🫠 Psychonaut POV

[5-min read] Q&A with Cory Firth, Advisor & Impact Coach

Welcome to Tricycle Day. We’re the psychedelics newsletter that just bought a first aid kit. Thought we’d treat ourselves. 🥁

Cory Firth tried everything under the sun to lift his depression and quiet his suicidal thoughts. Nothing worked, until he found plant medicine. After that first cup of ayahuasca saved his life, he came home to Canada motivated to see psychedelics integrated safely and responsibly into society.

We spoke to Cory about winning Canadians access to medical psilocybin and MDMA, developing the first National Psychedelic First Aid Program, and using storytelling and community to effect change.

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Cory Firth Psychonaut POV
How did you first come across psychedelics and plant medicine? Has your relationship to them changed over the years?

The first time I was exposed to drugs was in grade four. Our teacher took us to the library for a special presentation, where four cops stood over a makeshift jail cell made of masking tape. They told us drugs are bad and if you do them, you'll end up behind bars or dead. While their talk instilled some fear, it sparked even more curiosity. Unfortunately, that approach didn't help. I eventually lost a couple of friends to overdose, and someone did go to jail.

I first tried cannabis in grade eight. Right away, it unlocked something profound in me, but I had no context or elder to guide me. Over the years, I realized it was medicine. It was helping me connect with people and feel less sad.

I experienced my first suicidal thought at 10. For the next 18 years, I struggled with it a lot. At 28, a genetic test revealed I have a suppressed gene that affects serotonin regulation, making me more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. I also learned I'm a poor responder to antidepressants and talk therapy. That knowledge was empowering because now I could search for other solutions.

After trying everything from equine therapy to electroshock treatments, I heard a podcast about ayahuasca in 2015 or 2016. At the time, I was running a successful ad agency but was really sick with Hashimoto’s. The podcast seemed to have the answer, so I booked an experience in Costa Rica. The very first cup of ayahuasca took suicidal ideation completely out of my awareness. It allowed me to develop deeper insights into my psyche, emotional awareness, nervous system, past, and environment. It really transformed my life and work.

Under your leadership, the Canadian Psychedelic Association successfully persuaded Health Canada to add psilocybin and MDMA to its Special Access Program. Can you explain what that means and how you achieved it?

When I joined as Executive Director, the Canadian Psychedelic Association had just incorporated as a non-profit and submitted a letter to the House of Commons to decriminalize nature, similar to the movement in the U.S. It was the largest petition read at the House of Commons at the time, but it didn't really do anything. We wanted to build off of that momentum, so we quickly shifted our focus to the Special Access Program.

We knew we’d need to get municipal representation and MPs on our side, so we put together a strong case for psilocybin, drawing from research on its potential for treating end-of-life anxiety. At the same time, there was a review going on for the Medical Assistance in Dying program, which was going to start including major depressive disorder. Our angle was "right to die, right to try." Psilocybin should be an alternative for those suffering.

Storytelling was a big part of our strategy to move emotion and change minds. We did public campaigns with patients, created documentaries, and pulled together resources from drug development companies, non-profits, and influencers. After meetings with Health Canada, we eventually submitted a Memorandum of Regulatory Analysis to add psilocybin and MDMA to the Special Access Program.

In January 2022, they made the change, allowing medical professionals to apply for access to these substances. Approvals are now happening quickly for end-of-life cases with psilocybin. MDMA, geared more towards veterans with PTSD, is taking a bit longer but coming along.

Your latest project is Neuma, a center for psychedelic education and social wellness based in Kingston, Ontario. Can you tell us about the work you’re doing there?

At Neuma, we initially focused on cannabis as a way to introduce people to the potential of psychedelics. We went to city council and applied for a space to start bringing psychedelic healthcare to Kingston. They gave us a space rent-free for two years, and we began hosting psychedelic town halls to inform the community about exploring these substances in a safer and more responsible way.

Next, we developed a first-of-its-kind accredited program through the college on the foundations of psychedelic exploration. It served two purposes: informing the general public about harm reduction and offering accreditation for those who would be facilitating psychedelic experiences.

Now our focus is on safety and responsible use, as there's still a massive gap in harm reduction standards. We're developing the National Psychedelic First Aid Program, which goes beyond traditional first aid to address the unique needs of the psychedelic experience. Our goal is to have this training approved for anyone working in the field, from therapists and social workers to paramedics and nurses. We believe the program will help mitigate harm across the entire healthcare system, not just within psychedelic therapy.

What would be included in your psychedelic first aid kit?

The program we're developing at Neuma will be similar to classic first aid models but with a focus on the transpersonal experience—particularly the loss of identity and ego, which is where people often get trapped. The training will cover topics like depersonalization and derealization, and how to help people move through these adverse experiences with more grace.

We want to make sure the program is helpful in the real world, not just in the context of therapy. The goal is to provide a foundation that anyone can learn. Ideally, even people at parties or raves are capable of supporting someone going through a challenging experience and preventing it from becoming adverse.

As the psychedelic movement grows in North America, we believe that safety and responsible use are the highest priorities. Ultimately, I'm in this work because I want to create a world where my daughter doesn't have to go through the same experiences I did. I want to shift the drug education paradigm from the fear-based approach I encountered in grade four to one that includes medicine workers, indigenous knowledge keepers, and a more honest, holistic approach to wellness. By providing more balanced and credible information, we can empower people to make their own decisions and create a safer world.

Canada has started to lag behind the US in psychedelic policy reform. Where do you see things headed for Canada in the next few years, and what needs to happen to get there?

Canada is going through a political transition, and it seems like we may be moving towards a more conservative government. This could actually be a good thing. The liberal government passed cannabis legalization in 2018 and some decriminalization changes in B.C., but there's been a lack of safeguarding, safe supply, and programming to ensure the success of those initiatives. As a result, people are having difficult experiences, and their stories often get swept under the rug.

I believe the way forward, not just in Canada but anywhere, is through a grassroots, community-based model. The underground has always kept psychedelics alive, even during the “dark ages” before this modern resurgence. As psychedelics move into the system, there's the risk we lose sight of that. Community is one of our core survival needs; it’s not just a vehicle for monetary transactions.

I see a future where different communities are able to share what’s working at the grassroots level through localized knowledge exchanges. With communities rising up together, the system will naturally shift toward meeting the actual needs of individuals within those communities.

A hierarchical, top-down approach simply won’t work. It’s too easy to fall into dogma, and anything dogmatic can be problematic. We have to learn to share information openly without claiming to have all the answers. At the same time, we have to stay open to listening and learning from others. This is the only way the psychedelic space can move forward.

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That’s all for today, Cyclists! Whenever you’re ready, here’s how we can help.

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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