Let’s get three truths out of the way. 1. Drugs are a sensitive topic. 2. In a lot of the world, many drugs that can be used recreationally — including psychedelics — are illegal. 3. A lot of people are willing to break the law to use psychedelic substances, whether recreationally, as part of spiritual practice or as a tool to explore and work on mental health issues.
Given the legal status of these substances, people are hesitant to call 911 if they are experiencing a crisis, many don’t have access to peer groups that can offer support and there’s not a lot of other support available either. Fireside Project is a notable exception — the organization runs a hotline you can call when you need a bit of support when the walls are melting and it feels like your ego is sitting on a mushroom next to your body, arguing with the nearest lamp post.
In the process of launching the hotline, Fireside is placing itself in a really interesting position. Mental health is getting a lot of attention right now, and a lot of things are shifting in the world of drug decriminalization. The FDA approved ketamine as a treatment for medicine-resistant depression back in 2019, and startups like Mindbloom have popped up to fill that gap in the market. MDMA (ecstasy) is hella illegal, (it’s a Schedule 1 drug in the U.S., which means “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” This includes heroin and LSD, but also — curiously — cannabis, which today is legal for medical use in 37 states, and recreationally in 18 states in the U.S.), but research shows that MDMA can have incredible results for people with severe PTSD. Magic mushrooms are decriminalized in my hometown of Oakland, California, and a bunch of other cities and states are considering legalizing various psychedelics, including LSD, mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca and many others.
Something interesting happens when a powerful psychedelic becomes legal somewhere; a bill is working its way through the California legislature now that might make psychoactive substances such as psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ketamine, MDMA and ibogaine legal for people 21 and older. Should that happen, the roughly 23 million or so 21-and-over adults in California will legally be able to embrace their inner hippie. It bears pointing out that a tab of acid is a different experience than having a beer or two, and it stands to reason that people might need a bit of support from time to time. In a nutshell, that’s what Fireside is tooling up to help support — instead of dialing 911 because you feel like the trees are breathing along with you and it’s a little scary to face your deepest demons head-on, talking to a trained volunteer might be a better option.
“To me, my psychedelic work is really a continuation of the healing work and the growth work that you’re doing in other parts of your life. For my own personal experience, my own relationship to anxiety has been a lifelong struggle. The psychedelic work is not separate from that work. It’s not separate from doing the deep dive into your own psyche and understanding your inner landscape and understanding the different parts of your being and your spirit. I think for me, psychedelics help to accelerate that process,” explains Joshua White, founder and executive director of Fireside. “But psychedelic work doesn’t exist outside of this work of getting to know yourself, discovering and falling in love with the different parts of yourself. That work has innumerable parts; it could be psychotherapy, it could be walking in the forest and journaling, it could be conversations with friends — they’re all interrelated. The psychedelic work is part of — and it can be foundational to — one’s inner work and other parts of one’s life.”
Since its launch in April 2021, Fireside Project has fielded nearly 2,000 calls, and trained around 100 volunteers in the ability to field calls from the public. The org also developed an app to help keep people tethered to planet earth, and to help people who need some assistance with a trip they are currently on, or “integrating” a recent journey.
The two founders have an interesting background and context for how they ended up dedicating their lives to psychedelic medicine.
“I spent the first chapter in my professional life as a practicing lawyer working for the San Francisco city attorney’s office, mostly doing public interest impact litigation cases. It really got me thinking about the relationship between resources and impact,” says White. “How can we have the biggest possible impact using the smallest amount of resources? I started having my own psychedelic experiences many years ago, the first one was in 2002 I think. But psychedelics became a bigger part of my life around 2010. And for me, they were incredibly healing, helping me change my relationship to my anxiety, and really just develop a more loving relationship with each part of myself. I think it was due to my own experiences that I was deciding whether I wanted to leave my career as a lawyer to become a therapist with the hope of eventually working as a psychedelic therapist with MAPS. To explore that career transition, I figured I should try to get a couple of volunteer opportunities to see if I actually liked providing emotional support to other people. I volunteered at the Zendo Project at a few festivals. I fell in love with support lines, and really thought that support lines are a radically underappreciated, but foundational part of a community mental health ecosystem. Fast-forward many years to the start of the pandemic, I was sitting around in my apartment in San Francisco, as so many of us were forlorn about the direction the world was going. Everything from the pandemic, to the epidemic of disconnection and loneliness, to really the country, waking up to the ways that systemic oppression and injustice have been really afflicting our society from the very beginning. And so I thought, well, what can I do in this moment to try to help change the direction of the way things were going. I really believed — as I still do — that psychedelics have amazing healing potential for the world.”
White found his co-founder for the Fireside Project in Hanifa Nayo Washington.
“I am a cultural activist, musician and artist. I am also someone who’s had 20 years of working in the nonprofit sector leading nonprofits and community organizing. What I bring to the world is around really wanting to create spaces of healing and wellness and connection. I’ve been centered around that practice. I want to live in a world where everybody is living to their full potential, you know, where everybody is inspired and supported, and has all of their basic needs met, a world where everybody can show up at the table, bringing their full gifts,” says Hanifa Nayo Washington, co-founder and chief of strategy at Fireside Project. “What is in the way of us doing that right now? That was, for me, a question that I brought into some of my earliest psychedelic experiences for my particular type of healing path and journey. To me, life is a healing journey. Some of the earliest downloads or visions that I received, particularly after my first ayahuasca experiences, was about starting with you first. And when you do that all else will fall into place. And so that has really stuck with me. I live in New Haven, Connecticut, and am very into meditation and yoga and mindfulness practices and healing community. All the studios and places that are available — yoga studios, meditation halls — there were very few people of color, very few women of color. Very few people in the LGBTQ+ communities. I wanted that, and I figured that if I want that, it means that there’s probably other people who do, too.”
Psychoactive drugs tend to skew more educated and more white, with people of color being underrepresented in research studies, and generally offers fewer opportunities to the people who need it the most.
“Healing communities are important, and within this are affinity groups. To me, ‘affinity’ is like likeness — it can be racial affinity, gender affinity or a connection to whatever career you might have. We are using it as ‘sameness’ or ‘likeness’ and ‘identity’,” explains Washington. “We are starting with some particular identities, including BIPOC communities, military veterans and transgender folks. We will bring on 40 volunteers who share these identities and train them. These volunteers will be on call three shifts per week, and they’ll be able to offer support to people who call in and they want to integrate with someone sharing that part of their identity. We know that representation matters, and it builds trust. It opens the possibility for more vulnerability and safety. The communities that we’re focusing on are communities that have been made to be marginalized, and that are underserved within the current psychedelic space.”
In addition to training volunteers to offer more inclusive support to marginalized groups, Fireside recently launched a $200K fund that is available to its volunteers who fall into these categories. After they’ve completed a year of volunteering with Fireside, they will be able to apply for up to $10,000 for initiatives that make psychedelic medicine more available to a broader group of people.
“With the equity initiative we have launched our equity fund that any of our affinity volunteers will have access to after they complete a year of service on the line. They can apply for up to $10,000, and the fund also has educational and internship collaborators and partners. The volunteers will have the option to apply to become students of these institutions. So for example, we’re working with Naropa University, as well as MAPS, Fluence and others. Many of those groups are offering reduced or free tuition,” explains Washington. “We are also able to offer paid internships working with renowned researchers and clinicians. We want to offer them more pathways, support and connections if they want to continue developing their careers within the psychedelic fields.”