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Psychedelic Church Sues for Defamation After Lab Test Raises Hope for Presence of Novel Drug

The Church of Sacred Synthesis, formerly known as the "Church of Psilomethoxin," says lab tests confirm their sacrament contains a rare psychedelic called psilomethoxin. Now, they're suing everyone who discredited them on the internet.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated April 4, 2024

“We Are Toadally True Believers,” read the t-shirts donned by the co-founders of the Church of Sacred Synthesis at SXSW, a conference and festival in Austin, Texas, in March. Just days before, the army veterans who founded the church–which created its own “sacrament” from feeding 5-MeO-DMT to psilocybin mushrooms and purported to have created an obscure psychedelic called psilomethoxin–claimed to have scientifically detected the drug in their fungi.

The church was at the center of a furor last year when researchers from the Usona Institute, which studies 5-MeO-DMT and psilocybin-related compounds, published a preprint paper alleging that its prior psilomethoxin claims were “more akin to ‘fungi fiction’ than reality” after tests could not identify the presence of the novel compound.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen religion and science clash. In the 17th century, the Catholic Church persecuted proponents of the fact that the earth orbits the sun, and debates over the existence of God have long divided certain scientists and believers. But this issue doesn’t hold the same existential gravity. 

READ: This Veteran-Founded Church Wants to Sell Psychedelics At Your Local Drug Store

Critics across the internet said that the church should have known exactly what their drug contained prior to sending it to more than 1,500 members in and outside of the US. (According to the lawsuit, the church sent out half a million doses of what they believe was psilomethoxin.) The organization, which was then called the Church of Psilomethoxin, hit back at the criticism. They alleged that business interests were behind the paper’s claims saying that the church was “misleading” its members and “misrepresenting” its sacrament.

But they didn’t have lab tests of their own to rely on—just statements based on beliefs determined through self-experimentation and trip reports that the psychedelic had unique effects. Sales of the sacrament, which once funded the church’s slate of online activities and operating costs, plummeted. For reference, in January 2023, the church was making $100,000 per month in sales and donations, according to the lawsuit. 

Revenue increased to roughly $125,000 per month by the spring of that year but then dropped to less than $25,000 a month by December 2023, according to church data. It projects that income would have risen to more than $200,000 a month if Usona had not published the “Fungi Fiction” paper, which ultimately preceded a wave of claims discrediting the church’s sacrament.

In an effort for restitution, the church filed a civil lawsuit on March 13, 2024, for defamation, libel, and slander in Texas district court against the Usona Institute, and those employed by Usona; the Promega Corporation, where Usona is headquartered; psychedelic news outlet Psymposia, along with its writers, which ran a critical four-part series on the church last year; and an X user whose handle is identified in the lawsuit as “@GordoTEK.” 

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“The overwhelming weight of the extrinsic evidence indicates that the article was published with complete and total disregard for the truth (i.e. with actual malice),” the suit alleges. The paper’s authors “[ignored], or, even worse, were totally unaware of well-known and basic ethical and professional standards/protocols required in properly authenticating test results aimed, in good faith, to determine the existence or non-existence of a new substance which lacks any reference standard and void of any generally available data indicating  what solvent would be most likely to produce an accurate result.”

The church ran a third-party analysis using a mass spectrometry test with water to prove the existence of psilomethoxin and provide greater credence to the complaints in the lawsuit. While the church considers this evidence, scientists contend the test results are far from conclusive. “[A] peak on the chromatogram is of the appropriate molecular mass for psilomethoxin, 4-HO-5-MeO-DMT,” says Hamilton Morris, a psychedelic chemist and host of the show Hamilton’s Pharmacopoeia, “but that in and of itself is not sufficient evidence.”

Morris previously tested samples of the drug sent to him by the church in May 2022. Like Usona, he did not detect psilomethoxin but instead found trace amounts of psilocin before conducting another test in December of that year. On that occasion, he only detected ketamine, suggesting the church may have mishandled their sacrament. “I detected not even trace psilocin, but exclusively ketamine,” he says. Church leaders told Morris that they believe his tests failed to detect psilomethoxin because he used methanol for the extraction instead of water. “They said it’s not soluble in methanol,” Morris says. “That seems very unlikely.” 

READ: The DEA is Playing God with Psychedelic Churches

Each of the labs that have analyzed samples of supposed psilomethoxin has used different types of mass spectrometry. Morris used GC-MS; Alex Sherwood, head of medical chemistry at Usona, used UPLC-HRMS; while the church most recently used LC-MS in a mode called SIM, or “selected ion monitoring.” Different types of analysis can return different results, but most experts feel that the church at least needs to present its findings in an academic paper before they can begin to be taken seriously.

Still, Zeus Tipado, a Ph.D. student at Maastricht University focusing on the neuroscience of psychedelics, believes the preliminary suggestions warrant further investigation. This is “a potentially groundbreaking discovery,” he says. If the sacrament did not contain 4-HO-5-MeO-DMT, “there likely wouldn’t be any trace amounts of it.” For Tipado, “It’s enough to make it worth continuing research, despite how batshit crazy the people behind the curtains of the church appear to be.” 

Since getting the lab test back, the church leaders have attempted to spread the good word about their sacrament. A screenshot of the results was printed on the t-shirts the church founders wore at SXSW. It sat below a phrase that said, “Sasha Shulgin said it is real.” That’s a reference to what the psychedelic chemist once said: “I’ll give you even odds that if you put spores of a psilocybe species on cow droppings loaded with 5-MeO-DMT, you would come out with mushrooms containing 4,5-HO-MeO-DMT.” 

