‘Shrooms! Shamans! Kosher LSD! Why Los Angeles Is Suddenly Tripping Out

COVER STORY: Housewives in the Hills are doing it. Hipsters in Los Feliz, too. L.A. has became ground zero for a new hallucinogen boom, with ayahuas ca ceremonies now as common as barbecues. But is microdosing shrooms really the answer to what ails Angelenos?
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PICTURE YOURSELF NOT in a boat on a river but instead on a sectional sofa in a sunken living room in a majestic $9-million-dollar Point Dume mansion overlooking the Pacific. Here, the tangerine trees are actually whispering eucalypti, and the marmalade skies are a deep and comforting blue. Still, it’s pretty trippy.

This is the home of Brandee and Damien Sabella—the unofficial first couple of Southern California psychedelia—a sprawling compound that feels like a five-star commune. Two sentinel-like guard dogs patrol the property as a couple of the Sabella’s older children (they have five, ranging from 19 months to 14) load surfboards into a souped-up Sprinter van. There’s a small fleet of luxury SUVs in front and a professional-grade skate park in back with a massive half-pipe, several crescent-shaped ramps, and grind rails. Inside the house, nannies and assistants putter about.

Damien, 36, is the scion of a powerful Hong Kong real estate dynasty who now works in the music industry. His hair is pulled back in a man bun, and he has dark, piercing eyes and a coiled, muscular frame, possibly explained by his hobbies: hunting elk with a bow and arrow, surfing giant waves in Tahiti, and competing in ultra marathon races. Brandee, 41, is tall and lithe, with warm, inviting brown eyes. Patchouli-soaked hippies they are not. They’re articulate, attractive, and artfully tatted out. And they do lots and lots of drugs.

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Brandee and Damien Sabella in 2021

“There are metrics for what we can do in this spiritual world,” Damien says while sipping a cup of chai. He is explaining the intersection of the physical and the spiritual worlds and how mundane issues of health and quality of life can be impacted by the tension between these two spheres. “All this indigenous wisdom is within us, but it’s just been hidden.” Moments later, Brandee is expounding on her theory that music recorded in a particular frequency can trigger internal human receptors, inducing a hallucinogenic-like state in listeners. It sounds ridiculous, but her delivery is so sincere and polished that I almost start to believe her.

The Sabellas may be exceptional, but they’re not all that unusual. Because, as it happens, Los Angeles is currently in the grip of a psychedelics fervor not seen since Jim Morrison ambled his way down the Venice Beach boardwalk in the 1960s. Every weekend, dozens, possibly hundreds, of ayahuasca ceremonies take place in the hills, valleys, and strip malls of Southern California. So many people are now experimenting with ayahuasca (a psychoactive brew long used by South American indigenous tribes as part of ceremonial spiritual healing) that there’s concern the ingredients required to create the potion are being over harvested. But it’s not just ayahuasca—there are events for psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine, LSD, and MDMA.

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For a 2010 study on the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, cancer patients were given either psilocybin or a placebo
Timothy Leary and his wife, Rosemary, 1969.

Soccer moms in Malibu now swap notes over microdosing (taking tiny amounts of psychedelics to boost moods and enhance creativity) as they recap the latest episode of Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers, a show in which characters engage in . . . microdosing. Shamans are being flown in from Brazil and Peru to conduct ceremonies in Topanga Canyon, some charging thousands of dollars a session. L.A.-based companies like My Ketamine Home, Field Trip, and Akasa Journeys now provide guided therapy sessions, including ketamine and psilocybin treatments (licensed doctors can prescribe ketamine, and while imbibing hallucinogens like psilocybin and ayahuasca is still technically illegal, their ingredients are easily imported—or can be found just by taking a stroll in a forest).

You can buy psychedelic-infused bottled water online (not hallucinogenic) and magic-mushroom starter kits (legitimately hallucinogenic). New religions with mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca as their central sacraments are already here, and more are on the way. There’s even a 24-hour hotline you can call while tripping.

Indeed, psychedelics are becoming so mainstream, at least on this coast, that a few California cities, like Oakland and Santa Cruz, have already decriminalized some of them, while legislators in Sacramento are on the verge of introducing a bill that would decriminalize a whole slew of forbidden substances across the entire state.

Leading this acid redux revolution is an alliance of strange bedfellows. On one end of the movement, you’ve got scientists in white lab coats—like Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine and the author of one of the earliest studies on the therapeutic effects of MDMA—who brandish research-based evidence that psychedelics have been under explored and possess potentially groundbreaking benefits for treating depression, anxiety, and a range of other debilitating conditions. On the other end, there are shamans in flowing robes (including at least one former reality-television star) who believe the drugs will lead humanity to a great spiritual awakening. There’s also a smattering of Silicon Valley suits who are simply following the scent of money. Each constituency obviously has its own motivations, several of which seem impossible to square with one another.

