Psychedelic Retreats: Organizer Legal Issues

Psychedelic retreats are all the rage (and that’s not a new thing), which causes a variety of organizer legal issues and a corresponding spectrum of liabilities. At Wonderland Miami, Horizons NYC, and on a regular basis outside of conferences, we are asked about legal advice for the organizers of psychedelic retreats. Both recreational and therapeutic psychedelic consumption are often consumed/administered in group settings, lending themselves to psychedelic retreats, usually in rural settings.

Horizons founder and director Kevin Balktick said it best during his speech at Horizons NYC (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing here): using psychedelics is a risk, and a risk that needs to be measured carefully. That sage advice applies in any circumstance and immeasurably so if you are planning on organizing a psychedelic retreat, soliciting participants, or accepting compensation as the organizer.

To that end, there are a few main points to hammer home. The risk associated with psychedelic retreats fall into two main categories: (i) the fact that psychedelics are illegal (but there are paths to federal legalization and change is already afoot on the state level (hi Oregon!)); and (ii) the use of psychedelics, particularly by individuals already suffering from treatment resistant depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD (among a number of other disorders), can have severe adverse outcomes.

From a practical perspective, the risks based on the illegality of psychedelics are twofold. The first is pretty obvious: hosting and possibly providing psychedelics to retreat attendees subjects the organizers to potential criminal liability, ranging from distribution of a controlled substance to aiding and abetting the use psychedelics. Even if the retreat is placed in a jurisdiction that has decriminalized psychedelic drugs to some extent, significant penalties often remain in place for distribution, and federal law remains supreme.

The second is that, based on federal illegality of psychedelics, obtaining event insurance is impossible. Without insurance, the retreat organizer is exposed to significant risks associated not only with psychedelic-related adverse events, but also the sort of things that can happen any time groups of people get together. Slip and fall claims, bad weather events, and even employment issues, are often covered by an event-specific insurance policy.

Without insurance in place, the retreat organizer (and any individuals behind the “organizer,” if the organizer is a company) could be forced to defend against claims without indemnity or support. If that doesn’t sound so scary, I should mention that our law firm represents well-run events which have been subject to claims on everything from slip-and-fall to wrongful death. The absence of insurance in these situations is a huge risk.

With that said, as attorneys, it is not our job to eliminate all risk for our clients (an impossible task in any event). It is our job to help our clients mitigate risk as best possible. So what do we generally advise clients planning on hosting a psychedelic retreat? Here is the shortlist:

Have A Really Good Waiver/Release

A well crafted waiver/release agreement should address all of the risks associated with the event, however remote or attenuated. For psychedelic retreats, a detailed acknowledgement of the risks associated with consuming psychedelics and an assumption of all associated risks is necessary. We also include an acknowledgement and assumption of the risk of personal injury before, during, and after the retreat.

Waiver/release agreements are by no means foolproof and do not prevent retreat organizers from getting sued, but having an express acknowledgement and assumption of specifically enumerated risks (particularly risks specifically associated with consuming psychedelics) works in the organizer’s favor should a claim arise.

Make Sure Event Vendors Have Insurance and That They Indemnify You (If Possible)

For larger events, organizers will typically bring in third-party vendors for help, i.e. security, medical professionals, moving and installing equipment, etc. While the retreat itself may not be insured, third-party vendors may be able to obtain insurance. All contracts with third-party vendors should have an insurance and indemnification provision that requires the vendor to: (i) carry insurance; (ii) list the retreat organizer as an additional insured (if possible); (iii) provide proof of that insurance well in advance of the event and (iv) indemnify and hold harmless the retreat organizer, its directors, officers, members, managers, etc., for any and all claims not arising out of the retreat organizer’s negligence.

Recon Medical Assistance

We cannot overstate it: no matter how much control you have over the retreat, psychedelic retreats carry the risk of serious adverse medical events. These adverse events occur even in controlled drug study environments. If you are not going to have on-site medical professionals (which you should), it is important to be familiar and establish contact with local medical services. If something happens, scrambling to figure out where you can get medical assistance (including calling 911) is a recipe for disaster.

Organize Through An Entity

Standard legal advice for any business is to operate the business through a legal entity (i.e. a corporation or LLC) to shield principals from personal liability. This is by no means fool-proof: corporate veil piercing is always a risk. But organizing a psychedelic retreat as an individual, without any liability shielding, is a needless risk to take.

The plain reality is that organizing a psychedelic retreat is inherently risky. The steps we provide in this post are only a starting point and, as in all things legal, the devil is in the details. But at a minimum, these are issues to be aware of if you are planning on organizing a psychedelic retreat.