A happy ending for 30,000 mollyed-out kids running around Toronto.

My heart dropped into my stomach when I first saw the announcement.

Fireworks during the finale

Fireworks and junk during Zedd’s finale. “You’re welcome for this 3-second photo op,” thought the cleanup crew as they swept up 300 trillion tiny pieces of paper for the rest of their lives.

Day 1 of Digital Dreams was cancelled, one hour before the doors were scheduled to open, due to a surprise winter hurricane (in June! How adorably anachronistic!) bringing rain and high winds. I was already getting ready to go, I had my fanny pack on and everything. I was supposed to see Armin van Buuren that night. Gramatik. Haywyre. Porter Robinson. I was going to do some participant-observation for a while, but then allow myself to just fully dance and enjoy the music for once. Despite my scene-savvy friends’ utter underground disdain for the festival—”more like digital nightmares,” they’d joke, over and over—and my own distaste for many things about corporate-sponsored events, this was supposed to be my night, damnit.

I spent the next four hours obsessively checking social media, taking notes on the collective outrage. I successfully fought the urge to join in by reminding myself that if this was the worst thing that had happened to me all month, life was pretty fantastic. Which gave me some much-needed perspective. However, Facebook and Twitter imploded into a trainwreck of 30,000 frantic ravers, many of whom were already drunk and high and ready to party, as they tried to find tickets to one of the afterparties at clubs that were heavily rumoured to be picking up the artists who were supposed to play that day.

I gave up on buying re-sold afterparty tickets for my partner and I when they hit the $100 mark. I focused on the positive side: the cancellation meant that we could go to a house party we’d been invited to that night by a friend I’d made through my research. We’d joked that this would be my opportunity to prove that I wasn’t a narc (a common theme when talking to people that I’ve yet to find a solution to—everything I think of to reassure them that I’m not a narc is probably something a narc would say, so… I got nothin’).

It ended up being one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. So, thanks, Hurricane Shitwind. But that’s a story for another time.

It was still pouring rain when we woke up the next afternoon. We listened to some Zedd tracks as we got ready for our only day at Digital Dreams: Camelbak, electrolyte tabs, portable phone charger, test kit, snacks, fanny pack, hand sanitizer. I turned myself into a zebra because why not, and we hopped on the GO bus to Toronto.

It's a festival. You've gotta blend in and stuff.

It’s a festival. You’ve gotta blend in and stuff.

“I like your makeup!” said a boisterous young woman as we sat down on the bus. “Thanks!” I replied. “It’s for Digital Dreams, we’re on our way there.” “Ahh,” she nodded. “Got your molly ready?” she added with a grin. I thought back to the Digital Dreampocalypse on social media the day before.

MDMA use is so normalized at these events. The idea that festivals can pretend their superficial efforts to keep drugs out have the slightest effect is ludicrous. Yet people still think having harm reduction outreach is going to make more people use. That’s not true, but it’s also barely even possible when everyone is already high.

We joined the collectively building excitement the moment we walked into Union Station to get our train. Young people in shorts and rain jackets flitted around trying to figure out schedules, drinking from spiked lemonade bottles. When we got off the train near Exhibition Place, I asked a group walking with us if anyone had any water. One girl gave me a bottle and said I could keep it, and her friend jovially offered us some vodka-Gatorade too. It would have felt wrong to say no, given the spirit of the whole thing; sharing and reciprocity is a big part of festivals, and rave culture in general. But also I enjoy free alcohol so I said yes.

Can you spot the sombrero?

Can you spot the sombrero?

Security was much less stringent than they probably would have been if everything had been going as planned that weekend. As it was, they’d opened up two hours late that day on top of Day 1 being cancelled, so it felt like they were just trying to get people in as quickly as possible. “Last year they were making people take off their shoes,” one guy told me. The security guard did make me lift up my bra and shake it underneath my shirt to see if any drugs fell out. Though it was sort of pointless, I noted, because if something had fallen out, it would have fallen into my shirt and he still wouldn’t have seen it.

* * *

We watched seagulls fighting over pizza crusts as we ate the cheapest food we could find ($5 a slice). A couple of cops tried to buy pizza but were denied because of the wristband-only payment system. “I got you,” a raver behind them said. They gave him the cash and high-fives before walking away with their slices. I’m mentally developing an “everything is awesome in rave-land!” logo, in the style of “The More You Know!”, that pops up in my head when I see a heartwarming moment like this happen.

If someone could make one of these saying

If someone could make one of these that says “The More You Rave!” I would love you forever.