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In 2009, the Obama Administration eased up on medical marijuana prosecutions
Vials of fentanyl, ketamine and morphine.

“People who had not given psychedelics a second thought have gotten interested in it in recent years,” says Grob. “It’s a net positive, but we have to be careful. We can’t start celebrating that we won the war. We could be in for a rude awakening down the line if things go off the rails.” Still, the once unthinkable now seems on the horizon. Over the next few years, this generation of Californians, mired in an era of political cynicism, environmental degradation, and an out-of-control mental health crisis, might just accomplish what the free-spirited flower children of the 1960s never imagined. Soon, anyone over the age of 21 in California will be able to get mind-bendingly fucked up. Legally.

What could possibly go wrong?

IT ALL STARTED, as so many things in America do, with a boneheaded secret plot hatched by the CIA. Although the Central Intelligence Agency didn’t actually invent LSD—that honor belongs to Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann who, in 1938 invented the drug and then accidentally dosed himself—the spy agency certainly helped slip it into the American bloodstream. When the Cold War kicked off afterWorld War II, the CIA created a secret program called MK-ULTRA, which was tasked with finding a mind-control drug before the Soviets did—call it the headspace race. The agency set its sights on Hofmann’s creation and attempted to buy the world’s entire supply (to no avail—the Soviets had already stockpiled their own). The LSD that the CIA managed to get its hands on was given to prisoners, soldiers, and other unsuspecting guinea pigs in secret experiments that ended up not controlling a single mind.

Meanwhile, professionals in the psychiatric field not affiliated with the CIA were also researching psychedelics through the 1950s and ’60s, although with very different purposes in mind. Indeed, remarkable progress was being made in understanding how these compounds helped combat depression and alcoholism as tens of thousands of people volunteered to participate in psychedelics-assisted experiments, including Ethel Kennedy, wife of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who reportedly underwent LSD treatment for her alcoholism. Starting in the early 1960s, these powerful drugs began leaking out of the confines of clinical labs and therapists’ offices and onto the streets and college campuses, with early adopters like writer Ken Kesey, poet Allen Ginsberg, and novelist Aldous Huxley leading the way. In a 1960 interview withThe Paris Review, Huxley (whose work includes the seminal tripper handbook The Doors of Perception) described the LSD experience as providing “penetrating insights” and “tremendous recalls of buried material,” going on to add that it “shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside.” Even some famous rabbis started turning on (“Better than schnapps,” is how Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once described LSD to Leary), debating whether or not the drug could be considered kosher.

By the end of the decade, psychedelics became inextricably linked—at least in the public imagination—with the 1960s counterculture. Enter Richard Nixon, who saw psychedelics as a political gift and an opportunity to further his own agenda by demonizing acid-dropping hippies. In 1971, Nixon launched the “war on drugs.” which, among other things, reclassified LSD as a Schedule I narcotic that had no medical value. By the mid-1970s, the legal exploration of the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs, which had proved so fruitful in the preceding decades, was over. This zero-tolerance approach would hold all the way through the Reagan era of the 1980s.

Senator Robert Kennedy’s wife, Ethel Kennedy, reportedly underwent LSD therapy for alcoholism.

But in the early 1990s, psychedelic research was rekindled, picking up more steam in the early aughts whenRoland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University released a series of groundbreaking studies. Griffiths and his team of researchers were able to show that participants who used psilocybin could quit smoking after years of failed attempts, control persistent depression, and, in the case of people with terminally ill diseases, transcend their fear of death. More recent research has bolstered the medical case for psychedelics, with no less an authority than Dr. Drew Pinsky reportedly jumping aboard; the former Loveline and Celebrity Rehab host (and sometime COVID denier) is said to be planning a series of TV shows examining how psychedelics can aid in addiction treatment.

“It’s been a gradual change in perception in the public’s mind about psychedelics,” says author and ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, whose last name all but inspires genuflecting in the psychedelic community. (His late brother, Terence, was a titan in the field as well). McKenna is part of the white-coat contingency—academics and clinicians who have been advocating for the decriminalization and adoption of psychedelics by the medical establishment that’s long shunned it. These are mostly serious and thoughtful activists who cluster in organizations like the Heffter Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which have been quietly shepherding the psychedelic psychotherapy revolution for the past 30 years. “The dangers were exaggerated,” McKenna says. “Psychedelics were ridiculed and weren’t taken seriously. But that’s changed now.”

The dangers may indeed have been exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any, as anyone who has ever been swarmed by imaginary bats during a bad trip through Barstow can testify. Even more alarming, the drugs have sometimes been associated with actual violence and tragedy. Just this past August, a gunman allegedly high on mushrooms shot and killed a tourist in Miami Beach. Earlier this year, a man was hospitalized with organ failure after he injected himself with a tea made from mushrooms (the shrooms started growing in his veins, for real). And then there was the case of Catalonian porn star Nacho Vidal, who was arrested in Spain last year and charged with manslaughter after allegedly holding a mystical ceremony at which toad venom vapers ended up killing a participant.

