In 1966, while giving a lecture on “LSD and the Art of Conscious Living,” former Harvard Professor Richard Alpert reflected upon a proposal for a “telephone emergency call service” which would send tripsitters to psychedelic emergency incidents in any given area. However great the need, Alpert regarded the proposal as impractical: “The reaction of the government would be to tap the phone and arrest the people that would call. […] Existing legislation does not allow a natural process to occur which otherwise would occur.”
Half a century later, plant medicine decriminalization movements have won victories across the country, from Santa Cruz, CA to Somerville, MA. As the national conversation around psychedelics expanded from ‘60s-style countercultural transcendence to novel treatments for America’s post-COVID mental health epidemics, the need for support has only grown since Alpert’s lecture.
Enter the Fireside Project, a Psychedelic Peer Support Line premiering on April 14th, five days before Bicycle Day. People undergoing a psychedelic experience, trip sitters and underground practitioners attending to someone who is, or individuals looking to integrate past experiences into their lives are encouraged to call, text or live chat with the service’s volunteers.
“One of the things that we’ve learned in the cannabis movement is that it’s not enough to simply cause a particular substance to be decriminalized. There has to be additional thought given to what kind of community we want after decriminalization has occurred,” says Joshua White, Executive Director and founder of the Fireside Project. “In the psychedelic space, it’s critical that there be robust risk reduction services available.”
Starting the Fireside Project
White’s comments stem from his own experience in public service. As former Deputy City Attorney for the San Francisco City Attorney’s office, White worked in his spare time as a volunteer for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’ (MAPS) Zendo Project and as a crisis counselor for San Francisco’s Safe & Sound TALK line. Yet it took the pandemic and the George Floyd protests of last year to fan the flames of what would eventually become the Fireside Project.
“I was practicing civil litigation around the time in the west coast of the United States. And with the George Floyd murder that happened, and the protests across the country, I realized that I needed to do something that gave me hope for the world and immediately I moved towards the psychedelic movement,” White recalls
From there, White fleshed out Fireside Project with the help of several psychedelic luminaries and California politicians. While at the city attorney’s office, White worked under current California State Senator Scott Wiener, who introduced the statewide psychedelic decriminalization bill SB 519 in February. Wiener appeared with White, alongside Fireside Project advisory board member Dr. Julie Holland and several members of MAPS, on the Fireside Project’s virtual launch panel on November 17th. Since then, the Fireside Project has been busy raising funds and training 34 volunteers to provide services.
The Gratitude Giveaways Campaign
Due to the disorienting nature of the psychedelic experience, “the psychedelic peer support line cannot provide support to people unless our number is in their phone,” says White. To encourage people to put the Fireside number in their phones, the project launched the Psychedelic Speed Dial awareness campaign. Formally announced on March 14 through the social media network Clubhouse, Fireside Project has offered several prizes, called Gratitude Giveaways, to those who participate. To enter, callers can put the number 62-FIRESIDE in their phones and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org; alternatively, they can create and post an image or meme with the number 62-FIRESIDE to the hashtag #62fireside.
The prizes pledged by artists to the Gratitude Giveaways is impressive: live DJ Zoom Sets from Manic Focus and Diva Danielle, a special recording from Desert Dwellers, prints from Android Jones, Mugwort, Paul Lewin, Eric Nez and Alex and Allyson Grey, books from Synergetic Press, and two tickets to the Mt. Tam Psychedelic Integration Family All Star Jamboree for April 16th-19th. The campaign also received a boost from David Bronner of organic soap company Dr. Bronner’s, who posted a photo on Instagram with the Fireside number in his phone. “We gained 800 new followers in a couple of days off that post,” says White.
What Fireside Contactees Can Expect From the Service
Once the Psychedelic Peer Support Line goes live on April 14th, it will accept calls Thursday through Sunday between 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. and Mondays 3 to 7 p.m., Pacific Standard Time. They will only be able to accept U.S. calls. However, the service is free of charge and given regardless of whether the experience is challenging or transcendent — the main reason why Fireside refers to their services as “peer support” rather than a crisis line. Fireside volunteers will also check in a week later to discuss callers’ experiences and assist with any integration questions they may have.
While Fireside will refrain from answering psychedelic prepwork questions such as dosages or whether to do acid versus mushrooms, they can point to online references. Callers do not have to give their name or any identifying information, and whatever information is provided is stored in a HIPAA-compliant database that can only be shared by court order, says White.
