The Battle Against ‘Bad Trips’

news1LinnaePonteZendoSanta Cruz-based organization brings psychedelic harm-reduction to Burning Man

An estimated 55,000 people are currently gathered in the Nevada desert for Burning Man, the annual summer festival of art, counter-culture, and self-reliance that will culminate on Saturday, Aug. 31 when the towering wooden “man” effigy goes up in flames.

It’s not far fetched to assume that plenty of these people have consumed, or plan to consume, mind-altering substances, some of which can lead to uncomfortable hallucinations, distorted realities, all around panic and ultimately a “bad trip.”

But one Santa Cruz-based organization wants to stamp out bad trips, especially those that may otherwise escalate into run-ins with law enforcement or medics. 

In general, being hospitalized or thrown into a jail cell while under the influence of a psychedelic drug is a recipe for a traumatic experience. But these are often the outcomes when emergency personnel deal with people experiencing acute psychiatric crises—which can, on rare occasion, be induced by psychedelics.

Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is trying to shift the way society deals with those psychedelic drug users into a more practical, public-health-oriented approach that won’t land people with debt-inducing hospital bills or dark marks on their permanent records.

“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,” says Linnae Ponté, volunteer coordinator for MAPS’ Zendo Program, which promotes “psychedelic harm reduction,” in policy speak.

news1 LinnaePonteZendo2As a nonprofit research and educational organization, MAPS’ work is primarily focused on the medical and legal uses of psychedelics and marijuana. But in light of the reality that millions of people (according to MAPS’ own estimate) use psychedelics outside of supervised medical contexts each year, MAPS created the Zendo Program last year to help mitigate the negative impacts of recreational use.

As early as 10 years ago, MAPS supported psychedelic harm-reduction services at festivals around the world, including Burning Man. Burning Man’s own harm-reduction space—called the “Sanctuary”—already supported psychedelic harm reduction, and MAPS voluntarily provided extra help.

While the free-form festival has a reputation for partying and drug use, Black Rock City—as the temporary Burning Man metropolis is called—does not operate outside of the law. Federal, state and local laws apply, including laws prohibiting the use of illegal substances.

Six different law enforcement agencies patrol the event, which takes place on federal land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management—these include local county sheriffs departments, BLM rangers, and Nevada Highway Patrol.

However, given the amount of illegal substances said to be used, rates of arrest and medical intervention have been relatively low in the past. According to the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, four drug-related arrests were made and 13 misdemeanor citations were given for marijuana or drug paraphernalia at last year’s event.

Event organizers reported low numbers of drug-related medical incidents in 2011, the last year for which such data is available. Fifty-seven patients were treated for drug-related issues, comprising .9 percent of the patients seen by onsite emergency medical service providers.

But when someone is experiencing trouble while under the influence, MAPS does not think arrest or hospitalization is typically the best solution.

“Medical volunteers and law enforcement at festivals just don’t want to deal with people who are tripping because they don’t know how,” says Ponté. “It makes them uncomfortable and they don’t want to arrest somebody because they’re just tripping.”

MAPS’ psychedelic harm-reduction efforts offer compassion, support, water and a place to rest—nothing more, says Ponté, adding that 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 OK, they’re safe, [and] they just need to relax.”

However, the Burning Man organization discontinued these safe spaces several years ago, reportedly because of pressure on the organization to divorce its identity from psychedelics. As a result, other psychedelic harm-reduction efforts also left the city, 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.”

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.

As a result of what Burge calls an ongoing cultural shift, psychedelic harm-reduction services returned to Burning Man last summer through a partnership between MAPS and 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.

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 last year. None of them required medical attention or incarceration, says Burge.

Thanks to successful outreach and fundraising, MAPS returned with Fractal Nation this year with more than 100 psychedelic harm-reduction volunteers—a “significant portion” of whom are Santa Cruz County locals, Burge says.

“After some close saves last year, 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’ psychedelic harm-reduction effort far exceeded its $10,000 donation goal in just 11 days on the online fundraising site Indiegogo. Their total donations by the end of the month-long campaign reached $17,786.

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

“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.

At Burning Man and beyond, Burge says it is clear that people are taking psychedelic drugs, and that, while that’s the case, a public health approach is vital to keeping them safe. 

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