Why abstinence-only drug education doesn’t work—in fact, it backfires spectacularly.

I talked to a lot of middle-class recreational drug users for my research. None of them had any idea when they were younger that they’d end up dropping acid on a regular basis when they became successful adults. Very few of them grew up in explicitly drug-positive environments, or even around healthy drug using behaviours. Some, in fact, experienced trauma caused by family alcoholism. (One person, Brad, who did grow up with parents who used recreational drugs, actually ended up adopting a teetotalling stance until age 30 as his form of rebellion1: “My parents were really disappointed. They genuinely were like, ‘Brad we’re really worried about you, you’re not gonna try drugs?'”)

Everyone I talked to remembered being taught anti-drug messages in school, and many were staunchly against drug use themselves as teenagers and young adults.

Dave: I had basically not even smoked weed at that point in my life. The only thing I’d ever done was drink alcohol. I was like, OK, I’ll have a drink, but like, I will not do drugs. I’m not going to throw my life away.

Adam: I was one of those people who years ago, I would have told you, no, I would never do those drugs, drugs are bad, drugs kill people.

So why, then, did they change their minds and start experimenting with consciousness alteration?

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Everything is fair game for an anthropologist’s office. You should see my hilarious collection of Far Side comics.

There was a really interesting pattern that came up in discussions of this topic. Without exception, every time I asked a person if they remembered anti-drug education in school, I would be met with the same reaction: a smile and a laugh. They would reminisce on how ridiculous scare tactics are as an educational strategy, chuckling as they remembered advertisements cracking brain-eggs into a frying pan or portraying the average drug user as a person with, as Ella put it, “your teeth falling out, skin all scaly and whatnot”. (“I actually watch those ads on YouTube sometimes because I just think they’re funny,” said Mandy.) They really are pretty funny. I have a “Reefer Madness” poster in my office, partly as a reminder of the messed-up, racist origins of North American drug policy and how that “Danger Will Robinson” paradigm continues today, and partly because it’s hilarious. When drug users laugh at this kind of scare tactic, the laughter comes not only from the ironic awareness that anti-drug education clearly did not work for them, but from the knowledge of how incredibly sensationalized and counterproductive it is in general.

The funniest part is this: Often, drug users talk about how, after being bombarded by frightening images of the worst possible effects of drug use, those internalized messages would actually backfire and have the exact opposite effect of their intention when they ended up trying illegal drugs for the first time. When none of the doomsday predictions come true after their first few times, users are left questioning the accuracy of all of the narratives they’d been given about drugs—including important ones about actual potential dangers.

Eleanor: They do all these anti-drug campaigns, and then you like, smoke weed for the first time. And then you’re like, oh it wasn’t even bad, and you’re like, OK now they’re lying.

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Because “You’ll probably dance a lot, hug all your friends and then maybe have a light headache in the morning” isn’t going to terrify the youth.

The only narratives about drug use offered in an educational context are negative and completely over-the-top. When these narratives fail to prevent use, they’re promptly rejected as incongruent with the actual, real experience of being high. A lot of people are underwhelmed, even, after all the drama and hype around illegal drugs. (Fun fact: Your odds of seeing flying purple elephants on a starter dose of magic mushrooms are pretty low.)

Bobby is a 30-year-old raver from Toronto with an impeccable memory and a sweet disposition. He told me about how, when he was just starting to explore the scene, the stigma he had associated with drug users due to educational scare tactics was challenged when he found out that a good friend of his used illegal drugs. This change in perspective in turn caused him to decide to try them himself.

Bobby: I thought about it for a while before I decided to actually do it. And really the main reason I did it was, my best friend at the time—who I went to high school with and spent most of my time around at that time—him and I started going out, he kind of pulled me into the club scene with him. And then, I didn’t even realize it at the time until after a few months, I somehow found out that he’d been doing ecstasy the whole time and I never even knew about it.

In coming to learn that, that’s when I realized, oh okay, maybe drugs aren’t so bad and evil like I was taught, you know. Like as a kid, that’s what we were all taught. I expected this big change in someone and they’d just turn into this person, you know, this evil person, and I didn’t see that, so I was actually kind of shocked and surprised, like really? I didn’t believe him, and he said ‘yeah, I’m on it right now’. And I said oh, okay, well, what does it feel like? And he started telling me more, and I guess gears started turning in my head, and I got curious about it.

And I did a bit of reading and stuff, you know, I Googled it, just to learn some more information, in order to make an informed decision, I guess. So then, yeah, on New Year’s I decided that would be the first time to do it, I waited long enough. So that was the first street drug that I took.

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Drug negativity and sex negativity all in one fear-mongering package! Two stigmas for the price of one!

However, from I think age 14 or 15 I was medicated with Ritalin and then Concerta and then Dexedrine. So I guess I had already established some sort of ongoing drug usage.2

But then, what is there to replace those scary life-ruining narratives with? If they’re wrong about pot or ecstasy, what other lies have they told? What else is out there? Curious, bright-eyed little budding drug users are left with nothing to guide them except information from other users and their own personal experimentation. And that’s where problems start. Unchecked experimentation without informed guidelines and boundaries is the main source of bad drug experiences, especially when constrained by access only to unregulated substances (looking at you, prohibition. Man you are just the absolute worst).

Without being armed with any sort of accurate, balanced information about drugs, safe usage or harm reduction, inquisitive experimenters are left to find out for themselves about harms and benefits, relying on their peers and on their own process of trial-and-error to discover a more rounded picture of the world of psychoactive substances. And since not everyone knows about Erowid, you can imagine what kind of ridiculously preventable crap can happen when ‘figuring it out as you go along’ is how it’s done. “Oops, okay, so apparently you shouldn’t re-dose GHB if it’s been less than an hour since your first dose. Too bad I found that out the hard way, by puking on my friend’s shoes and passing out in the middle of a Bassnectar concert. Would have been nice to know beforehand.”

This trial-and-error is a process that often causes damages that could have been be easily avoided had they had access to balanced information about drugs in the first place, framed by a critical-thinking orientation and informed by attention paid to all aspects of drugs’ place in human life: good, bad and neutral. It also—this is where we get into the really controversial stuff—might be preventing a lot of people from experiencing significant benefits from some drugs, especially psychedelics and MDMA.

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Don’t do drugs, k gotcha. I can still get wasted on jager though, right? Alcohol’s not a drug.

Scare tactics might prevent some teenagers from trying psychoactive substances, but they leave those who do end up trying them woefully unprepared. Sound familiar? It’s because we’ve already accepted that abstinence-only education is a gigantic, steaming pile of failure when it comes to sex. Sex is an unavoidable part of life, teenagers included, despite what the puritans would like to believe. But guess what–today, right now, in our culture, drugs are an unavoidable part of life too. The odds are extremely good that you’re under the influence of a drug right now. My guess would be caffeine, especially if it’s morning when you’re reading this. Maybe it’s the evening, and you were sipping a glass of wine as you scrolled around Facebook and saw this post. Only you know what’s in your medicine cabinet. Drugs are such a normal part of life that we barely even remember the fact that most of us take them all the time.

Ignoring this fact is either a significant oversight in health education, or a conscious choice to leave those dirty, deviant experimenters who are curious about drugs to fend for themselves. This might make sense, in some cold, heartless neoliberal way, if human beings didn’t have a pretty clear universal desire to both alter our consciousness and experience pleasure. Either we find a way to get rid of that desire (HAH), or we need to acknowledge reality and have a conversation about what to do next.

“The reluctance to acknowledge research findings which show that experimental drug use is a normal part of adolescent development and that it may in fact improve psychological health, prevents genuine reform of abstinence-based drug education” (Keane 2003:229).

Is it time for education based on moderation and information, then, instead of prohibition and abstinence? This is the stance that public education in Canada takes on sex education, and we know it works far better than abstinence-only education. The idea of allowing young people to make their own, even informed, choices about their bodies is one that doesn’t sit well with many policymakers or parents. It makes them grimace and squirm and protest. However, the fact is that these choices are being made by young people regardless of the lack of information they have to making those choices with. The current strategy of leaving youth uninformed or even deliberately misinformed in the hopes that they abstain from drugs (many of which aren’t even harmful unless they’re consumed improperly) is, quite frankly, immoral.

Let’s treat teenagers with some respect, instead of thinking that lying to them is going to protect them from the world.

Please share this, or start a conversation, with anyone you know who is reasonable enough to accept that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, but might not have realized that about drug education too.

—–

1 A longer interview excerpt from that story, because it’s hilarious:

Brad: My parents were rock and rollers. My rebellion was spreadsheets, computers and math, and you know, getting a job.
Hilary: [Laughs]
Brad: I got a mortgage at 21, and I didn’t even have a beer until I was 30.
Hilary: Were your parents disappointed?
Brad: They were really disappointed. They genuinely were like, “Brad we’re really worried about you, you’re not gonna try drugs?”
Hilary: [Laughing] Seriously?
Brad: Yeah. And that’s because I was on the path to becoming a miserable square. Like, didn’t live. Didn’t party. Didn’t have fun. And that’s, I mean, I was a workaholic, through my twenties. That’s all I did. So I’m kind of going through my twenties now. Kind of backwards.