We wandered around, people-watching and taking notes. A tall girl wearing kandi-clad arms and furry rainbow boots (and not much else) was walking in circles, mouth open, muttering incomprehensible lyrics to herself. Acid? DMT, maybe? “I hope that if I ever get that high, it’s somewhere where I didn’t spend $200 to get in,” said a guy beside us, watching her with one raised eyebrow.

Wading through a sea of crushed Bud Light and Red Bull cans, we went to check out Adventure Club, who I’d been looking forward to. But the crowd seemed sort of bored. They were mixing in a lot of pop music. I squinted at them as they played the same track twice in a row, trying to figure out why their set sounded so weak when all the songs I’ve heard by them are fantastic. Later I found out from a friend that apparently Adventure Club are great producers, but shitty DJs. “It’s a running joke with my friends and I,” he explained. “Every time they come to Toronto we’re like, goddamnit, go away. You guys suck, stop coming here.”

ZEBRA!

Have I mentioned that I love my thesis topic?

The mood changed as Martin Garrix finally showed up. I was picky about finding a spot in the crowd around people with “good energy”. (This is about as hippie-ish as I get with that word, but what I meant was people who were smiling and dancing.) We found a spot that was pure Goldilocks and melted into the music and the crowd. Garrix was good. Really good. We exchanged gleeful, dancing smiles with a guy named Gordon. He was just a terrific human being and ended up being one of our temporary dance-floor buddies, a phenomenon which is hard to describe but which ravers know about instinctively, and which occurs at 100% of dance music events. “That’s awesome that you’re married and that you’re still raving together!” he said when we told him about our recent wedding.

2015-06-28 20.40.39

It’s nothing but tank tops, all the way down

Martin Garrix was having a ball onstage. So apparently now DJs mix by standing on top of their decks and fist pumping. Technology advances are incredible these days, I texted to a friend.

A guy walked by with a Mexican flag tied onto his back like a cape. “Heyyyy! Mexicoooo!” I called out. He shook his head. He obviously didn’t understand me. “But, yes! Mexico!” I insisted, pointing at his flag-cape. He walked away and I got a better look at it.

…Oh shit. That’s definitely Iran.

Well, my contacts aren’t the right prescription anyway.

2015-06-28 21.13.15

This is my “so that definitely wasn’t Mexico” face

As Zedd replaced Martin Garrix, crowdsurfers and shoulder-sitters were breaching the lower level of the crowd with varying success. Either way, the crowd was always willing to help out. One girl was fully standing up on a guy’s shoulders, gracefully gripping with only her feet and smiling serenely. A few feet away, a large, extremely drunk guy was attempting to crowdsurf, but couldn’t get enough people to lift him up by his flailing limbs. Myself and a guy I’d been chatting with tried telling him that it probably wasn’t a good idea, but he was too wasted to hear us. Every time he fell with a thud, we rolled our eyes. I kept thinking each crash would be the end of his attempts, but it wasn’t until the people around him gave up that he wandered away.

Zedd played the theme from Zelda, with matching LED visuals. A couple of different people asked my partner if they could go on his shoulders, and he obliged. The view from up there is good, but I’m not a huge fan of it for very long. It always feels somewhat disconnected and distant from the rest of the crowd.

My partner and our buddy Gordon, bonding over Zedd

My partner and our buddy Gordon, bonding over Zedd

Given how strict about scheduling and noise bylaws these events usually are, every minute after 11:00 that Zedd played felt like a gift. Our buddy Gordon left before the show ended. “Next year,” he told us as he said goodbye, “When I’m the one playing at DD, you have to come and support me!” We heartily agreed.

* * *

My body immediately started to cool down after the show came to an end and we slowly surged with the crowd towards the exit. I wrapped myself up in every layer I’d brought, feeling sorry for the girls in bikini tops. Later I spoke with some of the EMS and medical staff, who said that their biggest rush of the day was exactly when the festival ended—the collective body temperatures of thousands of people dropped at once, and for some the crash was too much.

We tried to get the train before realising why Gordon left early—we’d missed it by five minutes. “Well, I guess we’re walking.” A few blocks away, we managed to push our way onto an extremely packed sardine can streetcar along with a mob of people.

But the night was only half over. The day before, I’d impulsively bought tickets to see Armin van Buuren at an “official afterparty” for Day 2. My partner and I have been fans of Armin for years now and have never seen him live, so not seeing him on Cancelled Effing Day 1 was first-world-problem devastation of the highest degree. So we were going to do whatever it took to see him that night.

That’s where things got messy. And really, really awesome.

