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ATMA's Journey: Overground
Psychedelic start-ups can gain rapid publicity and investment, but can they survive harder times?
This is the second and final part of a feature on ATMA Journey Centers, a leading psychedelic company in Canada, whose co-founder and CEO, David Harder, was charged with sexual assault earlier this year. In the first part, we followed David’s journey from the Christian rock scene to the psychedelic and tantric underground, and heard from two women who accused David of raping them. In this piece we look at the rise of ATMA Journey Centers from late 2020 to today.
Like many psychedelics start-ups, the origins of ATMA Journey Centers lie in the cannabis industry. Calgary entrepreneur Vu Tran founded numerous small businesses, from a vape company to a comedy club, before making some money with a cannabis company called New Leaf Cannabis, which owned and then sold several medical cannabis dispensaries around Canada. But Vu saw diminishing opportunities in the cannabis market. He tells me:
Cannabis was never a passion of mine. I knew it was a business opportunity, quick in and out because I saw the amount of hype that was going on. It had so many bad characters in it.
In 2018 Vu was introduced to David Harder by a mutual friend. David had a dream of bringing psychedelics to the masses, he was running his online microdose business, organizing ceremonies and psychedelic meetups, and beginning to put together the Catalyst conference, the first of which took place in 2020. Plus he and Natalie were teaching tantra workshops around the world, although Vu says he wasn’t aware of that side of David’s life.
Vu had himself sat with plant medicines since around 2015, and after one ceremony in 2020, he decided to invite David to start a psychedelic retreat company with him.
David knew all these people in the industry. He was throwing out names, like he’d had conversations with Rick Doblin, Paul Stamets, Rosalind Watts, big names in the industry. He had that ability to network and was on very good terms with all the leaders in the field. And the way he talked, he obviously knew a lot about psychedelic healing, which I know nothing about.
What about David’s work in the underground, I asked Vu. Did he know about the microdoseonline business and the plant medicine retreats David organized?
I was very aware of it. But we had discussed that, if I was getting into the business, all of that needs to go, even the running of the underground medicine retreats. My understanding with him was he was not going to be involved with illegal medicine once we start the company. I don't know what [David] does. He holds a lot of medicine ceremonies at his place, at other places, I’m not fully aware of any of that. I just know that ATMA’s not involved in that and I'm not a person that dives too much into people's personal lives…Did I know that he was involved in tantric and psychedelic [sic] and an open marriage? No, I did not know.
However, according to others’ accounts, both Vu and David openly discussed underground retreats they attended or planned to attend in ATMA meetings. David shared underground retreats on his Facebook page long after ATMA was launched.
I asked Vu if he or ATMA ever had business dealings with www.microdoseonline, or if the underground ceremonies taking place at David’s house were ever promoted to ATMA employees or students. Vu declined to comment.
ATMA’s first client: Tony White
What made Vu take the idea of a legal psychedelic industry seriously was Health Canada’s decision, in August 2020, to grant special exemptions to four seriously-ill Canadians to receive psilocybin therapy as part of their cancer treatment, through a Canadian psychedelic non-profit called TheraPsil. Vu says:
I thought ‘My God, they're approving this. This is not a dream.’ So then we put in an application for our own special exemption.
Jenelle Kitto says:
I remember walking into Vu’s home office and he had this white board, this whole plan, of how he and David were going to create this beast from finding the funding to finding somebody that would be the first Albertan to undergo this therapy.
The person they found was Tony White, whose twin sister Debbie White had worked for New Leaf Cannabis. He was also a cousin-by-marriage to Tabetha White, Vu Tran’s assistant, and to Jenelle Kitto, who briefly worked for ATMA. Tony had stage-four cancer and agreed to Vu and David’s plan to apply for a special exemption to get him psilocybin treatment.
They first applied to Health Canada for a special exemption through a non-profit called Syntac Institute, which David had founded in November 2019. Health Canada gave Syntac permission. However in late 2020, David and Vu decided to launch a for-profit company, together with Greg Habstritt, a real estate entrepreneur who had seed capital and an office in Calgary which he agreed to rent to the new company.
The three co-founded ATMA Journey Centers in December 2020 and it was ATMA which gave Tony White psilocybin treatment on New Year’s Day 2021 – the first time a for-profit company had legally provided psychedelic therapy in Canada.
None of the three founders had any medical training, but they brought in doctors, including Dr Ravinder Bains and Dr Lyle Galloway, who supervised Tony’s psychedelic experience on New Year’s Day.