2 Note that Bobby’s last comment is a great example of the legal/illegal conflation of what is or is not considered a ‘drug’.

 

The intangible narcotic: What does ‘vibe’ mean, really?

There’s a term that comes up pretty frequently when talking about electronic music events. A search within my interviews (excepts from which are quoted here) and field notes found it mentioned 88 times. Everyone knows what it means, but no one knows exactly how to define it.

Daniel: Vibe is almost a different narcotic of its own. Vibe is… it’s intangible, you can’t touch it, you can only feel it, sense it.

It’s a word I found myself using and implicitly understanding long before I began to think about what it really means. The vibe of, or at, an event can be all levels and qualifiers of ‘great’ and ‘amazing’, or it can be chill, or it can be strange, aggressive, sketchy, even hostile. (Yeah I know. Describing this explicitly is awkward already. Bear with me, we’ll wince together.)

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On the dance floor people move from one area to another, soaking up as many different sensations and feelings as they can. I say sensations because each area has its own vibe, or energy, that can be felt. Participants have described this vibe primarily as a subtle form of communication among people. It is both body language and an intangible energy that is given off by people and can be felt by others. – Brian Rill (2010)

As usual when I’m trying to unpack terms we all take for granted in the rave scene, I feel a little silly doing it. (Trying to define, in academic language, what exactly a ‘bro’ is was one of the funniest things I’ve had to do while writing up my research.) Pulling apart the concept of ‘vibe’ felt like deconstructing a joke – talking about it explicitly ruins what makes it special; its very existence is made of an implicit shared understanding of a subjective experience. The word started to lose all meaning, as it will soon for you if you keep reading this post.

But there was still something bugging me. Some important meaning hidden in the way people talk about it. It seems trivial, but it turns out that the vibe of an event indexes much more than it would appear.

Hilary: So you say the crowd is really important to you. Can you describe the kind of vibe that you enjoy?
Mandy: Um… Open-minded. Uh, I like weird people. [Laughs] Like, a diverse crowd, I think. I can tell when people are there for something other than the music. And then it kind of just ruins, like, the vibe.

Steven: All the frat boys were showing up and pissing on the trees, and it was just not the right community or vibe anymore.

Ali: You get a certain vibe when you go into places. Like, I don’t know, I’m a very intuitive person, I feel like I read people well, and I just know whether I’m like, in a safe place or not. [Laughs] It sounds so corny, but it’s true.

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What are the things that affect the vibe of an event? The décor, the lighting, the music, the attitude of the staff members (especially security), the size of the event, the theme (if any), the type of clothes people are wearing, the time of day or night, the type of drugs being consumed, and the age of attendees. But dwarfing all of these factors in its impact on the vibe is one key element. Pinpointing and exploring this element became an important focus of my research, as it underlies one of the main problems at raves, particularly the mainstream ones that young and inexperienced people are more likely to attend.

The first event I attended where the overall negative vibe began to stray into very uncomfortable territory due to this particular factor occurred late in July, and it’s a story which incidentally includes some good illustrations of harm reduction in practice. My partner Diego, our good friend Jake and I were at a techno event. Jake had taken three hits of acid, which had made him unusually chatty, though he was also feeling self-conscious and not fully able to articulate his thoughts.

“I’m going to rely on you guys tonight, ok? You’re my guides,” he told Diego and I. I told him he seemed to be keeping it together pretty well. “I have no baseline for what would be considered keeping it together right now,” he responded. I laughed and told him he was doing fine, trying to make sure he felt he had a basis of support for his trip.

The place was still pretty empty. Two girls were sitting on some flat leather seating around a low table in one of the corners. Since there was plenty of room, and my legs were still sore from an event the night before, I went to sit down. The girls whispered to each other and stared at me. I ignored them, but suspecting what was going on, gave them the courtesy of exaggeratedly rubbing my knees and back for effect. Finally one of them walked over.

“This is a private booth,” she said.2015-06-14 00.13.17

“Oh,” I responded, looking at the empty seats. I briefly considered playing dumb and making her spell it out even more for me, but decided on being straightforward. “Can I just sit here for a few minutes?”

She looked unhappy, but was too shocked at my shameless impertinence to argue. “I guess so.”

I could tell she wasn’t going to be able to enjoy herself until I left. Diego, highly unimpressed with her attitude, told me to take as much time as I needed. Her indignance made me think about the purely relative basis of wealth and status. How could she enjoy the exclusivity of having paid for a private booth if it was no longer private? A bottle-service booth so empty that non-VIPs could accidentally wander in and sit down throws the arbitrary and pretentious nature of these booths in their occupants’ face and devalues the experience completely. Despite feeling bad for the type of person whose feathers could become so ruffled at such an absurdist challenge to their power, my own distaste for being asked to leave an empty seat that could fit five people kept me in place. Wanting very different things from the same event, we were both clear examples of ruining the vibe for one another, for very different reasons.

After a few minutes—enough time to preserve my Marxist dignity without causing her glares of annoyance to turn into sad, sad rage—we went to dance. The music was excellent, but I could already tell that the general feeling of this event was not to my taste. I found that I could not face the DJ, as a blinding strobe light was positioned directly above his head. All I could hear was the incredibly loud bass, which is apparently an acquired taste, as I frequently disagree with my musical connoiseur friends Brad and Daniel on the value of being able to hear anything but said bass. The smoke machine was so intense and the venue so small that when I opened the door to the bathroom I actually wondered if there was a separate smoke machine in there as well. Regardless, none of these factors were all that bad, and the venue was unique, so it seemed worth staying.

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With all this stimulation, however, Jake began to feel somewhat overwhelmed. I took him outside for some air and gave him a water bottle that I’d been filling up in the bathroom. I went back inside and wrote down in my fieldnotes to “Google ‘smoke machine toxicity’” which made me laugh at how inadequate the conception of ‘risk’ in the rave scene really is, as I’m considered to be a risk taker. Soon, however, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Jake had returned, looking anxious. He asked me to come help him outside.

In the smoking area, I found out that two young men were accusing him of drugging their friend, who I’ll call Pale Sweat-Face. Seeing that Pale Sweat-Face looked sweaty and pale, Jake had offered him some of the water I’d given him, which they were convinced for some reason contained GHB as well. Apparently, Jake, in his acid-influenced reasoning that communication barriers were all that stood in the way of understanding, reconciliation and friendship, had tried to use meticulous honesty and tell them that since the water had been out of his possession for a few minutes while I filled it up in the bathroom, he couldn’t technically guarantee there was nothing in it, but that he trusted the person who filled it up. I swore to them that it was just water, and that of course none of us would give someone GHB without knowing. I could feel the eyes of the security guard watching us. Pale Sweat-Face had clearly taken something; he looked disoriented and woozy. I was more concerned about Jake, however; this type of conflict can easily set off a bad trip for a person on psychedelics. I knew Jake fairly well and had seen him handle LSD capably before, but three hits is a sizeable amount for anyone, and bad trips can be a terrifying experience.

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I couldn’t place something about the attitude of the young men, however. I couldn’t tell if they were accusing us because they actually thought we did it, or because they were choosing to be intentionally antagonistic and argumentative, something I’d rarely seen in the rave scene but have definitely witnessed from intoxicated men and women many times at ‘regular’ bars. When I realised the latter might be the case, I stopped trying to convince them we’d done nothing, grabbed Jake and went back inside.

We attempted to shake off the unpleasantness by dancing. We reassured a frazzled Jake, still peaking on LSD, that he’d done nothing wrong; he was just trying to be nice and share water with someone who looked like they needed it. He shook his head and gave me a hug. “Reality is so complicated right now,” he muttered.

We were just starting to enjoy ourselves again when a tall blonde man in his early twenties approached me. “Do you want to dance?” He placed his hand on the small of my back.

Being a woman in the rave scene, I had quickly become adept at conveying the body language of thanks, that’s enough, and that is all the interaction we will be having tonight. It is an essential skill and one that all women who participate in nightlife develop in some way. Fending off unwanted advances is unfortunately a standard part and parcel of the experience of women at many of these events. When body language fails, things get even more awkward and you’re forced to try words instead. Words are tough when you’re socialized to never be direct and assertive, though, so these little messy situations happen neverendingly, and they always suck.

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I began to run through the familiar rolodex of conflicting emotional responses to the blonde guy’s question. The heart of the conflict, which most women are intimately familiar with and which is being challenged in contemporary feminist activism, is the perceived need to be gentle in declining a man’s advances, and appreciative of their supposed inherently complimentary nature. How do I say no without being rude? It’s an exhausting and ridiculous question women find themselves asking over and over. We should be asking an entirely different one, but I won’t get into that right now.

