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.

Veld 2015 (219)

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.

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.


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Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

A state of trance: Inner peace rising from chaos

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

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

Armin.

Armin.

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

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

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen's diffraction glasses.

Karen’s diffraction glasses.

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

* * *

A state of trance.

Toronto Trance Family, representing in the front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

“Let me show you. If I can.”

A gently rising piano cushioned his words.

“Trance is a feeling.”

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

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

A State Of Trance

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

“Do you feel that?”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off camera: The pink building.

Off camera: The pink building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro