Fear and Loathing in Atlanta: Punched in the gut by racism and the War on Drugs

Content warning: racism, violence, forced miscarriage.

I was on my way to the airplane that would take me back home, to Canada. I boarded the train between the Atlanta airport’s two terminals, eyes bleary from sleep deprivation and last night’s makeup. A blind man and an airport employee helping him walked onto the train, led by his dog. Minutes passed in silence before he told a story, out of the blue, foggy eyes staring at nothing.

“One time I was leaving a store, and my dog, she led me into the wrong car,” he said to his helper. “It wasn’t my wife in the front seat. ‘I think you’re in the wrong car,’ I heard a woman say. ‘I think you’re right,’ I said.”

I shifted my backpack and smiled at the story.

“I’m just glad she didn’t have a .45 on her,” the blind man added.

“Yeah. That would have been messy,” the helper responded.

They said it seriously, but so casually. Like it was nothing. Normal.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down crying.

* * *

Just five days in the U.S. south, at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, changed how I view the work I’m doing. I’m a PhD student who studies the effects of drug prohibition on drug users and sellers. I know about gun violence, about racial oppression, about how the War on Drugs systematically targets the poor and people of colour. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve talked to people, I’ve done a Master’s degree’s worth of ethnographic research on the subject. I’ve lived in Mexico and seen the ugly effects of cartel power in person. There’s a reason I’m doing this work. But I’d never seen what I saw in Atlanta, so much in so few days.

Monstrous things that seemed to faze no one. Monochromatic homelessness, all black. I was catcalled constantly on the street, and then later told I was an idiot for walking alone at night at all – you can’t do that here. The transit security guard on the subway had a gun. I guess all of them do. I got a physical shiver when I saw it, a weight in my stomach. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a gun in person. I live in the kind of place where you can go months, even years without seeing a gun.

Photo 2017-10-11, 1 04 06 PM

A group of black men being bothered by cops for no reason I could discern, one of the first things I saw when I got into the city.

I heard story after story of people being arrested for drugs, years of their lives and their mental and physical health taken away from them, families destroyed. Racial tension was everywhere. Fear was everywhere. Buzzing, insidious, toxic textures at the periphery of the senses. Fear seeped from the walls and coated every interaction. Hackles raised, human connection difficult without concerted effort. I made the effort and was rewarded with tiny moments of solidarity, bright sparks, smiles. Atlanta, like the US as a whole, is full of good, kind people, trapped in a cultural venn diagram of overlapping toxic systems that are slowly killing them and keep them turned against each other instead of against the systems themselves.

White supremacy is real, and it is everywhere. The geographic and economic segregation along racial lines was astounding. I sat eating a Big Mac in a McDonald’s at 11 pm on a Wednesday, the only white person among 30 black people. I then walked six blocks north and was hit by a wall of white bodies in confederate flag shirts—returning from a Garth Brooks concert, I later learned. I was very uncomfortable in the latter situation and felt fine in the former, but the sheer, naked, normalized segregation in both made me deeply uneasy.

I sent my partner a drunk text about how the food here didn’t feel digestible. That Big Mac haunted me. It was like eating ash and plastic, no nutrition at all. You don’t have to believe me, but I mean this honestly when I say that American fast food is worse than the fast food I’ve eaten in any other country. You can taste the difference in agricultural production and food standards. It hurt to think that it’s all that millions of people can afford. It’s barely food. They deserve so much better.

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These signs don’t exist where I live

I fended off catcalls as I walked home that night, a deep sense of shame and disgust at my skin colour setting in already, at how I was necessarily perceived to be one more white link in the chains that hold half that country hostage. I couldn’t hide my whiteness, so I shamefully found myself hoping people would at least notice my broken glasses and crappy old boots and think I’m poorer than I am. I’m not wealthy—I just barely identify as middle class—but I am not poor. Not like the homeless man to whom I gave my change instead of all the money in my pocket like I should have. My partner and I don’t make much money, but with free health care and the various other social and academic supports I have access to, I can afford to fly to conferences in other countries where I deal with the embarrassment of being a walking pile of privilege by hoping my taped-up glasses camouflage my relative wealth. I have to remind myself as I walk by that those people don’t have nothing because I have something: those people have nothing because a small handful of people have everything, and will not share until we make them. I channel that knowledge back into my work. Guilt is not productive. Action is.

jeff sessions is an absolute monster

So much blood on this man’s hands

The next day at the conference, I listened to a formerly incarcerated black woman on a panel tell her story. She was in federal prison for selling drugs, and she was pregnant when she was locked up. The water that came out of the taps in the prison was brown. She told them she couldn’t drink it, and they told her to go thirsty. One day, she began feeling pain in her belly. They took her to the infirmary—they didn’t have the right paperwork to get her to a hospital, and didn’t bother finding it. They shackled her, bleeding, to the bed, as she begged for help. She miscarried and lost her child. They threw her sheets, and the fetus, into the trash. Soon she was forced to return to her “job,” welding bunk beds for the men’s prison. Three beds high, three feet of vertical space per bed. The audience quietly cried as we listened. She sold things to people who wanted them, and the state robbed her of unborn child and gave her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hers was not the only story like this.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-12, 3 59 53 PMI was saved by the people at the conference, hundreds of tiny lights in a landscape of confused darkness. Activists, scholars, authors, health care workers, psychonauts, researchers, patients, libertarians, socialists. All of us bound together by the knowledge that drug prohibition is the modern day Jim Crow and the driving force behind death and destruction in the Americas. We clung to each other for sanity, sharing our successes and failures, our experiences, our self-care rituals. Every victory was tainted by the knowledge that while capitalism stands, its vultures will always find a way to profit and oppress. Marijuana is being legalized—great! But anyone with a felony record is barred from working in the legal market, meaning all the people of colour who were selling it before—shit. Companies who make ankle GPS trackers, video call systems for prisons, and opioid medications pour billions of dollars into lobbying to maintain the system the way it is, while Black and Latinx communities have their young men stolen from them and their women and children surveilled by the state through the welfare system.Photo 2017-10-12, 6 42 40 AM

“Poor activist communities are being destroyed by the prison system,” said one panelist. “If you want to disrupt social justice, put all the men in prison and all the women under welfare surveillance.”

One woman on a psychedelics panel was asked about her experiences. She said she could never fully relax and enjoy a journey, given the space she occupies in the world. “Not even psychedelics can bring me to a place where I can escape from the reality of being black in America.”

Later I sat and watched Falcons fans on the way to a football game, laughing and shouting like everything was fine, and wondered if I was going mad.

Photo 2017-10-13, 8 31 07 AMSometimes, among drug policy activists, it feels like we’re the band playing on the Titanic. Sometimes it feels like maybe we can make a difference, like we’ll win. Like there’s no way we can’t win when all the evidence, and all the empathy, is on our side. But it doesn’t matter either way. We have to try. There’s just no other option.

We have to do this work. Or who will?

* * *

Tiny squares of paper, an unlikely team: Leslie, from San Francisco, and Mark, a 21-year-old from New Mexico who’d never been outside his home state. All conferences have a culture of drinking—the culture at this one is a bit more unique.

Fear and loathing in Atlanta, hotel escalators like an Escher drawing. We managed to get to a club, where I danced like I could drown out my thoughts if I just moved hard enough. I listened to the lyrics of all my favourite hip-hop songs as if I’d never heard them before. Pain, power, poetry. They wrapped around my heart and pulled it down into the ground. The energy on the dance floor, the smiles, the movement—they crackled with intensity. I never wanted to leave.Photo 2017-10-14, 9 17 08 PM

Later, we stayed up til long past sunrise, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced that week. Legs stretched out on the hotel carpet, ears ringing. Talking to Leslie that night had been a moderating influence in the stark differences I kept seeing between our two countries. There were certain things she said didn’t exist in San Francisco either. But still, I began to feel terrible for how many times I pointed out how things like needing to carry mace with you is not normal in Canada, and should not be normal anywhere, let alone a country with this much wealth and resources. Transit officers with guns on the subway should not be normal. Having to ask whether the tap water is potable should not be normal. Fearing shootings in public should not be normal. Spatial segregation by race and class in a multiracial society should not be normal. Having to create GoFundMes to pay for surgery should not be normal. People fighting tooth and nail to keep professional sports team names that are straight-up racial slurs should not be normal.

Canada, like every country, has many serious problems that need immediate attention. I could write endless pages about what’s wrong with the capitalist, colonial state that I live in (and I often do.) Racism, inequality, misogyny, homophobia—they all exist in my home too. But it’s not the same. It’s just not.

Sometimes, we just sat in silence, the weak morning sun peeking through the hotel curtains.

“I’ve been very angry and afraid of other people for a very long time,” realized Mark numbly.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-14, 11 26 02 PMI’m not naïve: I knew all of this existed. I’ve been obsessed with American politics, how similar our two cultures seem until you scratch beneath the surface, for years. It’s not possible to be a hip-hop fan from a young age, or study the War on Drugs for a living, and avoid the global vortex of injustice and power that centres on the US. But knowing about it, and coming face to face with the sheer day-to-day mundanity of it all, are two different things. I’ve been all over the West and Northeast, where the cracks in the cultural pavement are more subtle, but touching and seeing and smelling a Southern American city for the first time, while listening to first-hand stories from around the country, poured gasoline on my deep belief that to accept conditions like this as “just the way things are” is the most dangerous possible reaction. The normalization of structural violence, white supremacy and drug prohibition allows all of it to continue, at a scale that boggles the mind. I don’t want to become complacent. I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want to accept it.

Judges who own bail companies and have shares in private prisons is not okay. A man facing five years in prison for picking mushrooms in a forest in Washington is an outrageous injustice. Thousands being held without even being charged, imprisoned for the crime of not being able to afford bail. Dozens of people shot every day by police. Women sexually violated by roadside cavity searches. All because human beings like getting high, and a group of wealthy, powerful people figured out how to turn that desire into capital by weaponizing racial oppression.

None of this is okay. Nobody deserves this kind of life.

I love Americans, I really do. They are incredible people, and so many of them have accomplished amazing things in the face of all this oppression. Watching American activists at work, fighting tirelessly under such difficult conditions, inspires me every day to work harder, work better, listen more closely, see more critically. But the country itself, the ideas that prop it up… How can we wake up the white American prohibition-supporting mainstream—which includes most liberals—to what is happening to people in their own country because of their complacency? I want to run around and shake people. Rip out the tentacles of media propaganda poisoning their minds, convincing vast swaths of the US that it’s their neighbours who are the problem, not corruption and inequality.Photo 2017-10-11, 12 54 33 PM

I guess it’s easier to be in denial, to feel like surely all those black people are wrong, overreacting with their protests and kneeling, than to confront the fact that your whole worldview is based on a mammoth lie. They’re like cult members—they just double down on their beliefs when they’re confronted with reality, because changing those fundamental beliefs, admitting the lie, would be too painful to bear. Maybe that’s how we need to start treating Trump supporters: like cult members who need deprogramming. They’ve bought into a certain narrative, that the US is fundamentally good, and to shatter that illusion would destroy a part of their very identity, their sense of self. Maybe we need to give them an out that allows them to shift that narrative towards something that provides the same positive identity, but acknowledges the truth: if you love your country, the most patriotic thing you can do is help to make it better for everyone in it.

* * *

It was Sunday morning. I’d slept for two disoriented hours. As I walked towards the subway train that would take me to the airport and the sweet sanctuary of home, I was torn between desperately wanting out, and feeling an urgent need to stay—there’s not enough time, I need to talk to more people. As if there could be an amount of time, or enough conversations, that would quiet the existential dread in my belly.

I passed a Muslim family outside the subway station. I wanted to run up to them, to every person of colour I saw and tell them I’m sorry for how hard it is to be them on this continent. I want them to know that I see them, I see what the world is doing to them, and it’s not okay, and I’m doing what I can to change things. That their experiences are real and valid. I don’t want to be one more person feeding into the twilight zone society that pretends this isn’t happening.