“Sure, if you’re ok that my husband is right there,” is what I chose to respond to the blonde guy. The idea behind this approach was that, in the unlikely case that he still didn’t lose interest upon hearing this, it would indicate that he was genuinely just interested in dancing briefly and nothing more, which would be fine.

But Jake and Diego were already intervening on my behalf. Diego put his arm around me and Jake asked the man to back off. Knowing them, I am sure this kind of overprotectiveness would not have happened if we had not already felt an aggressive, unwelcome vibe from the event. I talk to strangers all the time at these things, I am doing research after all. But the whole situation, it seemed, just smelled wrong to them. We hadn’t been meeting friendly, smiling, open people at this place. Why should this person be any different?

Yet I felt no better for not being allowed to deal with the situation on my own. When I told them this, Jake mused reflectively about his instinctive drive to intervene. “Maybe I’m more protective of you because you’re like one of my herd.”

The whole thing felt gross. We eventually decided that the music was not good enough to make up for the aggressive vibe of the event, and decided to go to the after-hours club to keep dancing and attempt to salvage the night (and Jake’s trip). As we turned the corner outside on the street, we saw a group of four young men. One was the blonde who had asked me to dance. The other three were the same men with the ambiguously aloof and hostile attitudes who had sent Jake’s trip spiraling into a bad direction by accusing him of giving one of them GHB. Things clicked into place. I hadn’t even realised they were in the same group. They’d apparently been kicked out because of their friend’s drugged-out behaviour.

Despite having had more than enough of all four of them, I couldn’t fight the mama hen instinct in me to check on Pale Sweat-Face and make sure he’d be OK. I tried to convince them once more that I hadn’t put GHB in the water by showing them one of the business cards I made to give to people interested in my research. “I work in harm reduction, I’m the last person who would drug someone.”

One guy examined my card and looked up at me. “You’re not just being a bitch right now?”

We left.

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The real heart of the ‘vibe’ at an event isn’t the decor, or the venue, or the age of the attendees. Though of course it’s not the only factor (which I hope was made clear by the above narrative), by far the most important one seems to simply be the reason why the men are there. Are they there to dance and enjoy the music, or are they there for basically any other reason? If it’s the latter, it’s going to end up fucking up the night for some or all of the poor kiddos who just want to dance.

Vibe is basically summed up in how the men at an event behave. Towards each other, but particularly, of course (sigh) towards women. Either way, if people don’t feel safe, they won’t have fun. And the only real dangers at raves come not from something inherent in drug use, or from a risk of fires or some bullshit (looking at you, Toronto FD, couldja stop?), but from the unpredictable and self-reinforcing behaviour of some men.

There’s a dance version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (can we call it Agro’s hierarchy of rave needs? Cause I would totally love that to be my legacy), and not worrying about walking piles of aggression when you’re trying to party is right at the bottom. It’s foundational. Talking to people all along the gender spectrum, and digging into their thoughts about the vibe at their favourite (and least favourite) events, it became clear that the comfort and safety of women is the key factor that determines everything else. Right above safety is a lack of judgement from other people. We’re all at these things to get away from the constant social judgements we receive on a daily basis for being the weirdos we are, and play with the arbitrary rules and boundaries about what to wear, say and do that we’re forced to follow in everyday life. When people say, “the vibe of that place is awesome”, what they’re really saying is, “I’m a woman and nobody grinded their dick into my hip at that place even though I was wearing only my bra” and “I’m a guy and I felt like I could hug my male friends without getting hit by a stinky wave of judgemental testosterone from those unsmiling dudes in flat-brimmed hats in the corner”.

Ahhh, bros.

I’m going to continue with this theme in my next post, which will be about gender dynamics in the rave scene. Look at you, just bursting with anticipation over there. Happy International Women’s Day.

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As always, names have been changed and if you think I’m right, wrong or completely full of shit, feel free to let me know.

Feelings into words: Harvest Festival Part 2

Read part one here.

Describing, in words, what it’s like to be at a rave is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do for my research. How can one possibly describe what it feels like to be there, in the moment? The unbounded ego loss, the embodied sensations, the immediacy of the act—by its very nature, the meaning of the experience is lost in any attempt to translate it into text.

It’s as it should be, really. The space in which we live our daily lives is one in which everything we do and see and think is translated into language. Language is the only means we have of shortening the distance between each other, that maddening asymptote at the root of all human conflict and knowledge and love. If coming together to dance is one of the ways we manage to climb out of that mediated space, out of our heads, our worlds constantly defined and categorized and re-defined and re-categorized, over and over—then this liminal experience being impossible to truly put into words is what makes it so special.

But it sure as hell makes it difficult to write a thesis on it.

Crystal 6

So there we were, dancing in the Crystal 6 tent at Harvest Festival. This was it, the culmination of weeks of preparation and hours of driving and money and excitement and hassle and anticipation. Dirty Decibels were on stage, killing it as always, and we lost ourselves in the beat. Our collective movements were punctuated by those delightful, individual moments of weirdness and joy that are unique to these types of gatherings. At one point I discovered that the person whose homemade LED-lined suit I had been admiring earlier in the night was an old friend I’d known since childhood but not seen in a decade. At another point, I tried on a friend’s kaleidoscope glasses, which were so ridiculously intense in that environment that it took me a good few minutes to come back down to earth after the experience.

But mostly, I danced. We danced. Sharing the space, the sound, smiles, water, we vibrated inside a transcendent cloud of music as millions have before us and will long after we’re gone in one long continuum of human experience. Under lasers and smoke and what looked like gigantic pink Fleshlights suspended from the ceiling, we danced.

* * *

After a few hours, the Crash tent began calling my name. I’d been hearing cryptic rumours all day about something extraordinary waiting inside the mythical psytrance tent. Diego, Erica, Dave, Zach and I got into a huddle. We knew that if we didn’t make an effort to check it out now, we risked getting stuck in the dancing equivalent of an ass-groove on the couch and never leaving Crystal 6 at all. So, like toddlers about to play in the snow, we bundled and layered up for the cold trek down the hill.

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Moving shapes and distractions passed by on either side as, on autopilot, my vision stuck to the familiar pattern of the front-back-side-to-side world of eggshell-white ceilings and hallways. By chance, though, I looked up. And the sky exploded above me.

My breath caught in the cold air as we all stopped to stare up at the magnificent cathedral of stars that the city hides from us year-round. Here was yet another one of those indescribably magical moments where my communication medium of choice can do nothing but yield to the power of my second favourite, photos. But of course, photos need to be captured in the moment. And it was too cold for that. So, resolving to postpone serious photographic exploration until next year, on we went.

If the sum of the earth’s beauty is a double sided coin of the greatest treasures that both nature and humanity have to offer (under, of course, the debateable assumption that these are separate spheres), stepping into the Crash tent after that natural display was like getting immediately punched in the face by the other side of the coin. I mean, holy shit.

I spotted my friend Daniel, who stood a head above everyone else. He was not surprised by my flabbergasted reaction. “People walk into this tent and are either blown away and fall in love, or look as if they just witnessed a horrific beating,” he told me with a grin. “There’s not a lot of reactions in between.”

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Psytrance Squid had a fun time at the glowstick factory.

We got lost in a time vortex. I spent an unknowable amount of time staring at the wall of meticulously crafted string art alone. This was the most ridiculous place I’d ever been inside. Blacklights and artwork and some sort of enormous alien vortex hanging above us that looked like a giant squid broke into a glowstick factory owned by Timothy Leary. The five of us who went in thought we’d be there for just a couple minutes. But we couldn’t look away. We staggered out 45 minutes later still unable to entirely comprehend what we just saw. We walked back up the hill, carrying the fortunes from cookies we’d been given by a random stranger, and blinking through the neon shine leftover in our fields of vision.

Then, just because, Aurora fucking Borealis happened. Out of nowhere. In the sky. So, there was that.

I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.

* * *

We decided it was high time to finally head to the Pyramid. Bundling up once more, we wove our way out past the ping-pong table and ran into Bobby, a friend who works on the sound crew. He was carrying a shovel and looked exhausted but cheerful. “I’ve been digging trenches for power cables for the past two hours,” he sighed, wiping his forehead. Of course we hadn’t even noticed the hardworking people in the background of the event, making sure everything went smoothly. We just took for granted that everything seemed to magically work out. I gave him a hug and thanked him for doing what he did.

“This is a world-class festival,” said Zach, as we looked out over the multicoloured river. “Justin is a visionary.”

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Afterwards, I talked to Daniel, one of my go-to people for answers to complex questions about the scene in Toronto, about how on earth a thing like this exists. “I could literally talk for hours about what makes that event so special and spectacular,” he told me. “But it boils down to this: incredible achievements are possible if nobody is trying to take credit for them.”

I’d still like to hear more about WHY they do it,” I asked him. I thought about the other, bigger, more commercial festivals I’d been to. “It seems obvious of course, but it’s really pretty amazing to resist the temptation to allow monetization to just chip away at the thing.”