Tony’s widow, Rebecca Crewe, remembers:
Tony’s sister and her partner picked him up and dropped him off at David's place, where the physicians were going to be. And at around 6:00 o'clock, I got a phone call saying he's starting to come out, you can start heading down here to pick him up. Tony's left hip had so much radiation on it that we would call it his decorative leg, because he would have to lift it going up the stairs. The neural pathways were completely destroyed. When I walked in and saw him, he was crouched down by the fire. And he stood up and walked toward me without a limp. I lost it.
The treatment was completely mind and soul altering. He was able to achieve a sense of peacefulness. He was really wanting to do another journey, but unfortunately he was too sick. But he had two really solid weeks after the trip. On December 31st, he had a 50-milligram fentanyl patch on his arm and took six bumps of additional liquid fentanyl. On January 1st he did his psilocybin journey. By the end of that week he had weaned down to 12.5-milligram fentanyl pouch on his arm and didn't take another bump of liquid fentanyl until the day he died. But it was so much more than that. He had what I would call mushroom moments of lightness in what was a super intense, difficult, heavy time. When Tony's daughter got to see him for the last time, he was daddy. He was playful. He was able to cuddle with her and have her on his lap and it was beautiful. This is why it's so conflicting for me, because I have a lot of gratitude for that.
ATMA’s rapid rise in 2021
Tony’s treatment launched ATMA Journey Centers onto the global psychedelic stage. An interview with Tony and David was featured on CBC, the national TV broadcaster, and there were several other media stories about Tony’s treatment.
Sadly, Tony never got to receive a second psilocybin treatment – he died on January 20, three weeks after he received the first dose. Meanwhile, ATMA’s first few months of existence were a manic blur of activity.
In February 2021, ATMA announced it was opening ‘Canada’s first psychedelic journey center’ – ATMA Creekside, in the Rocky Mountains. And in March 2021, ATMA announced the purchase of a Costa Rican retreat centre, ATMA Azul.
In the same month, ATMA announced it had received a $500,000 initial equity investment from Mind Cure, another recently-created psychedelic company that had raised $3 million on the Canadian stock exchange in a listing of September 2020.
We were barely ready to organize the company when Mind Cure came in and said we're going to give you an investment. I was in Mexico on vacation but organising the company’s share structure because Mind Cure wanted to give us money. We did a lot of things fast. Those were different times and the money was rolling in.
Meanwhile, David was organizing Catalyst, which was establishing itself as the biggest psychedelic conference in Canada. It held its second summit in May 2021, online, with a stellar rostrum of speakers, including Michael Pollan, Rick Doblin, Paul Stamets and Francoise Bourzat.
At that point, ATMA Journey was less than six months old, but looked set to become a big player in the Canadian and global psychedelic industry. And David Harder was its public face, often giving interviews to newspapers, TV and podcasts to discuss the future of the psychedelic market. It was quite a transformation to those who knew him three years earlier when he was a tantric masseur organising meetups and underground ceremonies.
But trouble was brewing for the young company. In November 2021, a Shipibo shaman at one of ATMA’s Costa Rican retreats made unwanted romantic advances to female participants, trying to kiss one of them on the beach, and sending a Whats-app message to another during the night to ask if she was in her room. David and Natalie had to crisis-manage the situation and ATMA began to realize it was not feasible to run retreats in multiple countries while also running a Canadian company.
By the beginning of 2022, the ‘shroom boom’ had bust, and Mind Cure became one of the first psychedelic companies to get into financial trouble (its listing would eventually be taken over by a mining company). Cash was running out for ATMA as well. The Costa Rica retreat centre acquisition fell through, as did the Rocky Mountains Creekside retreat centre.
Meanwhile, the management trio started to argue. Greg Habstritt says:
David was intent on being the face and voice of the company and being in full control of all decisions. Oddly, he referred to himself as the ‘Founder’ of ATMA even though there were three founding partners. I disagreed with his management style, many of his operational decisions and things became very tense prior to my departure. He had very little business or management experience, and that unfortunately proved to be an issue for the company long-term.
Greg left the company in June 2021 but, awkwardly, continued to be one of the three shareholders, and the company’s landlord. In 2022, ATMA Journey moved out of Greg’s office in the middle of the night, without giving notice. ATMA is still in default on that lease. Vu says:
I take responsibility for not reading the lease that Greg had put together. We did have a difference of opinion on what was agreed. But I'm trying to make things right with Greg.
