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 90 minutes have passed. Preferably two hours or more, and closer to 2.5-3 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. An okay 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 responsible 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 telling them they should 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


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



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.)

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.

meth

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.

maxresdefault

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.


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


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.)

Sunnyside 2015-07-12_169

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.

2015-08-23 01.23.51

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.

2015-08-16 04.22.03

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.

2015-06-14 00.39.47

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.

2015-08-23 01.14.48-2

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.

2015-08-23 04.32.12

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.


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

Yin and yang at Harvest Festival: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a bunch of nice hippies.

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

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

What a perfect welcoming sign. Photo credit: Becca MJ

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

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

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

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

A rare break in the clouds.

A rare break in the clouds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_5615

The live music stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_5597

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

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

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

We turned around and went back to the campsite.

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

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

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

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

Ethnography is not an exact science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There would be a lot of yang happening very soon.

Continued in part two!

Notes:

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


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

12038997_10204148720952067_8781627875984675219_o

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

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

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

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

Can't it be both true and not true?

Can’t it be both true and not true?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Perceptions of the social acceptability of party drugs versus their legality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A state of trance: Inner peace rising from chaos

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

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

Armin.

Armin.

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

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

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen's diffraction glasses.

Karen’s diffraction glasses.

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

* * *

A state of trance.

Toronto Trance Family, representing in the front.

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

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

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

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

2015-06-29 02.34.18

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

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

* * *

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

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

“Let me show you. If I can.”

A gently rising piano cushioned his words.

“Trance is a feeling.”

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

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

A State Of Trance

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

“Do you feel that?”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off camera: The pink building.

Off camera: The pink building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Psytrance, a world unto itself

Most of what I knew about psytrance (psychedelic trance) raves before I actually went to one came from this article in Vice:

Psytrance really is a counter-culture in the truest sense. The music is harsh, the clothes are weird, the drugs are strong, the best parties are illegal. This isn’t a scene you can enter half-heartedly; nobody is having their birthday drinks at places like this – it’s too intense, too esoteric for the casual partygoer.

It’s a piece that has always stuck with me since I first read it. I have loved “ethnography for the masses” journalism since before I knew what anthropology was; that fish-out-of-water, Gonzo style, with authors who are able to successfully suspend their WASPy disbelief and experience a new and strange environment with a more-or-less open mind, broadening their view of how life can be lived. Though at one point the above article devolves somewhat into gawkish weirdo-porn—”Look at all the funny clothing! Are these kids nuts or what!”—it hints at something unique about psytrance that I was curious to see for myself.

File 2015-07-01, 1 13 07 AMMy partner and I showed up around 11, dressed in shorts for the beach theme. Blow-up sharks and beach umbrellas hung around the dance floor, which was sparsely populated by a core group of around ten people, mostly men, already dancing hard. Leaning into the intensity of the music, arms pumping and flailing. More people stood chatting and dancing throughout the rest of the club. Everyone looked happy, even if some were too focused on dancing to be smiling. It was a relatively older crowd in here (mid- to late-twenties) than at some other events I’d been to. Some were in classic raver outfits—fur boots, kandi, huge baggy pants, stuffed-animal backpacks, that same sort of neon-sexualised childlike look, like laser-show camoflauge.

“I have no idea what kinda drugs that guy must be on.” My partner pointed to a man who was swaying from side to side with a vacant look and half-open mouth. My guess, a dissociative of some kind. Ketamine, or GHB maybe. A bit too much, either way. But most people seemed clear-headed, if not exactly sober.

A beach ball went flying past my head as I went to buy a beer. The music was good, already stirring up a pretty strong desire in me to dance. We went upstairs to a second level overlooking the dance floor and sipped our beers. A man wearing an “I Believe” alien shirt walked past us and pulled out a small baggie of blue pills. It was done so blatantly out in the open, my partner figured he wouldn’t mind if he asked the guy what he was going to take. They exchanged words I couldn’t hear under the pumping music, and I saw my partner laugh. He came back.

Do a google search for

Thanks, disembodied tangle of arms! (Source)

“They’re not pills. They’re earplugs,” he grinned.