Photo 2017-10-12, 7 06 38 AMI’ve been texting with Mark regularly since I got back. We supported each other through our re-entry. “I was in a weird fugue state for a week when I got home,” he told me. “It felt like everything was going in slow motion.”

The airport alone was a surreal experience. I kept seeing innocuous but slightly bizarre things. I saw ads about “shopping for health care” and thought, those words don’t make sense together. I watched a man in the seat ahead and across from me sit and read all of the Wall Street Journal. He spent a particularly long amount of time on an article called “NFL weighs new anthem rules.” At one point, he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, counted them, and then put them back in his pocket.

I watched the guy next to me do a crossword puzzle, and it felt… I don’t know. Amazing. Ridiculous. Something. How can you do something so benign and simple and quaint and pleasant when the world around you is falling apart? How can you be so calm when 96 of your fellow citizens will die today from being shot with a gun? How are you not screaming with pitchforks at the front gates of every billionaire’s house?

I wanted to turn to the people across from me and ask, “Did you know that we’re living in the darkest timeline and everything we’re told about the way things work is a racist lie?”

But I couldn’t figure out exactly how to word that, so instead I asked them about football.
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I did talk with another Canadian headed to the same flight as me, and told her how I was feeling. “Atlanta is nothing,” she said. She’d gone to school in North Carolina, and left when she was done her degree because, she said, “it was too racist.”

* * *

When I started crying on the train after the blind man’s story, I couldn’t stop. I made my way to a fast food area with tables in the airport, sat down and sobbed. A woman—this woman—was playing the cello nearby, and I lost myself in the music, slow and sad. My body heaved as I wept. I was ignored by the other people at the tables. No one said a word to me.

By the time the music finished, I had too. I locked eyes with the cellist, whose name turned out to be Jenn, and she walked straight over to me as I stood up. She embraced me tightly, and I felt everything all at once.

We broke apart and I thanked her for her music. “I needed that,” I said.

“I could tell,” she answered. “Is there anything you want to share?”

We talked for a while, with another woman, and every second was both confusing and nourishing. Nothing I managed to verbalize about my feelings seemed to surprise them, and they were sympathetic. “It’s important to accept that not everyone is capable of feeling as deeply as you do,” one of them told me. It makes sense as a short term strategy, but it’s a pill I still refuse to swallow for the long-term. Everyone is capable. We’re just torn away from each other. We can rebuild empathy.

I had to go. They both hugged me goodbye as I wiped away tears, trying not to be embarrassed. “It’s okay,” I sniffed. “I’m okay.”

Jenn held my shoulders as she looked into my eyes. “It’s alright if you’re not okay, too.”

I felt the warmth in her words, and smiled. “I will be.”

* * *

Photo 2017-10-15, 1 49 54 PMOn the plane, I listened to Kendrick and let every word cut into me like wounds I never want to heal, wounds my soft, safe body will never actually have.

I’ll prolly die anonymous, I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna defuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things

If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that mothafucka up
And then I’d take two puffs
I’ve been hungry all my life
I’m high now
I’m high now


Hilary is on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

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How to convince people that drugs need to be legalized: a guide for getting skeptics on board.

I’ve developed a really nerdy, but kickass, superpower. Give me twenty minutes of one-on-one conversation time with a person, any person, and they will come out of that conversation convinced that illicit drugs—not even just weed, but the ‘bad’ ones like cocaine and meth too—must be decriminalized. Give me forty minutes with them, and they’ll be down for full legalization. It doesn’t matter what opinions they had about drugs going into the conversation. I can get them on board.

This is a skill I’ve developed over the last three years of dedicated research on drug use and drug policy (on top of 15 or so years of, let’s say, thinking about drugs differently than your average person). This isn’t because I’m the worlds greatest rhetorician, or because I’m generally good at debating, although practice has helped a lot. It’s because legalization just makes sense. It’s because the War on Drugs is a spectacular failure. It’s because the time is ripe. People are ready. The normies, the squares, the teetotalers, the smokers-and-drinkers, the legal drug users, the potheads who claim cannabis cures cancer but hypocritically shit-talk other illicit drugs—they are all teed up and waiting to be putted into the hole of drug policy pragmatism with the right arguments, even by someone who sucks at sports metaphors but uses them anyway.

11012449_10153502860849245_3423341969182463811_nThey’ve been primed by The Wire and articles about MAPS research and (at least for the young ones) their own experiences with MDMA and weed not living up to the propaganda telling them ‘one toke and you’ll die.’ OxyContin has shown that legal drugs can addict and kill, and fentanyl has shown that illegal drugs’ purity is at the mercy of the unregulated black market. Overdoses kill more people than car crashes now in North America. Over a thousand people died of opiate overdoses in Vancouver last year alone. Shit is getting real, and drug prohibition is not helping. It’s at the heart of almost all of the problems.

People have heard about Portugal’s success with decriminalization. They’ve heard about the U.S. for-profit prison industrial complex that is fed by the War on Drugs, and they may have even connected the dots to police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline for Black men. Odds are they don’t know about historical trajectories like the 13th Amendment in the U.S. or the racist origins of the first drug laws in Canada (which were opium laws used to oppress and terrorize Chinese labourers), but still. They’ve heard whispers of these topics, fragments of the yelling drug activists have been doing for decades finally getting amplified by social media, breaking the segregation of this information from the general public. And they can see with their own eyes how badly the War on Drugs has been lost. Drugs are winning, and they know it.

Still, completely legalizing drugs is a cognitive stretch for most non-users. It seems too radical. They don’t all see firsthand what prohibition is doing to drug users and to marginalized communities. Even those who do often still fail to see the structural forces at work, and end up falling into the ‘personal responsibility’ trap. They frown and balk as their affective instincts kick in, deep in the body, before their brain catches up to justify the feeling. Completely changing some of our most entrenched laws? That can’t possibly be the answer. They often instinctively defend the status quo just because, well, this is the way things are, so surely there must be a point to these laws—surely we haven’t fucked things up so incredibly badly as a society that we need to overhaul our entire approach to drugs?

Uh. Cough. Yeah, actually. We have. And we do.

