The cameras are trained on a single bed in what looks to be a basement. There’s a clock, a box of tissues and armchairs on either side of the bed.
What happens next during the disturbing recording was part of a clinical trial into the use of MDMA to treat PTSD.
To this day, the woman at the centre, participant Meaghan Buisson, still hasn’t watched the videos.
When the police handed them over to her, she says the investigating officer advised her to never watch them, for her own wellbeing.
But she’s now been told what happens in the dozens of hours of footage that was recorded as part of her clinical trial in Canada.
The sessions start with Ms Buisson taking a dose of MDMA.
In the first, her therapists – a married couple – then begin stroking her and cuddling her, they climb into bed with her.
By the second session she is asked to spread her legs. She shies away from the male therapist. She is later pinned down as she struggles against them.
“I understand in that seven-hour session now that I was gagged and pinned down and that I screamed and fought non-stop. And to the point where I tried to concuss myself to get out of that situation,” Ms Buisson says.
Ms Buisson was seeking treatment for complex PTSD after surviving sexual assault.
She was told the therapy, which was part of a phase-two clinical trial by the American Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), could cure her.
The final trial data found 67 per cent of the 107 participants studied no longer had PTSD two months after they were treated with a combination of MDMA and therapy.
Ms Buisson was not one of them.
Like thousands of others, she had heard the positive stories about the benefits of psychedelic therapy and was desperate for help.
“When I was in the clinical trial, it was just this, like being told repeatedly that we were groundbreaking, we were making all these changes and this was going to be the next cure, the next thing for trauma, PTSD,” Ms Buisson says.
Now she wants to warn others about what happened to her.
“To posit complex emotion as something that can simply be excised by a pill … a drug like MDMA, that may have healing properties, but it can also be intensely traumatic,” she says.
“It can actually make things worse.”
Psychedelic therapy is experiencing a resurgence internationally, with small-scale trials showing promising results for the treatment of chronic mental health conditions. But scientists say there is still more work to be done before the treatment can be rolled out into the mainstream.
In Australia, clinical trials have begun looking at MDMA for the treatment of PTSD as well as using psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – to treat general anxiety disorder and end-of-life distress.
A Four Corners investigation found those not able to access clinical trials are already seeking psychedelic therapy in the underground in Australia, where there is a lack of protection for those seeking healing.
‘What the f*** is going on?’
Lily Kay Ross and Dave Nickles have spent years researching abuse in psychedelic settings.
The pair created and co-produced the podcast Cover Story: Power Trip for New York Magazine, which investigated the promises and pitfalls of the use of psychedelics as therapy.
The pair watched the full recordings of Ms Buisson’s therapy at her request.
“I was horrified. I recall yelling from the room ‘What the f*** is going on? Oh my God’. Lily and I watched that footage together, and just getting through it was … I don’t have words for it,” Mr Nickles says.
Dr Ross explains one of the issues is a lack of consistency in what the therapy used along with MDMA for treatment actually involves.
“In our investigation, we found that the content of those manuals allows for 13 different modalities to ‘occur spontaneously’ and privileges the therapists ‘intuition and creativity’,” Dr Ross, who completed a PhD focusing on responses to sexual violence, says.
“I think we see in the example of Meaghan, how off the rails that can go.
“In Meaghan’s case, we saw that the things that her therapists were asking her to do and telling her would be healing, were in fact highly disturbing, if not outright abusive.”
Ms Buisson explains the MDMA she was given during the therapy can lead to a decrease in fear and an increase in trust.
“It creates a deep sense of safety, even when that safety doesn’t exist. And I think there’s something really dangerous about overriding innate senses of fear,” she says.
“It fostered a real sense of dependency on the therapists. That in the context of the MAPS clinical trial, it created a situation and a dynamic that was ripe for abuse, in intensely vulnerable subjects, particularly survivors of sexual assault who had had their boundaries destroyed.”
Ms Buisson’s therapists were Canadian psychiatrist Donna Dryer and her husband, Richard Yensen, an unlicensed therapist.
After the clinical trial, Ms Buisson says she felt even worse than before and was left with little support.
“I had had so much stuff come open. I’d had so much trauma ripped open,” she says.
“In my case, quite a horrific trauma that I relived in one of my sessions. And when the clinical trial ended, I was gutted.”
In the months after the trial finished, Ms Buisson moved to the remote Canadian island of Cortes, where Dr Dryer and Yensen lived, for further treatment.
“It was in that period that Richard Yensen began making sexual advances on Meaghan, which he told her were exposure therapy, because she had experienced sexual harm before and had been in the clinical trial to try to address some of that,” Dr Ross says.
“And so, in that sense, he was really using her backstory and her psychology to try to tell her ‘I’m going to help you, this is helping you’.”
Ms Buisson says the abuse by Mr Yensen escalated. She was given the drug Ketamine during therapy sessions and says Mr Yensen often demanded sex.
“The first clinician I really spoke to after I escaped from Cortes summarised my experiences … as being seduced, drugged, raped, blamed and held as a sex slave for nearly two years,” she says.