Of course, these types of extreme incidents are rare, but the fact that these stories garnered so much media attention shows the psychedelics movement still has an image problem to deal with. “Eight hundred people a year die from liver failure caused by Tylenol,” says Aubrey Marcus, host of a popular biohacking podcast that focuses on psychedelics. Although his numbers may be a tad off (other sources put the figure closer to 400), he has a point. “We don’t hear anything about that. But one person dying on psilocybin becomes a national story. That’s a concern because people legislate against things they’re afraid of.”

Besides bad trips and occasional murderous rages, there are other dangers lurking behind psychedelics’ new popularity. Like corporate invaders trying to co-opt the movement for their own greedy purposes. And Hollywood hipsters turning what to some is a sacred ritual shrouded in cosmic mystery into yet another trendy shopping spree. Before long, it’s entirely possible that Erewhon will start selling the stuff and piping sitar music into its aisles.

“MOST OF THE CROWD IN L.A. is just too much for me to handle,” says Brandee Sabella. “People are posting stuff on social media.” She shakes her head in disgust at how psychedelics are becoming a fashion statement in Los Angeles. “It just . . . defeats the purpose.”

The Sabellas have recently returned from Costa Rica, where they participated in an ayahuasca ceremony at Rythmia, a retreat frequented by surfing legend Kelly Slater and a handful of Hollywood A-listers who fork over thousands of dollars for an all-inclusive mystical experience. Brandee, in fact, helped found the place back in 2017, after she left a job in marketing to focus more on her true passion, hallucinogens. Although she’s reluctant to discuss it in detail, it seems she and Damien are quietly working on something similar here in California—a project they are not yet ready to reveal. For the time being, however, they aren’t doing a lot of ayahuasca in their home state—at least not at group ceremonies.

The whole purpose of psychedelics, they say, is to have an authentic transcendent experience—to allow one’s ego to dissolve and to open one’s mind to the vast and divine. In Hollywood, land of posers, pickup artists, and internet influencers, that’s not so easy, especially since all of the above have begun infiltrating the psychedelics scene. As microdosing and other psychedelic pastimes have become more and more trendy, it’s brought out an element whose seriousness and commitment to the true essence of the movement isn’t always terribly obvious.It’s also brought out some well-intentioned himbos.

Before he became a guru, Eric Nies was one of the first reality-television stars of the modern era. He was on season 1 of MTV’sThe Real World, the 20-year-old male model from New Jersey who shared a Soho loft with Julie, Andre, Norman, Becky, Kevin, and Heather. After his time on the show ended, he spent about five years as fodder for the New York tabloids, but ultimately disappeared from public view. Turns out he spent the next 25 years teaching himself to become a shaman.

“If it wasn’t for reality television putting a microscope on my life, I can’t say that I would’ve gone down this path,” Nies, now 50, says on the phone from Peru, where he’s been spending several months leading ayahuasca ceremonies. Then he launches into a series of exegeses—referencing obscure prophecies, ruminating on head-scratching theories of purification, and sharing his hypothesis that mankind is on the brink of extinction and that only psychedelics can save us—that would have even die hards rolling their wildly dilated eyes.

 

“I believe the human race is waking up to the truth,” Nies says. “I believe that, intuitively, the human race is feeling in their body that something is off—that it doesn’t add up and it doesn’t feel right.”

At least Nies genuinely seems to believe his own jangly rhetoric. But what beliefs have led right-wing internet billionaire Peter Thiel to invest in Compass Pathways, a publicly traded psychedelic-medicine company, is a little less clear. Except that maybe he’s got a hunch psychedelics could turnout to be the next marijuana. Since recreational cannabis became legal in California in 2016, it’s grown into a multibillion-dollar a year industry. If the California legislature does the same thing with LSD and the other drugs, the windfall could be as big. (“We have a realistic chance of passing it next year,”promises state senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who is sponsoring a bill to do just that.) And Thiel isn’t the only corporate raider who senses an opportunity. Along with Compass Pathways, a slewof other companies, like MindMed and Numinus, have been springing up in anticipation of legalization.

Some contend that the corporatization of these drugs may be a necessary step—a Trojan horse of sorts—to widespread usage and acceptance. But for purists like Jacques Mabit, it’s a troubling development. Mabit is a French physician and an early pioneer in the psychedelics field who, in 1992, founded the Takiwasi clinic in Peru, where hundreds of former addicts have been treated with ritual fasting, psychotherapy, and hallucinogenic-drug trips. Divorcing psychedelic experiences from the ethos of the indigenous tribes that first discovered them thousands of years ago—in organic compounds found in fungi and other natural elements—and putting them in the hands of businessman will, he believes, unleash all sorts of unforeseen consequences. “These practices are very far from the lifestyle and the social perceptions and needs of politicians and big business,” he notes. “I would say that they’re almost incompatible.”