I ended up having a great chat with Derek about the rave scene, after I complimented him on his decision to wear earplugs. He’d been going to dance music events since the birth of acid house in the late 80’s. We watched the crowd stomp around from our second-floor vantage point. Everyone looked a little different, a little unique. Though most of the crowd was white, there were people of all shapes and sizes and configurations of dreadlocks. There were no binary gender categories in charge here. Visually, this was a very different crowd from folks at more popular EDM events. It was the misfit table in your high school cafeteria, all grown up and not giving a fuck. I liked it. I felt at home. These weirdos knew how to party.

“Everything’s changed,” said Derek, as we continued to chat about the dance music scene. “It used to be about the people—the DJ wasn’t the centre of attention, now it’s all about ego…” This wasn’t the case at the events hosted by the organizers of this one, though, he said. He liked events held by these guys. But his words made perfect sense in what has become an increasingly monetized and corporate electronic music scene. The fact that a formerly niche music genre like EDM (contested though the term is) has exploded in North America in the last three years is shaping a lot of how the scene functions today. The effects of this explosion are everywhere. DJs are the new rock stars. Huge EDM festivals are popping up overnight on the map like mushrooms after a rain, so much that talk about market oversaturation has already begun—young people only have so much money to spend on summer festivals, and most can only afford one or two a year (though social media and FOMO are affecting these decisions as well). Celebrity actors-turned-DJs are using their clout to cash in on EDM’s popularity—Hodor from Game of Thrones calls his bookings “Rave of Thrones”, Bryan Cranston made a surprise appearance at EDC a couple weeks ago, and Paris Hilton is slated to DJ at Cabana in Toronto soon—though most of the online buzz around this fact ranges from not taking her seriously, to outright hostility at her “buying her way into the scene” where talented DJs could play instead. (To his credit, Hodor (Kristian Nairn) is apparently pretty good.) Gigantic rave cruises are spawning knock-offs and the Full Moon Parties in Thailand get bigger by the thousands every year. And Superbowl-sized LED screens blast the names of DJs in multicoloured glory as they pose for that iconic shot in front of the ecstatic crowd, arms wide, godlike, drinking in the adulation.

I'M YOUR GOD NOW

I’M YOUR GOD NOW.

Back at the beach-themed psytrance rave however, it was 12:30 am, the dance floor was filling up and a pink-haired DJ who turned out to be my favourite of the night was taking over. No LED screens, no antics, no huge crowd. The dancers cheered him on after a particularly complex bit of mixing. He shook his head and bowed to them, arms out, palms down, as if in worship.

There was an unique kind of unity in the dancing style I saw at this event, different from that seen at more mainstream EDM events. This was very… Well, what you’d have to call ‘frenzied’. It matched the music perfectly. Everyone is in their own little world; there’s less dancing together in tight pairs or groups, more space to move around and be creative. But you can still feel that it’s a collective activity. We’re all still in this together as a group, united by the music and the freedom to just be weird and dance however we want. Interestingly, there was a noticeable lack of sexuality about the dancing here. I wasn’t sure why, but I got the feeling that someone trying to dance provocatively, or any sort of sexual attention-seeking, would be frowned upon and probably mocked. It would be out of place, an unwanted break-in from the mainstream world of bros and Kanye’s “drunk-and-hot girls” that these people are trying to escape. Where they don’t fit in and don’t know the rules, don’t know how to fake it and have rejected the idea that they should have to.

1:50 am.

1:50 am.

However, just as I was thinking to myself, “Everyone is dancing so damn hard, it would be pretty difficult to hit on someone here anyway,” my partner pointed out a hip-humper (a guy dancing crotch-first against a girl) at the front. Turns out she was into it, though. Later on in the night, my partner ended up accidentally interrupting them upstairs outside the bathroom, his hand up her skirt.

At 2:35 am, we hugged Derek goodbye and began our journey home. We weren’t sure exactly what we’d just experienced, but we knew that we liked it. We’d be back for more.

Note: Real 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

Field Notes: This data collection is interfering with my dancing.