Dr Dryer and Mr Yensen did not respond to requests for comment. He has previously alleged through his lawyer that the relationship was consensual.
“While he was obviously acting as a therapist in this clinical trial, his lawyer argued that because he wasn’t licensed he had no fiduciary responsibility and he didn’t have to actually behave like one,” Ms Buisson says.
The global leader in psychedelic research
The trial that Ms Buisson took part in was set up by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organisation that’s a global leader in research for psychedelics in therapy.
MAPS was responsible for setting the protocols for the trials and overseeing the therapists involved.
Pioneering psychedelic activist Rick Doblin is the director of MAPS and says the combination of MDMA and therapy has been proved to be “very effective” despite small sample sizes.
“MAPS has treated around 360 people so far in our clinical trials with MDMA-assisted therapy.”
“Our model is a two-person therapy team, often male/female and it’s an eight-hour MDMA session. Then there’s 12 90-minute non-drug psychotherapy sessions. So it’s very labour-intensive,” he says.
He says the sessions are videotaped for training purposes and to make sure therapists are adhering to the treatment method.
In Ms Buisson’s case, MAPS has given conflicting responses about what exactly was reviewed by the organisation at the time.
Mr Doblin told Four Corners: “We reviewed the first video and gave feedback and saw none of that [inappropriate behaviour] in the first session.”
Vision of Ms Buisson’s first MDMA therapy session reviewed by Four Corners shows both therapists lying in bed with Ms Buisson, and Mr Yensen stroking her neck.
“It’s not appropriate to have two therapists in the bed with a patient, spooning them, and cuddling them, and caressing them. I don’t think that there is a therapeutic context in which that’s acceptable,” Dr Ross says.
Ms Buisson made a complaint to the governing body for psychiatrists in British Columbia in 2018 and formally complained to MAPS that same year.
Four years later, Mr Doblin says MAPS still has not reviewed all the videos of the therapy she received.
“This unethical sexual misconduct happened after the therapy was over … So that made us think that we didn’t need to review the video,” Mr Doblin says.
Dr Ross, who along with Mr Nickles also help run a not-for-profit psychedelic watchdog organisation called Psymposia, says MAPS’s reaction to the disclosure is astounding.
“I think any institution doing clinical trails with vulnerable populations, that has extensive video records of events that could offer insight into a complaint of misconduct by a therapist, has an obligation to immediately go in and review all trial records, including the video,” she says.
“It’s not the survivor’s responsibility to instigate that investigation, I think it’s the obvious step that MAPS should have taken in this situation.”
In 2019, Ms Buisson filed a sex assault complaint with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
The RCMP recommended criminal charges, but the Crown Prosecutor chose not to pursue the matter.
Mr Doblin says MAPS has since fired Mr Yensen and Dr Dryer, and implemented procedures to stop this kind of abuse in future.
A group of participants and academics that includes Ms Buisson, Dr Ross and Mr Nickles made a formal complaint to Health Canada, which is now investigating all MDMA trials in the country.
Health Canada has already shut down one of two MDMA clinical trials running in the country due to concerns for participant safety, including lack of oversight by medical professionals, as well as administrative violations.
The agency also inspected a MAPS MDMA trial site and found it was compliant but noted “deficiencies related to: task delegation, ensuring accurate records, and timely training of the study team”, according to a statement from Health Canada. The final report is due out in the coming weeks.
Dr Dryer is still a practising psychiatrist in Canada as the governing board considers Ms Buisson’s complaint against her. Mr Yensen remains unlicensed.
‘Australia could become global leader’
MAPS continues to advocate for the use of psychedelics in mental health treatment and is currently pursuing phase-three trials.
Mr Doblin has given lectures to audiences around the world, including in Australia, about the benefits of psychedelics.
“What we anticipate about 10 years from now, there will probably be 6,000 or 7,000 psychedelic clinics just throughout United States, and way more throughout the rest of the world,” he says.
“I think that Australia may become one of the leading countries in the world to implement psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.”
Mr Nickles says it is critical that abuse within psychedelic contexts is openly discussed as the drugs head towards greater accessibility.
“I think it’s really a testament to the power of these drugs in the hands of predatory people, and within a system and a framework in which there’s no oversight and accountability, just how frequently these abuses and transgressions occur,” Mr Nickles says.
“There’s this line that I think gets used to keep people quiet, which is ‘If you speak up about the things that are happening, you are going to tank the movement’.”
That is a message Ms Buisson heard many times while she was trying to speak up about her abuse.
“Don’t say anything about it. Let these drugs get legalised, then we’ll deal with all the issues,” she says she was told.
Despite the immense personal cost of speaking about her experience, Ms Buisson has chosen to share what happened to her, as a warning for others.
She says anyone considering taking part in psychedelic therapy should think carefully and do their own research about the potential risks.
“I think it’s really important to ask yourself who is creating that hype and how are they benefiting?” Ms Buisson says
“The efforts to suppress and minimise and silence the voice of the individuals who are speaking out having been actively harmed … That in and of itself speaks volumes.”
Watch the full investigation on Four Corners tonight at 8:30pm or ABC iview.