Drugs

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?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/SoulCurry

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in August, 2013. The message remains potent as ever, as pychedelic harm reduction efforts continue and the Zendo project heads to Black Rock City for Burning Man again next week, so we have decided to give it a second run.]

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.

“As you’d expect with harm reduction, there is often this assumption that all psychedelic use is abuse,” says Burge. “There was a lot of cultural pressure for the Burning Man organization to separate itself from that because in the media, in the popular culture, it was really easy to conflate psychedelic harm reduction services with encouraging the use of drugs.”

Burge says through public education MAPS hopes to demonstrate that such is not the case.

“Rather, we’re just providing support for people having those difficult experiences,” he says.

Burge said MAPS expanded its psychedelic harm reduction services in general in the last couple of years, as a result of what he calls a “broad cultural loosening of the fears surrounding psychedelics.” That cultural loosening includes mainstream media coverage of the positive aspects of psychedelics, and increased  general suspicion of the U.S.'s  war on drugs.

In an example of the shifting attitude towards drug users in America,  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder outlined a new Justice Department policy that will do away with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations in a speech in front of the American Bar Association in San Francisco on Monday, August 12. Holder also announced a policy shift to reduce sentences for nonviolent elderly convicts, and consider moving them out of prision and into alternative programs.

“[The cultural loosening] happened in a similar way that psychedelic research moved back into mainstream universities and the FDA started accepting the protocols,” he says. “It happens at multiple levels. First, it happens at the level of the individuals where, as a result of a little bit of work that we do it creates a story. People tell that story— they say look, here’s an example of when this harm reduction really succeeded.”

As a result of that cultural shift, psychedelic harm reduction services returned last summer to the desert playa for Burning Man, with the theme camp Fractal Nation. Like most of the camps, art exhibits, and events that happen at Burning Man every year, Fractal Nation is in no way associated with the official Burning Man organization and participates in the event independently each year.

Within a yurt-like structure filled with pillows, rugs, blankets and lamps, about 60 MAPS volunteers provided psychedelic harm reduction services to 108 of Burning Man’s more than 51,000 participants in 2012. None of them required medical attention or incarceration.

Thanks to successful outreach and fundraising, this year  MAPS will return with Fractal Nation to bring more than 100 psychedelic harm reduction volunteers to the playa. 

“After some close saves [in 2012], where we really showed these harm reduction services were an alternative to hospitalization or imprisonment, there’s even more public support,” says Burge, noting that MAPS’s psychedelic harm reduction effort, titled the Zendo Project, far exceeded its $10 thousand donation goal in just eleven days on the mainstream online fundraising site Indiegogo. Their total donations by the end of the campaign reached $17,786.

“We’re talking about a psychedelic harm reduction initiative where the word ‘psychedelic’ is plastered right up on front of it, so it is really clear and obvious what we’re doing here,” says Burge. “We’re talking really clearly and openly about psychedelics in a public health frame and the response has been huge.”

While other, smaller organizations offer psychedelic harm reduction spaces at festivals, none have been as clear and open to the public about their efforts.

“We’re not afraid to use these mainstream fundraising sources like Indiegogo,” he says. “We’re not afraid to go out there on Facebook and develop this big following.”

He continues, “[There is] a lot of more public acceptance of public health approaches to drug use, so that we’ve expanded these services a lot more in the last couple of years. There’s a clear need for that support, and the more we get the word out there about it the more people will know about it and they’ll know that that’s an option for them.”

Burge says since the fact is that people are taking psychedelic drugs and having a hard time,  the goal of psychedelic harm reduction is to mitigate those potential difficulties in a way that makes sense both economically and socially.  Why waste tax dollars on hospitalization and incarceration when the problem could have been fixed with a quiet space, glass of water and some patience? 

For example, Burge says that while incidents involving psychedelic use are relatively rare, towards the end of Burning Man 2012 psychedelic harm reduction prevented the unnecessary arrest of one festival-goer in his 20s, who had taken too much of a “powerful psychedelic.” 

“He’d been brought to us by the emergency services personnel that were available [at Burning Man],” he says. “He was not in any physical danger, but so terrified and psychologically distressed that the emergency personnel didn't know what to do with him.”

Burge notes that when emergency personnel are dealing with somebody who's having acute psychiatric crisis there are two options: drug them or to take them to jail.

“Our volunteers were able to take responsibility for this person and say, ‘Look, we’re just going to sit him down, we're gonna give him some water, we’re gonna allow him to yell and scream and thrash around. We’re just gonna sit there. If we’re in physical danger we'll call for help,’” he says. “And we were able to help this person not get arrested. He sat with the volunteers for about 24 hours until he was capable of walking off on his own.”

Volunteering at Zendo is no simple task. Ponté says volunteers train for four hours with therapists and medical personnel, and at times volunteers work six hour shifts just sitting with a tripping person.

Like any group participating ain Burning Man, volunteers are not liable in the case of serious injury or death. The act of purchasing a tickets for the Burning Man event is a legal agreement to wave liability of event organizers and third parties, as stated on the back of every event ticket.

“It’s easy to spread yourself thin any time you're’ doing anything at a festival, but especially when you’re sitting with someone for six hour shifts at a time,” she says. “It can be draining.”

In addition to regular volunteers, Zendo has one or two medical volunteers that cover warning signs of hypothermia and other severe medical issues to look for.

“We haven’t actually had any medical emergencies, thank goodness, but if we ever do we will always have a medical person on site to triage to the festival’s medical care,” she says. “We just want our volunteers to have basic information so that if they do see anything that’s medical they’re less fearful and more empowered to know how and when to get help.”

Burge says it’s clear people are taking psychedelic drugs, so while that’s the case a public health approach is vital to keep them safe.

“A lot of people are being put in a hospital because drug use is seen as a mental illness, or they're being arrested and put in jail because drug use is seen as a crime,” he says. “But what if drug use was seen just as something that people do? We have to maximise the benefits and decrease the risks, just like we would for anything else that people do, like driving cars.”

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. She currently works part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide. 

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