychiatrists can use them with their patients," Peter says.

But MMA is mired in controversy, with former staff alleging internal chaos, allegations of links to the underground, and claims it's used threats and intimidation to silence critics.

The drug cook

MMA's mission to get psychedelic therapy to the masses faces a major hurdle — getting the drugs rescheduled by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

So far it's failed to clear that hurdle.

Tania says, with both state and federal regulations involved, the process has been complicated.

"And often, you're dealing with bureaucrats who are quite challenged by change," she says.

"Because you know, this is a paradigm shift."

The charity's TGA application would have allowed both MDMA and psilocybin to be used in therapeutic settings.

The application was drafted with the help of key scientific adviser Victor Chiruta, who until recently was listed on the charity's website under the heading "management team".

"Victor's got great scientific knowledge," Peter says.

Victor Chiruta is also a convicted drug cook.

A collage of a multi-coloured mushroom growing out of a black and white image of a pair of handcuffs.
Producing drugs like MDA, MDMA, or psilocybin is illegal in Australia.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images: Biodiversity Heritage Library, Public Domain Pictures, NASA)

Court documents obtained by Four Corners reveal earlier this year he pleaded guilty to manufacturing 57 grams of the drug MDA — a similar drug to MDMA. He was arrested in 2014 after police allegedly discovered a commercial-scale illegal drug lab in the Blue Mountains.

"We are aware he's got difficulties, and we've given character references," Peter explains, noting Chiruta is also disabled after suffering burns to his body.

Tania tells Four Corners she's unconcerned about Victor's role at the charity.

"I'm not sure why you're making such a big thing of it, actually," she says.

"We're trying to focus on getting suffering people well, so this seems to be a bit of a red herring."

'Experience the medicines'

Despite the use of psychedelic drugs in therapy being illegal in Australia — outside of strictly controlled trials — MMA has started running a training certificate for psychedelic therapists.

Tania says finding participants isn't a problem.

"Being a psychedelic-assisted therapist is probably one of the most popular and, I guess, sexy professions around at the moment," she says.

For $9,000, these hopeful psychedelic therapists can take a four-month, mostly online training course run by MMA's for-profit Mind Medicine Institute (MMI).

Collage of colourful mushrooms growing out of a black and white 1970s computer terminal as hands type at its keyboard.
People have paid $9,000 for MMI's mostly-online training course.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images: Biodiversity Heritage Library, NASA, Navy Medicine)

They receive MMI's Certificate of Psychedelic Assisted Therapy.

Melbourne psychotherapist Yury Shamis enrolled in the first intake, expecting an accredited course.

"[The] reality was, it was a good course, but it wasn't accredited at all. So the certificate really didn't mean anything," he said.

PhD student Kayla Greenstein enrolled last year, when the course was plagued with delays due to COVID.

"It was certainly presented as that if this became legal in Australia … that Mind Medicine were the ones who would be certifying people.

"I recognise now that if I had spent more time on YouTube, I could have found a lot of the same information that I learned in that course, and I certainly didn't gain anything practical out of it.

"[I] ultimately decided to leave and I got a partial refund."

One of the issues raising eyebrows in the psychedelic community was a "major healthy persons trial" MMA announced it would be funding earlier this year, in which 200 participants would be able to "experience the medicines".

An email sent by the charity stated it had secured the MDMA for the trial and that "this trial will give graduates and participants in our Certificate of Psychedelic- Assisted Therapies (CPAT) Program the chance to actually undergo Psychedelic Assisted therapy in a clinically controlled environment".

A collage of three tall multi-coloured mushrooms growing out of a small pile of black and white capsule-style pills.
MMA announced a trial in which participants could “experience the medicines”.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images Unsplash/am JD, Biodiversity Heritage Library, NASA)

Dr Emma Tumilty, a bioethicist from Deakin University, says that advertisement raised suspicions "that the research was in part being used as a vehicle to provide access to the drug so that MMA could offer training that included that experience".

"That would, of course, be ethically and scientifically inappropriate." she says.

The charity was eventually instructed to pull an advertisement for the study by the ethics committee that conditionally approved the trial. MMA says a "breach was innocently made".

After inquiries from Four Corners, the ethics committee advised the trial was being withdrawn late last week.

