It’s high time for every self-respecting electronic dance music event and large-scale festival to establish a dedicated psychedelic support space and to start offering free drug testing services as a matter of course. These ought to be basic modules that festival organizers automatically account for in their budgets, just like medical services, security, and sanitation teams.
The omission of a sanctuary space should be regarded as a critical oversight, indicative of a production company that is both dangerously irresponsible and embarrassingly out of touch with the evolving gestalt.
The teahouse is often the de facto psychedelic oasis in Festival Land. It tends to stay open all night, and provides a safe, soft, and supportive environment to simply chill out in for a little while. Some of the best traveling teahouses have been deliberately designed to serve as designated psychedelic support spaces at events that quite rightfully perceive the necessity for such services, but which are nevertheless reticent to officially sponsor them. The truly excellent Full Circle Teahouse is a marvelous example of this phenomenon. In addition to being a bottomless source of good vibes and free tea, it is typically staffed more or less exclusively by people who just so happen to have experience helping fellow psychonauts navigate their way through what can sometimes turn out to be unexpectedly intense journeywork. I know this because I’ve been honored to serve there myself a few times. But teahouses are not often marked as psychedelic support spaces on the official event maps. It’s sort of a word of mouth thing. Event staffers who’ve been around the block a few times just seem to know where to direct attendees who appear to be in need of some assistance.
I’ve also worked as a fairly regular adjunct to a particularly sophisticated medical team. This has always been on a volunteer basis, though I’ve gone through the trouble of getting my first aid and CPR certification (which are good things to know about, anyway) in order to qualify for free or reduced price tickets as a “medical assistant.” As far as the festival officially knows, I’m just there to hand out band-aids and earplugs. But when somebody comes in who has wiped out in deep water and feels like they’re hanging on for dear life, the Teafaerie is there to try to calm them down and to help them get back up on their psychedelic surfboard. There’s not usually a lot of extra space in the medical tent, though. And when somebody comes in with a broken leg, heat stroke, or other serious issue, they naturally get first priority and I occasionally have to take my special friends out for a little walk.
So why, you may well be asking, don’t these events simply set up a clearly marked and mapped psychedelic support space staffed with well-educated and experienced tripsitters? Wouldn’t that be better than a bunch of head cases bouncing around causing havoc in the medical tent, or worse, having very public freakouts and ending up in the tender care of the occasionally somewhat-less-than-compassionate security team?
The answer is an ironic one. You see, harm reduction services are actually illegal in the United States. Kind of. Maybe. Depending upon how one interprets the RAVE Act (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act), which is a piece of legislation that was first introduced in the Senate in 2002 by Joe Biden, among others. When re-introduced in 2003 (with Hillary Clinton as one of its co-sponsors), it failed to pass on its own. It was retweaked just a little bit and rebranded as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, which was slipped into the certain-to-pass PROTECT Act of 2003, the law that created the AMBER Alert system, related to stopping child abductions. It was passed without public debate.
The Act makes it unlawful to “make available for use” any place “for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.” And the penalties associated with it are severe enough to take down an entire production company if it happens to fall afoul of it. So everybody who is already walking that fine line is quite naturally afraid to push the boundaries, especially EDM events, which fall under particular scrutiny.
The problem is with its “for the purpose of […] using a controlled substance” language, which has been broadly interpreted to target producers who have demonstrated the courage and foresight to offer any sort of harm reduction services whatsoever. This leads to producers being afraid to make chill rooms available or provide free drinking water. Some are even afraid to sell freaking lightsticks for dogsakes, simply because they are associated with drug use in some people’s minds. So they’re understandably more than a little bit cagey about sponsoring something as obviously drug-related as an official psychedelic support space. To say nothing of inviting the participation of organizations like DanceSafe or BunkPolice, which provide information about various substances to attendees, as well as sometimes offering on-site testing services. Their handy-dandy little reagent kits can’t definitively determine what a substance is, nor can they tell what the dose of a tablet or capsule might be. But reagent tests are useful as teaching tools. Harm reduction groups on site at festivals can help people make slightly more informed, better decisions about whether or not they really want to ingest that white powder some shifty entrepreneur in the parking lot assured them was “pure molly”.