Greg says the lease was very favourable to ATMA.
Tony White’s widow, Rebecca, was starting to feel overwhelmed and exploited by all the media interviews she was being asked to give following Tony’s death. She tells me:
When was it enough for ATMA, with me doing so much media after Tony died? Can you let me grieve? They should have fucked off after a bit and just let me heal. I know that this is very sexy and important right now and important to their business, but where does the marketing end and care for my mental health and grief process begin?
I asked Vu if the company could have handled that situation better. He says:
I totally agree with you and I would say that I am not qualified enough to understand patient care and what they went through. I was happy when we switched to providing training versus offering therapy because I have zero comfort level in the therapy business.
The pivot to ATMA Training
ATMA Journey began offering psychedelic therapy training to healthcare workers in March 2021, initially through a basic two-month introductory course, featuring videos of presenters at the Catalyst conference like Rick Doblin and Rakesh Jain. Vu says:
We immediately saw the value in creating training, how much people wanted to be in this space but didn't know very much about it. And we thought the way to do it is to create this whole business around training.
ATMA offered the two-month introductory course five times a year and made good money from it, although some within the team questioned whether one could really train people to be psychedelic guides with online videos. And then, in 2022, ATMA launched its advanced course, which offered students the option to take psychedelics as part of their training – the first and only Canadian training course to do so.
Health Canada gave ATMA approval to include a psilocybin experience in its training course, as long as the students took the drugs as part of a clinical trial. The first trial took place in October 2022, leading to this paper.
ATMA then organized a second clinical trial aimed at researching psilocybin for ‘COVID-related stress’ among healthcare workers. Trainee psychedelic therapists would be offered the opportunity to take psilocybin in the trial, as long as they said they were suffering from COVID-related stress. It’s also applied for permission to give health workers MDMA as part of the same study.
This special exemption outraged the other leading psychedelic therapy trainers in Canada – Numinus and TheraPsil. Both companies said that it was unethical and bad science to insist trainee therapists could only take psychedelics as part of a clinical trial. For one thing, the data would be worthless – of course people paying thousands of dollars to become psychedelic therapists are going to say that psychedelic therapy works wonders. Secondly, it’s encouraging psychedelic therapists, right at the start of their career, to say they have COVID-related stress when they probably don’t, to qualify for a psychedelic experience.
Health Canada did, however, conduct an audit of all psychedelic trials happening in Canada in 2022, following media revelations about an unethical relationship between a guide and a participant in a MAPS Canada MDMA trial. Health Canada’s audit of ATMA’s trials was a sticky moment for the young company, according to Vu:
There was a mess because David was perhaps over-zealous about the medicine’s spiritual healing and less concerned about the science part. But we brought in more scientists to work on the trials and took corrective actions before the next trial begins. Health Canada were pleasantly surprised how much we have learned in a short time.
And then, just when the company was making money, on the 19th of February 2023, an episode of the ‘Am I Broken: Survivor Stories’ podcast was released, in which Lindsey told her side of the story and named David Harder as ‘my abuser’.
It hit me like a bus. I didn't see it coming. I had no understanding of how to navigate something Iike this.
He had been sent the podcast by David, but didn’t listen to it at first, then David told him it was beginning to get traction. ATMA students and instructors demanded clarification. So did the speakers scheduled for the Catalyst Presents conference in May 2023, which was postponed. Vu says:
That’s when I had to sit David down and say, ‘listen this is something personal that happened a long time ago. We have a small team. We don't have the resources to be able to fight this and run the business at the same time. We don't know enough about it to know how to defend you. You need to resign.’
Vu says that David was resistant at first, but then stepped down as CEO, although he remains a shareholder of ATMA. The company sent out an email to its training course faculty:
Dear Presenters and Instructors,
ATMA would like to strongly emphasize that our decision to terminate David Harder's association with the company, effective immediately, is final. David Harder, who is the co-founder and CEO, will have no involvement with ATMA in any capacity going forward.
Our decision was not taken lightly, and it was based on a thorough evaluation of our goals, values, and principles. We want to make it abundantly clear that ATMA has no position on any personal matters that David may have had prior to his association with the company.
To ensure that there is no confusion or ambiguity, we will be removing David's name and image from our website and all other official communication channels immediately.
Five days later, David sent an email to a group of people including some industry figures:
Friends, family, and colleagues:
Last week, some of you received a pointed email about me which included a link to a podcast with a number of allegations. This podcast was as difficult for me to listen to as it was for you.
