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Inside a ‘psychedelically curious’ social club

Plus, a pilgrimage to Abe's Deli.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

December 8, 2023
Inside this edition: Deli devotees, mega viral, Christmas Easter eggs, Swiftie era, unusual visuals, and a psychedelic social club. Happy Hanukkah.
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A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The 20-foot state Capitol Christmas tree was lit up this week in Harrisburg. Which Pennsylvania county did this year's tree come from?

A. Bucks County
B. Carbon County
C. Northampton County
D. Chester County

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One deli worth knowing: Two Jewish roadtrippers' chance encounter with Abe's Deli in Scranton left an impression, so much so that years later they drove 10 hours just for a taste of the soup (and more).

» One viral moment worth sharing: A bonding moment between an Erie kid, his dad, and a Metallica classic turned into a viral sensation and ended with father and son meeting the band, per Erie Times-News. 

» Hidden gems worth finding: See if you can spot any of the famous people in the album art for the hit “A Philly Special Christmas” record. Then watch artist Hannah Westerman reveal the hidden gems.

» One thing worth bragging about: TIME magazine awarded “Person of the Year” to Berks County native Taylor Swift. Gov. Josh Shapiro tweeted about the honor saying Swift is the “best to ever do it.”

» One museum worth seeing: A new Pittsburgh museum dedicated to optical illusions is set to open later this month with mind-blowing visuals on North Shore Drive, Patch reports. 

🏆 PA POP QUIZ: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Sworn in on banned books, Fetterman’s troll target, and an Amtrak revival.
The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Assessing Shapiro's key promises after 1 year

» Spotlight PA report saves Allegheny County $479K

» New rules didn’t grow bipartisanship in Harrisburg

» Why Spotlight PA is suing Penn State trustees

» Court ruling on ballot dates stokes confusion

» Free Q&A on Pa.'s signature drink (boilo) and trivia!
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Light beams coming through the tree canopy in a forest with brightly colored leaves.
Tuned in. (Flickr / G. Lamar Yancy)

Soft light poured out the windows of an old bricklayer's mansion-turned-event space in Wilkinsburg, a borough that borders Pittsburgh. Inside, roughly 20 people sat around two dining room tables, guarded by a maze of brightly colored halls and side rooms filled with plants and sculptures. 

The attendees passed around a mushroom risotto over heaping plates of turkey, stuffing, and other Thanksgiving hallmarks. Over fast-emptying bottles of wine, conversations between old friends and new connections flowed. 

One man, gently bouncing on his heels to soothe his 10-month-old son who was strapped to his chest, talked about proper ketamine dosing. Another shared how he first did LSD in the 1960s at the height of Jimi Hendrix’s fame.

This was the scene at the Nov. 18 Friendsgiving dinner of the Psychedelic Club of Pittsburgh, an open-to-all discussion group for the psychedelically curious and inclined.

The Psychedelic Club of Pittsburgh was founded in 2019 and holds a general meeting once a month at a rotation of cafes and other venues that agree to host. The meetings are open to all, charge no admission, and foster free-form conversations about everything from psychedelic experiences to safe means of consumption and deregulation initiatives. 

Gregory Paustenbach, the president of the club, said its purpose is to provide a "safe place for individuals to talk about everything psychedelic." He said the club strictly prohibits soliciting substances at meetings and doesn't even directly condone psychedelic substance consumption. 

"But what you do outside of those meetings is entirely up to you,” Paustenbach said.

He came to psychedelics like many others: 16 years old and wanting to experiment. Around that time and without guidance, he took MDMA, LSD, and some mescaline tablets that were “going around.” 

“There was no real understanding between this substance and that substance,” Paustenbach said. “So it was just kind of all out there at once. And fast forward to today, there's still really not much more understanding about these substances.” 

Between then and when he revisited psychedelics in his 30s, Paustenbach said he worked at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital for 11 years in various positions, including as a therapist, evaluator clinician, and discharge specialist. Now, he said he wants to couple his institutional knowledge with what he’s personally discovered through psychedelic substance use to educate the community through the club.

Sa'ed Al-Olimat, a founding member, said the club now brings in anywhere between 60 and 100 people each session, from the "mycophiles" — fungi enthusiasts — to "dead heads."

"The spectrum of individuals is a spectrum, and there's no way to generalize what a person is, who a person is, that comes into these club meetings," Al-Olimat said. "The first person that showed up when I set up the Psychedelic Society meetup [which later merged with The Psychedelic Club] was a 65-, 66-year-old social worker who had never taken psychedelics before."

The Pittsburgh Psychedelic Club is one in a network of 35 chapters of the Psychedelic Club nonprofit, which operates out of Colorado, according to the national organization's website. 

Joey Gallagher, the former president of and current adviser to the executive board of the Psychedelic Club’s national office, said as a 501(c)(3), the Psychedelic Club can’t substantially lobby for the deregulation of psychedelic substances. Instead, he said the club was founded on the idea that “social change precedes political change” and that most of the club's efforts are directed toward the destigmatization of psychedelic substances. 

"The Psychedelic Club brings it out in the open, to be like, 'Hey, it's OK to use psychedelics. A lot of people have benefited from the substance,'" Gallagher said. "That, in turn, kind of makes it OK to talk about it politically."

The DEA lists psilocybin mushrooms as a Schedule 1 substance — a category reserved for drugs with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse — right alongside heroin. 

According to an online psychedelic decriminalization tracker, psilocybin mushrooms are legal in only two states — Oregon and Colorado. 

Al-Olimat, who is also the current manager of a Penn Hills pharmacy, said he wants Pennsylvania to at least lower the barriers to medical research into psychedelic drugs.

"For me, a clinician, I see the value of opening up research access," Al-Olimat said. "I think that it's really about how can we let people know that there's tremendous potential here therapeutically." 

Gina Vensel, a club member and staunch advocate for psychedelics being the lowest priority of law enforcement, said, "This isn't some free-for-all,” and warned against the reckless and bullheaded use of psychedelic substances. She said if someone is on other medications, they should consult their doctor before exploring the substances further. 

"I find myself being kind of like the mama bear of the club,” Vensel said. “Psychedelics are not for everyone. We need to make sure that there's education before people just see a documentary on Netflix and think that they're ready to dive in and try these compounds."

Paustenbach said that beyond lowering the barriers to unproven medications like psychedelics, it’s necessary to confront the persistent stigma surrounding mental health and conventional treatments.

“I think everyone could use the benefits of therapy — that doesn't mean it has to include a psychedelic component,” Paustenbach said. “You get so far with the substance; you get so far with the therapy. When you do both together, exponentially you're getting much further.”

James Paul, via the Pittsburgh Media Partnership

A longer version of this story is available at The Pittsburgh Independent

Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

“He kept saying, ‘I’ll believe it when it’s really home.’ He thought it was going to fall through.”

Hope Gress on her dad’s reaction to the 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport he sold over 20 years ago finding its way back to him by chance

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
The Allegheny River (a contender for River of the Year), via Chuck B. Have a photo you want to share with the whole state? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
A river winds between mountains and trees.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

This year's state Capitol Christmas tree was grown in Carbon County, Crystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton, to be exact.

Thanks for reading. We'll see you back here next week.

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