A crystalline lattice has encrusted grass and leaves; clear air trembles with waves of energy. Geometric transparencies shift across white plaster wall and closing eyes, rainbow fountains flood the retina. His mind is swimming, rotating and dissolving. He expands into shimmering colour haze, leaving his body, floating on luxuriant caresses of warm air, a texture of marshmallows and the scent of his grandmothers house. His T-shirt already thrown to the wind, the young man manages to struggle out of his shorts and into nakedness and freedom, a flight of fancy. He runs like a deer across the grass towards a curving sculpture that momentarily transfigures into three white swans making love. The LSD this man took an hour ago is surging through his system now. He has taken three times the normal dose believing he could manage the deep psychic impact of the drug, but now, as the swans transmute to gossamer eiderdown, ineffable essence of beauty and the void, his ego and identity have forgotten themselves and he becomes pure energy, the light of the sun. He heads for home, running towards the incandescent sky. A crack. From another dream a shadow comes before him. There are human barks and grasps at his body, pulling him down from his celestial way. A great weight around him and he stumbles. Blue-vested people flash into menacing, dark priests and he flails out with his fists, catching one of them hard. Someone wrenches his arm behind him and he is on his face being pushed into filth.
A security guards knee is on the prostrate tripper’s head pressing him hard into the gravel and mud. There are five of them there to contain this guy. For some reason people on large doses of psychedelics often want to get naked and this is illegal. Now that they feel threatened in this engagement, the security or police will, fingers crossed, use the minimum necessary force to safely contain him. This is a common scenario at festivals in the UK but the effects of the experience on the individual in question are unexamined. Some festival goers might think of a visually and sonically supercharged party as a safe and suitable place to experiment with psychedelic drugs. The great majority of users have wonderful time that they consider an enhancement of their lives but the trip can go far astray from visions of heavenly delights. In such a mind-opened state, the normally disturbing process of being forcibly detained could extend to extreme psychic violation. The subjects primal fears are activated and inner experience proves traumatic. What started as an ecstatic, potentially mystical, if uncontainable expansion of consciousness quickly transforms into the cold, hard reality of hospitals and illegalities.
There are two or three possible paths for our unfortunate psychonaut. In most drug crisis cases a compliant subject will be taken to the main festival welfare where he or she may receive a medical check and get to lie down and rest in a tent. Most of these look like village fair reception tents with a table and not much else. Others present a more gulag-like appearance with hessian covered chain-link, bare floors and large guards with glaring torches looming over frightened teenagers. Here the subject is meant to recuperate and wait off the effects of the drug. If the impetuous party-head is unruly, annoying or hysterical they may have to be restrained. This will usually involve the police. Procedure is forcing the subject to the floor and hog-tying. Bound limbs swell and wrists are cut by plastic tie cords. Such heavy handed restraint may temporarily pacify the patient but it certainly doesn’t improve his psychological condition. Under the hyper-increased intensity of a “bad trip” the likelihood of the subject believing he is in the grip of the Spanish inquisition is high. If the subject just wont calm down while hogtied and surrounded by demanding policemen, if he continues to scream in mental anguish, he may become a patient. With the say-so of medical staff the subject is deemed incapable and sectioned under the mental health act subject to treatment against his will – strapping to a gurney and shipment to hospital for tranquilization at pubic expense. Treatment of temporary, drug-induced states as mental health issues is quite inappropriate and the consequences of sectioning may be severe on the patients potential to obtain housing, employment, or run a business.
There is another option. Another course of action. An idiosyncratic scenario might go something like this. A girl gets hysterical in the crowd of party-goers. She has lost her friends high on a large dose of magic mushrooms and starts to panic. As the effects peak she enters a distracted, looping state in which all the other festival-heads are disguised aliens controlling her mind through their prismatic sunglasses. Everyone is in on it, even her friends. She has nowhere to turn and begins freaking out. After a few minutes, following a radio call, with security employing a non-intervention strategy, some dedicated people arrive with small badges marked Kosmicare (or the tag of a similar organisation, of which there are few). These guys are specialists in psychedelic welfare and take a different approach to dealing with cases; one that takes into account the long established importance of the mindset of the user and the setting of their use to the outcomes of a psychedelic experience. After slowly approaching the girl and making friendly, peculiar gestures, while engaging with her claims of galactic bodysnatchers, one of the Kosmicarers, another girl, slips gently behind her. The anxious girl struggles in protest but is gently restrained by the wrists while receiving a big hug. Shaking she soon retreats into the human shelter of her carer. After a little more TLC, calm but still troubled, the girl is led to a quiet compound with warm fire and a cushioned, artfully decorated, meditation tent where, barring real medical issues, she is held and listened to for several hours by her carer until she is eased back to normalcy and completely free of her paranoia. In this best case scenario (they are common) the experience remains as a mysterious memory with a happy ending or a startling confrontation with psyche that leads to personal growth. Even difficult, violent cases can be managed using these techniques and few resources are needed to obtain this outcome.
Based on the notion that harm reduction is the point of drug policy, rather than courts and prison expansion, and on an understanding of the subjective impact of psychedelics, this approach to festival welfare puts the quality of the users experience first as key to reaching a positive outcome. Staffed round the clock by peer volunteers, emphasis is put on comfort (blankets, drinks, beauty), communication and completion of the process. Subjects recovering from difficult experiences may stay by the fire as long as they wish or come back the next day for a follow up consultation. The process is completely nonjudgmental. Such a common sense, ethical operation has obvious benefits to all concerned parties including the police and NHS who are relieved of the greater part of the burden. For the Kosmicarers volunteering provides a chance to do meaningful, challenging work in a supportive community. Much love and irrepressible kindness is afoot. For the festival, bringing such support mechanisms out the shadows can be shown to enhance safety. Reduced hospital admissions are the most obvious public relations benefit if the management can get over the concern of appearing to “support” drug taking. Times are changing and the old prohibitory, punitive approach has long demonstrated its redundancy and the harm caused to those caught up in its Kafkaesque machinations. Being in a state of transgression, the drug user deserves no succor, no recourse to mercy. Some people like to punish their children as a default strategy. Public support for ending the drug war and moving to a decriminalised, harm-reduction based approach is large and growing, including among the police. Many countries such as Portugal, where Kosmicare originated at Boom festival, have long institutionalised these notions . A kinder, safer, more quirky and beautiful society might be the result.
With the ever increasing number of festival attendees and the proliferation of new synthetic drugs, some of which are distinctly unsafe, the need for a sensible approach to drug policy at festivals and elsewhere is long overdue. The hide your head in the sand approach of pretending drugs don’t happen leads to the predictable, bad outcomes. Psychedelics, a low toxicity, low addiction class of compounds with roots in millennia of global, plant-based shamanic practice have been in widespread use at events throughout the western world since the 1960s. Their use presents a quite distinct set of dynamics in relation to personal, social and festival welfare. If the process of intervention is the cause of profound, psychological distress to the subject and therefore increased, radical medicalisation, then the cure is causing the disease. The expense of police, ambulance and hospital time is huge with every referral. Today there is an opportunity to find co-operative options for an integrated approach between festival management and welfare, medical services, police and drug testing operations that would save lives, save money and enhance minds. Hopefully common sense and baroque tapestries swirling into peacock auras will prevail.