For Angela Graham, it all started eight years ago.
Nearly two decades of encountering disturbing scenes while on the job triggered extreme anxiety, nightmares and uncontrollable anger in the retired Santa Clara County firefighter. She tried talk therapy, medication and a treatment that involves moving one’s eyes in a specific pattern while processing traumatic memories called EMDR.
But none of it really worked for her.
Then, through an acquaintance, Graham discovered a clinic in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, that offers guided psychedelic trips with mushrooms and DMT to help people heal from mental health problems. The psychedelic journey she took last year felt like “being turned inside out” — and jumpstarted her road to recovery.
“You know, I’m not a hippie,” said Graham, who retired in June after 17 years. “But they might have been on to something.”
The experience was so life-altering and cathartic that it pushed Graham to form the S.I.R.E.N. Project, which funds psychedelic trips for Bay Area first responders who are seeking alternative ways to treat their mental health issues.
Graham co-founded the nonprofit with her husband, an active firefighter who has yet to announce his involvement publicly out of fear it could jeopardize his job. They will have sent 15 firefighters, a spouse of a firefighter and a police officer on psychedelic journeys by the end of the year.
Though some states and cities have loosened laws around certain psychedelics, many are still listed as Schedule 1 drugs, which the federal government has determined have no current accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. The S.I.R.E.N. Project sends first responders to Mexico — where the laws are not as strict — and a church in Texas that is legally allowed to hand out the medicine through an exemption in the laws.
The couple has poured their own money into the nonprofit, along with outside funding from a secretive and well-known tech billionaire whose name they wouldn’t share. Each trip costs between $2,000 and $5,000. The active duty first responders who participate have not informed their departments since there is often a zero-tolerance drug policy. However, two retired firefighters involved in the nonprofit agreed to talk to the Mercury News.
Graham’s project comes amid a renewed scientific movement to push psychedelics further into mainstream medicine and as more first responders face mental health crises.
State Sen. Scott Wiener also is trying to pass SB 58, which would decriminalize certain psychedelics. In an interview, Wiener said he’s known people personally who have benefitted from them — and his goal with the legislation is to “reduce the stigma” around their use.
But a group called the California Coalition for Psychedelic Safety and Education wants Wiener’s bill to include more guardrails around personal use so that the drugs don’t get into the hands of those who could be harmed.
Lisa Hudson, a member of the coalition, lost her son in 2020 after he took mushrooms. Thinking he could fly, 16-year-old Shayne Rebbetoy jumped off the family’s 40-foot-tall deck in San Anselmo and plunged to his death. Hudson said she’s listened to and supports those who have benefitted from the drugs — like the first responders — but thinks the state is moving too quickly.
“They got their lives back, and that’s incredible, but they were in a safe and controlled therapeutic setting. But that’s not all this bill does,” said Hudson. “The bill as currently written legalizes recreational use and is a recipe for more heartbreak. More loss. More deaths. Kids will never be the same.”
Though researchers have studied psychedelics for decades — and indigenous communities have used them for millennia — it’s generally accepted that UCLA psychiatrist Charles Grob spun the wheels in motion for more recent scientific inquiries to emerge after his small study of cancer patients with advanced-stage cancer showed promising results for combatting anxiety.
That opened the door for research at other top American universities to study their efficacy in combatting PTSD, depression and addiction. There are some hypotheses as to why psychedelics may help with those ailments. Some think it puts the brain in a state in which it can form new thought patterns, but multiple researchers at Bay Area universities who are conducting clinical trials said in interviews it’s too early to tell what’s really going on.
“There are people who think it’s all just the drug and everything else is sort of a happy accident,” said Dr. Boris Heifets, who runs a lab at Stanford that investigates the therapeutic uses of psychedelics. “And there are other groups of people that think this is an experience-dependent thing. Where it doesn’t even matter how the drug works, per se, just that you have an intense experience and that in the context of preparation and integrating those experiences, that’s really what catalyzes psychological transformation.”
The latest trend toward the use of psychedelics also coincides with a rise in mental health crises among first responders.
A 2021 study that examined data from the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance System revealed that firefighters are 72% more likely to commit suicide than the general working population. A heightened risk was also found among EMTs and law enforcement officers.
The S.I.R.E.N. Project’s Graham knows of seven California first responders who have taken their lives — and explained that firefighting isn’t just putting out blazes but responding to emergency medical situations, many of which can be brutally traumatic. On top of that, the rigid and still largely macho culture within some fire departments doesn’t always encourage opportunities to be open about one’s mental health struggles.
For retired Mountain View firefighter Wade Trammell, his three-decade career was like a slow war that brought him to a breaking point.
He witnessed many gory and devastating scenes, but one in particular shook him to his core.
It was an early summer morning and Trammell and his crew responded to a semi-truck on Highway 101 that had rammed into a freeway sign, skewering the driver’s abdomen as flames surrounded the vehicle. Trammell was assigned to get the driver out but was unsuccessful.
“There was physically no way to move this man out of the cab and there was no time,” recalled Trammell. “He continued to scream until he quite literally burned alive in my arms.”
In the years since he retired in 2015, Trammell was drinking excessively, not sleeping and going through crying spells. Through former colleagues, he was linked up with the S.I.R.E.N. Project.
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“She said, ‘Wade, I had the exact same symptoms as you,'” Trammell recalls Graham telling him. “‘You need to do this.'”
Graham sent him this year to the same retreat center she went to, where a guided experience was overseen by Andrea Lucie, a healer with experience working with military veterans. Along with a handful of other Bay Area firefighters, Trammell drank orange juice with mushrooms in it and then smoked 5‐MeO‐DMT, which is dried Sonoran Desert toad venom. That’s when he experienced the “eureka moment.”
“Right at the end, it came to me,” said Trammell. “Thirty years of firefighting and seeing what you saw, you have to guard your heart. Always be fully alert. I wasn’t feeling any emotions. It just came to me that I must open my heart again to my family, friends and wife.”
Scott Sorensen, who retired from the city of Santa Clara’s fire department in 2019 after 29 years, joined Trammell in Mexico. Sorensen had experienced equally gut-wrenching episodes during this career. He recalled rescuing an injured three-year-old baby who was found under some train tracks after his mother had tried to kill them both. The mother died and the child lost a leg.
To help with his PTSD, Sorensen tried EMDR, which he described as his first “life-changing” moment. He had never used drugs but tried MDMA, or ecstasy, which he said helped him reconnect with his empathy and changed the dynamic of his relationships in a “profoundly” positive way. Then, in Mexico, mushrooms helped Sorensen deal with the emotions of his son’s ongoing and life-threatening medical condition.
“It lowered the walls and the fences and the fears and allowed me to start working on that stress and the trauma,” said Sorensen about the experience. “It’s just been remarkably beneficial.” He stressed that the medicine wasn’t a silver bullet — and that his recovery involved multiple therapies aside from psychedelics.
For the S.I.R.E.N. Project’s Graham, her experience — along with Trammell and Sorensen’s — marks a paradigm shift in how first responders can find help.
“I think that (it) totally changes the morale in a department and heals a lot of people,” Graham said. “This needs to change. This needs to be legal. And we’re going to do that one first responder at a time.”