The current state of affairs more or less forces many event organizers to engage in a hypocritical charade. There’s not a single EDM production company in the entire world that doesn’t know damned good and well that at least some amount of drug use is bound to end up taking place at their events. And they wouldn’t actually want to stop that from happening even if they could, which they totally can’t. Because the reality is that psychedelic and euphoric stimulant use is deeply endemic to the entire culture. It’s a big part of its raison d’être. This is obvious to anyone who has ever attended any of these sorts of music festivals. It wouldn’t exactly take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out just by glancing at one of their fliers, most of which feature explicitly psychedelic artwork and boast a long list of DJs with names like MC DMT and Doctor Tripmaster.
But in order to cover their own asses they all tend to bill themselves as “drug-free” events anyway, and they also put on some TSA style “security theatre” where they make attendees wait in long lines to have their bags lightly searched. This admittedly keeps some big time dealers from bringing in whole backpacks full of merchandise, which is probably a very good thing. They’re not really trying to find everybody’s personal use stashes, though. Because if they successfully did that, then their festival would fail. So they make a big show of kicking out a few kids who happen to get unlucky (or handing them over to the police), whilst turning an apparently blind eye to the essential nature of the psychedelic dance culture phenomenon underlying the very foundation of their entire existence. (And generating billions of dollars per year worldwide…)
If the goal is genuinely to try to protect people, then the best thing that concerned parents and everybody else can actually do is to make sure that potential drug users educate themselves with the kind of unbiased, vetted, and reliable information that is available through Erowid and elsewhere. We need access to drug testing, too. Especially right now, when the designer drug market is blowing up like crazy. There are brand spanking new research chemicals that are getting cranked out on practically a weekly basis, and a lot of them are being misrepresented as “ecstasy” or “molly” or “acid” or as something else that sounds relatively safe and familiar at the point of sale. This is where the real danger is right now. The only practical way to ameliorate that danger (other than legalizing a few of the better-known substances), is to make it safe and easy for people to find out more about what they’re considering putting into their bodies. Widespread testing would also de-incentivize both adulteration and straight-up substitution from the dealers’ perspective, because the last thing they want is a bunch of irate customers coming back to them in fifteen minutes waving evidence that they were sold bogus goods.
Drug testing services don’t encourage drug use any more than giving out free condoms encourages sexual promiscuity. Of course, the more thoughtful and responsible partygoers might not be willing to take anything at all unless they really thought that they knew what it was. (Hooray for common sense!) But, in the absence of harm reduction services, most people are simply going to do whatever it is that they want to do anyway, just a little bit less safely. I’ve personally seen a far greater number of people decide not to take a drug when it tested out as something unfamiliar than people who were swayed into taking something by a positive identification. Likewise, nobody takes way more drugs than they were already intending to just because they’ve heard that there is a truly excellent psychedelic sanctuary somewhere on site. The notion is patently ridiculous.
Laws like the Rave Act hurt far more folks than they help, and everybody who is actually involved knows that. So what’s to be done?
A few American festivals have been brave and honorable enough to just go ahead and provide extensive harm reduction services anyway, and I salute the fuck out of them. The last large event that I officially worked Ground Control at had quite a steady stream of clientele, several of whom were very deep in their process. If we hadn’t been there, some of these people would probably have ended up having their full-on shamanic death-and-rebirth experiences just rolling around in the dirt down by the porta-potties. But instead, they were brought to a safe, loving place where they could be properly cared for and congratulated. This made a whole lot of difference in most of their outcomes.
Each production company has to assess its particular legal situation and to weigh that against its own perceived responsibility to ensure the relative safety of attendees. It’s going to come down to what they care about more. If they decide that they simply can’t take the risk of providing basic harm reduction services yet, then they should at least have a booth that explains just exactly why that is, and that provides information about both what they themselves are doing about it, and what their participants can personally do in order to try to improve the situation in the future.