But chemical pharmacologist Andrew Gallimore said he is not buying the church’s evidence and that it does not establish chemical identity. Gallimore said on X that the finding was “meaningless” and that “we need quantitative data, not blips on an LC/MS trace.” He added: “Until we see a characteristic MS fragmentation pattern and NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] that demonstrates that this 235 peak isn’t 5-MeO-DMT-N-oxide, it’s meaningless.” He also floated the possibility that there is no psilomethoxin, but instead oxidized 5-MeO-DMT. 

The reports of the drug’s distinct psychedelic effects should also be taken with a pinch of salt, according to Gallimore. “Every psychedelic experience is unique,” he wrote. “If you tell someone they’re going to have a unique experience because it’s a novel psychedelic, they probably will, even if it’s actually just psilocybin they’re taking.” Ultimately, the church could have avoided all the negative press, Gallimore says, “with proper due diligence prior to making grand claims.”

Once again, the church seemingly rushed to release its latest announcement without the data properly organized to back it up. But the lawsuit is causing even more of a stir than the test results. Church co-founder Greg Lake, who is also an attorney, officially left the organization to lead the lawsuit. The Usona Institute did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the Promega Corporation, whose president co-founded Usona, whose headquarters is on Promega’s campus. Psymposia said no one at the organization had been served or received official notice from the court of being sued.

In a group chat for psychedelic lawyers, screenshots of a recent conversation show Lake saying he has “no reservations about shutting down entire [business] entities.” He claimed the church “never did a thing to hurt anyone and only had the best intentions. We all suffered greatly and now it’s times [sic] to let them feel what I felt. Let them struggle to pay their bills and feed their kids.” Lake went on to criticize those who took the preprint seriously. “If you take at face value a paper that is testing a fungible item from an anonymous source and think that is good science- you need to stop reading even scientific papers and go back to reading goosebumps.” He added: “I love to litigate, it literally is what makes me move every day, and I don’t sleep or do anything else until I get the result I want.”

Neşe Devenot, a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and an unpaid board member at Psymposia, told DoubleBlind: “The fact that certain sectors of the psychedelics industry give credence to such statements—which include dehumanizing rhetoric and threats of harm to innocent children—underscores that the desire to heal trauma is not the only motivating force in the psychedelics industry.”

Lake told DoubleBlind he stood by his remarks and that the ramifications from the paper almost wiped out the church, despite only having tried to help people. “We suffered very greatly because of what happened and had to struggle all the way through to get to where we are now.”

Sherwood, a “Fungi Fiction” co-author, said on Reddit that the church’s finding is “laughably inconclusive” and that its claims of third-party confirmation are questionable since the scientist who ran the tests at the University of South Florida has requested the church to take down its press release announcing “proof” of psilomethoxin in the mushrooms. Sherwood went on to claim that he had created the compound a few months ago after devoting himself to the task during weekends over the past year. He said psilomethoxin was incredibly complicated to make, not due to the complexity of the chemical process, but because elements of the compound are highly unstable.

“While a signal with mass 235.1 was detected, I’d be willing to bet that they’re picking up noise from the solvent front or some water-soluble biomass byproduct,” he said of the church’s tests in the Reddit post. “Another possibility for the 235.1 mass is 5-MeO-DMT-N-oxide, which forms from 5-MeO spontaneously in air.”

The church’s announcement of its lab tests led psilomethoxin consumers to write on social media that the finding only confirmed what they already knew. “I knew the first time I took a ‘microdose’ that there was more going on than just psilocybin,” one said on Instagram. Others suggested that the church could have taken a more conciliatory approach in keeping with its position as a religious organization. “I understand you feel vindicated by the findings,” another wrote. “However, why sue? Forgiveness is key, right? Isn’t that the point of all this inner learning in the first place?” Tipado says the lawsuit is “on brand” for the church. “Their actions are very aggressive and confrontational. A lot of this is just like marketing. It’s just a giant business thinly veiled as a religion.” 

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Keeper Trout, a psychedelic chemistry expert and author, said that the burden of proof is upon those making claims about novel natural compound chemistry. “I look forward to learning about the evidence for observing psilomethoxin in their mushroom product, but so far, I have not found any indication where one can learn the details,” he told DoubleBlind. “Making the analytical results available, and providing reference samples to third parties so the claims can be evaluated, of both the psilomethoxin reference standard and the mushroom product containing it, seems more appropriate than threatening litigation against critics. Resolution is a task for competent analysts rather than lawyers.”

Church co-founder Ian Benouis, a lawyer and combat veteran who masterminded the creation of the drug, is as gung-ho on the prospects of the lawsuit as Lake. “The standards Usona used to analyze the so-called sacrament sample don’t meet the chain of custody standards for it to be entered into evidence in a court of law,” he says. “They used an unauthenticated, anonymous, potentially incorrectly-preserved sample. This is about restitution.” 

An NMR test planned this week could prove the existence of psilomethoxin within the church’s sacrament, Benouis adds, going on to claim that the church’s chief scientific officer has recently created psilomethoxin in a two-step process. 

“Everyone’s attacking us because we’ve got customers and products unlike others in the space,” alleges Benouis. “We’re piercing their corporate veil. They gave all the haters and doubters the fuel they needed.” 

If the NMR test fails, Benouis and the rest of the owners of the new t-shirts could be left chagrined, even though the contents of the sacrament have always been more about belief than science.

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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