This many people were on the streetcar with us.

This many people were on the streetcar with us.

[The whole story including Armin ended up being over 3,500 words, and ain’t nobody got time for that. So I’m gonna post about Armin in a couple days.]

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.


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

Eat, sleep, anth, repeat: It begins

Sunglasses in the darkness. White shorts, no shirt. Perspiration shining on his skin in the wild, flashing lights. A familiar-looking backpack on his shoulders, strapped over his muscular chest. I used to sell those backpacks. I worked at an outdoor gear store for a year and a half—tents, sleeping bags, hiking poles, boots. And Platypus backpacks. They come with water bladders and an attached tube that sits on your shoulder so you can stay hydrated while you’re hiking. “They’re amazing,” I used to tell customers, and I meant it. “You don’t have to keep stopping to get out your water bottle.”

The dancing man in front of me took a sip from his pack. “Check it out,” I grabbed my partner and pointed. His eyes widened. He was as delighted as I was. “A Platypus?” We both looked at the water bottles we were holding. Six bucks and they throw away the cap so you can’t easily re-use the same one all night. You have to hold onto it while you dance. Big pain in the ass.

Baggi Begovic was rotating in a circle on the stage in front of us. My ears were drowning in “Call of the Wild”. The bright orange earplugs hidden by my mop of long, sweaty hair were doing a passable job at keeping out the highest amplitudes. But the bass was vibrating my bones. I fist-pumped up to the shirtless raver.

Bangarang.

Dancers come out to wave giant glowing balls around for some reason during Sensation in Toronto.

“That is amazing. So smart,” I yelled into his ear. He gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up.

“I know right?!” he yelled back. “I don’t get why everyone doesn’t do this!”

“How did you get it in here?” asked my partner as he joined us. They were searching everyone’s bags at the entrance to the Rogers Centre. Not that well, judging by the pupils of everyone around us. But they were more concerned about liquids, anyway. The event was sponsored by Bud Light. They only sell one kind of drug.

“Just walked right in,” said our new friend, like worrying about security’s sometimes overzealous zero-tolerance policy was naïve of us. “No big deal.” His joyous grin grew even wider as his movements rode the wave of sound washing over us. The beat dropped and he became a one-man riot.

Jackpot. This guy was a pro. My last-minute decision to go casually check out harm-reduction activities at a rave in Toronto was shaping up beautifully.

* * *

This summer I’m doing ethnographic field work and interviews for my Master’s on the subject of drug use, harm reduction and EDM (electronic dance music) culture in Toronto. Techniques that ravers use to minimize the potential harm stemming from drug use are varied and inconsistently applied. But they can be found everywhere, in sometimes subtle ways, embedded in behavioural quirks.

From what I’ve learned so far, there seems to be a hierarchy of harm-reduction priorities for party drug users, personalized based on their individual cost-benefit calculation, the norms perpetuated by the people around them, their access to accurate information, and which drugs they use. Since, when it comes to MDMA (and its cathinone variants), dehydration is the main enemy—an equal-opportunity destroyer of one’s precious verticality—water is the key to success. Water is the source of all solutions to the most dangerous potential disasters that lurk behind every too-strong dose. MDMA raises your body temperature on its own while simultaneously making you want to do things to worsen the impact even more, such as dance for hours without a break. At some point, we’re not sure if it was before or after a few sad and media-hystericalized cases of deaths from dilutional hyponatremia (water poisoning), someone figured out that H2O alone wasn’t enough. And as fast as you can say, “Look at those marathoners, do as they do!”—electrolytes got thrown in the mix. Later came vitamin supplements, testing kits, tums, magnesium, 5-HTP, pre- and post-loading, a haphazard mix of urban legends, old wives’ tales and scientific research. Everyone’s trying to make life easier for the noble raver. But let’s not get too crazy. Just getting these adorable bug-eyed dance machines to drink enough water is step one. It’s still the holy grail of MDMA safe practice in the land of harm reduction advocates.

And here, at my first preliminary outing, was a man who was beautifully exemplifying that practice. His scant clothing ensured that he kept as cool as possible. His sunglasses protected him from both the intense laser lights and the scrutinizing gaze of police officers at the event. And having a constant source of water allowed him to stay hydrated and keep dancing for however long he was there at this eight-hour-long event. These techniques to mitigate the negative effects that the drugs he was on (he told me later, MDMA and “a few bumps” of cocaine) could cause was not only about about minimizing harm, but about not letting anything stand in the way of dancing more, dancing harder, and dancing longer.

* * *

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


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