How Harm Reduction Services Are Keeping Festivalgoers Safer

December 7, 2018

It’s around 4 am when I eat a brownie containing an unknown amount of THC. I’m at a festival in northern California and I’ve just finished an overnight shift with the Zendo Projectan organization of volunteers who help people having challenging drug experiences at music festivals with peer-to-peer counseling and practical needs.

After caring for people all night, I feel I need something to help me sleep past the coming sunrise. I lick the brownie’s oily residue off my fingers and carefully crawl into my tent, trying not to wake my girlfriend. Exhausted, I fall asleep.

Suddenly my eyes are open, and I find myself alone, completely disoriented, barely recognizing my surroundings and feeling like an alien in my own body. I am completely stoned, I realize. It seems to take several minutes for me to simply stand up, and even longer to remember where I am. It’s daytime. All I can think about is how I need to tell my girlfriend that I am in no shape to be on my own. Despite the fact that I’m around thousands of people who would be happy to care for my wellbeing, I can only trust her right now.

I eventually find her and immediately feel relief. She gets jealous when I tell her I’m high, so I give her the rest of the brownie. Soon enough, she too is so stoned she’s getting afraid, and the caretaker role reverses. I find us a nice spot in the shade to set up our hammock, and after guiding her through a calming breathing meditation, we lie down and laugh uncontrollably for hours.

Apparently, even as an experienced partier and drug-taker, I too am capable of falling into an unwanted altered state and need my own support.


The next night, while working my last late-afternoon shift, I sit for a man in his late teens who’s completely silent, lying down with his eyes closed and almost completely immobile. He wandered into the Zendo tent alone hours earlier, before I relieved his previous sitter, and we’ve no idea of his first name, let alone any drugs he’s maybe on.

Every 20 minutes or so, his body tenses up, his arms and legs flex and the muscles in his face tighten in an almost violent grimace. He remains in this state throughout my six-hour shift. I return the next morning to check on him as most people are packing up to leave the grounds, but his condition has only slightly improved.

As a regular festivalgoer I’ve long observed an unsettling relationship some people can have with psychedelics. Drug experiences can be particularly risky at events which have zero-tolerance policies, where organizers seem to care little about the safety of people who unintentionally find themselves on a bad high.


Harm Reduction at Boom

It’s this issue that brought Maria Carvalho to become executive director of the Kosmicare Association, an NGO that provides everything from onsite drug-checking to round-the-clock psychological support for anyone seeking it at Boom, a huge biennial transformational festival in Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal. “In the past we’ve handled many challenging situations with people using drugs,” Carvalho tells me, “however more recently, we’ve simultaneously had to deal with very adulterated drugs and some years we see more first time Boom-goers than others, who aren’t always used to seeing these services available.”

At this year’s Boom, Kosmicare’s drug-checking service, headed by Daniel Martins, was able for the first time to set up high-performance liquid chromatography equipment and an ultra-violet spectrometer. These devices enabled the team to accurately identify any impurities in the tested samples, and also to assess the specific quantities and dosage strength of drugs present. Nearly 700 samples were tested, and dozens of pills were found to contain high enough doses of MDMA for alerts to be posted, encouraging people to start with half a pill or less.

“I definitely think that more people from increasingly diverse backgrounds are taking psychedelics now.”

“We can do this kind of work because in Portugal the government decriminalized drugs in 2001, and it’s considered a matter of public health,” explains Artur Mendes, one of Boom’s lead organizers. Mendes admits that from a business standpoint, it’s costly to provide harm reduction programs at the festival, but he says safety is his main concern. “It’s very important for festival promoters to acknowledge that drug usage is everywhere, but we are lucky to be able to create an environment where we have specialized information and direct services, though we don’t advocate drug usage.”  

According to the annual Global Drug Survey, in the last two years there has been a considerable increase in people reporting use of LSD, MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms. The trend is difficult to interpret, but may be related to the rising popularity of the electronic dance music scene. Nearly half of the survey respondents in 2017 reported first dropping acid in their late teens, with MDMA being the second most popular drug among people under 25 years of age.

“I have been attending big festivals for almost 10 years and I definitely think that more people from increasingly diverse backgrounds are taking psychedelics now than before,” says Ismail Ali, legal counsel for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the parent organization of the Zendo Project.

Ali has also volunteered for both Zendo Project and Kosmicare, and has plenty of insight into what may cause someone’s trip to turn sour.Festivals are incredible vortexes of celebration, connection, and community and can be deeply healing for people to participate in,” he says. “Adding psychedelics to that can sometimes increase the serendipity, the magic, and the depth of interaction. However, for some people, the over-stimulation and extreme environmentsloud noises, bright lights, huge crowds, etc.can be incredibly overwhelming and can actually undermine the value of the psychedelic and the festival experience.”

“One of the most traumatic experiences we can have as festival promoters is when someone dies.”

“The main drive that brings people to Boom is discovery of a new sense of self,” says Mendes, though he admits that among the 170 countries represented by Boom’s attendees, it isn’t always possible for people to escape certain self-destructive patterns from everyday life.

In 2016, the first ever death of a festival attendee who’d received psychedelic harm reduction support occurred, when a man helped by Kosmicare at Boom had to be transported to the hospital and ultimately died there despite attempts to resuscitate him.

“One of the most traumatic experiences we can have as festival promoters is when someone dies,” says Mendes. “Unfortunately there’s not much more we can do to prevent these tragedies; sometimes we see patterns of consumption and behavior from people who may be used to it in more conventional settings within the dominant modern culture outside the festival. When there are 30 to 40,000 people at an event, we can have everything in place and respond to emergencies very fast, but it’s impossible for us to deprogram someone’s lifestyle outside of the festival in just one week at Boom.”


An Uphill Battle—Particularly in the States

Providing adequate medical care at music festivals has been a slowly improving uphill battle, one that Stefanie Jones, director of audience development for the Drug Policy Alliance, knows all too well. Jones points out that while there has indeed been an explosion of festivals in recent years, increasing accessibility of psychedelics seems to provide an easier source for new experiences among people who are not used to the kind of partying taking place outside of the nightclub scene.

Jones’ years spent advocating for better care of people using drugs are paying off. “Fortunately there’s been more concern to provide honest drug education and harm reduction services at events where it needs to be,” she says, “and there’s an openness and a willingness to consider stronger health-oriented approaches rather than strictly from a zero-tolerance standpoint through law enforcement.” She notes that harm reduction “has obviously been long accepted among festivalgoers themselves.”  

“People who use psychedelics are hungry for knowledge that can protect their health.”

A growing body of research is also reinforcing the impact of providing well integrated harm reduction services at festivals. Kosmicare has surveyed users of its drug-checking services and found that people are less likely to take a drug that has been shown to be heavily adulterated or impure.

Carvalho’s experiences tally with this idea that people who use psychedelics are hungry for knowledge that can protect their health. “Young people are usually very open to receiving help and show little resistance or defensiveness to being supported through a psychedelic emergency,” she says. “They are also usually open and curious about general drug information and welcome the opportunity to have their substances checked.”

Dierdre Ruane, a doctoral sociology graduate from the University of Kent in England, conducted her dissertation research on psychedelic support services over two summers in 2014 and 2015. Her findings reveal a stark contrast across festivals in countries that have vastly different legal approaches to handling drug use.  

For example, in the United States, where virtually all events abide by zero-tolerance policies, the presence of drugs is not at all affected, but the quality of the drugs is the least pure. Ruane’s main takeaway from her research is that psychedelic harm reduction support services are absolutely crucial to optimize the safety and wellbeing of festivalgoers. But she notes that more work needs to be done to integrate such services with on-site medical support and streamline prevention efforts like education and drug-checking.

I ask Carvalho whether festivals are the best environment for doing drugs, and for her the answer is simple: “That’s not an opinion we care to have.”

“We provide harm reduction service, which, by definition, has no judgment towards people for their choices or behaviors,” she continues. “The use of drugs for recreation is as legitimate as the use of drugs for healing or personal growth. It could be that people are looking for some of those things in a non-ideal place, but it’s not our job to decide that. We have information about risks, we have skills to deal with potential problems, and we can help manage them regardless of the environment or a person’s motivations.”


What Any Parent Wants to Know

The young man whom I’ve been hoping will be fit enough to leave Zendo as the festival ends finally seems able to stand up and get oriented.

A friend who’s been looking for him is relieved to learn he’s being cared for, and fills us in on how the young man had been drinking and smoking weed before taking some untested powder that they assumed was MDMA.

Though he’d never tried it before, he had no history of experiences like the one he was having from the drug combination. His cell phone has been ringing all morning, and turns out it was his parents calling. They have no idea their son has come all the way from San Diego to a festival in northern California.

I speak with his parents, though out of respect for his confidentiality, I provide only the most vital information that any parent would want to hear: Their child is safe and going to be OK.

Kevin Franciotti

Kevin is a psychotherapist, harm reduction advocate and writer based in Denver.

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