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Making Psychedelic Trips Safe — Even at Burning Man

People are thrown in hospitals and jails because drug use is seen as a mental illness and a crime. But what if drug use was seen just as something that people do?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/SoulCurry

 
 
 
 

Being hospitalized or thrown into a jail cell while under the influence of a psychedelic drug is a recipe for nightmarish visions, paranoia and an all around “bad trip." Unfortunately, the default reaction of most emergency personnel who deal with people experiencing  acute psychiatric crises—which can on rare occasion be induced by psychedelics—is to drug them or incarcerate them.

Linnae Ponté is working with the Multidiciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to shift the way we deal with those psychedelic drug users to a more practical, public-health-oriented system that won't land people with debt-inducing hospital bills or dark marks on their permanent records just because they were tripping.

Ponté earned her degree in biological psychology from New College in Florida, a progressive liberal arts college with a “thriving psychedelic culture” and 24-hour dance parties. Three times a year the school is home to student-sponsored late-nighters known as Palm Court Parties. Linnae says something that stuck with her about the parties was that they always included designated “chill out rooms” available to everyone from psychedelic trippers to the soberest of people in need of a mellower space.

“People could go and lay down, close their eyes and get away from all the sounds and life and people,” Ponté says. Ponté would volunteer in the chill out rooms and saw how effective they were in helping people cope with otherwise overwhelming situations.

Today, Ponté works for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) as the volunteer coordinator for a program similar to chill out rooms, called  "psychedelic harm reduction" in policy speak. Her focus is on making information on psychedelics available to the public, and offering emotional support services at events like festivals, to reduce the potential negative results of psychedelic use.

As a non-profit research and educational organization,  MAPS's work is primarily regarding the medical and legal uses  of psychedelics and marijuna. But in light of the reality that each year millions of people use psychedelics outside of supervised medical contexts, MAPS created a  psychedelic harm reduction program to help mitigate the negative impacts of recreational use.

“When someone is having a difficult experience [with psychedelics] what they need more than anything is to feel safe and secure so that they can surrender to the experience, and that involves someone who is ready to compassionately listen to them or just hold space for them,” Ponté says. “Medical volunteers and law enforcement at festivals just don’t want to deal with people who are tripping because they don’t know how, it makes them uncomfortable and they don’t want to arrest somebody because they’re just tripping.”

She notes that since psychedelics don’t pose physiological harm that alcohol and other drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines do, medical issues usually aren’t a factor in psychedelic use. MAPS’s psychedelic harm reduction efforts offer compassion, support, water and a place to rest—nothing more. And according to Ponté, that’s all it takes.

“If someone is just on, say, LSD or psilocybin you really just need to wait for the duration of the drug,” Ponté says. “Often that means they just need someone to sit there with them so they know they’re okay, they’re safe, they just need to relax.”

As early as ten years ago, MAPS supported psychedelic harm reduction services at festivals around the world, including the annual end-of-summer event in the Nevada desert called Burning Man. Burning Man’s “Sanctuary” space already supported psychedelic harm reduction, and MAPS voluntarily provided extra help.

However in conjunction with the Burning Man organization MAPS stopped offering those services several years ago because of cultural fears surrounding psychedelics according to Brad Burge, the director of communications for MAPS.