So I’m here to help you get these people on board. Because, and this is the important part—we need these people. We can’t win this fight alone. Marriage equality didn’t happen until straight people marched alongside queer folks. People of colour will keep being subjected to oppression until white people get off their asses and form blockades. Feminism needs men taking Gender Studies classes and talking to their bros about catcalling and emotional labour. Movements don’t succeed until people who aren’t directly affected by the civil rights being demanded are on board, and this means that non-drug-users need to demand legalization from their politicians for the latter cowards to feel that it’s a politically safe move to make. The most important thing you can do to help change drug policy is to have a conversation about it with someone who currently thinks we should keep putting drug users and dealers in prison.

So, below are some tips on how to have those conversations successfully. It’s hard work, and it’s emotional work. People can be extremely heartless about the plight of human beings they think they can’t relate to. But you know what’s harder? Being in fucking prison, or losing your son in a cartel shootout, or being physically dependent on a drug that could kill you at any moment if it’s contaminated. So yes, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear someone coldly say that drug overdoses are Darwin at work—but swallow that anger, and do it for all of those people.growtheeconomy

Remember, too, that changes in opinion sometimes happen after the conversation is over and they’ve had a chance to think a bit. They may not seem to have budged while you were talking to them, but as long as you kept your cool and didn’t insult them personally, some of the things you shared will likely get through. You just might not get the joy of watching it happen, but no one ever said this work would be easy or immediately fulfilling. We’re playing the long game here.

How to convince people that the War on Drugs sucks and we need to legalize everything:

  • Ask them questions. The idea isn’t to tell them how to think, it’s to guide them towards figuring it out for themselves. The argument really makes itself, it’s so obvious. Asking them questions also engages with them and shows an interest in their thoughts, instead of just lecturing or talking at them.
    • “Do you think that prohibition is working to stop people from using drugs?” This is the most important question, because their answer will determine how you proceed. Sometimes even just asking the question does half the work; a lot of people just haven’t thought about it that way yet. If they admit that it’s not working, then you can start talking about alternatives. If they think it is working, then your job is to introduce them to reality: it’s not.
    • “Why do you think alcohol is legal but other drugs aren’t?”
    • “Does putting dealers in jail stop people from accessing drugs?”
  • Remember that this isn’t an argument about whether or not people should do drugs. It’s about getting the person to pragmatically accept that we will never be able to stop people from doing drugs. Once they accept that, then it’s a natural next step to get them to realize that prohibition, therefore, will literally never work.
  • Keep the focus on whether prohibition is working. Talking about whether illegal drugs are good or bad is not actually relevant to whether or not prohibition is good or bad, and can be distracting if they have zero experience with any drug except alcohol. Convincing them that many currently illegal drugs are not actually harmful is a bonus, but you don’t necessarily need to do that in order to focus on the fact that prohibition is what makes most illegal drugs dangerous in the first place, and is causing more human suffering through the prison system and the militarized, global War on Drugs than drug use itself ever could.
  • Still, though: ask them if they’ve heard of the medical studies being done on the benefits of MDMA and psychedelics, and if not, share the good news. Especially don’t forget to mention that these studies are helping veterans with PTSD, survivors of child abuse, and terminal cancer patients—people who are hard to dismiss as burnouts. Then ask why they think these drugs aren’t legal while cigarettes are.canada-america-poll-angus-reid-marijuana-legalization
  • Ask them if they think that getting addicts medical treatment and therapy would work better than arresting them and putting them in jail.
  • “Well okay, I think marijuana should be legal, but not harder stuff.” Ohhh, I love this old chestnut. See the above question. Try also asking them if they think prohibition is preventing people from accessing those “harder” drugs. You can also poke them on the definition of “hard” drugs versus “soft” ones. This might be a good time to talk about the negative effects of alcohol, which is legal and should be, and compare them to something like MDMA.
  • Demeanour is key! Be respectful and kind, and always ask questions with an air of gentle curiosity, not like you’re about to trap them in their own hypocritical stupidity (even when you are). They’re not bad people, even the jerks who think addicts deserve their overdose deaths—they’re just very misinformed. Dehumanizing anti-drug propaganda has done its job, and that sucks, but getting mad at a person for being ignorant isn’t going to help. If you find yourself wanting to swear at them for being a cruel moron, and you don’t think you can engage with them calmly anymore,  just stop and leave the conversation. Giving in to your anger and calling them an idiot might feel good, and you might be totally justified, but it is not helping in the long run. Do better.
  • Ask them if they think the government should be telling people what they can and can’t put in their bodies, and using physical force to enforce those dictates. Libertarians respond pretty well to this one, and feminists should too.
  • Ask them if they think that people who finish their sentences and come out of prison and back into society—as almost all prisoners who are jailed for drug offenses do—are more or less likely to be involved with drugs afterwards. Note that prison traumatizes people, and trauma often leads to drug abuse. Note also that having a criminal record makes finding legal employment more difficult, which makes it harder to avoid the drug trade as a means of subsistence.
  • If you’re talking with an incrementalist—someone who is turned off by the idea of rapid or drastic social change—first focus on decriminalization: let’s at least stop putting drug users in jail, because clearly that doesn’t help anything. cops-say-legalize
  • Next, see if you can get them to agree that we will never fully eradicate drug use in our society. Then, shift it towards legalization with arguments around how, that being the case, we are currently allowing cartels and diffuse groups of individuals to control the entire illicit drug supply, completely unregulated. We, as a society, are making that choice. We are choosing to let dealers, some (not all) of whom don’t care about the quality or safety of their drugs, control the drug supply. We’re letting them do that by not regulating the drugs ourselves. It’s a choice. Legalization is the other choice we can make.
  • Some points you can use:
    • Drugs are purer, stronger, cheaper, and more accessible today than they were when the Drug War was started by Nixon. So, uh… Yeah, the current approach is clearly not working.
    • In response to, “we’re just not hitting the dealers hard enough, or being tough enough with our borders”: We can’t even keep drugs out of prisons, the most heavily controlled and policed environments on earth. Why do we think heavier policing is going to work anywhere else?
    • Most opioid addicts get addicted initially through legal prescriptions. Drug addiction is a health issue, not a criminal issue.
  • In this fucked-up era, not only do facts not really mean anything anymore, words often don’t either. But that’s okay. (It’s actually not but whatever.) The facts are on your side anyway, so you can try using them. It might work. But what you really want to do is get the other person to feel something. To empathize with drug users, drug addicts, and their families. To understand how our drug laws are used to systematically oppress people of colour, and get angry about it. This is often the hardest part, because illicit drug users have been strategically dehumanized and stigmatized for decades, and that dehumanization runs deep. It can be helpful to talk about all the “regular” people who do drugs, as a way of showing that drug users are people too, and addiction can happen to anyone. (This tactic is problematic for other reasons, but in the short term, it’s still useful.) Some examples: Steve Jobs and LSD, indigenous South American communities and ayahuasca, literally everyone and weed, Freud and cocaine, blue collar labourers and opioids for pain. You can point them to the entire Master’s thesis that I wrote about regular, hardworking people—doctors, social workers, teachers—who use all sorts of illicit drugs and are completely fine (and in most cases, better off because of it).
  • If you’re a person who uses illicit drugs from time to time, and you’re feeling really bold, and the person you’re talking to knows you—come out of the closet as a drug user. If they already respect you, it’s the most effective way to change someone’s perception of all drug users as homeless or addicted or whatever other discriminatory way they view human beings who make different recreational choices from them.leap_billboard_350
  • If you’re Canadian, British or from another country with socialized medicine, you have a huge advantage! (Americans, I’m really sorry. I feel deeply for you, for real. Keep fighting for single payer.) Because our countries have decided that all people deserve medical treatment, that means we’ve socialized the costs of said treatment. Which means we don’t leave overdose victims to die, we try to save them. This costs huge amounts of money—more money than preventative care and treatment would cost—and when added to the costs of enforcing drug laws, it’s a crazy amount of money. And it’s all money we could be pouring into prevention and treatment (there’s Portugal again!). Furthermore, most of the overdoses that we’re sending ambulances and firemen to are a result of unregulated substances. No one dies because the alcohol they drink was unknowingly 100 times stronger than the person they bought it from said it was. This is because we regulate alcohol. If we did the same thing for opioids, fentanyl wouldn’t be such a problem, and we wouldn’t be spending nearly as much money on overdose response. (Note: If the person believes that we should stop helping overdose victims at all because it’s their fault: first, take a breath and try not to call them a sociopath. Try to steer them towards a more practical acceptance of the fact that with socialized medicine, we are going to help people regardless of how the person got hurt. That’s just how it is, and how it should be in any half-decent society. If they want to privatize medicine that’s a different conversation, but as things stand, the costs are a reality.)
  • Guns are literally designed specifically to kill things, but we still let people have them. We just train them first. So ask them if making guns illegal would work better than our current system of regulating them. (This argument probably only works outside of the U.S.) 
  • People hurt themselves and others with cars, so our response as a society is to regulate when, how and under what conditions people can drive. Doesn’t this make more sense than banning something that many people enjoy and use?

