Ian Benouis doesn’t look like the typical combat veteran. He has a nose piercing, tattoos, wears trippy t-shirts, and frequently uses the phrase “toadally” without irony. The title “church cofounder” might not immediately come to mind, either. But Benouis is one of four co-founders of the Church of Psilomethoxin, which created its own unique psychedelic “sacrament” and dispensed it around the world to its fledgling congregation for a relatively low price. Controversy followed suit.
In mid-2021, the former US Army helicopter pilot oversaw what he hoped was the creation of a novel psychedelic. Benouis, looking for something to provide a feeling akin to the luscious afterglow of an intense 5-MeO-DMT trip directed a friend to feed water laced with arguably the most potent psychedelic to magic mushrooms as they grew. If the group was lucky, the process would produce psilomethoxin, a psychedelic discovered in 1965 by experimental chemists in Paris but never preserved.
Benouis and his comrades were quick to experiment. Amazed by the distinct effects of their newfound psychedelic, they soon christened the drug “the sacrament,” so-called because it is considered a means to access God and one’s true nature. The psilomethoxin experience—if that’s what you want to call it—is not particularly visionary, but it brings awareness to the present. “Our sacrament doesn’t have significant effects like psilocybin, where one’s visual perception is altered,” he says. “Instead, it has effects more like 5-MeO-DMT.”
The group established the Church of Psilomethoxin in Austin, Texas, in November 2021 to enshrine the legal use of the tryptamine, which is not controlled under federal or state law in the United States. Other common psychedelics, like psilocybin, are classified as Schedule I controlled substances in the US, which means possession, manufacturing, or distributing them can garner a prison sentence.
But the spiritual high was nonetheless nearly cut short earlier this year: A well-known psychedelic research organization, the Usona Institute, accused the church of misrepresenting the contents of the hallucinogen and misleading its members—and the wider psychedelic community. The Church, however, was undeterred by the controversy. They now have a new ambition: get “the sacrament” into drug stores.
A Trip to the Church of Psilomethoxin
The Church went ahead with its first in-person, public-facing “church service” in April of 2023. Coincidentally, the event—dubbed Entheogenesis—was already slated to take place a couple of days after the Usona Institute released the preprint study, which called into question the church’s core tenant: whether it’s sacrament, psilomethoxin, was legitimate. As originally reported by VICE, a diverse group of some 350 veterans, yogis, and Burners met in a fashionable garden on the outskirts of Austin to imbibe “the sacrament,” ecstatic dance, and listen to emotive talks from the co-founders about why they do what they do.
All of the veterans in the church leadership group are retired on disability allowance. They also all contracted PTSD through the course of their service, which, for Benouis and fellow co-founder, former marine Ryan Begin, included active service in Panama and Iraq, respectively. “In August 2004, I lost my right elbow in a roadside bomb,” Begin said at the event. It was not until he smoked 5-MeO-DMT with Benouis and Ben Moore, a former army infantryman and Church co-founder, that—years post-deployment—he was able to shed his “combat avatar” and persistent fears that everyone around him sought to harm him.
Greg Lake, a lawyer who is one of the four co-founders, has also endured a difficult path. “I was a drug addict for a very long time: I was homeless for two years.” There is little practical use in waiting until the Food and Drugs Administration approves psilocybin or MDMA treatments costing thousands of dollars, he says in a conference call in September with DoubleBlind alongside the other church co-leaders. New, affordable treatments are desperately needed, he continues. “People are suffering, dying, and killing themselves all around us. There’s a fentanyl epidemic. It’s just an unacceptable state of affairs.”
“People are suffering, dying, and killing themselves all around us. There’s a fentanyl epidemic. It’s just an unacceptable state of affairs.”
It is the proximity of the Church’s cofounders to serious suffering, whether within their own communities, the veteran corps, or on the streets, that has caused them personal distress when they have been criticized for perceived missteps: They feel they have only ever exhibited a genuine desire to help people through psychedelic medicine.