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the ‘why’ you speak of—it is there, and not something easily explained in a few words,” he replied. “But it is a ‘why’ that speaks to the inherent good that is possible with humans if we accept that each of us mean well, but have weaknesses that we are both honest to others about and, more importantly, with ourselves about.”

“It seems so difficult to really not be cynical about it. It feels too good to be true,” I admitted to him. “We’re like wounded puppies that have been beaten so much by unbridled consumerism and the invisible hand of the market that we don’t recognize the warm, loving hand of actual, no-fine-print-or-hidden-catches human positivity.”

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“I’ve told the organizers of Breakandenter and Boxofkittens, Harvest Festival, Justin, who continues to be a good friend to this day, and Bobby who now works for him, Dave, Irving, this whole circle of organizers—guys, I’m a better human being as a result of what you’ve done.”

* * *

At the Pyramid, finally, I had my first experience hearing a well-known DJ named Medicineman, and his (along with Dirty Decibels) was my favourite set of the weekend. It blew me away and kept me dancing despite the creeping fatigue setting in. Still, the frequency of breaks I was needing to be able to keep going was steadily increasing. The Crystal 6 tent where we’d spent most of our time did not have any seating—the one thing I would have changed about the setup—a fact which I was feeling in my legs hours later. At one point I sat down on a leather couch next to a man in a steampunk outfit. The smile I gave him turned to a frown of deep, deep disappointment as I realised that I’d sat down squarely in a freezing cold puddle of water. But it all worked out, as his sympathy turned into a long conversation about salsa dancing—he was an instructor—and relationships.

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I went outside and watched the sun come up as I peed on the grass at the edge of some trees, revelling in the glory of not using a portapotty, one of life’s little joys. As the last of our dance-generated body warmth began to fade, we finally gathered up our things and went back to the tent to add more layers on before the final leg of the journey—one last trip to the Screaming Heads.

Leaning up against the monument in the weak, misty sunlight, I reflected on all the tiny little moments that come together to make a weekend like this so unforgettable. Sharing a chat over the fire of a warming barrel. Seeing the joy on someone else’s face and feeling it through them. Saying you wish you had something and the other person has it on them at exactly that moment. Or telling someone you need something and they end up going way out of their way to get it for you (thanks for the batteries, Brad). Sharing a pee in the woods with a stranger, squatting and bonding. Walking by dozens, hundreds of unique, fascinating individuals, who each one you could spend a lifetime getting to know and it wouldn’t be enough—like the most contented-looking man in history stroking a fox-fur around his shoulders, or the guy in the purple wig and “Peanut-Free Elephant” sign—the many strangers-turned-friends you end up recognizing at events all the time. The Wizard making you sing Bird is the Word as you cross the river. (It didn’t work out very well but it was funny.) Shared water at just the right moment. Surprise hugs from behind. Exchanging smiles with a stranger who you know, as far as it is possible to know the inside of another person’s experience, is feeling the same way you are.

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Photo Credit: Cory Richardson.

That moment in your tent when your head finally hits the balled-up sweater that is your pillow, and all you can do is dream, wide awake, as reality converges on half-asleep fantasies and you drift blissfully in between, not caring about sleep because when life is that sweet you can’t tell the difference, and it doesn’t matter.

* * *

There was a beautiful five-second period between when I woke up and when the morning tent-sweats hit me. Had we been teleported to the surface of Mercury? No, the sun had just turned our tent into an orange dome of FIRE.

I staggered out, opened the cooler and began stuffing my face with grapes. I overheard a conversation just ahead of me that I was intrigued by, and wandered over to join in. It was indeed a very fascinating conversation. And I would very much love to tell you about it. However, I can’t. I can’t talk about something which is an integral part of the experience of these precious spaces for many people. Because no matter how looming or far away it seems from moment to moment, we live under the constant threat of having everything taken away from us due to stigma- and fear-based legislation and moral scapegoating.

And it makes me angry. It should make you angry too. This bullshit needs to end.

My conversation with this intelligent, fascinating person eventually turned, somehow (ahem, so weird how this happens when I’m around), to the topic of capitalism and wealth disparity. Floating on a cloud of unshakeable post-dancing contentment as I was, I think it was the first time that I’ve been able to calmly converse with someone who believes that “Having ten times more stuff comes from doing ten times more stuff,” and “wealth comes from adding value to the world”, while maintaining a straight face and completely open mind. Maybe money does make you a better person. Maybe you can save the fucking spotted owl with money. Who knows. Anything is possible.

Cough.

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Diego and I decided to go for a quick walk around. We followed the sound of raucous music coming from the Pyramid and ended up at the ferry. A few naked bodies were swimming in the water, and I wished I had the energy to join them. I knew it would feel good, but that first two-second shock was enough to keep me from jumping in. Two of them climbed onto the ferry as we crossed. “How’s the water?” I asked.

“Amazing,” beamed the naked woman.

The dripping-wet guy beside her caught my eye and shook his head surreptitiously with a grin. No, it’s freezing, his expression said. I laughed. I was just wondering what the older woman in pastel golf clothes beside me thought of the whole scene, when she jokingly complimented the girl’s butt. So I didn’t dream up this whole magical place, then. It was real, at least for another few precious hours.

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What I did to this sandwich was practically indecent.

We danced to Osunlade’s lovely, unpredictable set with a remarkable amount of unexplained energy. Our “ten-minute walk” turned into two hours of a dusty encore as we enjoyed the first real sun all weekend. At some point I ended up eating a bacon and avocado sandwich that tasted like a thousand rainbows dipped in Thor’s chest sweat, provided by the infamous Charlie Brown. This doesn’t really add anything to the narrative, I just think you should know how good that sandwich was.

As we made our way onto a small hill to survey the crowd, I was fascinated by a girl in mushroom-patterned socks and a straw hat with tiny sunflowers who was simultaneously walking, dancing, drinking a beer, and hooping at the same time. I complimented her when she arrived near us, and she told me about what discovering hula hooping had done for her.

“Hooping is my centre, my meditation, my connection with the universe, where I find myself,” she smiled. “If I feel a negative thought coming, I lose focus and drop it,” she gestured to the hoop. “So it just keeps me centred.”

As I watched people dance and talk and laugh, I tried to spot figures I recognized in the crowd. I thought about the two uncomfortable-looking bro’s I’d spotted the first night who looked like they were utterly bemused at how all their high school bullying victims had managed to all gather together in one place. I smiled, imagining their transformation over the weekend as they become one of us. Swallowed up and neutralized by the hippies, like white blood cells converging in.

I popped the last of my sandwich into my mouth and we began to make our way home.

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 * * *

I like life. A lot. I didn’t use to. But knowing what it feels like to not enjoy life, and having climbed all those hills and won all those battles, I now try to wring as much joy out of it as I possibly can. This has ended up with me sometimes getting a little too excited about the things I get excited about. I’m used to friends rolling their eyes at me and taking my enthusiastic recommendations with a grain of salt. I don’t really care, because fuck it, if I want to have 50 number-one-absolute-most-favourite songs, I will. If I have several best friends, it’s not because I can’t pick, it’s because they’re all the single best people I’ve ever met. Yes, this show will change your life. Yes, that massage was the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Yes, this cheese is making me reevaluate all my life choices and dearest belief systems in the attempt to reconcile its very existence. Yeah I know it’s from Costco. Doesn’t matter.

The thing is, when you live your life in constant hyperbole like this, even if it’s based on a deep, ineffable appreciation for all that humanity has to offer, it really screws you over when something like Harvest comes around. You’ve used up all your words and there are none left that really do it justice.

But sometimes, even if you want so badly to be able to turn it into words and make sense of it, a feeling is good enough on its own.

Yin and yang at Harvest Festival: Part 1

NOTE: I will not be discussing my regular research topic (drug use) in this post–despite how much I hate the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ status quo between festival culture and the outside world that regulates us–out of respect to the organizers of Harvest. All names have been changed.

I inspected the external flash and took a few test photos. I’d found the flash on Craigslist. The eyes of the Richmond Hill man I was buying it from widened in shock when I told him we were on our way to a music festival.

“You’re going to bring your camera equipment?” he asked. “I’d never bring mine to something like that. Won’t it get stolen?”

I packed up the flash and got out a wad of $20 bills. “I think it’ll be fine. This isn’t a big festival full of drunk people,” I said as I handed him the money. “It’s called Harvest Festival. It’s just a bunch of nice hippies.”

“I wouldn’t trust anyone at a festival,” he replied. He clearly thought I was being naïve, but accepted the cash without further comment. Was I being naïve? I’d never actually been to this festival before. I mean, I wasn’t going to just leave my camera lying around or anything. But from what I knew about Harvest, it wasn’t the type of place to worry too much.

What could go wrong? No really, that's not foreshadowing.