Most people just don’t think about drug policy enough to have an informed opinion on it. They rely on instinct and the status quo without even knowing why. Be the person who informs them. And be proud of doing this hard work.

Please share this article with anyone you know who could benefit from it!

Follow Hilary on Twitter for more rants about drug policy, criminal justice reform, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

• • •

Any other tips to share for talking with people about drug policy? Please leave them in the comments! Anything else to add or correct? Let me know! (I wrote this while tired and drained and trying to proactively distract myself from all the hurricanes and forest fires and Nazis with something productive, and will be working to continually fine-tune and improve it over the coming weeks.

Alright, let’s talk about GHB: A user’s guide. 

When it kicks in, it feels like meeting an old friend for the first time. – Daniel, 34

Few drugs are as misunderstood and stigmatized as GHB (except for acid, the king of misconceptions). GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), also known as simply G, is a central nervous system depressant that comes in liquid form, drank in doses of around 2 or 3 mL. It makes you feel relaxed, warm, sometimes tingly. It’s popular at raves and parties, mixes delightfully with psychedelics and is a pretty well-known sex enhancer.

It’s also a problematic drug in the Toronto party scene right now. Ask any paramedic what causes the most issues (aside from the obvious, alcohol) and they’ll unequivocally say G. I know this because I did ask a bunch of them for my research—initially assuming, based on the media hysteria around it, that they would say MDMA. Nope: it’s G. Event organizers hate it because although deaths are extremely rare, it does usually cause the most visible, paramedic-and-police-attracting problems when someone overdoses and passes out. The reputation it has for being dangerous, while frequently exaggerated, is not totally unfounded—it’s a tricky substance to dose and is especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol, a combo of factors that make it a ticking time bomb for careless, drunk bros. Last year, some of Toronto’s best and most caring party organizers were forced to temporarily shut down a beloved and usually very responsibly-attended ongoing event series as they reckoned with the legal and logistical fallout of a near-fatal overdose. I was there when it happened. It wasn’t pretty.

It’s also well known (especially among people who don’t use party drugs) as a date rape drug. While this is true, it’s not the reason that most GHB is bought, sold and consumed. (It’s also important to remember that the number one date rape drug is alcohol. And it’s even more important to remember that drugs don’t cause sexual assaults, people [and rape culture] do. And unlike guns, drugs aren’t specifically designed to hurt people.)

So yes, absolutely, GHB has partially earned its reputation as a troublemaker. However, G has some significant positives—if it didn’t, no one would use it and it wouldn’t be such a big damn problematic deal in the first place. So, look, it’s time to stop talking about drugs as if they’re just sinister little omens of risk and danger. Information on them is so bogged down in prejudice and “Danger! Risk! Doooooom!”-style rhetoric that it’s pretty much useless for actual users. Recreational drugs are fun—that is the definition of ‘recreation’—and people enjoy them because they bring a lot of benefits to their lives and are mostly harmless when used correctly. There. I said it. Apologies for all the broken monocles that popped off in shock.

