In the 19th century, French revolutionaries gathered in salons to talk politics and philosophy. In 2023, a group of Chicago medical professionals meet at Billy Corgan’s whimsical tea salon, Madame ZuZu’s Emporium in Highland Park, IL., to talk psychedelics.
Once a month, over cups of exotic tea and plant-based pastries, Madame ZuZu’s is abuzz with conversations about ketamine therapy, psilocybin treatments, dosing, trip-sitting, legislation, and more. The Chicago Med Psychedelics Group (as they call themselves) are a spirited bunch of practitioners whose health backgrounds zigzag across mainstream medicine and beyond: the group counts nurse practitioners, psychotherapists, internal medicine specialists, university medical directors, and cannabis pharmacologists among its nine core members.
Like any good grassroots movement, the Chicago Med Psychedelics Group came into being to kickstart change at a local level.
“Psychedelics hold a lot of potential benefits and pitfalls in helping push healing to the next level. However, we still have much to learn,” says Leslie Mendoza Temple MD, Medical Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the NorthShore University HealthSystem and Clinical Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
“I knew there was a community of early adopters, and I felt we should put our heads together to help promote a rational, balanced way to share knowledge on the science and logistics of this large class of substances.”
Summer 2022 saw Mendoza Temple browsing the MAPS website and connecting with David Schwartz, a fellow Chicagoan, licensed clinical professional counselor and psychedelic integration psychotherapist. They met, hit it off, and began inviting others to join them.
“We started growing the group because I just wanted to know, who am I going to refer to [with questions about psychedelic medicine or treatments]?” explained Mendoza Temple.
“I want to know where I’m sending patients. That’s an integral part of all of this: who do you trust, and who can be a space holder for these experiences? The psychedelic community is being built from the ground up by microcosms like ours.”
Members are drawn to join the close-knit community for a number of reasons. All want to connect with other like-minded professionals; some hope to expand their awareness of psychedelic medicine, and others want to merge firsthand psychedelic experiences with their professional expertise to support patients.
For Katie Sullivan, a family nurse practitioner and founder of Modern Compassionate Care, a life-changing psilocybin experience crystallized her desire to become an advocate of psychedelic treatment. Sullivan became a widow when her husband, a U.S. Marine, died at age 30 following exposure to burn pits during service in Iraq.
“Coming out of that experience, I was a young mother of a 3-year-old who was deeply traumatized and living with a significant amount of survivor’s guilt,” she explains.
Sullivan tried therapy, support groups, meditation and EMDR to help manage her grief and PTSD. While they helped reduce some of her pain, a deep well of grief persisted. So she turned to psilocybin.
“I spent time consciously preparing for my solo trip and then went on a journey inside to meet the pain that I couldn’t release.”
Sullivan reflects that her psilocybin journey provided catharsis and a new perspective that allowed her to let go of the burden of guilt she’d been carrying. It’s now been six years since that single transformative trip. Sullivan describes it as one of the most significant moments of her life, spurring her to become involved with psychedelic advocacy. She counts the support she receives from the Chicago Med Psychedelics Group as invaluable, since she now offers ketamine therapy treatments in her clinic.
“I really wanted to be part of a community of providers and clinicians that I could turn to. This is a new space, and I want to be ethical, safe, and provide really good education for people,” she says.
For David Schwartz, involvement in the group was another step towards embracing a psychedelic-friendly professional persona.
“In my public-facing role now, I’m open about providing preparation and integration for psychedelic therapy, ” he explains. “So that’s one way I’ve decided to step out of the psychedelic closet.”
Schwartz is also happy to speak with curious clients about his personal experiences with psychedelics.
“I think it’s an important part of this type of work and advocacy to also normalize the benefits of these medicines,” he said. ‘I eventually decided that my psychedelic experiences mean that I have a responsibility to be a source of information and conduit for people who want to talk to someone openly.”
When the group descends upon Madame ZuZu’s for their monthly meeting, it’s high vibes with everyone chatting enthusiastically about new research findings, events, conferences, and personal or professional experiences.
“There’s so much conversation going on and so much excitement,” said Schwartz. “Everyone just wants to talk, share, ask questions, and connect.”
Special guests occasionally join in, ushering their unique area of expertise or perspective into the fold. Last month Billy Corgan stepped out from behind ZuZu’s tea counter and sat down with the group to debate whether U.S. society was ready to handle complete psychedelic legalization.
Other meetings have included guests such as Jean Lacy, founder of the Illinois Psychedelic Society, Anne Berg of the Psychedelic Pharmacists Association, and Rachel Norris MD, the owner and operator of ketamine-focused clinic Imagine Healthcare in Chicago. The airy art-deco emporium of Madame ZuZu’s is the ideal space holder for this eclectic, knowledge-hungry bunch who are pumped to meet with like-minded individuals.
However, beyond the thrill of connecting and learning, there’s also an awareness of contributing to the changing legislative landscape in Illinois. In January 2023, Illinois legislator La Shawn Ford introduced the Compassionate Use and Research of Entheogens Act, or the “Illinois CURE Act”. If passed, this act would regulate and license the provision of psilocybin products in Illinois. At this stage, while the bill is still under consideration, events promoting debate and education around psychedelics can help to play a role in promoting awareness.
Some Chicago Med Psychedelics Group members have become involved with sister groups, such as the Illinois Psychedelic Society, to share educational resources and further the cause. Leslie Mendoza Temple, Lisa Solomon, and Karolina Mikos MD will participate and present in panels at the Illinois Cannabis and Psychedelic Symposium in late September. Other group members have lined up to join in discussions at the upcoming Illinois Psychedelic Society Summer Networking Mixer, which will welcome 300 people. The last mixer the group was involved with sold out within 48 hours.
While involvement in these larger events is meaningful, at this stage, the prevailing sentiment among Chicago Med Psychedelics Group is to keep their gatherings at Madame ZuZu’s intimate, informal, and supportive.
“I like keeping it small,” comments Mendoza Temple. ”I don’t know that we’d even have a vision or mission statement as that makes it very formal, then you start to invite more people, and you need an agenda…Don’t we have enough of those big, formal groups already?”
“Tend to the part of the garden you can touch,” reflects Schwartz. “Personally, I’m just thrilled to tag along for the ride as everything evolves with legislation and things like that, but what really interests me is actually changing the culture from the bottom up.”
Photo from far left, clockwise:
Maerry Lee MD ACEP, Joseph Friedman RPh MBA, David Schwartz LCPC, Anne Berg PharmD (guest), James T. O’Donnell PharmD MS FCP, David Schwartz LCPC, Leslie Mendoza Temple MD ABOIM, Lisa Solomon, Clinical Education Council Co-Chair of the Illinois Psychedelic Society, Karolina Mikos MD, Luba Andrus RPh (guest)
Absent Chicago Med Psychedelics Group members: Katie Sullivan, APRN, FNP-C, David Kushner MD DO FASAM FACP, Rebecca Abraham RN BSN.