Some friends and mentors have encouraged me to stay silent, and others have encouraged me to share my perspective or even pursue legal action. I have no desire to intensify the matter. I would like to believe that we live in a culture where everyone can be heard, so I am writing this as a call-in to a healing process…
I understand, personally and from peers in the industry, how these allegations could be very damaging to the industry. My intention is to find a path forward that allows many voices to be heard and leads to a positive resolution. I believe this is a good place to start.
This email was sent out to eight people, one of whom said they were willing to take part in such a process, but they never heard back. Instead, a few weeks later, David posted this more visceral response to the accusations:
Rebecca Crewe, Tony White’s widow, read the post and wondered why David was publicly insulting her widow’s sister and several of her friends. She demanded a meeting with Vu and insisted ATMA pull all publicity related to her and Tony. Vu agreed. Meanwhile, David was charged with sexual assault by Calgary police in May. His trial is scheduled for the end of the year.
What can the industry learn from this?
It’s up to the Calgary court to decide what happened in those Tantric massages, whether there was clear consent for sex, or whether those were instances of sexual assault. But one can say, speaking to Dawn and Lindsey, that they hoped to receive healing from David and came away feeling very damaged.
I asked Vu if he ever saw warning signs with David, and he says: ‘He was so convinced of the medicine and what it can do for people.’ This over-confidence in psychedelics and one’s own healing power is common in psychedelic culture, and can be catastrophic for clients and for the ‘healer’ and their families. Natalie, who still works for ATMA, is now divorcing David and has changed her surname.
Vu has tried to put distance between ATMA and David, suggesting the situation with Lindsey happened ‘a long time ago’ and ‘prior to his association with the company’. But Lindsey says her situation with David was ongoing after ATMA was set up, and she was even paid by ATMA at one point. ATMA has launched a new website without any mention of David, and with a new code of ethics. It insists ATMA employees will abide by all applicable laws. David is still a shareholder of ATMA for the time being.
This story highlights the immaturity of the psychedelic industry. We’re at a frontier stage of the market when someone with only a few years’ experience of psychedelics and without any medical training or much business experience can soar to prominence in the industry. One person familiar with ATMA comments: ‘It amazed me how low the regulatory bar was for launching a psychedelic company in Canada, compared to, say, a cannabis company.’
Psychedelic organisations scramble for publicity and launch press releases trumpeting every new initiative, even when they quickly fall through. This intense focus on publicity can come at the cost of client care – as it did in the case of Rebecca Crewe, Tony White’s widow, who felt exploited by the media demands ATMA made of her.
The story also highlights the challenges in the psychedelic industry’s transition from the unregulated underground to the more-scrutinized overground. Some operators like Harder are keeping one foot in both worlds, preaching the need for a legal, regulated market, while still doing business in the underground.
Yasmeen Sadain, director of training and operations at TheraPsil, says: ’We need to bring the industry aboveground. If there is a disciplinary body with a code of ethics, it would reduce instances of inappropriate relationships between healers and clients.’
In this case, the incidents of alleged assault did not directly involve psychedelics, instead they occurred during tantric massages. Both psychedelics and tantra involve altered states and boundary dissolutions, so it’s extremely important there are clear ethical guidelines and clear non-inebriated consent between guides and clients as to what takes place during a session.
The psychedelic industry is going to face many situations where a client feels harmed by the behaviour of a guide. Vu Tran says the industry needs to learn how to improve mediation:
If we don’t get a hold of this and put a process in place, the industry may not get off the ground because of a handful of difficult experiences and maybe a handful of bad characters.
Indeed, this court case didn’t need to happen. Dawn tried to seek mediation with David and the attempt failed. Lindsey was offered mediation by David, but she felt the process wasn’t sincere.
Meanwhile, both Lindsey and Dawn say they have recovered from the crippling anxiety they felt in the wake of the incidents involving David. Rebecca Crewe says she has also found healing, and that microdosing has helped her get in touch with and process her grief. She now wants to work to improve ethics in the psychedelic industry.
For ATMA, Health Canada and the Canadian psychedelic industry, the upcoming trial is bad news. There’s been no publicity about the case so far, but that’s likely to change when the trial begins and the Canadian media realizes the country’s nascent psychedelic industry is facing its second sexual assault scandal before the legal market has properly begun. The glorious launch of the industry is in danger of turning into a belly-flop.
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