District216: The Jacob Tell Overture

By Jeff Wing   |   April 16, 2024
Jacob Tell, Psychedelic Seer and District216’s Founder and Chief Dreamer (photo by Chris Jensen)

As acid tests go, this could be a paradigm-changer.

Jacob Tell wasn’t always a psychonaut plumbing the Mariana Trench of perception. “Remember Reagan’s Just Say No campaign? I was a D.A.R.E. kid. I had the shirt and the pencil and the lunchbox and all the things that they gave us in grade school.” That was then. Sometime later, Tell would embrace the Jungian effects of ego dissolution, see the flimsy barrier between Self and Everything Else dissolve like a weakened meringue, and would fall into the arms of his people. He boils the epiphany down. “The psychedelics communities, ours and others, can help remind us of the power of just sitting in a circle and sharing and talking,” he says; wording that will trigger even the most placid rationalist. “It’s fundamental – a shift in how we think about our place in the world, how we think about society and civilization, and how we think about where we’re headed – and what we have yet to do.”

Cognitive Liberty

District216 – a membership-based “psychedelic social club” – is equal parts community gathering place, info hub, and advocacy group. There are weekly District House Events and quarterly Marquee events that take a scholarly-yet-communally-joyous approach to the expansive ideas intrinsic to the psychedelics movement. The panel discussions, films, and interviews are all offered in the context of thronged fellow-travelers communing with filters down. District216 is a fractal of its immense implications. “We want to help normalize and legalize psychedelic use in our daily lives,” Tell says. “The vision is that we have safe access to these medicines, globally; that we have education supporting them, that we have harm reduction programs in place, that there are regulations where those are needed – but that we all have safe and affordable access to these medicines. We have the right to cognitive liberty.” 

It seems fair to suppose this is not the liberty espoused by the Freedom Lobby as they storm the ramparts. What are the goals? “Consciousness elevation, expansion, reconnecting spiritually with ourselves and our communities…” Okay. These sentiments were firmly bookmarked into our culture back there between the Beats and the Beatles. What happened?

Shroom Boom

A D216 Marquee event: Fireside Chats, Discussion Panels, Live Music, Food, Vendors & Networking (photo by Stephen Lewis Photography)

Magic mushrooms, LSD, psilocybin, mescaline – these randy vitamins tiptoed into American culture in the crew-cut 1950s and were taken up by poets, musicians – and enthusiastic researchers. By the early ‘60s hundreds of papers had been written on LSD’s promise in the realm of mental health care, and the studies continued to proliferate. Meanwhile, the rising youth revolution’s firehose rejection of the previous gen’s value system inspired a manic search for meaning, and the neuro-metaphysics of chemistry sidled into that wheelhouse. By 1970 a steamrolling moral panic had set in, and the hammer came down that year. The new federal Controlled Substances Act classified psychotropics as Schedule I compounds; substances with no currently accepted medical use. In plainer language, they were federally banned.

“Consciousness expansion” had by that time infiltrated the culture. Why hadn’t the revolutionary experiment taken hold? In part because the Establishment had made that whirlwind, self-seeking decade a fugitive enterprise, its detractors snarling about the evils of being stoned, and laying groundwork for criminalization. These Centurions of Clear Thinking would then drive home from work, loosen their collective necktie and start in on the single malt hooch. In this framework, “consciousness expanding” includes two fingers of Glenlivet, neat. Breaking into the twilit room that adjoins this one has been an imaginative and spiritual pursuit for millennia, and in modern times a target of will o’ the wisp policing. 