'That would be the end of the charity'

Former MMA employees Diego Pinzon and his partner Scarlet Barnett worked in fundraising and public relations at the charity.

Within weeks of starting in the job, they were called into a meeting with Tania de Jong after Scarlet became upset at work.

A woman sits in a room looking at the camera. The modified image has a curved border and 2 illustrated mushrooms have been added
Scarlet Barnett(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins)

The couple says she started asking whether Scarlet had any trauma or other issues.

"And then she suggested, 'Because if you do have abuse, you might consider MDMA therapy. I think that could be really beneficial for you. And here's someone you can call or put you in touch. You can set up a session with them'," Scarlet says.

Scarlet claims she was given the number for Yury Shamis.

"He offered MDMA and psilocybin together as a session. And I think it would cost around $2,000," Scarlet recalls.

"He told me that if I did decide to go ahead, that I would need to let him know very soon because he books out about four months in advance."

Peter and Tania strongly deny they've ever referred anyone to underground psychedelic therapy and say they don't encourage people to break the law.

"We know there are good psychedelic therapists out there working in the underground. And yet, we can't refer these people to those people," Peter explains.

"Were we to do that, and were we to be caught in doing that, that would be the end of the charity."

Yury

Yury Shamis's therapy rooms sit above a share house in the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava. In the front yard, his sign has been defaced and reads "Dr Psycho Sham".

Yury is a psychotherapist — which is not a legally protected title in Australia — with a PhD in microbiology and a masters in counselling.

He says he got into psychedelics through "self-experimentation" for his own mental health struggles in the party scene.

"I noticed a lot of benefits. And I think when I became a therapist going into the psychedelic therapy kind of world was a no-brainer for me," he says.

Yury sits in a large leather chair. The image is broken into blobs, and a collage of two mushrooms pops through the corners.
Yury Shamis.

Yury says he can be with patients who are on psychedelics, "technically if they've taken the drug before they've walked in", but chooses not to, and maintains he's not doing anything illegal.

On the windowsill in his office is an empty box of ketamine next to a hypodermic syringe packet.

His Facebook page was, until recently, public. There is a photo of a bag of white powder referred to in one of his posts as "K", and a pile of mushrooms with the caption "good day at the office".

In April 2021, Yury Shamis was listed online as one of the people MMA referred to callers who contacted their psychological support hotline.

A month later, he posted a status update: "that moment when you realise you've been taking peeps psychedelic virginity since your teens; and now you get paid for it".

At the time, MMA was fielding constant calls from desperate members of the public seeking psychedelic drugs for mental health treatment or information about where to get them.

The two head trainers and directors of the Mind Medicine Institute, Tra-ill Dowie and Nigel Denning, say they're concerned by "whispers" within the organisation of people being referred to underground psychedelic therapists, through the charity's hotline.

A collage of Nigel and Tra-ill sitting, multi-coloured mushrooms pop through holes on either side of them.
Tra-ill Dowie and Nigel Denning.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins)

"If we're talking about a body and an organisation which is purporting clinical application, then there can be no room, in fact at all, for underground referrals or any of these kinds of things," Tra-ill says.

Nigel says the idea of setting up the hotline was a disaster due to "the absence of any governance".

"There was an absence of any clarity about process and procedure, the absence of any security about referrals, and the absence of any vetting of how therapists within that process were treating, what they were treating," he explains.

The hotline was eventually shut down.

'Shroom boom'

MMA's unconventional efforts to promote its cause have courted controversy.

Tania composed and performed a song promoting the effects of psilocybin titled Shroom Boom for a live cabaret performance called Songs for Psychedelics.

An accompanying music video was posted on the charity's YouTube channel this year.

Its lyrics include:

"Why can't I get out of bed. It's not because I am dead.

And yet the pain never stops antidepressants and side effects.

So I tried magic mushrooms and now I'm feeling so great.

Shroom boom magic, magic mushroom.

Taking us into a magical world of mushrooms.

Shroom boom. Mushrooms karma pharma."

Many in the scientific community felt the video was ill-advised and dangerous, promoting the use of psychedelics over antidepressants.

Dr Rosalind Watts, the former clinical lead of the Imperial College's Centre for Psychedelic Research, shared her concerns in the video's comments.

