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.
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.
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. Click through to see the seven most important tips we learned for helping someone through a difficult trip.