The crazy backstory of the illegal medicines for the worst headaches on Earth
Into a private suite on the sixth floor of a hotel outside Denver, tucked at the end of a maze of hallways, men and women pile in until they overflow — they sit on the floor, the coffee table, the radiator, they spill into the bathroom and out into the hall.
They are sick, and a man has told them he knows a secret cure.
In the man walks, gray and slightly bent, in a sport coat and slacks. This man suffered for decades with agonizing pain — the same kind they do.
The room stills as he opens a cardboard box and pulls out a mason jar. He says, without introduction, "I'm going to teach you the PF tek."
He says: "With $100 and 45 days, you'll have all the medicine you need for a year."
The man has a kind of headache so painful women compare it to childbirth. They're now called cluster or suicide headaches. But they were basically unknown when, in the 1990s, in Scotland, a man named Craig Adams, who now runs a tiki bar in Aberdeen, regularly suffered them.
Life, then, sucked.
So Adams figured: fuck it all, let's do some drugs.
LSD was fun.
After years of partying, Adams realized he hadn't had a headache in a while.
He was happy and relieved. But he is also a curious person, so he wanted to know why. He took a piece of paper and listed what he'd been doing differently. The only change he could think of was the drugs.
Adams got hold of the autobiography of Albert Hoffman called "LSD: My Problem Child." In it, Hoffman writes that he developed LSD out of a fungus called ergot, and that another compound made from ergot, Hydergine, is "a medicament for improvement of … cerebral function."
Adams told his doctor. The doc should have been thrilled. Instead, the doc threatened to throw him out of his office as a dangerous drug addict.
So, in 1998, Adams put up a post on the website of a group called ClusterBusters. Adams used the nickname Flash.
"I use LSD to prevent cluster headaches," he wrote.
And then, because he didn't know much about drugs, he made another discovery. He thought magic mushrooms contain LSD, too. So he trodded out to the nearby pasture — the one right next to Donald Trump's Aberdeen golf course, by coincidence — and Adams plucked shrooms from the cow patties.
Those kept away his headaches, too.
The 13th annual ClusterBusters conference is being held this weekend in that hotel outside Denver.
On Friday, a presenter named Joanna Kempner, a professor from Rutgers who is writing a book on Adams and cluster headaches and psychedelics and pain, Facetimes Adams in from Scotland, projecting his smiling mug onto the screen in front of 200 rapt and glowing people. When asked how many of them had benefited from Adams's discovery, 75 percent of the hands go up.
The crowd whoops and hollers and claps.
"Thank you!" someone shouts to Adams.
"You saved my life!" shouts someone else.
"You smart man!" shouts someone else.
"Not that smart," Adams says in his thick Scottish accent. "All I was really interested in was getting off my tits."
Mushrooms don't work for everyone. But a man named Don Turner, 43, is typical of the ways they can. A married father of three from Pennsylvania who likes to fish, his headaches used to come eight times or so a day, with an eight or 10 on the pain scale.
He tried all known treatments. Oxygen. Opioids. Had a device implanted in his skull that was supposed to buzz a certain nerve and calm the headaches.
The pain often dragged him down to his knees and, once, he punched the floor so hard out of frustration and agony he broke his hand — and didn't realize until the next day, 'cause headaches hurt worse.
For the past year or so, he's taken mushrooms.
Different patients take different doses of different drugs. Some take a half gram of shrooms a month, some take 100 mics of LSD every two months. Turner needs 5 or 6 grams of mushrooms — heroic doses — once a week.
He watches reruns of M*A*S*H* on TV and ignores the geometric shapes.
"You don't necessarily want to trip, but you want to have less pain," Turner says.
Weird Friday nights — but he has half as many headaches as he used to, and they're half as intense.
"These people haven't been able to find help in years or decades," says Bob Wold, a general contractor from the Chicago suburbs who is president of ClusterBusters, and who used to get such terrible headaches he couldn't work. "The doctors have nothing to give us."
WOLD TO THE RESCUE
In that private suite mentioned above, in the semi-secret meeting, Wold is the one who has something to give. This meeting is the most talked about, in-demand, helpful meeting of the conference — and the official schedule won't tell you what is truly happening in here. It just says "growing demo."
Wold shows the crowd the PF tek: the simplest method for growing mushrooms.
He goes through where to buy spores — legal in 47 states! — what temperature to grow at, how to adjust the light. And Wold shows off his finished product, a vacuum-sealed ziploc baggie of brown and black shriveled mushrooms.
Wold never goes anywhere without them.
"Most people don't say they're here for this, they don't put it on Facebook or tell friends, but it's one of the main reasons people come to the conference," says Andrew Cleminshaw, a ClusterBusters board member. "It's interesting — and it fucking works."