IT’S NOT AT ALL surprising that Los Angeles is ground zero for this latest psychedelics revolution. After all, since the city’s founding, it’s been a hub for kooks, visionaries, dreamers, and dropouts. But as goes L.A., so goes the nation—and this town’s new obsession with perception-altering drugs points to a bigger issue not just here but all across America. In short, the United States is in the midst of a spiritual reboot.

Just look at the stats: Four in ten millennials no longer identify with any religion, according to the PewResearch Center. And unlike previous generations that left the church only to later return, today’s deserters appear to be abandoning it for good. But while people are leaving organized religion in droves, Americans are still hungry for spiritual nourishment. Almost a third of U.S. adults now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. Astrology and other psychic services are booming, and the pandemic has only accelerated the trend of consumers seeking out mysticism. Psychedelics fit perfectly into this new framework. Johns Hopkins researchers found that 78 percent of psilocybin participants said their session was among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.

Shaman Enrique Marthen Bedron performs a ritual in Catemaco, Mexico.

“Our religious and spiritual institutions have become hollowed-out shells. They’re bereft, in a way, and a lot of people want something more than that—an affirmation to their intuition that there’s something beyond ordinary day-to-day life,” says McKenna. “There’s a disillusionment, and people are looking beyond religion because it’s not giving them what they need. I’ve organized and been on many ayahuasca retreats. These are not thrill-seekers who are out for kicks. These are people who have some specific problem that they want to address. In a wider sense, they’re looking for meaning and not finding it in our culture. So they look for it in other cultures.”

Last year, a former Utah state legislator named Steve Urquhart founded the Divine Assembly. The sacrament of his church are magic mushrooms, which members believe bring them closer to God. Urquhart, a former member of the Mormon Church, was able to use the Religious Freedom RestorationAct of 1993 to start his church, and it’s a foregone conclusion that similar churches will be established inSouthern California in the coming years.

And that worries folks like Brian Muraresku, author of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name. “The idea of brand-new churches and pop-up shamans creating religion out of thin air is much more concerning to me than the therapeutic application,” he says, pointing out that the prospect of vast swaths of the population feeling spiritually unmoored and turning to psychedelics could easily lead to the creation of cults, something L.A. knows quite a bit about.

But there’s a rich irony here: the same religions that people are today abandoning were themselves, Muraresku believes, built on the foundation of psychedelic mysticism. In his book, he advances a renegade academic theory that claims the original sacraments of Western civilization, born in ancient Greece, were spiked with primitive, mind-altering drugs. Annual pilgrimages were made to an ancient city called Eleusia to participate in secret ceremonies where adherents consumed a potion, kykeon, that contained ergot, the same fungus that Albert Hofmann used to synthesize LSD. Similar rituals and sacraments were then adopted by the earliest Christians sects, which suggests that Christianity itself was potentially founded on a psychedelic sacrament.

Author Heston Blumenthal and artist David McKean’s reimagining of the Mad Hatter’s tea party at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, 2021.

“There‘s the rub,” says Muraresku, chuckling at the absurdity of it all. “Maybe we’re just coming back to our roots. The war on drugs made all of this problematic. But if the psychedelics hypothesis continues to get tested and if it turns out that these drugs are implicated in the rise of Western civilization—perhaps even Christianity—then people turning away from organized religion may actually be a return to something foundational. Maybe it really is another renaissance—the rebirth of a mystical tradition that built the world as we know it.”

BACK AT THE Point Dume compound, I’m pressing Damien and Brandee about their plans, but their reticence to talk about them—and the imposing glare of one their German shepherds—tells me I’m treading on delicate territory. The couple are clearly eager to share their knowledge and spread the word about the healing power of psychedelics. After all, they’re the ones who helped guide former heavyweight champion MikeTyson on his inward journey. (Damien consulted with Tyson during his training leading up to his recent fight against Roy Jones Jr., while Brandee is now working with the boxer on a TV project that centers on ayahuasca).

In the end, all they’ll say is that they’re working on the creation of their very own ayahuasca church here in the United States. Plans are still in the nascent phase, and the location is still up in the air, but they’re confident it’ll be up and running sometime in the next couple of years. Then they quickly change the subject.

“Everything in nature is synchronized so it sounds like all this magical stuff, but, really, magic is always happening,” Brandee offers, her kaleidoscope eyes opening wide. “We are miracles when you really think about it. Like what is happening in our body to really be alive—it’s miraculous. And the more you are in alignment with your soul, the more things start to be become synchronized.” I can almost see cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over her head.