Learning about Psychedelic Harm Reduction
Last month, I sat cross-legged on a plush, red pillow in a classroom at Boulder’s Naropa University and pretended that I, like the 18 other people in class, loved psychedelic drugs. We spent the first 10 minutes taking turns saying our names, two words about how we were feeling that day, and naming our favorite psychedelic drug — if we could pick just one. Answers included peyote, San Pedro, LSD, mushrooms, and DMT. To admit the truth — that the extent of my drug use was smoking pot a handful of times — would have been too embarrassing, so I copped out and said, “Oh, I couldn’t pick a favorite.” People smiled and nodded their heads.
We’d gathered for a lesson in psychedelic harm reduction with the Zendo Project, an offshoot of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), created to offer a safe space at festivals for concert-goers having bad trips on illegal drugs. Bad trips — or “difficult trips,” as the group prefers — are usually the result of a first-time user making a rookie mistake: taking too much; not drinking enough water; going without preparation or guidance during the experience; or becoming overwhelmed by too many people, blaring music, and flashing lights. In recent years, young people have died at music festivals after using imposter synthetic drugs or from preventable dehydration.
De-Escalating Difficult Experiences
Zendo volunteers, or “trip-sitters,” work in tandem with law enforcement, security, and medical groups at the festivals to create safe spaces and care for people who are overwhelmed by the substances they’ve taken. Together, these groups can de-escalate a difficult trip before it progresses to violence, trauma, or a medical emergency. Amazingly, a little water, a quiet space, and a good listener is often all someone needs to help come back down to earth. With this approach, Zendo and other groups like it have saved lives.
However, harm-reduction groups are on legally shaky ground, thanks to a bill introduced in 2003 as the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act by then-Senator Joe Biden. Later passed as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, the bill allowed for the prosecution of business owners if they knowingly let people use drugs on their properties. Groups like Zendo could be seen as encouraging illicit drug use just by offering water and support. For that reason, venues have to decide what’s worse: drug-related deaths, or prosecution for trying to prevent them from happening.
7 Tips to Assist Psychedelic Experiences
Our instructor for the day, Sara Gael, an integrative therapist and project coordinator for the Zendo Project, gave us the insight and training we’d need to volunteer for her organization. Read through the seven most important tips we learned for helping someone through a difficult trip.
1) Never Mix Psychedelics With Alcohol
While alcohol can dull the hallucinogenic effects of LSD, it can sometimes exacerbate the effects of psychedelic drugs, leading to panic, fear, and sometimes, outright hostility. “When people mix psychedelics with alcohol, that’s when Zendo sees the most violent and aggressive people,” says Gael. It’s a mistake first-timers often make because they decide to try their first psychedelic after they’ve already been drinking, or neglect to let the drug take effect before they add alcohol to the mix.
2) Know That Psychedelics Can Bring Up Past Trauma
Psychedelics have a way of bringing up memories of a past trauma (including abuse and assault), which is a quick path to a bad trip. Other times, users will simply feel like they’ve gone crazy. Trip-sitters work with people to tune into these traumatic emotions and talk about them. If someone is freaking out and afraid of dying, a volunteer responds with questions like “Why do you feel that way?” “What will happen if you die?” or comforts with “I see your arm. Do you see it? Can you feel your pulse?”
“Curiosity is the opposite of fear,” says Gael. “We talk through and not down to the guests. You can’t say ‘Oh, you’ll be okay’ or ‘Calm down.’ [But] asking clarifying questions helps them verbalize and release some of that energy.”
In some cases, however, psychedelics can catalyze the onset of irreversible psychosis. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder don’t normally present until someone is in their early to mid-20s. Although research is divided, there are anecdotal reports suggesting that psychedelics can put these dormant disorders into motion. As Gael explains, “you need to have an ego in order to dissolve it,” which is why anyone without a strong sense of self-identity will be negatively affected by psychedelics.
3) Stay Calm, But Firm
As a sitter, you must remain patient, compassionate, and understanding. This can be difficult when someone is screaming at you. Fending off sexual advances is also a part of the process (especially for women), and it must be done calmly, saying “That’s not going to happen” when someone is getting handsy. Zendo also suggests finding a volunteer of the opposite sex to take over if you feel uncomfortable. And if someone needs to masturbate? A Zendo volunteer will guide that person to a separate, private space.
4) Remind People What They’ve Taken
It’s not always easy to diagnose the drug based on how a person is reacting in the Zendo tent. Some people on LSD speak in stream-of-consciousness, while others get caught up in loops. People on PCP can be violent. Some people come in full of energy and just need to dance it off. Others will come in the tent and not say a word for six hours.
The key is for volunteers to get as much information as they can (from the person’s friends or nearby festival attendees) about what drug the guest took, the dosage, the method in which the person took it, and how long ago it happened. This gives volunteers insight into how long the trip will last, and it comes in handy to remind the person that he or she took drugs — because users often forget why they’re feeling the way they feel.
5) Remember: Some People Can Get Violent
Some people will become violent, and there’s not much a volunteer can do. In these cases, volunteers should remain calm, try to guide the guest to a quiet space, stay unargumentative, and keep the number of people controlling the situation to a minimum. If that doesn’t work, volunteers will still remain with the guest, even if he or she needs to go to jail or the hospital.
Gael tells the story of one violent man who was about to get hauled off to jail. Law enforcement told the Zendo volunteers they had 30 seconds to calm the guy down before they brought him in. One volunteer noticed the guest was sitting, while law enforcement was standing in a circle around him. So the volunteer sat next to the aggressor and talked calmly with him, which defused the situation immediately.
6) Watch Out For The Biggest Problem: Fake Drugs
A lot of the people who come to the Zendo tent are having a difficult trip because the drug they took turns out to be something else entirely. The amount of manipulated synthetic drugs sold to festival-goers is staggering. According to ecstasydata.org, only about a third of the “MDMA” out there actually is what it’s supposed to be. To give people a heads-up, a few festivals (like the Shambhala Festival) now offer drug testing to help users identify what they brought in. For example, methylone, a synthetic cathinone (a.k.a. bath salts), is often passed off as molly and has led to several deaths.
7) Suggest A Therapist To Help Interpret The Experience
Zendo has a list of therapists who specialize in helping people integrate their psychedelic experiences into their lives. Gael mentions that, in traditional spiritual medicine ceremonies involving peyote or ayahuasca, people sit down afterward to talk about what they learned. For us, therapy can serve the same function. “People have come to us to talk about experiences that happened 30 years ago,” says Gael. “We’re able to honor people’s stories and help them find meaning in therapy.”