The following is a selection of some of the more entertaining notes from my first official field research night. (The last post was a preliminary getting-a-feel-for-things outing.) I took out a lot of the reflections and will be putting those into a separate post. If any real anthropologists are reading this… Forgive the crude and candid nature of these notes. I have never been able to maintain the illusion that I am above using words like “clusterfuck”. I see no point in censoring my notes before the real analysis has begun in earnest. I’m sure that buried deep somewhere in Margaret Mead’s field notes, she talks about sick beats and squashing everyone’s buzz. She just didn’t have social media outlets to gloriously rip down the curtain that obscures the raw unfiltered human idiocy from which eventually crawls coherent insight.

Whether or not it’s a good idea, it’s happening.

For the same reason that motivates most of my decisions. Because it amuses me.

* * *

Hey, it wasn't me who said it.

Neo-tribalism in action.

Arrival: 12:30 am. After a clusterfuck of ridiculousness involving forgetting my ID. They wouldn’t let me in. I had to go back to the house to get my passport. I should be happy that they’re being strict about IDs, but right now it’s just a pain in the ass.

Bathroom attendant is a black Caribbean woman. Again. What is up with this town? It makes me super uncomfortable since 90% of the partiers are white. A girl came up and asked her, “can I sneak a piece of that gum?”

“Tip,” she said flatly.

“Ahhh…” The raver walked away. I made eye contact with the bathroom attendant and she rolled her eyes. “I guess she didn’t want it that bad,” I said.

I can already tell that the bathroom is gonna be a gold mine for overheard conversations. If I’m only listening it’s not unethical right? I’m peeing, I can’t close my ears.

Coat check guy liked my shirt. Friendly. Though a guy once told me that any time a guy compliments your shirt, he’s actually complimenting your tits. He was really nice though so it didn’t seem offside.

The Uniform: Girls in short shorts. Guys in tanks or shirtless. Lots of hats. Reminds me of Thailand.

I’m more worried about my bag than I should be considering everyone in here is probably wealthier than I am.

Holy shit this DJ is really good! Frank Walker?

Dude with LED finger gloves! Ha haaaaa! I love his face, his enthusiasm!

I really will need better ear plugs. Fuck it’s loud in here. It also reeks of weed which is always oddly comforting, even though I don’t smoke anymore.

Second finger glover. This one is definitely high. He’s really working one girl. Do they use these things to get laid?

3LAU!

3LAU kills it.

1:00 am

I can literally feel the heat emanating from the guys beside me. It’s like standing next to an oven.

More men than women here for sure. There’s a group of shirtless dudes dancing together. Gay? Bros? Who knows?

Guy in a giraffe mask. Love it. He is loving it too. I feel like a douche not dancing right now and writing things on my phone.

There’s a guy trying to catch my eye. I guess he didn’t notice my engagement ring. I just want to talk to him about my topic. …Ethical? Can I smile at him on to make contact, even though I know he’s trying to flirt? Use my female-ness to my advantage, since it’s not my goddamn fault that so many men have zero interest in making a genuine connection with another human being unless she’s DTF? I didn’t make the system and I don’t like it, but can I still work within it?

Ohhhhh 3lau. It’s really fucking hot in here. But 3LAU. Amazing beats. “London… I have a lot of Canadian friends who tell me that you guys party the hardest!” (He could say that everywhere, but London, ON is actually pretty well known as a party town.)

SERIOUSLY THIS DATA COLLECTION IS INTERFERING WITH MY DANCING. …OK that double shot kicked in pretty quick. That’s enough for tonight.

Sweaty muscley beef guy just sold some drugs behind me. I want to ask what but for several reasons I won’t.

How the fuck does everyone know and agree when a particularly sick beat is happening? I was getting so pumped up because it was awesome. And somehow everyone else’s tastes were the same. How much influence do we have on each other?

It’s so hot in here and I’m not even on MDMA. I can’t imagine how brutal it feels for everyone who is. This has to be… [interrupted by a guy telling me to get off my phone] I am squashing everyone’s buzz with my seeming phone obsession. Should have brought my shirt.

Research uniform. It's come in handy.

My t-shirt brings all the participants to the yard.

1:37 am

Made friends! Lewis*, who was the one to tell me to get off my phone, introduced me to everyone as “This is Hilary! She’s here on her own!” Which made me very popular. They all seem to just absolutely love how badass I apparently am for coming on my own at the last minute. Girls probably don’t do that too often. But because of it they’ve welcomed me into their group. Really friendly of them.