Just a bunch of nice hippies.

Diego and I drove up with two friends of ours, part of an extended group of people we’d met and became close to through my research. To be honest, we’d never really spent quality time with Erica and Dave before. We had slept in their house, though, when they were out of town. On their wedding night. “We won’t be needing it,” reasoned Erica when she offered, as if it was no big deal to add ‘last-minute houseguests’ onto the list of wedding day preparations. “Make yourselves at home!” That’s the kind of people they are.¹

Arrival: Welcome to your wildest dreams
As we rolled into the campgrounds, we were greeted by bright lights and 15-foot stone faces wearing 3D glasses. Diego carefully threaded the car through lines of campers dragging bags and coolers. “Happy Harvest!” chirped the man who exchanged our tickets for wristbands. We’d hear that refrain a lot over the weekend.

What a perfect welcoming sign. Photo credit: Becca MJ

Concentrating on bringing our stuff to our campsite was difficult while being blasted by unexpected weirdness from every angle. Disoriented but excited, we passed the sounds of drums ringing through the chilly autumn air from a hill dotted with bonfires. Grown adults wearing galaxy tights and onesies spilled out of a gigantic pink dome pumping out tribal techno. Chinese lanterns and hand-painted signs—one said “Beware! Clothing optional past this point”—lined the crooked pathway. We reached our spot near the enormous LED owl that one of our several dozen campmates had created for the occasion. As we set up our tent in the wet grass, I remember being glad I’d heeded the many warnings beforehand from seasoned Harvesters on Facebook to bring rain boots or spend the weekend regretting it.

DSC_5529 - CopyThe first night was low-key, spent drinking beer and socializing in the Thermodome, the pink structure near the entrance. (“Thunderdome?” I asked as we entered. “No, Thermodome! There’s no fighting in here,” called a grinning stranger.) I was told that this understated Friday is intentionally planned by the festival’s organizers, to ensure most people wouldn’t be too wiped out before the main night. They carefully design the entire weekend’s flow to maximize how and when the majority of people will be able to spend their energy without burning out. Their plan worked for us at least, as we were in bed before 3 am.

As I would soon discover, the fact that the work of the organizers is centred entirely around curating the most unabashedly creative experience possible, rather than maximizing profit, comes through in hundreds of ways. The collaboration of countless people on endless delightful tiny details adds up to a weekend where everywhere you turn, something new and weird and delightful is waiting to make you wonder, once more, how a perfect place like this can exist in a world so often full of pain and sorrow.

Weather and unity
Rain pounding on the tent woke me up then lulled me into a contented semi-slumber. I didn’t know what to expect of the day ahead of me. I had heard very few specifics. But the knowing smiles, the glint in the eyes of the people who’d strongly recommended I go to Harvest for my research formed the foundation of the anticipation coursing through me.

A rare break in the clouds.

A rare break in the clouds.

About when I gave up on sleeping in, knowing I’d regret it later, I heard voices approaching outside. A man in a yellow rain slicker combo, purple tie and Santa hat walked into our campsite with a boom box, talking about the spirit molecule. I smiled and felt the familiar feeling of being at home with my fellow eccentrics.

I left Diego snoring in the tent and went with Erica and Dave to visit a few buddies in a nearby campsite, where they got to discover that being friends with me involves hearing me explain my research to someone at least once every hour anytime I’m at an event. (For purposes of informed consent and all that, but also it’s just my favourite topic and I never get tired of talking to people about it.)

I chatted with a guy about Burning Man as his friend made cup after cup of individually-brewed coffee for anyone who wanted one. Another man offered tea. “Is it caffeinated?” I asked, aware of the irony of being wary of the most benign of substances, considering the specific ways in which I usually respond to joking accusations of being a narc.

“I’ve got both. Black tea, and a non-caffeinated mix of green and white tea,” he reassured me. With a subtle nod to my topic of interest, he poetically explained the reason behind having both options: “There’s a lot of yang at these things, so I always make sure to have some yin.”

Suddenly, we heard cries coming from the camp next door, just up the hill. A girl ran down to our tent. “Can we get some help over here?” Their canopy had blown over in the strong winds. Several of us sprung into action and went to help out. I unclipped heavy hanging decorations then went to find rope as Dave joined in the group of people attempting to keep the weight of the huge burlap top from further breaking the metal supports. Within minutes, we’d moved and stabilized the canopy. Ad-hoc festival teamwork at its finest. When the sun broke through the clouds, a cheer rolled through the festival from all corners of the grounds.

We decided it was high time to go for a walk and check out the infamous Crash tent. As I waited for Erica and Dave to get their rain ponchos, I watched our campmate Ian painstakingly cut out pieces of cardboard and tape them together for his costume, undaunted by the misty rain. His creation didn’t look like much so far, but he certainly seemed determined.

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The live music stage.

During our walk, we discovered why Crash, the psytrance stage, is called Crash: It’s in the shape of an enormous cartoon spaceship, crashed into the ground. This was my first taste of the extent of the unbridled creativity that went into that unbelievable tent (which I’ll talk more about in Part Two). Our visit was cut short, however, when a torrent of rain began in earnest. On the way back we passed by the rope-powered barge that led towards the Pyramid, from which bass music was already climbing out in waves. That barge would be my nexus of introspection throughout the coming day and night. It would be the source of both an anxious dilemma about the double-edged intersection between my research methods and my personality, and fleeting moments of zen-like calm that could muffle the surrounding chaos into soft wisps of pulsing sound, buttressing an untouchable, serene joy.

Liftoff
At 3 pm, we decided to begin the day’s real journey. For the next two hours, we got our costumes on and made food, including the most pathetically utilitarian pot of Kraft Dinner I’ve ever seen – chunks of cheese clinging to dry, sticky clumps of noodles. We shoveled it in regardless, juggling makeup brushes and clothing layers in the indecisive rain, under a layered chorus of giggling fits. The important thing was to get some sort of sustenance inside us, as difficult as it was during that particular point in time. Food is often more of a nuisance than a pleasure at festivals, especially as night descends and lengthens into near eternity. But constant maintenance of food in the belly is crucial to festival success for many, many reasons.

The mural that anyone could add to. It was different every time we walked by it.

The mural that people THOUGHT that anyone could add to. It was different every time we walked by it. Turns out it was supposed to be one artist’s work and people didn’t know that.

“Let’s go check out the Pyramid,” suggested Dave. Decked out in a hodgepodge of feathers and thrift store miscellanea from head to toe, we walked past murals and giant spiderwebs and port-a-potties towards the barge to cross the river.

Wizard, the bargeman, gestured to the rope that needed manning. “Can I get someone to do the thing with the things?” With an impressive balancing act between jovial and sarcastic, he peppered our journey with casually hilarious banter as we were slowly pulled across. Just as I was about to get out my phone to take a video so I could remember exactly why it was so funny and prevent what’s happening right this second, which is that I can’t remember what the hell he said, he began a speech about putting away electronic devices and living in the moment. Well. So much for that.

I perhaps could have remembered that I was actually intentionally there not only to experience, but to document, and done it anyway. But though the ravenously obsessive documentarian inside me is not inclined to agree, I’ve gotten the sense from some people that it’s good once in a while to just let go and be able to remember only vague feelings rather than specifics. “I’m always trying to find a balance between capturing moments as they happen, and experiencing them to the fullest while they’re happening,” Dave told me later in a conversation about taking photos. My instinct to obsessively document stems from a frustratingly unpredictable memory, and though the kind of research I’m doing (ethnographic) is a perfect outlet to harness and utilize that instinct, finding the limit has been difficult and the source of much perfectionistic agony. I’m lucky that some of my friends have been very accommodating about giving me permission to turn my recorder on when we’re out at events.

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Go to the Pyramid, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

Our walk into the pyramid was framed by a square tunnel of rainbow LEDs. I teetered a little as we went, with confused sea legs from barely a few minutes’ ride. We followed a man who looked like he’d inherited Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat’s jacket and found a matching wig and pants. As we approached the booming, colossal yellow shrine, music pulsated from the walls, grinding into the ground and making my hair shake. Erica looked back at me with the same overwhelmed expression that was likely on my own face. We took a deep breath and the four of us walked inside.

I’m a little fuzzy on exactly what happened in the next sixty seconds. All I have are flashes of memory and a very strong feeling of being entirely not at all in the right state of mind for the seething cacophony of humanity that was inside.

We turned around and went back to the campsite.

“I need a nap after that nap.”
Waiting out the rain once again, our plan to have a snack break and disco naps turned into about an hour and a half of pretending the inside of our tent was a palace made of cheese, and a spaceship, in that order. It made perfect sense in context. Maybe you had to be there.

“Don’t forget we have to rave later,” Dave reminded us. We lamented having spent all our potential nap time giggling and eating tomatoes. Festivals are a marathon, not a sprint, and an ironic amount of planning has to go into lasting the whole night. It’s funny how much work having fun can be. “To think that it’s only seven o’clock is terrifying,” groaned Erica. At least twelve hours of partying still lay ahead of us.

