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Tragedy at Soul Quest: The Deadly Cost of Psychedelic Healing Gone Wrong

We understand you want healing, but you can’t lie to us,” said Christopher Young, founder and owner of the Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth retreat and wellness center. “If you lie, you die.” These remarks, aired in the Netflix documentary series (Un)Well in August 2020, were made in the context of the tragic death of Brandon Begley at the center in Orlando, Florida.

Begley, a 22-year-old Florida native and avid skateboarder and guitar player, became critically ill at Soul Quest on April 1, 2018. After a series of ceremonies involving ayahuasca and kambo, he suffered convulsions and a prolonged seizure due to severe hyponatremia caused by excessive water intake. Despite staff efforts, his condition worsened, and he died on April 4.

In March 2020, Begley’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit. On May 15, 2024, the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Orange County, Florida, found Soul Quest and Young negligent, ordering them to pay $15 million to the Begley family. The verdict assigned 40 percent liability to Soul Quest and 60 percent to Young.

Central to the ruling was Young's failure to seek timely medical help. Despite recognizing the severity of Begley's symptoms, he waited three hours before calling 911, believing initially that Begley’s condition was a spiritual crisis. This delay proved fatal, highlighting the dangers of inadequate emergency response in psychedelic practices.

The court's decision was influenced by forensic evidence and testimonies, which refuted Young’s claim that Begley had a history of seizures. Begley was only prescribed anti-seizure medication after the incident at Soul Quest. Circuit Judge Eric Netcher emphasized there was no competent evidence of a prior condition that Begley failed to disclose.

Begley's death and the subsequent legal battle have intensified scrutiny on the safety and regulation of psychedelic retreats. While ayahuasca and kambo have ancient roots and potential therapeutic benefits, they are not without risks. This incident underscores the need for rigorous safety protocols and trained medical personnel at such centers.

Daniela Peluso, an anthropologist who researches ayahuasca tourism, warned of the increasing risks as psychedelics become mainstream. “Amidst the euphoria of the psychedelic renaissance, we will sadly see more inadequate responses to emergencies, more heartbreaking deaths, and inevitably more lawsuits,” she said.

Bia Labate, founder of the Chacruna Institute, advocates for responsible use and balanced regulation. “If the psychedelic community is not able to regulate bottom-up, most likely there will be top-down controls,” Labate cautioned. Ensuring safety without stifling the benefits of psychedelics requires a collaborative effort between practitioners, policymakers, and the community.

Soul Quest’s history raises additional concerns. Reports of inadequate medical care, large ceremony sizes, and conflicts among its leaders paint a picture of a poorly regulated organization. In 2023, the DEA cited Begley’s death and other adverse events when denying Soul Quest an exemption for religious use of ayahuasca.

The tragic death of Brandon Begley at Soul Quest highlights the human cost of the psychedelic renaissance. As the movement grows, ensuring the safety and well-being of participants must be paramount. The lessons from this case are clear: rigorous safety standards, proper training, and balanced regulation are essential to prevent future tragedies. Only then can the potential benefits of psychedelics be realized without compromising human lives.

Should psychedelic retreats have mandatory medical staff on-site?

  • Yes, to ensure safety and proper emergency responses.

  • No, spiritual leaders should handle emergencies.

  • Unsure, it depends on the retreat’s protocols.


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