Most students will continue with Oregon psilocybin program that ran out of money, new provider says

By Ryan Haas (OPB)
March 15, 2023 6 a.m. Updated: March 15, 2023 8:01 a.m.

The future of Synthesis Digital’s program is uncertain, even as students say they’d like to finish certifications

Aspiring psilocybin therapist Lesley Clarke had only recently finished a coursework section on the “ecology of ethics” when she learned the company behind those materials was broke, having squandered millions of dollars — including the roughly $11,000 she paid in tuition.

“Ironically, the module we were about to start was ‘healing and trauma,’” she told OPB.

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Clarke, like many other students, expressed outrage when Synthesis Digital, LLC, announced in early March that it was officially pausing training for psilocybin-assisted therapy in Oregon.

The certification program, one of only a handful approved by the state, was designed to educate people on how to provide mental health therapy using psychedelic mushrooms. Oregon became the first state in the country to legalize that practice through a 2020 vote, though the therapy services are not anticipated to open until this summer.

In this Aug. 3, 2007, file photo, psilocybin mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands.

Peter Dejong / AP

Despite the initial anger from students, the company that stepped in to manage coursework after Synthesis walked away said it’s having success keeping those people in the program.

Retreat Guru, which had managed payments for the psychedelic training course before taking over for Synthesis this month, said it expects as many as 90% of Synthesis’ 220 former students to continue their coursework and join the ranks of Oregon’s first psilocybin facilitators.

Retreat Guru

Retreat Guru told OPB on March 6 that it planned to resume Synthesis courses within a week of the Synthesis Digital collapse. That timeline has extended as the company completes outreach to people taking the course and reassures them they will get what they paid for.

The company said it now expects courses to resume in the coming weeks.

“The Psychedelic Practitioner Training program team is working to resume classes in the next two weeks for those who are ready and will be creating options for those who may need some adjustments,” Devin Irvine, a spokesperson for Retreat Guru, wrote in an email.

The Canadian company, which primarily provides retreat management software and operates as a marketplace for wellness retreats around the world, has a financial interest in making sure Synthesis students finish their coursework.

At a cost between roughly $9,000 to $11,000 per Synthesis course in Oregon, Retreat Guru stood to lose around $900,000 if all students disputed the remaining amount of their courses with their banks, according to Irvine.

Irvine said the company also wants to see students complete their work and enter into the network of retreats that Retreat Guru does business with.

Students who spoke to OPB said they have traveled a range of emotions after learning of Synthesis’ shutdown — from anger to shame — but they have appreciated that Retreat Guru has been forthcoming with communication.

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Clarke, the current student, remained skeptical about the overall program.

“In terms of trust of Retreat Guru, I think they are doing the best they can to not lose their business,” she said, indicating she would still seek a refund even if the company could finish the coursework. “This whole situation has been a lot; it’s been kind of traumatic.”

Still, the company is making progress. Retreat Guru said it is in contract talks to keep about half of Synthesis’ staff and educators who were fired from the company March 2.

Around a dozen Synthesis students, including at least one international student, filed consumer complaints with the Oregon Department of Justice this month. The DOJ said it is still reviewing those complaints and has not taken any action against Synthesis Digital.

The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, one of the main state bodies that approves psilocybin educational materials, said it is continuing to review Retreat Guru’s takeover of the program to ensure the program meets state standards for the emerging health care field.

As of Tuesday, Synthesis’ website continues to offer enrollment for future courses, even as Synthesis Digital appears to be out of business. Retreat Guru has said it is currently not accepting applications for more classes.

“We are unclear on next steps at this point in time. Our primary focus is to get the current cohorts training resumed,” Irvine wrote in an email. “The open registrations seen on the Synthesis website is a legacy sales stream and is not being processed.”

Synthesis Digital future

The future of Synthesis Digital’s operations in Oregon are undetermined. Despite terminating all its employees and an early March email from former CEO Rachel Aidan stating the company had “reached the end of its financial runway,” a spokesperson for Synthesis Digital has insisted the company is not defunct.

A dive into the ownership structures of Synthesis Digital reveals that it’s not the only company in the group that is having issues. The parent of Synthesis Digital is the Netherlands-based Synthesis Holdings BV, a corporation with other financial troubles.

It owns the Synthesis Institute, BV, which declared bankruptcy on Feb. 27. Before bankruptcy, that company provided various kinds of psychedelic retreats in the Netherlands.

Synthesis Holdings also owns a U.S.-based property management company, Mythic Properties, LLC, which in turn owns Oregon Retreat Centers, LLC.

Oregon Retreat Centers, LLC also seems to be experiencing financial problems. According to Jackson County property records, it signed a deed in lieu of foreclosure for a piece of property it purchased in June 2021. Oregon Retreat Centers financed the purchase by signing a promissory note for $4 million. The property is a 124-acre wooded area near Ashland, known as the Buckhorn Springs Resort. At the time of purchase, representatives of Oregon Retreat Centers LLC stated in press interviews that the company’s goal was to open a destination resort where people could travel to receive psilocybin-assisted therapy.

According to the Jackson County records, the beneficiary of the $4 million promissory note and the deed in lieu of foreclosure is Return to Nature, LLC, an Oregon company registered by Tamara Hall, a 63-year-old Utah resident who describes herself as a “startup mentor” on her LinkedIn profile. Hall could not be reached for comment.

Myles Katz, a co-founder of Synthesis, helped run the company's U.S. operations until it collapsed in February.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

The property records in Jackson County also show Synthesis may have known its U.S. operations were going under weeks before they informed staff and students. Myles Lutheran Katz, who registered all of Synthesis’ Oregon-operated LLCs, signed the deed in lieu of foreclosure for the Ashland property on Feb. 17, more than two weeks before students were informed.

Despite all of the recent turmoil, Synthesis’ vision for the Buckhorn resort as an oasis for psychedelic therapy may still come to fruition. On Thursday, the Rogue Valley Psychedelic Society and a nonprofit called the Healing Advocacy Fund plan to hold a question and answer session about Oregon’s rollout of psilocybin therapy.

In its invitation, the Healing Advocacy Fund clarified the gathering is “not intended for people interested in being a psilocybin facilitator,” like those who had been learning under Synthesis. Instead, organizers particularly want to “hear from people interested in starting a Service Center.”

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