This really shouldn’t be so controversial. If you want drug users to listen to you in the first place, you’ve gotta acknowledge their actual experiences. Which is, drugs are fucking fun. Literally anyone who uses them could tell you that (including alcohol users if they would admit that they’re using a drug) but we all act like acknowledging it would mean that everyone would immediately quit their jobs and get high all day.

Anyways, back to G. So, as far as we know, when used properly, GHB is actually one of the least harmful drugs. In fact, it appears to be downright benign. I haven’t been able to find any sources indicating long-term negative side effects, and believe me, the anti-drug warriors would be throwing stacks of photocopied negative articles from the rooftops if they existed. G is also, as far as we know, much less likely to be adulterated with other substances than powder or pill drugs are. Which in the age of fentanyl, is a pretty significant plus.

People use G because it feels like a mild combination of alcohol, MDMA and weed. Importantly, the biggest upside users cite is that unlike with many party drugs (looking at you, alcohol and MDMA), there’s no hangover of any kind to worry about with GHB. They take it, they dance a bunch, they get some sloppy make outs in, they go home, and they get up the next morning feeling fine. For those responsible users, what’s not to love?

Quotes from GHB users online:

“It mimics the effects of being buzzed on alcohol but you also have a nice euphoric push and everything feels nice so it’s a nice social drug at low doses.”

“GHB is amazing. Effects are similar to alcohol, but with more euphoria, less stupor, no nausea, no hangover. It makes you hungry and horny though. Completely replaced alcohol for me.”

“The buzz – very very horny, very euphoric – I would have extremely intense washes of intense body euphoria. When mixed with a stimulant the euphoria is incredibly intense.”

“GHB is the most wonderful drug I’ve ever done. When people asked me what it was like, I would always tell them ‘it makes you feel like the most popular kid in high school.'”

So G is basically a miracle drug for those who’ve figured out how to use it properly and no more than once or twice a week. But: “when used properly” is the tricky part. That’s where everything can fall apart, and is the reason G is the bane of every festival medic’s existence.

In the end, we can go back and forth forever about whether it’s good or bad, safe or dangerous, but the reality is that enough people have decided that they like it that they’re going to keep doing it and it’s going to keep being a thing at parties. And so, below, compiled from my ethnographic research on harm reduction in the rave scene (interviews with users, participant-observation at events, scouring peer-reviewed articles and other sources, generally being a huge nerd, etc), here’s some tips for how to party more safely with G. A good “spirit guide” (see here, page 100) will ask you questions about all of the factors below so they know how much to dose you. If you’re dosing yourself and you’re not willing to follow these guidelines, just don’t use it. Put the vial down. In fact, maybe think about not using any drugs if you feel you’re not up to the task of being careful about how you use them. Drugs are fun, but they are not toys. You can get badly hurt if you’re careless.

NOTE: These instructions will seem pretty cavalier to some, but they reflect the principles of harm reduction, which means I know I can say things like “don’t mix with alcohol, period” all day long but that’s not going to help people who are gonna do it anyway, so I might as well be straight about how to minimize risk while doing it.

NOTE ALSO THAT THE BELOW APPLIES ONLY TO GHB, NOT GBL. Know what you’re taking.

GHB User Guide:

1) DON’T MIX WITH ALCOHOL. Seriously. Like a single beer at most, but even then, you really shouldn’t mess around with alcohol + G together unless you know your tolerance extremely well. Be very careful. If you’ve already had a couple drinks, leave at least an hour or two before dosing with G. If you’ve already had several drinks, just stay on that train and wait to play with G another night. (Remember, you shouldn’t even really need to drink at all if you’re gonna do G—it does everything alcohol does, minus the hangover. Except, fair warning, it doesn’t taste delicious. It tastes like salty shit. And yeah I know beer is amazing, but so is not passing out and going to the hospital.)

2) Don’t mix with ketamine either, or opiates, or any CNS depressant, unless you want to risk blacking out and unceremoniously barfing all over yourself and your friends, who may not be smart enough to put you in the recovery position so you don’t aspirate on your own vomit.

3) Start low til you know your dose. Everyone’s threshold is different, and an effective dose for each person is different. Because it’s liquid (and unregulated—thanks, prohibition), you also don’t know how strong it is until you get familiar with a batch. Around 1.5-2 mL is an average starting dose to feel effects, somewhere between 2 and 4 mL is the sweet spot for most people. Body size matters for dosing G; some bigger/taller people with naturally higher tolerances have to take up to 5 mL for a good high. For others, 4 mL is enough to make them puke. A too-high dose has the universal effect of making you pass out into an unrouseable sleep for a few hours, which will scare the shit out of your friends. But since different batches vary, it’s impossible to say ahead of time exactly how much is a proper dose from a new batch. Finding your dose requires patience and doing some of the same batch a few separate times in safe environments. Don’t go for broke on day one. Just as with any drug, you have to build a relationship with it and get to know how it interacts with your body.

4) Re-dosing is very tricky. Don’t re-dose before at least an hour has passed. Preferably 90 minutes or more, and closer to two hours your first few times. The less time has passed, the smaller your re-dose should be, and it should always be less than your initial dose. A good rule of thumb is to not re-dose while you still feel at all high, but even if you don’t, be careful as you don’t know how much is still active in your system. Knowing your own ideal re-dose timing is another highly individual thing that you have to figure out slowly and very carefully.

5) Be conscious of how much food is in your stomach. If you just ate a big meal, your threshold dose will be higher than if your stomach is totally empty. (This is different from most drugs, but similar to alcohol.) It’s a very good idea to have eaten at least some food before you do G.

6) Trust your friends who are resposible and knowledgeable, but beware anyone who’s dosing you for the first time without asking how much you’ve had to drink, or having a conversation about how much you want to be dosed. They are being fucking careless. Bad spirit guide! No! Put the G down, you have not earned the right to dose your friends!

7) Use pre-measured vials (most head shops sell these) or a liquid syringe (available at pharmacies) to dose. This way you get consistency and accuracy in your dosing.

8) Don’t use it every day. No negative long-term side effects from GHB use have been established (yet), however, like almost any drug, GHB can be psychologically habit-forming if used too often, and (unlike many drugs) can cause physical addiction and withdrawals if used multiple times a day.