Cultivating Beloved Community
Fireside Project has made a push to expand diversity within their ranks and the psychedelic space at large. Fusing this mandate with a broader focus on mental and spiritual healing is Hanifa Nayo Washington, Fireside’s Cultivator of Beloved Community. Named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s utopian vision for humanity, Hanifa’s role is informed by her own work as an artivist, a community organizer and a reiki practitioner. Washington has introduced meditation and breathwork classes into the organization’s volunteer orientation sessions and integrated strategies of “liberation and transformation” into its culture.
To better serve the various identities and traumas of their callers, the organization recruits diverse volunteers, and anticipates that targeted matching services will be specifically requested over the phone or online. According to Washington, about 12 of the core volunteers are BIPOC and nine are LGBTQIA+. During the Clubhouse conversation, Fireside Project Support Line Director Adam Rubin shared that an intake receptionist will route calls to the appropriate volunteer, a protocol adapted from his work at the risk reduction organization White Bird Clinic.
They Fireside Project has already found allies in Charlotte James and Undrea Wright of the DC-based, BIPOC-centered, plant medicine collective The Ancestor Project (formerly the Sabina Project), both of whom assisted in volunteer integration training. Wright will also serve as an on-call supervisor for Fireside. One of Fireside’s fundraising projects is for the Fireside Equity Fund, an academic scholarship for people from “communities who are underrepresented in the psychedelic movement,” according to the website.
A potential snag, however, does exist in the hypothetical scenario of a caller that turns violent on themselves or others. Fireside Project acknowledges that in a situation like this, they would be forced to turn to emergency services. As Adam Rubin said in a volunteer Q&A session, “If there’s no way to get to safety over the phone, then we have to escalate.” How this worst case scenario would resolve remains amongst Fireside Project’s unknowns.
The First 365 Days
In the meantime, Fireside is also preparing for the eventual return of in-person festival events through its collaboration agreement with the MAPS risk reduction initiative Zendo Project, which already provides sanctuaries for psychedelic emergencies at select festivals in the U.S. Three members of Zendo Project sit on Fireside Project’s advisory board to provide ongoing support in the development of its services. During the Clubhouse conversation, White suggested that Fireside could assist Zendo’s in-person counseling with its own virtual space for support at such gatherings. However, Zendo Project’s Director of Harm Reduction Katrina Michelle foresees a broader relationship between Zendo and Fireside.
“Fireside’s inception aligns with Zendo Project’s evolution into a harm reduction project that extends beyond the festival setting to offer educational resources to empower communities in all facets of psychedelic risk reduction,” says Michelle.
Fireside Project’s founders speak of the year following their anticipated April launch as a time of discovery. Volunteers are asked to commit to a year minimum, so over time, Fireside will refine their services by analyzing calls and texts. White’s primary goals are to offer the service 24/7 around the world, create a phone app, and build out Fireside’s volunteer base. But reaching those goals depends on the money they raise in this initial stage.
“[Fundraising is] especially challenging when you don’t have a product you can point to,” acknowledges White. Yet the project has earned some valuable allies in both David Bronner and in Psychedelic Spotlight CEO David Flores, both of whom have sponsored Fireside Project through their organizations with $10,000 donations each.
“As more and more cities and states decriminalize psychedelics, there is an urgent need for services that help people navigate and integrate challenging experiences. Fireside Project’s Psychedelic Peer Support Line offers a free, confidential resource that people can utilize during and after their psychedelic experiences. Dr. Bronner’s is proud to support these efforts,” says Bronner. In addition to accepting cash on their website, Fireside also accepts cryptocurrency on their Giving Block account.
Back to the Future
Alpert’s lament aside, Fireside Project will be extending the work of previous risk reduction initiatives. In the 60s, the LSD Rescue Service aimed to provide the same service to psychedelic users. As its Field Service Director Hank Harrison observed in the Berkeley Barb in 1967: “Maybe 98% of the people who call are just interested, curious, seeking, hoping, life-loving, trying to make some headway in a very confusing world.”
Washington evokes that sentiment when she speaks to the interest shown around the line to date and why it might persist. “With everything that’s going on with decriminalization there’s just not a lot happening around risk reduction. We’re hearing all this stuff about patenting comfortable furniture [in therapeutic settings] and this rush to commodify psychedelics. But people who have had real life-changing experiences with the aid of psychedelics understand the importance of our service.”