I know. To jokingly complain about this is the quintessence of privilege, and we’re fully aware of it. There’s no guilt involved, really; it’s not a productive feeling. There’s only so much you can do. No, it’s not fair that we get to live this life. It’s not fair that we’re able to spend our weekends seeking pleasure rather than safety from gunfire. But fairness is irrelevant when nobody deserves anything, and everyone deserves everything. As long as our days in the real world are spent trying to chip away at all those infuriating inequities that blight our species, this utopic respite from that real world is medicine for the soul.

We devoted some time to preparing for the night ahead of us. Hot dogs scarfed, water bottles filled, granola bars packed, sweaters and onesies chosen. Earplugs, magnesium, Gatorade powder, chapstick, gum, headlamps. Harm reduction and benefit enhancement all wrapped into one responsible package. All the necessities of experienced campers and ravers, tucked away in our fanny packs so our future selves would spend the rest of the night thinking about how thoughtful we are. “Type A partying” became the running joke at an event earlier in the summer.

Ethnography is not an exact science

Getting our water ready for the night: This is me doing “science”. Ethnography is a strange endeavour.

As prepared as we were, there was something worrying me. Something in the form of shooting pains running from my right knee to midway up my back. All day, they’d been worsening. The sun had only just set and I was already scared that I wouldn’t make it through the night.

Enter… The Masseuse. Just a few feet away from where I sat munching on a cookie in front of the fire, a girl was sitting in front of a guy, receiving what looked like a possible solution to my problem.

“What do I have to do to get in on one of those?” I asked him. “Just come over here and sit down,” he answered with a warm smile.

This massage… It wasn’t just the solution to my aching back problem. It felt like the solution to every problem I’ve ever had. Unicorns and rainbows fell from his hands directly into my back and kicked the shit out of the Party-Pooping Pain Monster that had taken up residence there. I don’t think I ever need to try heroin because I know what it feels like now.

Sometimes, at the very best festivals, exactly what you need can just fall right into your lap. Harvest provides.

Partial photo credit to Diego for putting up with me constantly climbing on his shoulders for a better shot. Photography pro tip: marry a human tripod.

Partial photo credit to Diego for putting up with me constantly climbing on his shoulders for a better shot. Photography pro tip: marry a human tripod.

Waves of ecstatic cheering grew louder as we walked towards the Crystal 6 stage for the 8:00 circus show. We joined the crowd of people and strained to get a good view as fireballs exploded into the air to the tune of absurdist commentary from the loudspeakers. I climbed on Diego’s shoulders to snap a few photos but we eventually gave up and went to go see the “Screaming Heads” we’d heard so much about.

There they were, perched like dominoes in the moonlight. A monolithic hall of mirrors, giant stone faces swallowed up by the darkness. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat and basked in the sounds of a hippie drum circle around a campfire. I’d never done it surrounded by the Canadian transformational festival version of Stonehenge. It was nice. These moments of reflection and peace balance out the laughing, dancing insanity that takes up the majority of our time, giving meaning to both experiences that would otherwise be lost. The yin to the yang.

There would be a lot of yang happening very soon.

Continued in part two!

Notes:

¹ Later we went to their reception where Dave, the groom, was wearing zebra tights, a tank top with a pepperoni pizza pattern on it, and a bow tie. You can see why we knew we’d get along famously. On the drive up we skipped the small talk and went straight into a political analysis of socioeconomic disparity and the pros and cons of research thereof.

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Drugs are… good? No, that can’t be right. Can it?

Like most academics, I’m obsessive. I spend a lot of my free time doing searches for new research on recreational drug use. I do this partly because there’s a big gap in drug use and policy research that I’m waiting for someone to fill, and I can’t just let it go. I keep checking to see if someone’s addressed it yet, unable to seriously consider that I might have to be the one to fill it. Surely I’m just not looking hard enough. It must be hiding under some ethnographic couch cushion that I just haven’t lifted up yet.

You see, the perspectives and opinions that I have found in the field of social science drug research vary. There are different people coming from different backgrounds believing and arguing for different things. But almost all of the existing literature, both popular and academic, on illegal drug use is in agreement about one key assumption. It’s an unquestioned assumption which drives almost all research on drug users, yet drug users themselves laugh at it for its simplicity and ignorance:

The assumption that illegal drugs are inherently bad. All of them.

Can't it be both true and not true?

Can’t it be both true and not true?

Bad for individuals, bad for society. They are a scourge on humanity, they destroy lives and, boiled down to the essentials, are just a (complicated) problem to be solved. Some say we desperately need to find a way to get rid of all drugs. Some advocate for harm reduction, saying, well, drugs suck but we’re not going to get rid of them, so let’s at least reduce the harm they cause (while we figure out how to get rid of them). Some tout their potential medical benefits—man, have you been reading the news? Marijuana cures EVERYTHING!—but in doing so they maintain subservience to a strictly controlled biomedical framework as the only acceptable place for drugs that aren’t alcohol.

Probably thanks to where funding comes from, there just aren’t many researchers raising their hands from the back of the class to timidly propose that maybe, just maybe, we should question that assumption before we run around trying to solve problems. Because if our assumption is wrong, well, shit. Then the problem might be entirely different from what we think it is. There may not even be a problem.

Now, if you’ve ever actually worked with drug addicts, or been one, you may be about to angrily call me a naive idiot for implying that there’s no problem. Yes, some illegal drugs definitely cause problems. Huge ones.1 We’re all pretty aware of that. On the other hand, if you’ve ever been around responsible drug users, or been one yourself2, you may feel relieved to see this issue even acknowledged. Because the difference between problematic use or addiction and truly unproblematic recreational drug use, as muddled and complicated as the Venn diagram between the two may be, is what’s missing from most conversations about illegal drug users. The fact that its very existence is in question is what is wrong with the conversation on drug policy. The consistent denial of shades of grey is unforgivably ignorant after so many years.

Where are the social scientists critiquing the ‘all drugs are bad’ assumption?
They took drugs, they hugged, they laughed, they went home to their jobs and nothing bad happened. Why do researchers pretend these people don't exist?

They took drugs, they hugged, they laughed, they went home to their jobs and nothing bad happened. Why do researchers pretend these people don’t exist?

I have struggled to find existing research that really reflects the kind of work I’m currently doing. Everything comes from a problem-based orientation. That was my focus at the start, having drank the social-epidemiology Kool-Aid, but in keeping with the tradition of ethnographic research, I maintained no particular attachment to my original orientation and spent much of my time in the field questioning my own assumptions. Thus the conclusions I’m starting to reach from my fieldwork are somewhat unexpected, which is fairly common in anthropology. But because of it I’m at a loss to find many other researchers who think about drug use in the same way. Laymen, oh sure, plenty. But published research, not so much. (One can assume that this is heavily due to preexisting and self-perpetuating biases in funding sources. Paradigms don’t go down without a fight, especially those that are so usefully attached to marginalizing certain handy scapegoat populations.)

Some researchers have come close. Geoffrey Hunt, David Moore and others remind us to not leave out the concept of pleasure from analyses of drug use, but this is still a recommendation in service of the goal of use-reduction. I’ve also, of course, found research that challenges the mainstream status quo in other ways; Philippe Bourgois and Michael Agar are two obvious big names who’ve had incredibly profound effects on the study of addicted populations: “You can’t understand and explain an intoxicated corner of a society without a critique of the larger society that produced the historical conditions that make that corner the place that it is,” said Agar in his unbelievably entertaining memoir of a lifetime of drug policy research.

The goal I set out with in my research on ‘party drugs’ in the rave scene was based on that important idea, to figure out solutions through a holistic understanding of a drug-abusing population. But Bourgois and Agar study populations of drug users that generally, when it comes down to it, really hate the drugs that they use. They have good reason to. The difference in my research is that the underlying assumption that drug use is always a social problem is flawed when it comes to groups that may actually be using, and even benefiting from, recreational drugs in ways that don’t negatively affect them or the people around them.

What if non-addicted drug users really, just… kinda want their drug use to be left alone?

What if the problems stemming directly from their drug use are fairly minimal, and the benefits significant? What if most of the dangers are actually caused by the laws put in place to supposedly protect them?

If my guiding question is “Gee, why are all these people doing such a bad thing as consuming party drugs” (which, without the explicit value judgment, was indeed one of my research questions3), I’m asking the wrong question—if I’m asking it because I want to get them to stop, not because I really want to know the answer and am open to whatever it is. Taking for granted the same assumptions underlying most of the preexisting research, and asking “Why are these particular people using drugs?” only as a means of understanding enough to further the specific goal of a particular agenda—such as harm reduction or use prevention—my ears might not be open to hearing the actual answer, rather than an answer that confirms those same original assumptions. The actual answer might challenge those assumptions. The actual answer could be, for some people: Because there are few downsides and tons of upsides, and they know it.