BONUS STEP:

8) Call your congressman/member of parliament and yell at them to legalize and regulate recreational drugs so we can have actual adult conversations with each other about how to use them properly without wading through a swamp of propaganda, prejudice and unregulated substances.

The main thing to remember is that the strength of G’s effects vary widely from person to person (and even from night to night depending on how much food you have in your stomach). The line between “THIS FEELS AMAZING!” and puking and/or passing out is a pretty thin one with G. So unlike with some easier drugs like MDMA, there’s no idiotproof guide to getting a great, safe high from day one. Starting slow and getting to know GHB is essential to be able to sustainably have fun with it. You need to woo her. Be a gentle lover with GHB. Get to know her ins and outs, how she works with your body. Don’t just stumble in and nail her without thinking. No one will have a good time.

This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s really not hard at all once you practice being careful, and being careful quickly becomes second nature. (It may not be as fun and exciting to be so methodical about it, but if you’re getting off on the risk you have a whole other set of problems that a set of guidelines can’t fix.) If you do it right, you’ll end up with a drug that has mostly upsides and few downsides.

There! See? It’s not impossible, yay! Please share this with your friends so uninformed users stop G’ing out and ruining the rave scene for us. ❤


Disclaimer: With this and all of my posts, I’m not advocating for drug use any more than someone who tells teenagers to use condoms is advocating for them to have sex. I just don’t have my head stuck in the sand. I’m acknowledging a reality in order to keep people safe. -H


Follow me on Twitter (@hilaryagro) if you like drug policy reform, prison abolition and feminism, and/or hate drug prohibition, capitalism and the prison-industrial complex.



Extra reading: I kept this post as short as possible to encourage lazy readers like myself to actually read the whole thing, but there are some important points to add. Some have been helpfully suggested by knowledgeable users, feel free to leave a comment with anything you think is missing!

  • Note that this article is NOT about GBL – the dosing is different for GBL so make sure you know what you’re getting, and do additional research before you consume anything.
  • GHB is not actually measured in milliliters, it’s measured in grams. Talking about GHB doses in mL is ultimately meaningless without knowing the concentration of the solution. “If taking/purchasing GHB from someone, always inquire as to what the EXACT concentration of the solution is. If they do not know, do not ingest the substance without either using titration to determine the concentration or evaporating the solution back to powder, weighing and putting the known amount of GHB back into a solution with your choice of concentration.”
  • If you buy larger quantities to dose out, put blue food colouring in the bottle you keep your G in so that no one accidentally mistakes it for water or liquor.
  • Advice from a harm reduction expert I know: “If you’re going to mix with alcohol, it’s better to take the G first or sip it to titrate up on either drink.”
  • Stimulants/uppers can mask the symptoms of a G overdose, so you can go into an OD after the stimulant wears off. Be aware of this when mixing and don’t take more G to compensate for the upper.
  • Does my monocle joke make sense to people who don’t get the Simpsons reference? (EDIT: I have been given confirmation that it does. Excellent.)

Being a grad student with ADHD: An ode to constant ontological uncertainty.

[Hi. I’m back. I’m digressing from my usual topics to get a little cathartic and personal for a bit. Don’t worry, for the next post we’ll be back to the drug stuff.]

Reading.

Reading used to be fun.

Back when everything I read was by choice, I could curate my own reading lists that reflected the kind of narratives that kept me going, kept me hungering for more. They fed my imagination and honed my scattered brain into the hyperfocused reverse of itself.

Reading was delightful, relaxing, rewarding.

Now, reading is torture.

It’s the enemy I face off every day. Trying to wrangle sentences from social theorists into submission is the constant state of my being.

I hear my colleagues say it took them an hour to read an article that it took me an hour to get six pages into and I want to cry.

Should I be here?

Is this where I belong?

I pop another Dexedrine and stare at the orange bottle: the key that unlocked the door to academia for someone who by all rights, shouldn’t be here. This space is not built for me. It is hostile to the way my body and mind function. I should have dropped out years ago. I almost did, twice—once in high school and once in undergrad—before the fateful ‘diagnosis’ that turned my C’s into A+’s and miraculously gave me the ability to pursue my dream.

I wouldn’t be here, but for this little orange bottle. It contains my freedom. It’s my crutch.

Academic writing seems designed to keep people like me out. Its dialect is a barrier constructed to exclude those who don’t have the socioeconomic, cultural and linguistic capital to penetrate it. Whose minds have resisted all attempts, external and internal, to be moulded into a narrowly specific way of absorbing knowledge. Read this, we are told. The onus is on us to figure out how. We are at a disadvantage from literally page one.

It smells like bullshit, like there’s something not quite fair happening. But it feels like personal failure.

Sometimes I think maybe grad school is secretly just an insane don’t-ask-don’t-tell circus. Surely no one actually does all the readings? It seems impossible. I can’t make my brain slow down enough to grasp the words on these pages when they’re so incredibly dense and meandering and nonspecific and abstract. If there’s no narrative, no examples, no stories—I can’t follow it. I physically try to force myself, and I fail over and over again. 

Then, the depression sets in. The self-loathing.

I wish I had some sort of cultural reasons to argue why Western academic social science writing is exclusionary to people like me despite the fact that I was shaped entirely within it, the way it clearly is to people from other cultures and backgrounds and epistemologies. ‘My people’—those of us with reading disabilities, ADHD, or just those who process differently—can’t absorb information in the way everyone else around us seems to be able to. But I don’t know who my people are. I don’t know who else to rally to solidarity. We are invisible. We are weeded out early. We are not common in this line of work by default. All I have is a diagnosis that I don’t even fully subscribe to, but whose necessity becomes starkly clear whenever I stop taking the meds. But how can you medicalize a way of thinking and call it a ‘disorder’? I am not disordered. This pedagogy is disordered. When an otherwise functional, stable, intelligent person has to be medicated to succeed within a system, there’s something wrong with the system.

Hello Foucault. It’s nice to meet you, I’ve heard so many wonderful things. I like your glasses, and also your scathing indictment of modern incarceral systems. Listen, I have some questions for you. If your ideas are so necessary, so revolutionary, why are they so difficult for us, the intellectual proletariat, to grasp through your writing? Why are you getting away with helping to perpetuate the very structures of exclusion and power that you rail against? You are complicit in their maintenance and silent about that irony. Explain yourself.