Therapy Tripping

Tell’s idea that we move measuredly toward a rational and normalized interweaving of psychedelics into the Everyday may sound crazy on its face, but that thinking has, for decades now, been part of a lively social movement; and an arguable component of research. “We’ve just gone through some amazing studies and actually FDA clinical trials, if you can believe it,” Tell says ardently. Data-driven studies on the healing efficacies of psychedelics – from PTSD therapies to depression, and from substance abuse disorders to palliative care for the terminally ill – are avidly underway in literally hundreds of universities around the world; fly-by-night diploma mills with names like Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley – and of course Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy. “We’re going to have prescribable MDMA and prescribable psilocybin mushrooms soon,” Tell says. “That’s thanks to the good work that’s been happening on these campuses now for decades.” Through a model of education, filter-free community, and shared purpose, Jacob Tell’s District216 is in a position to rationally help catalyze and organize what’s surely coming. Tell’s brutally corporatist title at D216 prefigures the new world. “My official title is Chief Dreamer.” 

Campus Point

UCSB student Jacob Tell found his “doors of perception” while dabbling at Campus Point; the lovely bluff-and-beach interface that marks the campus’ southernmost Pacific promontory. The young man had sipped a few drinks in high school, but in the category leaving one’s cranium and heading for the spheres, Tell was a babe in the chemical woods. “In college I discovered cannabis and psychedelics – psilocybin mushrooms first, then LSD, MDMA, mescalin…” When he took in a Phish concert, his spiritual aspect ratio went IMAX©. “The experience combined psilocybin mushrooms and that loving community – and that was the watershed. Through the live interaction between the band and the fans … I saw suddenly what was possible, and it was everything. My philosophy in business, in life, in creating things, became YES…AND. It’s what animates the improvisational standup comedian, the musician. YES. It’s about taking the leap and learning how an idea can evolve and become the best idea possible.”

Making Lemonade 

The scales had fallen from Tell’s eyes, but his Road to Damascus would yet feature many switchbacks. In 2001 Tell and Sean Campos founded Oniracom, a Santa Barbara-based webdev outfit that would become a many-faceted, crazily successful creative services agency. Its unlikely origin story is best summarized on their website: “…we started on the road, running merchandise, technology, and fan engagement for incredible musicians, management groups, and record labels. In the upturned faces of crowds across the globe, we saw deep emotional connection…” Oniracom quickly became the go-to for a spate of record labels and artists who saw in the company’s boutique skill sets a way to bridge the gap between artist and fan; that is, to replicate what had so positively shaken Tell at those early psilocybin-tinted concerts. 

“Let us gather at the neocortex.” Participants take in a Wednesday evening District House Event (photo by Stephen Lewis Photography)

“We worked with and alongside all the big bands – and ticketing companies, mailing list systems, hosting platforms. Then streaming and Spotify came along to disrupt the model.” Around that time, Oniracom had begun gathering folks from the local cannabis space, mounting informational and community-enriching symposia. “There was a lot of crossover culturally between music and cannabis,” Tell says. “It wasn’t a huge pivot for us.” 

When the other shoe dropped it was – wait for it – COVID. Oniracom’s beautifully-appointed and multifarious building on Gutierrez Street emptied, their lease a sudden millstone. Tell and co. lithely pivoted to doing live streams of nonprofit galas and any other business gathering hamstrung by the pandemic, and their building soon became a popular and widely used hub for streams, video shoots, photo shoots – and remains so to this day. A germ of an idea that had long been stirring in Tell’s febrile psyche burst to the surface, and District216 was born. 

Today, D216 hosts District House Events on Wednesday evenings at their LoDo Studios space, and more expansive Marquee events four times a year at the same location. Their next Marquee event, to be held on May 18, will be “Music & Psychedelics.” Check the site for deets. 

As for the aptly-named Jacob Tell, he has found the neurotransmitter release, and it has set him free. “Those early experiences when I was 18, 19, 20; they spiritually molded me. They awakened me.” Thoreau once exhorted, Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Tell has done exactly that and would like us all to follow suit. But what if the found landscape isn’t actually a dream, but the other thing? Jacob Tell believes answering this question is the charter for a new world, and District216 a gathering of tomorrow’s enlightened First Citizens “These psychedelics are sacraments and tools you have to respect and approach with reverence,” Tell says. His grin is serene. “What can we learn?”  

Visit www.district216.com for more information


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