The Virtues of Psychedelic Harm Reduction at Festivals

Linnae Ponté oversees MAPS’ harm reduction program, the Zendo Project, and has travelled internationally to coordinate and train volunteers to offer psychological support to individuals having difficult psychedelic experiences, in order to reduce the number of drug-related hospitalisations and arrests. For Linnae, psychedelic harm reduction is an essential service for festivals, capable of transforming potentially traumatic experiences into opportunities for growth and showing that safe, expansive experiences are possible without the need for law enforcement-based policies. She is currently completing her Master’s in Counselling Psychology at CIIS and is a co-therapist intern in MAPS’ MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with life-threatening illness study in Marin, CA.

Imagine you’re at a festival on a warm summer night with your favourite group of friends, all dressed in your brightest festival garb, beaming with excitement; you’ve been waiting months for tonight. One friend offers LSD to the group, telling you it’s a ‘mellow’ batch that’ll make the night even more epic. Everyone partakes. Half an hour later, you’re walking toward the main stage, and you notice the acid starting to come on in big waves, with the music growing louder and the lights brighter. You waver between feelings of excitement and apprehension – palms sweating, belly tightening, and heart pumping faster and faster. This is just the come-up, you tell yourself; it’ll pass pretty soon.

You decide you need to go to the bathroom, so you tell your friends and take off quickly in the other direction. A minute later, you realise you are too disoriented to remember where it’s located, and look back into the sea of people. Suddenly, you’re utterly overwhelmed with the sense of isolation and disconnection – not just from your friends but from the entire scene. Feeling vertigo, you take a seat and begin to panic with thoughts that you’re dying and no one can be trusted.

Now, take a breath. This may sound like an extreme scenario, but it’s actually not that uncommon, and it’s how many people come to utilise the services provided by the Zendo Project.
Sponsored by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Zendo Project provides a safe space and professionally trained staff to care for individuals at festivals, concerts, and other events for people having a difficult psychedelic experience. The Zendo Project operates based on the philosophy that even the most difficult psychedelic experience can be a valuable opportunity for growth and learning. Guests are welcomed with warmth and compassion by trained ‘sitters’ who help them move through the experience by talking through difficult emotions or sometimes simply providing a hand to hold. Many of our volunteers are mental health professionals, psychedelic researchers, and medical service providers, trained by Zendo Project staff to provide skilful care working with psychological crises.

The public is becoming increasingly aware of how incarcerating or hospitalising people for using LSD, MDMA, or other psychedelics at events is not only unethical, but also in many cases financially costly and psychologically damaging for the individual. The Zendo Project is one of very few models in place offering compassionate, non-punitive alternatives to dealing with drug use at events.

Zendo Project staff and volunteers work closely with event security and medical response teams to make referrals, bring in guests, and provide trainings in psychedelic harm reduction. By working together with these other essential components of event health and safety infrastructure, we help to create an effective public health-based alternative to hospitalisation and arrest, which are still how many organisers choose to respond to psychedelic use at their events.

The Zendo Project’s efforts also help offset counterproductive laws, such as the RAVE Act, which discourage festival producers and venue organisers from implementing harm reduction practices, since it exposes them to civil prosecution. The new campaign to amend the RAVE Act is being led by a mother whose daughter died of heat stroke after taking MDMA at a concert in Washington, D.C. in 2013.

Festivals such as Lighting in a Bottle, along with law enforcement and other emergency service departments, are starting to recognise the need for spaces dedicated to helping individuals through the psychological and emotional difficulties that can result from the use of psychoactive substances outside of scientific research and therapeutic settings.

We are working towards the day when psychedelic harm reduction will be an integral and required part of festival safety infrastructure, ensuring that attendees return home after transformational experiences not only in one piece, but grounded and more engaged in their life and with society. It is a pleasure to work with festival organisers and medical staff to reduce the number of drug-related hospitalisations and arrests, and help keep event attendees safe.

There are more transformational festivals taking place today than any time before, and they’re only continuing to increase. At these events, it’s not uncommon for attendees to push the limits of their conscious awareness to a point that can be overwhelming. Some guests have said that just knowing the Zendo Project’s services are available can make attendees feel safer, and may even help reduce the total number of people requiring support.

Since 2012, the Zendo Project has assisted over 700 guests and trained approximately 500 volunteers, totaling over 10,000 hours of volunteer time. Zendo Project staff and volunteers have provided services at Burning Man (NV, USA), Boom Festival (Portugal), AfrikaBurn (South Africa), Bicycle Day (CA, USA), Envision Festival (Costa Rica), Lightning in a Bottle (CA, USA), and other events.

With the summer festival heating up, the Zendo Project has launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to expand its psychedelic harm reduction services at events. The campaign, which ends July 23, is rapidly approaching its $50,000 funding goal with contributions from over 300 funders.

Donations to the Zendo Project’s Indiegogo campaign will be used to: build a new Zendo structure, a 32-foot diameter Japanese-style meditation yurt made from recycled cardboard; train additional volunteers and provide public trainings; and expand the Zendo Project’s psychedelic harm reduction services to more events worldwide.

The Indiegogo campaign can be checked out and donated to here.