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5 Questions for Kristin Nash
In March 2020, Will Nash was 21 and just a couple months away from graduating from Middlebury College. He had a consulting job lined up in San Francisco, near his hometown, but what he really wanted to do was grow Semi Aquatics, a streetwear company he’d founded with his best friend. At the beginning of the month, he’d called his mom to tell her about the new office space they’d acquired through a business incubator program on campus. “Mom, this is it,” he told her. “I’m having so much fun.”
A few days later, Will and his roommates decided to take a half tab of LSD — it was a Saturday, and they wanted to unwind. Around 10 hours later, after the LSD’s effects wore off, they took a moderate dose of psilocybin mushrooms. Hours later, he was dead.
Those who knew Will say he was adventurous, deeply loving, creative, and curious. In the months since his death, his family has started the William G. Nash Foundation to honor his memory. His mother, Kristin Nash, has become an advocate for harm reduction and education about psychedelics, and The Microdose spoke with her about that work.
I’m so sorry for your loss. If you feel comfortable, can you tell me more about Will’s experience, and what you think is important for people to know about what happened?
What was a mellow and pleasant evening according to his friends turned scary and even violent sometime after the mushrooms were ingested. Will’s challenging experience led to a state of psychosis. He was terrified, agitated, out of his mind. He needed to be reassured and kept safe. His friends called the campus emergency line for help. Public safety officers arrived within minutes, and, realizing they needed help to care for a person in psychosis, called for an ambulance, and then police. Moments before that assistance arrived, Will said he was thirsty. In his altered state, he grabbed a nearby jar of protein powder, believing it to be a water jug, and poured it into his mouth. The powder clogged his throat and traveled to his lungs, causing fatal asphyxiation. He mistook one normally innocuous object for another.
We can all agree that it's almost impossible to die of drug toxicity from psychedelics, but people die in accidents related to being in an altered state of consciousness, and that doesn't go on a death certificate. When epidemiologists are doing studies to identify and learn the cause of death, it's easy to find out if someone died of fentanyl toxicity. It's not easy to determine that someone died because they were in a psychedelic-induced delusional state. These cases are often dismissed as rare and anecdotal, but the truth is, we don't know. Will's death is classed as an accident.
Two months after we lost Will, a half a mile from me, a 16-year-old had taken a large dose of psilocybin and thought he could fly. He wasn't having a bad trip at all. He was in an ecstatic state, thought he could fly, and flew off the back deck and died. And I know about five or six other cases. We don't have enough information; we don't have the data to say that these cases are rare.
With psychedelics in the news and medicalization on the horizon, there is renewed interest in these drugs. Some may be using them under supervision, but I imagine many people may not be. What does harm reduction look like from here on out for people who are using these drugs for self-medication, or for recreational use?
I'm focused on young people, and where I'm starting is education as a form of harm reduction. I'm of the “just say no” generation. There are these abstinence-only, zero-tolerance approaches, which leave out a large swath of kids. You look at the data and see that use has not gone down because of these programs. We're leaving out all the kids who want to experiment, who maybe want to do more than experiment — we're not talking to those kids. I'm pragmatic about the fact that these substances are here, whether or not they're legal.
I'm looking at a curriculum called Safety First. It was designed for the high school level. I went looking for harm reduction education for high schoolers and it's the only curriculum I could find. So far, Safety First has been used in San Francisco and New York, and right now I'm looking to fund a pilot in Marin County, where I live, then to do a video training for teachers so that we could make it accessible to teachers across the country.
Having lost Will, it seems obvious that we need to educate our youth, but we also really need to educate our entire community. Many parents don't understand how these substances work. There's a lot of push back and fear among parents around substance use, and fear of doing anything but saying, “Don't use.” I get it — I was that parent. But it's important to me to arm our kids with reality based information.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
What does the Safety First curriculum include?
The curriculum takes a harm reduction approach, and it’s very comprehensive; there are 15 modules. It encourages abstinence — it talks about the fact that no use is the safest use — but at the same time, it goes through every type of substance, including alcohol. It helps kids understand risks, harms, and how to stay safe. For instance, for alcohol, it includes “recovery positions”: never leave someone passed out on their back, and never leave them alone. That's a form of harm reduction. Or with fentanyl, teaching kids about Narcan, and what it means to get a substance from an unregulated source, all its risks, and why you should never do that. So it's not just saying, “don't do this”; it's saying that anything you get from an unregulated source can have fentanyl in it, so don't use it unless you have Narcan and have tested it. Have someone standing by. That's how dangerous it is. That way, kids can trust and rely on the information being presented; it's not just scare tactics.
You may be the kid who's going to abstain, which is fantastic, and you might be in a position to help somebody. So even if you're not using, you can be a helper. You can save someone's life doing this.
You’ve also been advocating for policy makers to consider harm reduction. How did you get involved with that?
To be honest, I was in the fog of grief when someone sent me an article about SB 519, the psychedelics bill underway in the California legislature. I started digging into it; I asked my friends about it and nobody had heard of it. Something I found was that there’s the psychedelics world, which can be a bit of an echo chamber, and then there’s everyone else: the psychedelic naive, who read the headlines but have no idea about how much money is going into this, the businesses starting, the laws being passed.
So I read the law and I was stunned that they wanted to legalize a whole laundry list of psychedelic substances for any type of use. There was a working group, but they would figure out details after the drugs became legalized — and there was nothing in there about harm reduction or safety. And so I just started making phone calls to figure out who to reach out to, and I wrote a letter to the California State Assembly. By the time I became involved, the bill had already passed the Committee on Public Safety; I sent my letter just as it was going into the Committee on Health, and I talked to California state Assemblymember Jim Woods’ aide and they were very open. They really took my concerns seriously and they negotiated with Senator Scott Wiener's office, and a lot of changes were made: they added pieces around public education, harm reduction, and first responder training.
Currently, the bill is tabled in the appropriations committee. But my next question is: have they actually appropriated enough funds for those harm reduction, education, and responder training? I'm definitely going to keep my eye on that.
We’ll be keeping an eye on it, too. I want to go back to this idea of the psychedelics world and the psychedelic naive: where do you see yourself fitting in?
I see myself as a bridge between the two. However psychedelics are introduced in our society, the more perspectives and stakeholders who participate in that, the better the outcome. Sometimes I worry that the echo chamber of the initiated and people who are passionate advocates don’t raise critical issues. We're always better when we hear from dissenting voices and we can listen, incorporate, calibrate. As I'm saying that, I'm sort of laughing, because we live in such a polarized world that maybe this isn't possible, but that's what I want. I’m trying to take the perspective of appreciating and understanding advocates, while also understanding the risks of psychedelics and the fear of parents. I see myself trying to walk that line, to be respectful of both, and see where there might be common ground.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.