There is a petition going around to amend the RAVE Act (AmendTheRaveAct.org), and that’s certainly a good place to begin. It was started in 2014 by Dede Goldsmith, the mother of Shelley Goldsmith, who died in 2013 from apparent heat stroke at a party that was too afraid of that backasswards law to provide so much as a simple chill room. The goal of the petition is to amend the ambiguous language so that event organizers can implement common sense safety measures to protect their patrons without fear of prosecution by the federal authorities. (If the Teafaerie was writing the amendment I would make it so that EDM events would actually be obligated to provide basic harm reduction services, but simply decriminalizing them would certainly be better than nothing.) I would really love it if more concerned parents, in particular, would publicly take up this cause. I truly believe that it could radically alter the whole landscape of the debate fairly quickly.
We can all also take on a little bit of personal responsibility by acquiring our own drug testing kits so that we can help our friends and neighbors to better identify whatever they might have gotten ahold of.
And we can familiarize ourselves with some basic techniques for helping people to manage unexpectedly challenging experiences. A bunch has been written on this topic, for instance Erowid’s Psychedelic Crisis FAQ or Ground Control: A Sitter’s Primer, the first thing that the Teafaerie ever published on Erowid. A wonderful reference guide just came out called the Manual of Psychedelic Support, and the PDF is available for free online under a Creative Commons license — because its creators are all awesome like that. It is the product of years of work and a whole heck of a lot of field research by the people who’ve put on the excellent KosmiCare installation at the BOOM Festival in Portugal for over a decade, and many other similar collectives around the world.
I foresee the need for a few more professional psychedelic support teams, because there are simply a far greater number of festivals and events these days than the existing collectives can handle. Plus the demand for these services will grow as awareness increases about the importance of psychospiritual harm reduction. We just have to shift the conversation. And get that stupid law changed.
There will be folks who have difficult experiences at events. Far fewer of them will end up feeling deeply traumatized if they have the support of a knowledgeable and empathetic tripsitter. So which kind of festival do you want your kids (or your grandkids, or your nieces and nephews, or even other people’s kids) going to?
We don’t need a bunch of new packs of well-meaning hippies who think that they’re pretty good at handling bad trips and who would really like to get some free festival tickets, though. What we need is for festivals to care enough so that there’s support for more core teams of trained mental heath professionals and experienced psychonauts who really do know what to do when it gets crazy out. We need people with extraordinary empathy, profound patience, unshakeable compassion, preternatural insight and composure, and their own fully portable installation. That last one is the most important! You don’t want to have to count on the festival for your set-up. For one thing, some festivals suck at coming through with all of the resources that they promise. We want to make it as easy as possible for them to just plug us right in.
If you’re just somebody who is awesome at tripsitting, then I encourage you to do what I usually do at big festivals, which is simply to keep your eye out for people who may be having a little bit of trouble. Gently ask them if they’re alright, and if there’s anything at all that you can do for them: Assist them to the bathroom. Get them some water. See if you can help them work through their process a little bit if they seem to want company. Sometimes you can really help turn it around for somebody, and the worst kind of bummer can be transformed into untranslatable bliss. Heck, sometimes people just need to tell somebody all about how beautiful and intense what is happening to them is. I’ve seen it over and over again. They just need somebody to witness it. Psychedelic experiences can be life changing. It’s an incredible honor to get to be the person who sits through that kind of a long bright night of the soul with a fellow human being who is just starting to open up.
It’s vitally important work. It really can help turn a breakdown into a breakthrough. So if you’ve got that sort of a calling, then why not educate yourself as thoroughly as possible, and then start thinking of yourself as a roving psychedelic support volunteer. I’m very much looking forward to the time when we can count on the availability of experienced and compassionate care services, but it’s obvious that we haven’t quite gotten there yet. We have to learn how to take care of each other. Because that’s what communities do.
This article was first published on Erowid. The Teafaerie has been an avid entheogenic explorer her entire adult life and she has served as ground control for well over 100 trips. (see Ground Control: A Sitter’s Primer) She writes stories, poems, movies, plays and essays, makes videos, organizes flash mobs, and is one of the founders of Prometheatrics, a big beautiful Esplanade camp at Burning Man. At various times she has been a writer, nanny, actress, flow arts teacher, childbirth doula, homeless person, aid worker, live-action storyteller, toy inventor, app designer, street performer, and party promoter.