I keep hearing people say, “oh, it’s worth it once you slog through [X impenetrable author] for the brilliance.” And yes, I have found that to be the case for some authors. But look, some of us just don’t have fucking time. I’m not saying I’m too busy doing other things. I’m a student, this is my job. All I do is read, and I try very hard to slog through these authors every single day. I’m saying I literally cannot physically read fast enough in a given allotted time to properly digest an entire book by those impenetrable authors. Or even most of it. Or half. The time-spent-to-intellectual-benefit ratio is completely skewed for this type of dense, convoluted writing. I can learn so much more from a podcast or documentary or narrative ethnography about a similar topic. Hell, in terms of time spent to benefits, I’ve absorbed a lot more from following decolonial and feminist anthropologists on Twitter than from trying and failing to read Donna Haraway.

So yeah. Maybe academia isn’t for me.

Except… I’m here somehow. They let me into a top-tier anthropology PhD program with full funding. I have a Master’s degree; I’ve been told my thesis was good, very good even. I’ve made it here despite ignoring all the Big-Cheese Social Theorists and relying entirely on the little guys, the Comprehensibles, the ones I can and do read, who mix theory in with stories–Bourgois, Agar, Moore, Singer, Garcia. What does it mean? Am I a fraud or are all those French sociologists frauds?

I’ve swum around them, these giant mysterious intellectual whales in a sea of friendly little ethnographer fish. Most of the fish know the whales’ songs, and at their register I can actually hear them. So fuck the whales, I think. I don’t need them. I’m a product of the Internet age. Wikipedia and YouTube have been my shortcuts through a world of writing I can’t penetrate to crack open the sweet sticky centre of the ideas inside that writing, which in the end are all that matter. All along, there’s an uneasy feeling I can’t shake that this isn’t right, that I’m missing something, that I’m cheating. That my inabilities, my disability, my patched-together and selective reading history will catch up with me someday. That I’ll be exposed for the illiterate goon I am and unceremoniously booted out of this discipline I love so much.

And yet, somehow, I seem to get by. I get good grades, I’ve been told that I express my ideas coherently in classes and am an above-average public speaker, even if I don’t quite believe it. People regularly tell me they like my work and my public outreach (blog posts and Twitter) has been very rewarding. I love everything else about grad school and about anthropology–research, teaching, listening, learning, thinking, experiencing. The stuff I can read, I am absolutely fascinated by. I’ve gotten funding and scholarships–I am being given money to think and write about stuff. I feel like I have things to say, a perspective that would benefit from being heard in my discipline. I have concrete things to point to when I’m feeling particularly useless.

But none of this makes me feel any better when I’m staring at words swimming on a page. Instead I walk endlessly back and forth on a scale between self-hatred and bitter rage at the people I’m reading.

Right now, for example, I need to write a response paper about a very famous book by a very famous man named Bruno Latour. I don’t understand the first fucking paragraph and that fact is all I want to talk about:

…For real?  Is this a joke? Are we really all just gonna pretend that this kind of writing is an ACCEPTABLE WAY TO COMMUNICATE?

My internal thought process while reading goes something like this:

Okay, stating something simply, I like it, what’s next… Okay so I had to read the next couple sentences five times each because my brain kept showing me pictures of antique boats and my dad when he had a moustache and what I had for breakfast and Jon Stewart dressed as Donald Trump all set to the tune of that Talib Kweli song I can’t get out of my head mixed with the humming from my computer, but eventually I got there… Wait, hang on now. Slow down there compadre. What do you mean by ‘material’? You haven’t quite defined that and the way you seem to be using it in a way is diverging from my own understanding of the potential uses of that word and so I’m already lost. No, don’t try to blame the translator. I’m going through the repertoire of what you might mean by ‘material’ and nothing seems to quite make it work. I am also not familiar with a world in which the word ‘social’ can be productively equated with the word ‘wooden’ or ‘steely.’ It is not because I lack imagination. It is because you lack communication skills. Am I supposed to just buy this and move on? Why should I let you get away with this shit? Convince me. I am a skeptic. You are not winning me over with this attitude. …Or maybe I really am not cut out for this. I don’t know. Why can’t I remember more than the first two lines of this Talib Kweli song? Back to Latour. Focus. Wait, now it’s a ‘movement’? When did that happen? ‘Ingredient’? What? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?! I hear your ideas are important, what are they?! Give me your secrets, Latour! I want to understand! TALIB WILL YOU PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES I’M TRYING TO CONCENTRATE!

Yeah. That’s paragraph one.

I’m supposed to read 140 pages.

I don’t know. Maybe I really don’t belong here. Or maybe you can get a PhD with Google and reflexive feminist ethnography and theory-by-proxy. Maybe the calls for valuing clear, jargon-free writing in academia will become something more than lip service in time to save me. Maybe all those intelligible, narrative-oriented authors I can actually read are on the rise, and they will revolt and overthrow the opaque obfuscatocracy and take over, freeing us lowly idiots from our intellectual subjugation. My supervisor is one of those legible authors, that’s for damn sure. She knows how to write. I devoured her book in three days because she has enough respect for her audience to tell a story while she analyses. Why isn’t she the head of [whatever fancy French program somewhere that Latour sits on top of in a building that will be named after him someday, drinking wine and laughing at us peasants with brain disorders as we struggle to comprehend his revered words]?

Sigh.

What can I do? I’m far too obsessive and determined to just convince myself that I don’t need the big whales at all. If I haven’t given up now, it’s not going to happen.

So. I put on some Talib Kweli, drink some water, and steel myself. On to paragraph two.


Follow me on Twitter (@hilaryagro) if you like snark and feminism, and/or hate drug prohibition, capitalism and the prison-industrial complex.

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?

2016-03-20 20.37.00

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.

Ad-2

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.


Follow me on Twitter (@hilaryagro) if you like snark and feminism, and/or hate drug prohibition, capitalism and the prison-industrial complex.


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.