There’s a guy walking around with a folding fan, cooling people down with a big smile. This man is a best friend machine. I love him.

Guy says to me: “I know a guy who did that (mushrooms all the time) and now he’s retarded.” …..OK

Random people are still getting mad at me for using my phone. The night is supposed to be about getting away from the tech-obsessed, alienated world – me on my phone is like an affront to the rave ideals, it’s almost rude, indicating that I’m not as into the music and the atmosphere as everyone else. I might have to keep my phone usage on the floor to a minimum, and move to the side to take notes. Though Lewis decided that my research was an acceptable excuse.

Offered MDMA a couple times by guys in the group I’m hanging out with. Being offered in this context is really a nice gesture, truly – reminds me of the joke saying, “if a stranger offers you drugs, say thank you – drugs are expensive.”

“I’m gonna have to drink a Culligan jug tomorrow” – Lewis. He is indeed sweating so much he looks like he just climbed out of a lake.

A girl bumped into a guy and knocked his beer all over him. She started to apologize, but he smiled and said “no worries” and offered it to her! I’ve found Rave Jesus.

To break the ice, it always goes:
First question: “Are you having a good night?”
Second question: “What’s your name?”
Guys shake hands, girls hug – though this might be me taking the lead on the second one. I like hugs.

“Are you studying me right now?” Asked sort of jokingly but also hard to answer because, well, yes. Surely this is a question encountered by lots of anthropologists – need to get feedback on how to answer it.

Girl in the bathroom: “I’m never wearing jeans to a rave again!”

Accepted a paper towel from the bathroom lady. Awkwaarrrrdddd. I put a dollar in her jar.

2:25 am

I need a dancing break. Geez, I’m not even taking my own advice. I need electrolytes!

Gotta get in touch with those Colombian girls! Rave scene in Colombia? Anywhere else in Latin America?

I really need to work on my courage. I feel too shy to talk to bartenders or the bathroom attendant but they’d have lots of great insights.

3LAU: “For stealing my London virginity, this was awesome!” I love it when DJs are just as into the vibe as the crowd is.

After telling a guy that I’m an anthropologist: “Oh yeah, I went to see that T. rex in Alberta!” What I thought: …Sigh. Yeah I study dinosaur bones. At raves. Man, not all anthropologists are archaeologists, but archaeologists don’t even study dinosaur fossils, that’s palaeontologists! What I actually said: “Oh awesome!”

I should ask my optometrist if all these lasers are bad for my eyes. Lol.

Light finger guys who gave me a show… Wanted to ask more about it, why they do it etc. (pretty sure I have some ideas but still), but it felt like it would ruin the spontaneous experience to start digging into it, to bring the implicit shared bond out into the open. Once again this applies to so many little social situations… Saying it out loud changes everything, like explaining a joke, or pointing out that someone’s flirting.

4 am

When the music was over I went around looking at the garbage to see what kinds of leftover drug baggies were littered around. One of the guys cleaning up got excited when I told him about my project. “You looking for drugs? There’s lots! I’ll help you find them!” We swept the place for tiny ziplocs. He got an idea when I told him I had a test kit, and ran away and came back with some white powder crumpled up in tinfoil. “It’s a prescription drug from Russia we got online!” he said. We chatted about ‘cocoa puffs’ and how dealers put cocaine in weed to get you ‘hooked’. I’m not sure I believe it. Need to ask around.

I called out to the crowd leaving: “If anyone lives off Richmond, I have two spots in my car, I’m sober, I can drive you home.” No takers. One guy yelled out “STRANGER DANGER!” Hah. I’m both affronted and strangely proud of their reaction. Good little ravers, dont accept rides from strangers! Except when its a clearly sober woman. Enjoy your $30 taxi.

Drove Lewis and his friend home. He tried to invite me in. Lol no. “Nah I’m good.”

Going home. So tired. This research is really gonna mess with my sleep schedule. It’s also gonna be really fucking expensive. Gotta plan ahead so I can email events beforehand and tell them I’m researching harm reduction, maybe get in free. Maybe.

*Not his real name.


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