“We all have the right to believe whatever it is we want to believe, on faith, and to strengthen our faith based upon our own direct experiences,” a lengthy church statement said in response to the study. “There has always been a struggle between science and religion, in that science has always made concerted efforts to discredit religious claims.” The Usona paper, which suggests the drug is not what the church said it was, “cut significantly into the income of the church through reduced sales and the rapid stream of new members ended,” admits Lake, who at the time decried what he said were Usona’s potential competing interests in creating novel tryptamines. Usona did not respond to DoubleBlind’s request for comment about the claims.
The experimental results of the study, which has not been peer-reviewed, are far from definitive, but they remain damning. After testing a sample, it said that the Church’s “sacrament” contained only trace amounts of psilocybin and psilocin, the active psychoactive components of magic mushrooms. However, the mysterious and hypothetically legal psilomethoxin was nowhere to be seen.
“The absence of any detectable psilomethoxin, or the hypothetical compound 5-MeO-psilocybin in the analyzed sample demonstrates that the Church’s assertions are not yet supported by scientific evidence,” it said. “The lack of evidence of novel compounds in the sample coupled with the implausibility of the proposed biosynthetic pathway suggests that the Church of Psilomethoxin is engaging in misleading marketing practices and may be misrepresenting the material that they are distributing.”
This did not square with all the striking trip reports from psychonauts who, like the Church leaders, said it was less activating than shrooms and more heart-opening, similar to DMT. One member of the Church, Todd Fahrner, said on Twitter: “The church stuff acts very differently [to psilocybin]. No tolerance forming. I rely on my experience, not faith, to believe this is something else, and valuable.”
But influential figures in the psychedelic space continued to amplify the study on Twitter and the church was roundly derided, with virtually no prominent backers aside from outspoken 5-MeO-DMT facilitator and author Martin Ball, and a passing mention by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on a talk show. Without any science backing the claims of the church and its members, the protestations failed to cut through, unlike the paper—which was titled Fungi Fiction. The Church’s own tests, which had been published on its website, had also been unable to identify the elusive psychedelic.
“As far as I’m aware, almost nobody has ever synthesized the molecule…”
“As far as I’m aware, almost nobody has ever synthesized the molecule (although a 10-step published synthesis does exist), let alone ingested it, so we don’t even know if it’s psychoactive,” chemical pharmacologist Andrew Gallimore told Salon in April. The enveloping controversy portrayed the Church’s co-founders as charlatans.
Despite the consternation over the Usona paper, the church knew that Fahrner was not alone in having benefited from “the sacrament.” It had already been sent across the globe and consumed thousands of times by people who generally reported distinct effects. “Psilomethoxin has been life-changing,” Kaine Marzola, a Church member and combat veteran, said at Entheogenesis. “I feel like I sleep better, I’m less anxious, I’m more comfortable in my skin, and I feel I can be myself wherever I’m at.”
Analytical scientist Adam McKay, the church’s chief scientific officer, gives the doubters short shrift. “I don’t want to use the word hallucinating here, but all these people that have consumed the sacrament can’t be making up their experiences or having a mass placebo effect,” he says, claiming that more than a million doses have been distributed around the US and the rest of the world to members in Italy, Japan, Australia, and elsewhere.
What is Psilomethoxin, Anyway?
The idea to create psilomethoxin was not planned from the start. Then fifty-four-year-old Benouis was looking for something to provide a feeling akin to the luscious afterglow of an intense 5-MeO-DMT trip during the pandemic. “I had seen all the energetic release that was available doing the deep dive on 5-MeO-DMT, and I wanted to get that down-regulation in self-consciousness while still being fully functional,” he says.
5-MeO-DMT, often called the “God molecule,” exists within the secretions of the Sonoran Desert Toad and is famed for its ability to occasion spiritual epiphanies, although fatal drug interactions and death if journeying without qualified supervision can occur. In his search, Benouis stumbled upon writings from late psychedelic chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. In an interview, the “Godfather of MDMA” suggested there was a 50-50 chance that growing psilocybin mushrooms in cow feces and feeding them 5-MeO-DMT infused water would create the obscure psilomethoxin, which has been described as a hypothetical compound that features structural characteristics of both psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT.
Benouis’ friend who was already growing psilocybin mushrooms delivered. In classic Shulgin style, Benouis and his comrades personally sampled progressively larger doses of the resulting product from the DIY experiment and swiftly felt a familiar expansive feeling, a hallmark of 5-MeO-DMT. Further experimentation and tweaks to the simple recipe followed, but the eureka moment had already passed, and they sought to protect what they soon christened as their sacrament.