"Taking magic mushrooms to treat depression is a high-risk therapy that requires ongoing support from trained professionals. They do not magically reset the depressed brain, or heal the world, or the soul" 

That comment mysteriously disappeared.

Former MMA employee Dr Alana Roy says on the charity's YouTube the video "received significant negative feedback, which were censored and edited".

A collage image of a woman making a shush gesture to a mushroom laying on its side. 
MMA has been accused of threatening its critics with legal action.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Alana left the charity as the head of psychological services earlier this year after she raised concerns about the treatment of staff within the organisation.

"I was told by a senior member of Mind Medicine that if I continued to speak out, to expect litigation, and that if I did not tell them who else was speaking out, that I would face litigation as well," she says.

"They also told me in that meeting, that they had started to monitor my phone and emails and that they had hired the best technical investigator that they could find to monitor me."

MMA has threatened defamation proceedings against US social media giant Twitter in an effort to unmask the identity of an anonymous Twitter account which has been tweeting allegations of problems within the charity.

Twitter has not revealed the identity of the account owner or pulled the tweets.

Diego Pinzon has also faced legal threats from MMA after warning others to speak to former employees before applying to work at the charity.

"Two weeks later I get an email from a lawyer saying, 'This is a concerns notice because you've been defaming Mind Medicine Australia'."

"They threatened me with bankruptcy," he said.

Four Corners can reveal at least four Australian academics have also received legal letters after making public comments about the charity.

In an email to Four Corners, Peter Hunt said he was "greatly saddened" and that we had "wasted opportunity to help the cause of positive system change" by focusing on "small things".

"Sometimes we have unwittingly attracted people who have their own severe mental health issues and therefore struggle to work in a rapidly growing organisation focused on change."

Mr Hunt continued, "are you being manipulated by pharmaceutical companies lobbying Four Corners (either directly or indirectly) against these therapies out of fear and greed that it will over time dramatically reduce demand for the SSRI's (which the science shows not only have small effect size but can give people horrible side effects as well)?"

'A slippery slope from hope to hype'

MMA is awaiting the decision of the TGA on a second application to reschedule MDMA and psilocybin to allow them to be more readily used for therapy in Australia.

A collage image of a black and white set of balancing scales with multi-coloured mushrooms sitting on each side.
Clinical trials of psychedelic therapy are underway around the world.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images: Biodiversity Heritage Library, Pexels/Sora Shimazaki)

In the meantime, serious clinical trials are taking place around the country looking at a combination of psychedelic drugs and therapy. Many of those researchers told Four Corners they were worried about speaking publicly, even just about the work they are doing for this story, due to MMA's history of litigiousness.

The most advanced trials to date come out of the US, where the not-for-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is currently awaiting results from phase three trials using MDMA to treat PTSD.

The phase two research showed 67 per cent of participants no longer had PTSD two months post treatment.

Dr Stephen Bright from Edith Cowan University in Perth says while those figures sound promising, that also means one out of three people haven't benefited "and some of those people may have actually experienced harm". Exactly who will respond best and why is still not clear.

At Monash University, Dr Paul Liknaitzky is studying psilocybin, for the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder.

He cautions that while there are promising signs, it's early days.

"I have endless sympathy for folk who have run out of options and are desperate. And there is a lot of reason for hope with psychedelic treatments, but I think there's also a slippery slope from hope to hype," he says.

"What that means is that there's an increased chance that vulnerable people will come to harm."

Watch the full investigation tonight at 8:30 on ABC TV or ABC iview.

An illustration of a mushroom, with a multi-colour, but faded cap, sitting upside down.
MMA is awaiting the decision of the TGA on a second application to reschedule MDMA and psilocybin.(Four Corners: Nick Wiggins. Images: Biodiversity Heritage Library, NASA)

Credits 

Story by Elise Worthington, Kyle Taylor, and Tynan King

Digital production: Nick Wiggins and Brigid Andersen

Design: Nick Wiggins

Collage image sources: Biodiversity Heritage Library, State Library of Queensland, State Library of New South Wales, US National Archives, Library of Congress, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Pexels: Sora Shimazaki, Unsplash: am JD, NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team, NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team 

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