I probably just haven’t looked hard enough for someone else who’s talked about this though. So does anyone know of published social science research on drug use that isn’t grounded in problem-based assumptions? Arriving at an answer that challenges the status quo is both exhilarating and terrifying, but since I’m only a grad student, and it’s a topic absolutely riddled with stigma, it leans more towards terrifying. So someone please point out the couch cushion that I’m overlooking so I can flip it over and see if there are any crumbs I can sweep up and cling onto to help prove I’m not crazy.

EDIT: I found one! It was published this year.

Notes

1Note that they are actually, in turn, only symptoms of deeper structural problems, usually socioeconomic in origin.

2And chances are you are one, because—surprise!—if you drink alcohol, you are a drug user. But fine, we’ll stick to illegal drugs.

3Even while I disagreed with the value judgement—I’ve always been a proponent of the positive aspects of illegal drug use—I got the sense that a subtext of detached Mr. Mackey-ness was necessary to appeal to those in charge of funding decisions and am only now realising that I’m going to have to openly challenge it, as career-destroying as it might be.

“Drugs are bad,” he said, sipping his beer: Legality vs. social acceptability

I’ve found it highly interesting to hear drug users trash talk other drugs, even while they’re high on their own preferred substance. Gina* thinks that alcohol is the worst drug around, and only smokes pot. Albert drinks, and takes MDMA or coke whenever it’s offered, but he shakes his head when he sees his friends smoking cigarettes. They both think GHB is for idiots, and neither of them, of course, thinks that a drug’s legality has anything to do with its acceptability.

Judging other users doesn’t inherently make you a hypocrite, because not all drugs are created equal–I myself think crack is incredibly destructive and that weed is practically harmless, even though I don’t use either. But the opinions are just so strong on all sides that, just for fun (oh yes, this is indeed my idea of fun), I created a visual expression of the general spectrum of legal/illegal, acceptable/unacceptable drugs based on my interviews and fieldwork in the Toronto rave scene:

Perceptions of the social acceptability of party drugs versus their legality

Subjective perceptions of the social acceptability of party drugs versus their legality. (Click to embiggen.)

Having ecstasy, LSD, marijuana (for now), or cocaine on your person can get you thrown in jail. Alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco, you can consume to your little adult heart’s content. However, these drugs’ legal status doesn’t reflect how people view them in terms of their perceived morality.

There are ‘moral’, socially acceptable or legitimate, drugs, and there are immoral/unacceptable/illegitimate drugs. While many in the mainstream accept the status quo of conflating a drug’s legality with its acceptabilityI never get tired of hearing a drunk person say “I don’t use drugs!”, it kills me every timemost people and groups have their own personal categorizations of what substances are acceptable or unacceptable to consume. In particular, to those who choose to use both legal and illegal drugs, a drug’s morality by no means correlates with its legality. Just ask Gina and Albert.*

The reasons behind deeming a drug as socially or morally acceptable are complex, but they most often involve a combination of personal experience, family/peer group/media influence, perception of addictive potential, and cost/benefit analysis in terms of harms and pleasures. Right now I could still make a different graph for different age groups, levels of user experience, and what people say vs. what their behaviour actually indicates. I know that every single person has a different version of this in their own head, but I’m curious about what this graph would generally look like for where you live. Where would these drugs fall on the spectrum for your social group or city? Have you noticed differences based on music sub-genres?

Note: Check out the interesting discussion of this post on reddit, where I find out that I’m wrong about nitrous’ legal status, and also have to explain the concepts of subjectivity and perspective about fifty times.

Not my image. Google gave it to me. How duz I copyright law.Some notes:

  • This chart is a rough first version – it still needs some adjusting. (Well, it doesn’t need anything because it doesn’t even need to exist. But still.) But more importantly, my research is ethnographic, not scientific; this is all very unofficial, I just did it for fun and to help visualize a theme I’m working on.
  • Corrections: The “level of abuse potential” should say perceived level of abuse potential. Also, nitrous is not illegal in Canada.
  • The bottom left I have affectionately termed the “Boogeyman Corner” because those drugs are ironically still subject to the same stigma that, in the mainstream, equally affects these ravers’ preferred drugs.
  • Obviously, everything in existence has abuse potential, including all of these drugs. I took that fact as given when assigning levels of abuse potential as it would be pointless for every single one to have a lightning bolt.
  • The “legal” axis is less strictly defined. I sort of put things there based not only on whether or not they’re legal (which is a yes or no question) but on how restricted their use is, how close they are to potentially being legalized in the future, the degree of care I see people using to hide their use of each drug, the fear of potential law enforcement from users of each one, etc. Things like prescription drugs are hard to place because they’re technically legal but used recreationally (and thus illegally) by people at events. They should probably be on the illegal side but whatever.
  • So many different drugs fit into the Reseach Chemicals (RCs) category that it’s just a can of worms I didn’t feel like opening. Hence the generalized categorizations.
  • Most ravers have little or no experience with opiates, since they’re the least compatible with the main point of electronic music events, which is dancing.
  • The social acceptability of many of these (note the ones with a *) is context-dependent and very ambiguous (which makes them extra interesting!):
    • Alcohol, for example, tends to be the one that people both criticize and consume most frequently. It’s especially criticized in comparison to other recreational drugs, but still used more frequently than any other, mainly due to a) its wide availability and legal status, and b) the ability to easily and progressively manage dosage.
    • Cocaine is similarly badmouthed by some and loved by others (sometimes both at once from the same person). I could maybe even switch its place with ketamine.
    • GHB is very context-dependent in that it’s the drug that causes the most frequent overdoses, so people use the derogatory term “G’ed out” a lot, but using it responsibly is acceptable.
    • Mushrooms are considered perfectly acceptable in general, but most people say they wouldn’t feel comfortable using them at crowded music events.

*Gina and Albert are aggregate people I just invented to make a point. But they definitely represent the opinions of real people I’ve met.

A state of trance: Inner peace rising from chaos

The experience of getting inside Sound Academy for Armin van Buuren was the low point of the night.

After an evening of rain and dancing at the electronic music festival Digital Dreams in Toronto, we’d somehow made it across town to finally experience the king of trance live. While waiting in line, I learned something interesting: the reason the bouncers take their sweet time checking IDs is because they have incentive to keep people waiting. The bribe to get inside without waiting is called a “line bypass” and that night they were charging $40 per person. What really shocked me, though, was that the people in line behind us were actually considering paying it.

Armin.

Armin.

When we finally got past the first step, the bag-searching girls were seriously pissed off at life. They were lined up in two rows of three, with a seventh girl ushering people forward from the lineup. “Next! Next! …NEEEEXT!” one of them yelled angrily. “Hey, nicely!” the usher in front called back, looking just as annoyed. The woman who searched my bag almost didn’t let me in with my own medication. “This can’t come in,” she said, squinting at the orange bottle. “It’s my own medication, with my name on it… My legal prescription,” I emphasized to her incredulously, when she still didn’t give it back. She looked at me, examined it, then tossed it back into my bag. She took my sealed bag of cookies and a half empty bag of cashews. “Does anyone want any cashews?” I called back to the line. Big mistake. The ladies were pissed. “We don’t have time for this shit!” one said. When she realised that I had not one, but two (very small) bags to search, she let out a noise indicating her thorough disgust for how difficult I was apparently making her job. She stuck her hands underneath my bra through my shirt, and I was glad I had stashed my single precious electrolye tablet in my pants. (They’re called Nuuns, like portable, bottle-cap-sized Gatorade tablets. I’d only brought one inside a ziploc, but my suspicion that they would have taken it away was confirmed by this thorough shake-down.) My partner Diego said they made him dump out his Platypus and gave his junk a good squeeze. To their credit, at least they were getting people in as quickly as possible. I suppose this efficient, grabby circus is still better than waiting even longer.

It was 1 am by the time we got in. But it was worth it. Oh my, was it ever worth it.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

Armin was incredible. That was the first thing I noticed as my eyes adjusted to the flashing lights. I could feel the music shaking the floor and my brain. I was surprised at how gigantic Sound Academy was inside. The light show was a nonstop onslaught in time with the beat; the strobes were even a bit too bright for my tastes.

It was very, very hot in there, especially once we started dancing. I eventually took my shirt off and danced in just my bra and zebra tights, joining the hundreds of other men and women who’d done the same. It’s a beautiful thing, being in a place where a girl can take her top off and nobody bats an eye, aside from maybe a concurring high-five or two from the also-shirtless around her. The PLUR ethos notwithstanding, slut-shaming and misogyny is rampant in some darker parts of the electronic music scene, especially online. Every single woman I’ve talked to has shared negative experiences about their comfort, and sometimes safety, at some point. There are some events at which I would never consider taking my shirt off, even if it felt like we were dancing on the surface of the sun (which it often does). Even just dancing on my own sometimes draws uncomfortable attention from leering, droopy-lidded eyes, though I should note that happens significantly less in electronic music-focused environments than in regular clubs. But here, it didn’t matter. The connections with the real world of social cues and self-consciousness were cut and forgotten inside a sea of sound.