The Church of Psilomethoxin was formed to protect the legal use of the little-understood psychedelic. It was certified by the Texas Secretary of State’s office in November 2021 as a nonprofit. Benouis and Lake were already working as attorneys helping psychedelic medicine facilitators, and small organizations are increasingly registering as entheogenic churches protected under federal and state laws. “The church represents a shield of protection for us, and the people who want to commune with nature and spirit,” says Moore.
Psychedelic churches are nothing new. The Native American church petitioned and won the right to use peyote as its sacrament in 1993 before the Santo Daime church did similarly in 2006 with ayahuasca. More recently, the Church of Ambrosia in Oakland, CA, began serving psilocybin after the psychedelic was decriminalized by city lawmakers. “We have to defend the right to access natural plants,” adds Moore.
Until now, the Church has secured sufficient amounts of its sacrament through grassroots production. The Usona controversy sparked unexpected change. Companies already producing other psychedelics through yeast offered their support. “They said: ‘Hey, we can do that for you and take care of the heavy lifting’,” recalls Benouis. “We soon expect to have been able to make psilomethoxin from enzymes and identified it in our sacrament using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LCMS),” he adds. At that point, the Church plans to announce a separate deal with a biotech company to create the drug from yeast at a far greater scale than is currently possible.
But this newfound biotech interest isn’t the church’s only connection to the world of commerce. A for-profit arm of the church was established as a limited liability company in January 2023. It’s named PsiloSynth, as newly disclosed documents from the Texas Secretary of State show. The documents were given to DoubleBlind by the Church. The decision to create a for-profit arm was made in order “to ensure constant production and availability of sacrament to the church,” according to Lake, who, along with McKay, is the only non-veteran leadership member.
The news that the Church had set up a for-profit entity but neglected to mention the fact for most of the year is likely to invite criticism, especially since it railed against Big Pharma and corporate interests in its response to the Usona paper. “We didn’t have a reason to disclose the company until it actually started to do something in the way of producing the sacrament for the church,” says Benouis. “With our recent and soon-to-be-disclosed partnership, we are going to be able to make our sacrament biosynthetically.”
Ultimately, the grand vision is for “the sacrament”—which could be an unknown tryptamine similar to psilomethoxin—to be sold in stores as an anti-anxiety or antidepressant pill. One route could be to market it as a supplement, like kratom or Amanita muscaria (which is also unscheduled and does not require FDA approval for its sale), rather than a medicine. But the church founders seem keener to go through the FDA process as a medicine. And they have trademarked the word psilomethoxin. “Research institutions are interested in working with us doing human trials,” says Lake. “We’re just here to explore options within the existing paradigm of how we can safely and responsibly get a very important substance with many different qualities out there to the masses.”
“We’re just here to explore options within the existing paradigm of how we can safely and responsibly get a very important substance with many different qualities out there to the masses.”
The effects of the drug remain a relative mystery to many in the psychedelic movement—and beyond. Benouis claims it allows consumers to deactivate their ego while still remaining functional and not dissolving into the intense depths of “unity consciousness.” It hasn’t yet been tested in clinical trials like those federally required for therapies with scheduled drugs like MDMA. But even while some understandably remain hesitant to try it due to a lack of lab safety data, an increasing number of figures in the psychedelic community have been gifted with the drug in chocolate and capsule form at events this year like the MAPS Psychedelic Science 2023 Conference in Denver, Colorado, or the latest Cannadelic in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Nevertheless, the new plans remain far out. Matt Brockmeier, a lawyer at Emerge Law Group, says that the products’ legality will depend on whether the Church is able to produce psilomethoxin, or another unscheduled tryptamine, from yeast as opposed to using psilocybin mushrooms. That would arguably avoid violation of certain manufacturing provisions of the Controlled Substances Act. “Even if all of those assumptions hold up, and a third party can create an independent reference sample for testing purposes, another issue would be the Analogue Act, which prohibits chemicals that are structurally substantially similar to scheduled substances,” he says.
