🫠 Psychonaut POV

[5-min read] Q&A with Chelsea Rose Pires, Harm Reduction Specialist

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Chelsea Rose Pires is a caretaker at heart. So, when she wandered into the Zendo tent at Burning Man a decade ago, something immediately clicked. Now under her stewardship, Zendo Project is blazing the trail in psychedelic harm reduction services, education, and advocacy.

We asked Chelsea why harm reduction is so important to the psychedelic movement, what policy changes she’s pushing for, and how our readers can support others going through challenging psychedelic experiences.

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Chelsea Rose Pires Psychonaut POV
It’s easy to focus on the many benefits of psychedelics, but there are also very real risks. Where did your passion for harm reduction come from?

I started exploring psychedelics as a teenager, and two things stood out to me even then. There was the self-inquiry aspect, and there were the deep connections I formed with friends through these experiences. Harm reduction, to me, is really about caring for others. As the eldest sibling in my family, I’ve always gravitated toward caretaking. It’s part of who I am. That’s where my interest in psychology and passion for helping others come from.

Going to the California Institute of Integral Studies for graduate school was a turning point. Back then, the conversation around psychedelics wasn't as open as it is today. However, at CIIS my interest in psychedelics was not only accepted but cultivated. In my second year, I met a fellow student named Linnae Ponte, who was Rick Doblin’s assistant and had founded Zendo Project. The project had started as a psychedelic peer support space at Burning Man, an event I’d been attending since I was 19.

My first encounter with Zendo Project was actually as a guest. Ironically, my partner and I had gotten into an argument on MDMA—yes, that’s possible—so we went into Zendo, and we had an amazing experience. It really underscored the importance of compassionate responses in harm reduction. I ended up joining the team a year later in 2013.

My experiences at Burning Man and with Zendo Project have reinforced the necessity of honest, open conversations about drug use. Harm reduction is not just about acknowledging or even managing the risks; it’s also about understanding the many different reasons people choose to use drugs. By fostering an environment of compassion rather than punishment, we open the door to more effective support.

What are the core principles that Zendo Project volunteers follow when providing peer support? How can our readers apply similar approaches at home, either as solo journeyers or trip sitters?

Zendo's approach is grounded in four core principles that guide our peer support work. These principles aren't just for handling psychedelics or altered states; they're life skills. They can teach us how to be there for one another, how to listen, and how to support someone in a way that respects their experience.

First, we focus on creating a safe space, or what we've evolved to call ‘tending to safety.' What feels safe can really differ from person to person. So, it’s important to tune into what someone needs in the moment to feel secure. One person might need physical comfort or emotional support, while another might just want to feel seen and heard.

Next, there's ‘sitting, not guiding,' which is my favorite principle. Essentially, it instructs us to be present with someone without trying to direct their journey. That way, they can navigate their own experience with you by their side. Whenever I feel the urge to intervene or ‘fix' a difficult situation, I remind myself that simply being there is powerful enough.

Then, we have our approach to communication: ‘talk through, not down.' Instead of trying to calm someone down or minimize their experience, we try to validate and support them through it. We let them know they're not alone and that what they're going through is something they can turn toward.

Lastly, 'difficult is not necessarily bad' sums up our view on challenging experiences. We see these moments not just as obstacles but as opportunities for growth and insight. Even in the midst of deep discomfort, there are always lessons to learn and ways to evolve.

Psychedelic experiences are often extremely disorienting and confusing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re harmful. How can someone tell the difference between a difficult trip and a psychiatric crisis that requires medical attention?

It's pretty fascinating how closely a psychedelic experience can resemble a psychiatric crisis. Admittedly, it can be hard to distinguish between the two at times. That’s one reason why before guiding someone, it’s so important to collect their mental and family health history. If we're dealing with an incident on the spot, we try to gather any information we can from friends about recent changes in the person's mental health.

In cases where we lack any background information, we pay close attention to the duration of the episode. Of the most common psychedelics, LSD lasts the longest—sometimes up to 20 hours. So, if there's no change in the individual's condition after about 24 hours, that raises a red flag for us. Also, a typical psychedelic journey includes ups and downs, so if there are no moments of reconnection with reality during the trip, that’s also a cause for concern.

At that point, Zendo would involve medical professionals or, if available, a crisis intervention team to evaluate the situation and determine if psychosis is a factor. Ultimately, we want to ensure the individual receives the care they need.

Are there specific advocacy initiatives or policy reforms that you think would significantly improve psychedelic harm reduction?

We recently became our own nonprofit, spinning out from MAPS after a decade of incubation. Now, we can direct our advocacy efforts more pointedly at harm reduction policies, which is exciting because there’s so much change we’d like to see.

Changing federal laws is a massive undertaking, so initially, we’ll focus on state-level policy where we can make a more immediate impact. We want to tackle the barriers that current laws pose by holding event producers liable for acknowledging substance use at their events. The federal RAVE Act, for example, has had dangerous unintended consequences, including preventing event-goers from accessing water or resting spaces.

Right now, harm reduction lacks the standard-of-care protections found in traditional mental health crisis response. This gap exposes both event producers and harm reduction programs to liability, despite the essential care they provide. Zendo fortunately has insurance, but it was a challenging and costly process to secure. Harm reduction specialists need better protections and support, especially with the rising acceptance and use of psychedelics. We shouldn’t have to assume legal risk to provide compassionate care to those in need.

We have reasons to be optimistic, too. Last summer, SAMHSA invited Zendo Project to Washington, D.C. to discuss integrating psychedelic harm reduction into federal initiatives. Although policy change is slow, the movement toward incorporating our principles into event safety and first responder protocols is gaining momentum.

What advice would you offer to any of our readers who are interested in volunteering or pursuing a career in harm reduction?

Harm reduction is a giant umbrella that encompasses everything from needle exchanges to safe sex education. Peer support is only one small piece of the puzzle, and Zendo Project is just one key player within the psychedelic community. For those interested in getting involved with Zendo, the best step is to subscribe to our newsletter. It’s our primary channel for updates on volunteer opportunities, educational programs, and our growing involvement in policy and advocacy.

Another great resource is Fireside Project, which operates a peer support hotline for people seeking support with psychedelic experiences. Their service is invaluable and highly accessible. We love them. DanceSafe is another fantastic organization I've been involved with for about a decade that focuses on drug testing and information. They offer reagent test kits to encourage safer drug use.

Beyond direct harm reduction, many people are simply looking for ways to connect with the broader psychedelic community. Volunteering for your local psychedelic society is one way to help others access information on integration and other aspects of psychedelics. The psychedelic movement is creating a vast world out there. If you just dig in, you’ll find ways to get involved.

Want more from Chelsea?

Sign up for Zendo Project’s newsletter to hear first about new harm reduction volunteer opportunities.

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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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