I became lost in the music. I’d been dying to see Armin for years and it was every bit as beautiful as any set I’d heard by him, multiplied by the inimitable sensation of being able to see and feel it and experience it with other people who felt the same way. Later I would find out that this was his second show that same day, the other one being in Ottawa. Which means that he closed out a festival 450km away, got on a plane, flew to Toronto, and went straight to Sound Academy to play. Knowing that, the energy and feeling he put into the show was even more impressive.

Dance 'til you literally need to tape your legs together to keep going.

Dance ’til you literally need to tape your legs together to keep going.

By 2:30 am, three straight days of dancing were screaming from my lower back. I went to sit down against the wall, joining a few others who’d set up camp there. I found a poncho and spread it out on the floor to cover the miscellaneous liquid spills.

“Hi, I’m Karen,” said the girl beside me. She was sitting for the exact same reason. We had one of those great chats where later, you can’t remember exactly what you talked about, just that it was lovely. I do remember that her best friend, who came to sit with us at one point, had blown out her knees—from raving too much. Which is as unbelievably badass as it is shitty. She used something called KT tape to “keep her knees from falling apart”, which I made a note to look into, thinking about how all of my favourite activities are terrible for my knees (hiking, snowboarding, dancing). They already hurt sometimes the morning after a long night.

A guy that turned out to be Karen’s boyfriend came up to her. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Yeah I’m fine,” she reassured him. “My back hurts, I’m just chilling.” He gave her a kiss and walked away. Karen explained that they’d made a check-in plan, where he would come find her at 3 am. She showed me her phone. It was 2:55. The mix of sweetness and responible raving genuinely warmed my heart. (The More You Rave!™)

Karen's diffraction glasses.

Karen’s diffraction glasses.

As I stood up to dance, Karen lent me her diffraction glasses, which turned the lights into an overwhelming kaleidoscope of colours. Now, I’m no good at meditation. I want to be, I really do. But until I get better at it, or my knees give out, there is another way to calm the nonstop onslaught of thoughts and memories and emotions and analysis that cycles from the first drawn breath in the morning until sleep overtakes at night. For myself and many others, the only way to quiet the mental noise is to be immersed in sensory overload, rather than sensory deprivaton. Your eyes are flooded with colour and light, your entire body is an extension of the music that’s being sculpted in real time all around you, and with every person you lock eyes with, you know they’re feeling the exact same thing. There’s an untouchable inner peace that rises out of the chaos, and connects you to others. It’s raw and it’s real, no matter how often it’s dismissed by those who don’t understand it.

* * *

A state of trance.

Toronto Trance Family, representing in the front.

I met Matt, a skinny guy with a very calming presence, in the same spot where I’d met Karen. “So what kind of music do you like?” he asked me. I looked up at Armin from our vantage point on the floor, across a sea of faces, visible through white and pink flashes. He had just mixed “We’re All We Need” by Above & Beyond into his set, officially melting me into a mushy pile of joy. “…Apparently I like trance!” I replied. The smiling, knowing look on his face—eyes closed, hands raised, yet another trance convert—reminded me of a young woman I’d interviewed. She’d told me about going through various different genres of EDM before realising that trance was the one that resonated with her the most. I still don’t have a single favourite genre, but I now have a top three.

Matt was sober that night. “I drew the short straw. I’m DD tonight. But as long as I have trance,” he said as he spread his arms wide to the world of ceaseless movement in front of us, “I’m good.”

Matt’s friends were upstairs. “There’s an upstairs?” I asked. “There is. Grab your husband and I’ll show you.” There were only a hundred or so people up there. Deep Dish, who was almost invisible, was buried in the darkness with people dancing on all sides of him, making him seem like a part of the crowd.

We went outside for some cold air. The view of the Toronto skyline, lit up in the dark sky, was beautiful. The slightest hint of a sunrise was warming the deep blue atmosphere. I didn’t bother to take a photo, figuring stupidly that I’d be back some other time to take it. I wish I had. Some other time will not be that time.

2015-06-29 02.34.18

I would get much better photos if they’d let me bring my damn DSLR into events. But this blurry mess actually captures the essence pretty well.

Back downstairs, a new song came on, and Diego froze and listened for about two seconds. He then ran so fast to the front he left a dusty trail like a cartoon roadrunner. Armin had started remixing the Game of Thrones theme song.

* * *

I tried to keep dancing through my exhaustion, savouring every second of the music. Armin slowed it down, and spoke.

“Many people ask me, what is trance for you,” he said. The lights surrounding him were blue and vibrant.

“Let me show you. If I can.”

A gently rising piano cushioned his words.

“Trance is a feeling.”

Every eye was on him. Even the cheers had died down. I felt Diego’s hand clasp mine.

“Now if you will, please. Raise your hands, and close your eyes.”

A State Of Trance

The music grew stronger as we all raised our hands high. Armin did too. I closed my eyes. A second later, the beat dropped. It was Ferry Corsten/Gouryella’s Anahera.

“Do you feel that?”

Cheers were erupting. I opened my eyes. The guy beside me had tears in his.

“I said Toronto, do you feel that?” LED stars shot from Armin where he stood. Thousands of hands were up in the air, and he was right. This wasn’t something you just heard. You could feel it.

“This… is a state of trance, ladies and gentlemen.”

* * *

It was 4:15 am. We hugged Matt goodbye outside, and talked about interviewing him for my research. “I definitely have lots of stories. Lots of good stories, lots of…” he paused. “Well actually, no bad stories.” I was surprised. “No bad stories?” Matt shook his head and smiled. “They were all learning experiences. Not bad stories.”

The photo I did end up getting of the skyline, on the walk home. Using my shitty, shitty iPhone 4S.

The photo I did end up getting of the skyline, on the walk home. Using my shitty, shitty iPhone 4S.

We walked the muddy 3.5 km to Union Station, refusing to be party to the disgusting system of late-night Toronto cab extortion—they wanted $50 to take us, and would roll up their windows if we asked about putting the meter on. Apparently most of them won’t even take you unless you’re going somewhere well outside of the Toronto core, like Mississauga or Richmond Hill. As we started walking, we watched a couple of guys trying to flag down cabs that would drive right by them. I had a flashback to scenes I’d seen in shows of black guys in New York not being able to get cabs. It was eerily familiar, though I’m pretty sure these cabbies didn’t care that they were black—they just knew that if these two guys were willing to walk away from the club, they weren’t willing to pay the outrageous fees.

It took us an hour to walk to Union. We got directions from a guy on the side of the road who looked like he had no good reason for loitering underneath the Gardiner at 5 am on a Monday. It was a rough walk. We were thirsty, hungry and exhausted. It felt like being on a hiking trip, at the end of a long day when you’re still not close to your campsite and have no choice but to keep going. My brain was full of happiness, but my body was hanging by a thread. A few other people were walking home too. We walked for a bit with another couple, all of us too tired to say very much, but feeling the same glow.

As I waited by the bus stop at Union Station for my partner, who went to find us some food, I lay down on a low concrete wall behind a bench, drinking water and watching a building slowly turn pink with reflected sunrise. The windows were wiggling and the walls were bending. I could still hear music in my head. The sight of ­Diego walking back from his long journey to the train part of Union was like a bolt of sunrise warming my face. It might have been the worst bagel I’ve ever had, but it was food. Seagulls crowded around to grab at our fallen crumbs.

Off camera: The pink building.

Off camera: The pink building.

The bus left at 5:50 am. As soon as it pulled up, I was hit with a strong need to pee, but it was too late. We spent the whole ride reminiscing, snuggling, and talking nonstop. We were glad that we’d taken our chatty selves all the way to the back of the bus, away from the silent and tired early-morning commuters. Diego told me about how he’d run into a group of guys inside Union while he was getting us food. They’d also been at Sound Academy, but didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest of us because “there were no girls!” The idea of boner-blinders strong enough to make a person oblivious to the magic happening between Armin and the crowd was astounding. Not to mention, they could have chosen a less expensive event if they were just trying to pick up.

A terrible shot of an amazing sunrise on the bus ride home.

An amazing sunrise on the bus ride home frames an amazing billboard.

At 6:30, the bus dropped us off and I immediately ran down a hill to pee behind a tree. The people from the bus could probably see me, about which I gave absolutely zero fucks. My bladder hurt. Twenty minutes later, home and exhausted, I stuffed a bunch of chips and tzatziki in my mouth and fell asleep with my clothes still on.

I didn’t wake up until 7 pm. But I woke up smiling.

Note: All names have been changed. These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. My ideas and assumptions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective.

Thanks to Saruj Patres, who posted a video of Armin’s speech on Toronto Trance Family facebook page. I went on there the next day, hoping that someone had captured it, and he did.

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