Right: A supporter, Benouis, and Lake (right to left) pose for a picture at Cannadelic Miami, which took place in July 2023. Left: McKay (right) holds an example of the psilomethoxin molecule. | Photos from the Church of Psilomethoxin
The Analogue Act, passed in 1987, bans “analogs” of controlled substances, structurally similar variations that can produce similar effects. “If they can avoid Analogue Act prosecution, under this fact pattern, it may be possible to sell this stuff in stores without violating federal law, possibly as a dietary supplement so as to avoid running afoul of FDA regulations around health claims. I remain skeptical: They’ve got their work cut out for them, but I wish them the best.”
From Psilomethoxin to the Church of Sacred Synthesis
Already, almost 1700 church members have access to “the sacrament” for the price of $300 per ounce, enough for six months of microdoses. For a $111 annual membership fee—which recently doubled in line with an expansion of the church’s offerings—members have access to integration sessions, yoga classes, a book club, and drug and alcohol dependency recovery groups. There are also in-person activities, including the weekly Texas “hikrodose,” led by Benouis, in which “the sacrament” is consumed during a hike.
“This medicine connects you with your true nature,” adds Moore. “If people can get this sacrament in a CBD store or a drug store, they’ll still have access to the church and its support network.” Lake adds: “This is something that doesn’t exist within the federal purview of the drug laws, and it is legitimately helping people.”
But soon, the Church of Psilomethoxin—which rebranded as the Church of Sacred Synthesis earlier this year amid criticism over its mystery sacrament—may have more than one medicine on the altar. The group also experiments with feeding mushrooms other natural compounds, like the amino acid tryptophan, the hormone melatonin, and the tryptamine mexamine. “We are creating novel tryptamines by crossing the biology of different kingdoms together,” says Benouis, who is also a self-taught psychedelic medicine facilitator. “We aim to keep exploring this path of sacred synthesis.”
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Church of Psilomethoxin?
The Church of Psilomethoxin is an entheogenic religious institution founded by Ian Benouis, Greg Lake, Adam McKay, and Ben Moore in 2021. It’s based in Austin, Texas. Read more about the difference between religious use and decriminalization in this column.
What’s Psilomethoxin—in Simple Terms?
Psilomethoxin (5-MeO-psilocybin) is a hypothetical psychedelic. It was first synthesized in 1965 by scientists in Paris, France, but the samples were never preserved. To our knowledge, there has been no confirmed synthesis in the decades since. There is no known information about psilomethoxin’s long-term safety or effects, as the hypothetical compound has never been studied.
The Church of Psilomethoxin’s founders seek to re-create the compound by feeding psilocybin mushrooms with 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful psychedelic made synthetically or found in the venom of the Sonoran desert toad. Conservationists are currently trying to protect the Sonoran desert toad population and habitat.
Testing has not yet determined that the Church’s processes can successfully create novel tryptamines. The confirmed test results about the chemical identity of the sacrament thus far come from Usona Institute. Usona’s testing found psilocybin and psilocin in a sample of the sacrament, not psilomethoxin. The Church hopes further testing will show different results.
What is the Psilomethoxin Experience Like?
Psilomethoxin was never tested or used by humans, so there is no confirmed information on it’s psychedelic potential. Church co-founder Ian Benouis describes the experience with their sacrament as “5-MeO-DMT afterglow-like.” He describes it as a heart-opening experience without the intense visuals and activation often associated with classical psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD. Usona’s test results indicated that the sacrament contained psilocybin and psilocin, not psilomethoxin. Learn more about 5-MeO-DMT harm reduction from DanceSafe.
Is Psilomethoxin Legal?
At the time of writing, psilomethoxin does not appear on the Controlled Substances list in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration does not currently regulate the hypothetical compound. It is unclear how any future court or legal entity will view its legality if the psychedelic is synthesized successfully. Psilocybin mushrooms and 5-MeO-DMT remain federally illegal in the US.
Presently, the Church of Psilomethoxin claims religious protection for their sacrament. Curious about where psilocybin mushrooms are legal or decriminalized? Journalist Mattha Busby has the details in our previous article.
*Note: Frequently asked questions were updated for clarification. We currently lack information on the safety of this hypothetical tryptamine, and testing has yet to confirm the presence of novel tryptamines in the sacrament.