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Here's what we can learn from the Zendo project's commitment to harm reduction

Aug. 2, 2017
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Recreational drug use is so ingrained in our counterculture that it can seem as though not much has changed since the 1960s when drug use was ubiquitous among young people.  In fact, studies indicate that drug use and abuse among teens and young adults has declined since the era of free love, which scientists attribute to changing peer attitudes and an increased awareness of the risks associated with drug use—but you wouldn’t know it to look around you.   

Now that we are in the height of Festival Season, stories are once again beginning to emerge about what can happen when people experiment with drugs and it doesn’t go as planned. You don’t have to look far to find someone willing to share with you their story of how drugs can unexpectedly turn into a really bad time—and sometimes recreational drug use carries unintended consequences that are far worse than just a “bad trip”. Scientifically, we have come a long way from the Reagan-era “Just Say No” approach: prohibition historically has been ineffective, and abstinence-only drug education is widely regarded as a failed practice. But even the most progressive drug education programs often leave harm reduction out of the curriculum. 

As a result of our refusal to acknowledge recreational drug use as an active practice, people are unsure of what to do when confronted with another person having a negative drug experience who may be in need of assistance and guidance.

Instead of “Just don’t do it,” it’s time to shift the narrative to “You shouldn’t do it because bad things can happen. If you’re going to do it and something goes wrong, here’s how to save your buddy’s life.” Notably, one of the biggest concerns people have when having a challenging experience is the fear that they will get in trouble by asking for help. Luckily, volunteers and harm reduction workers have come out of the woodwork to minimize the involvement of law enforcement in environments where people are using psychedelics. Harm reduction largely consists of crisis counseling, but in the event of a medical emergency, harm reduction workers will be able to contact medical staff. The objective is to ensure safety and security, not to haul you and your friends off to jail. Fortunately, there are quite a few dedicated people who recognize the need for resources to effectively address the needs of everyone. 

The Zendo Project is sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which is an organization that focuses on safe and responsible use of psychedelics and marijuana. The intention of the Zendo Project is primarily to reduce the number of people who are hospitalized or placed under arrest while undergoing an uncomfortable drug experience, thereby demonstrating that law enforcement interference in psychedelic experiences is unnecessary. The Zendo Project helps to provide volunteers with the training necessary to assist people who may be in need of guidance while they are in an altered state.

The Zendo Project has volunteers at some of the country’s largest music festivals, as well as events like Burning Man and Lightning in a Bottle. Events that employ harm reduction teams are events where the creators acknowledge—not promote—the use of psychedelics and recognize a need for a specialized group of people who are not law enforcement or medical staff to assist people having a challenging experience. At events like these, harm reduction workers will wander through the crowds and look for people who appear uncomfortable for any reason. Sometimes they just need some water or someone to talk to, but other times they may require crisis counseling or even medical attention. It is a harm reduction worker’s sworn duty to help these individuals in any way they can.

Asking questions like “Do you know where you are right now?” can help gauge if a person is having a bad trip.

Generally it’s pretty obvious if someone is having a challenging experience, and experiences can be vastly different depending on a number of factors. The type of drug taken, the dosage, and the degree of purity have a lot to do with the intensity and duration of any side effects. Most of the time, people actually have no idea what they’ve actually taken or believe it to be whatever the person they got it from told them it was. Drugs like ecstasy or “molly” are cut with different chemicals, making each dose a bit of a gamble. Sometimes what you believe to be one substance can actually be something entirely different, like research chemicals that are sold as LSD. This also increases the likelihood of a bad reaction since multiple substances are being consumed at one time. The mindset of a person ingesting drugs will also steer the experience in one direction or another. Where they are, who they’re with and how comfortable they feel in that present moment can dramatically affect the experience. Large crowds, heavily populated areas and loud noise can quickly become very frightening. When having a challenging experience, people will often express confusion and disorientation. Asking questions like “Do you know where you are right now?” can help gauge if the person is experiencing memory loss or an altered sense of time and space, a few more characteristics of a challenging experience. Often, people will report feeling trapped or anxious and express a fear of losing control. The experience differs on a circumstantial basis, but the tell-tale signs of confusion and fear are the most easily identifiable indicators that someone may need help. 

If someone’s having a bad trip, the first step is to gently remove them from an overwhelming environment.

Now, if you have encountered someone who is not having a good time, the worst possible thing you can do is try to restrain the person physically or scold them for the behavior that they don’t have total control over.  The first step is to remove the person from an over-stimulating environment. This can be exceptionally difficult if you are at a festival, indoors or anywhere that large crowds gather. It doesn’t have to be anything special, just a curb or patch of grass away from the throngs of people and loud noises. It is of utmost importance that you listen carefully to the needs and wants of the person you are assisting. Offering water and something to cover up with or hold onto—like a jacket or blanket—is a good start, as it shows that you can be trusted to comfort them. As for yourself, remain collected and speak to the person gently without shouting or appearing worried. Being a tranquil, meditative presence is central to guiding someone through a rough ride and you want the person to trust you and feel safe with you. Holding the person’s hand (with their permission) may help keep them centered and grounded. Now, when it comes to conversing with the person: listen to what the person is describing as their experience. As the Zendo Project puts it, “talk through not down” to the person. This means encouraging them not to resist the chemicals but instead to use them as an opportunity to explore what they are feeling and the sensations they are experiencing. You might be surprised by how much you can learn about yourself when approaching a challenging experience with an open mind. 

It seems that, with the current administration in power in the United States, we are taking steps backwards in the fight to find a suitable alternative to the War on Drugs. It can seem a bit bleak at times, but there are many people working hard to minimize the unintended consequences of recreational drug use. In recent years, there has been a movement to provide services that will test drugs at music festivals so that people can avoid taking impure or laced drugs. If you or those around you intend to experiment with drugs of any kind, it is essential that you know what to expect and what to do if an unintended consequence arises. It’s human nature to be curious about not just the world around you, but the world within you as well. But it’s important to be prepared for when things go wrong. Trust us—you and everyone around you will be better off that way.