In summary

The California Assembly is considering a bill that would decriminalize naturally occurring psychedelic substances, which research has increasingly shown has a variety of therapeutic benefits. A retired New York firefighter, who uses psilocybin, says first responders in particular have a lot to gain from this legislation.

Guest Commentary written by

Joe McKay

Joe McKay

Joe McKay is a retired FDNY firefighter and patient advocate who worked with Burn Pits 360 to help pass the PACT Act in 2022, and with comedian John Stewart to pass 9/11 health and compensation bills through Congress. He also serves on the board of the Ray Pfeifer Foundation.

On September 11, 2001, I was off-duty helping organize a fundraiser when we got the news about the attack. 

The world watched as New York firefighters worked around the clock, putting out fires and searching for survivors while breathing in toxic fumes. I lost 26 friends that day and spent months attending funerals for fellow firefighters. 

The trauma of that experience put me on a long path of misery and despair. Over the next 15 years, daily life was a constant struggle, and on many occasions, I thought about ending my life. My world completely changed when I found the healing power of psilocybin, the psychedelic substance found in certain varieties of mushrooms. 

Earlier this summer, I testified in front of the California Assembly Public Health Committee and shared my story. I was there in support of Senate Bill 58, a bill to remove criminal penalties for several naturally occurring psychedelic medicines, including psilocybin. Sitting alongside a veteran and psychiatrist, we explained to lawmakers the profound importance of bringing these healing therapeutic substances out of the shadows so people can safely access them without fear of being arrested or stigmatized. 

Much of the public is now hearing about the growing body of scientific evidence showing that psychedelics like psilocybin can be powerful tools to help people with serious mental, neurological and pain issues. Renowned institutions like Johns Hopkins University, NYU and UCLA are producing high quality, peer-reviewed research demonstrating that these medicines hold potential to effectively treat major depression, addiction, severe anxiety and other conditions. 

For first responders like me, as well as veterans and health care workers, this research represents a tremendous source of hope. People in our lines of work are disproportionately impacted by our nation’s mental health crisis, and sadly suicide rates among these communities are much higher than the general population. While daily medications and other coping mechanisms help some people get by, these options aren’t working for many of us. 

In addition to my depression, I also suffer from cluster headaches. It’s an excruciating condition, and at times I experience 8-10 attacks a day. These cluster attacks are extremely debilitating, and in addition to the physical agony, the condition made my mental health much worse. 

I discovered psilocybin mushrooms, which have been used by Indigenous cultures for thousands of years, in the late 2000s. I learned about a Harvard study that showed psilocybin could treat cluster headaches. But at the time, I feared I would lose my job, so I didn’t dare to seek them out. 

Several years later, after being medically retired from the FDNY, it became clear that none of the prescription drugs and typical medical interventions I was being offered would help. I decided to try psilocybin, and to my amazement, my headaches vanished.

For the first time in many years, I felt hopeful about my health. I stopped taking the cocktail of pills I had been prescribed, many of which caused damaging side effects and were addictive. Since then, psilocybin has been extremely effective at preventing my cluster headaches. 

Psilocybin also helped me get back in touch with my former, happy-go-lucky self – the Joe that my friends and family hadn’t seen since 9/11. It’s not an exaggeration to say that psilocybin gave me my life back. It’s been transformative, and allowed me to feel happiness and joy in a way I never thought I would again. 

SB 58 is currently pending in the Assembly, just a few votes away from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. There are countless first responders, veterans and people across California who could benefit from this legislation. I hope that by sharing my journey, more hearts and minds will be opened to the potential of these medicines.

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