Lesley Clarke might be Synthesis Institute’s worst nightmare.
Clarke is one of some 300 students who paid the Dutch company between $9,000 and $14,000 to learn how to guide clients on psychedelic mushroom trips. Clarke hoped the 13-month online course would enable her to lead regulated psychedelic sessions in Oregon, where they are legal, and in Washington, where, she’s betting, they will be soon.
“Synthesis had an amazing reputation,” Clarke tells WW.
Then, four months into the course, Synthesis ghosted her. She couldn’t access new online materials, and one of the founders, a Dutchman with radiant blue eyes named Martijn Schirp, didn’t return emails asking about the $4,665 she had paid so far.
While others in her cohort have taken to the Signal messaging app to urge patience with Synthesis—and even prayer for Schirp—Clarke has been bracing for a fight.
“I have a high level of intolerance for injustice,” Clarke, 37, says. “Americans are very litigious. I’m bringing that energy to the mix.”
Clarke says she’s fighting not just for her cash, but for the future of psychedelic-assisted therapy, a field in which she’d like to work. Detractors are watching Oregon’s foray into psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, for mistakes, she says, and having one of the state-approved training programs blow up so soon is an ugly one.
“Everyone has to be above reproach,” Clarke says. “There is no room to mess this up. When something goes wrong and there is no communication, it will ripple through the industry. What is the space that we want to work in going to look like after something like this?”
The question for Clarke and other students is recourse. Getting it depends on a larger question: Who is monitoring Oregon’s newly sprouted mushroom education program?
Who certifies mushroom trainers?
Like all psilocybin facilitator training programs, Synthesis is governed by both the Oregon Health Authority, which vets the curriculum, and by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the state entity that governs training programs like psilocybin schools.
OHA says the students’ plight is a problem for HECC.
“While OHA reviews and approves psilocybin facilitator training program curriculum, OHA does not have regulatory authority,” says Angela Allbee, manager of Oregon Psilocybin Services, a section of OHA. “The Higher Education Coordinating Commission licenses and regulates training programs that are subject to the definition of career training schools in Oregon.”
As part of its licensing process, HECC is charged with determining “to the best of our knowledge if licensed schools are financially sound and have academic policies in place that are appropriate to protect student interests,” commission spokeswoman Endi Hartigan said in an email.
So what went wrong?
HECC’s involvement in psilocybin was accidental, says Sam Chapman, head of the Healing Advocacy Fund, which supports the regulated use of psilocybin. Measure 109 used a definition of training schools that invoked HECC’s authority.
“It was a surprise to OHA, to HECC, and to the psilocybin community,” he says.
Working through the commission’s normal channels would have delayed the opening of training programs by a year.
In response, HECC made an exception to its rules governing the qualifications of instructors. “Because the regulated psilocybin education industry is novel in the United States, HECC’s definition of ‘qualified instructor’ serves as an impediment to licensing schools,” the commission said in a December document detailing the matter.
HECC’s solution: In lieu of meeting requirements that were in previous administrative rules, instructors in psilocybin training programs “must submit proof that the instructor is identified with a program approved by [OHA].”
Translation: If OHA says a school is legit, with the instructors as part of the approved curriculum, everything is good.
So, did Synthesis fall through the crack between two regulators?
“This was certainly a fast-changing situation with Synthesis and an unusual one,” Hartigan at HECC said in an email. “The financial due diligence that is part of our application requirements is a point-in-time process that includes evaluation of the balance sheet, financial resources, assets and liabilities, and projected income statements. We believe it is an effective one for supporting the stability of more than 200 private career schools we currently license.”
How can students get their money back?
Under Oregon law, schools that close must give HECC 30 days’ notice and offer students “teach-out” options at a comparable program at no additional cost. If students decline the teach-out, they are entitled to a pro rata refund. If no teach-out is offered, a school has to refund the entire tuition.
There may be a teach-out in the offing. A Canadian company, Retreat Guru, which operates an Expedia-type service for self-improvement getaways, says it has taken over the Synthesis curriculum. Before, Retreat Guru was merely the booking agent for Synthesis, collecting payment from students. Now it wants to run the program.
Clarke and others have no interest in that. Many students have filed complaints against Synthesis with the Oregon Department of Justice. “I did not pay and sign a contract to be educated by Retreat Guru,” wrote Jonathan Brown of Santa Monica, Calif. “Their name means nothing in the psychedelic space. I want a full refund.”
Retreat Guru, run by brothers Cameron and Deryk Wenaus in the tiny town of Nelson, B.C., may be trying to save its own skin by taking over the Synthesis program. WW estimates some 300 students were left high and dry when Synthesis failed. At $10,000 each, that’s $3 million. Clarke, the student, says Retreat Guru held a video call on March 4 in which the firm indicated it was on the hook for that cash.
“Because they processed the payments and then transferred them to Synthesis, all of the disputed charges were kicking back to Retreat Guru with no Synthesis money left,” Clarke says. “They explicitly said this was the reason they were taking over the program, because otherwise they would go bankrupt.”
The Wenauses didn’t return emails seeking comment.