But there are people out there who are trying to change the tide of this discourse. There are drugs policy reformers pushing for a "harm reduction" approach that prioritizes health and safety over prohibition and punishment. There are researchers trying to collect more reliable information on how drugs affect our bodies and how they circulate in the world. Caught in the middle of all this are electronic music promoters like The Warehouse Project, trying to keep their events safe within the constraints of legal-political environments in which very different notions of drug safety apply.
Back in the fall of 2013, there was a cluster of drug-related emergencies at the WHP that resulted in one death. It seems that the victims had taken a "dodgy" batch of ecstasy pills, most likely containing a lesser-known substance called PMA. PMA (Para-Methoxyamphetamine) belongs to the same class as MDMA and has similar serotonergic effects, but it is far stronger and far more toxic at lower dosages. Notably, what made this situation deadly was the lack of reliable information: the victims took what they thought to be reasonable doses of a familiar drug and fell severely ill.
The current legal environment makes this sort of on-site drug testing very difficult to do, but Measham and the WHP have succeeded in instituting a system where drugs confiscated by security or police are tested by Measham's team using state-of-the-art technology. If there are any troubling results (like a batch of pills cut with something dangerous), warnings are sent out via the WHP's social media channels.
This is a pioneering initiative for the WHP, but it's not without its risks. The organizers are well aware of the stakes involved in taking any kind of stance that draws attention to drug use at their events: their efforts might be misconstrued as condoning or even facilitating drug use, and there are those in news media and local politics who are eager to make that point.
During a phone interview, WHP co-founder Sacha Lord-Marchionne chooses his words carefully, and understandably so. Before saying anything about the program, he makes a point of articulating the WHP's anti-drugs stance in the plainest terms possible: "We really do not condone the use of drugs. And obviously we run a very, very strict anti-drugs policy on the door and inside the venue." Lord-Marchionne is nonetheless a realist. "We would be morons to think that, no matter what measures we put in place, people aren't going to get drugs into the venue. It's going to happen, and it happens across the country." Lord-Marchionne frames his collaboration with Prof. Measham as what drugs policy reformers would term "harm reduction," a stance that acknowledges the inevitable presence of drug use and seeks to reduce its negative impacts.
Like it or not, electronic music scenes are now tightly bound up in the messy politics of drugs. They're used as scapegoats for broader societal problems with substance abuse. They're invoked as the justification for changes to official drugs policy. They're often targeted by both media and police for negative attention. But they're also drawing the attention of drug reform activists, researchers and healthcare workers, who increasingly see electronic music events as important sites for intervention, education and investigation. Electronic music scenes bear the brunt of repressive measures that are supposed to fix problems far larger (and older) than electronic music culture.
Policy debates and safety strategies may not be as exciting as arguing about, say, annual DJ rankings, but they're important. The consequences of drugs policy are deadly serious, and they impact us in the world of electronic music directly, whether or not we take drugs ourselves. But this isn't just a story of the top-down effects of government policy pummeling a population of passive, helpless partygoers. There are a lot of organizations pushing for drug reform and better public health education in an effort to make partying safer. At the same time, more and more music venues and event organizers are under pressure to "do something" about drug safety at their events, but they struggle under legal-political conditions that render the most effective drug-safety interventions impossible or at least risky to implement. Amidst all of this, clubbers themselves develop their own collective, grassroots strategies for managing the risks associated with drug use—but this has its own risks and pitfalls.
In surveying this complex landscape, it's necessary to look at three levels of action: government drugs policies; the interventions of non-government actors like promoters, researchers and educators; and the experiences of partygoers trying to have fun and enjoy music under shifting conditions.
Simply put, a drugs policy is a system of principles guiding decisions about laws and regulations that manage substances considered to be dangerous and/or addictive. For example, most state-level drugs policies are targeted towards reduction—that is, the measures they take are intended to reduce the circulation and consumption of drugs. Some even aim at eradication, holding a drug-free world as their imagined goal. Either way, these sorts of policies tend to target either the supply or the demand of drugs. Targeting the supply chain usually involves destroying drug crops and shipments, disrupting smuggling routes and distribution networks, and going after drug dealers. A wide range of measures are associated with reducing demand for drugs, from the criminalization of drug possession to public anti-drug warnings to addiction therapy.
By contrast, a small but growing minority of governments are also exploring decriminalization, legalization and regulation as alternative ways to reduce the dangers stemming from underground drug trade. The difference with these more liberal policies is that they usually prioritize reducing the negative impacts of drug use over the reduction of drug use itself.
There are a lot of different drugs policies out there, but they all fall into a broad spectrum based on how hostile they are to drug use. At the far end of things are eradication-focused, zero-tolerance policies, which belong in turn to a wider category of policies that depend on legal prohibition while advocating total abstinence. More moderate policies often frame drug use as a public health issue, decriminalizing certain aspects of it while treating addiction as an illness that requires medical treatment. Continuing in the same direction are policies usually described as "harm reduction," where the focus is more on measures that reduce the negative impacts of drug use, such as safe injection sites, drug testing, freely available drug information and counselling.
Although legalization combined with regulation is a common policy for dealing with alcohol and tobacco (which also qualify as dangerous and addictive substances), only a few places in the world have established similar systems for "soft" drugs like cannabis. At the furthest end of the spectrum is complete liberalization, where the government doesn't get involved in any way with the circulation and consumption of drugs, which is virtually unheard of, as it would likely contravene most international treaties on drugs.
The US's "War On Drugs," introduced under President Richard Nixon in 1971, is one of the most restrictive and punitive drug policy regimes. Although individual states have some leeway in how they implement drug policy, the overall legal landscape is oriented towards drug eradication, abstinence and zero tolerance (that is, full prosecution for first-time drug offenses). These laws are mostly implemented quite strictly by law-enforcement authorities, and drug use carries a strong social stigma. In recent years, there have been some changes to drugs policy that indicate a gradual softening of the US's stance on drugs, such as increased investment in addiction research and therapy, the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use in some states, and the introduction of schemes where some drug offenses can lead to addiction-treatment programs rather than prison sentences.
However, "club drugs" like MDMA, cocaine and ketamine are still harshly policed, and the legal-political environment for electronic music events seems to be getting only more hostile—especially during the boom of EDM festivals over the last decade. Electronic dance music events were specifically targeted by the RAVE Act (signed into law as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act in 2003), which extended laws intended for "crack houses" to make the organizers of raves and other dance music events legally responsible for drug use on their premises.
Compared to the US, the UK represents a "middle-ground" policy environment. Laws regulating drugs are still based on the principle of prohibition, but there is more consideration given to drug safety and addiction treatment. This is partially a legacy of the so-called "British system," a legal paradigm from the early 20th century that separated the medical treatment of people with addictions from recreational use. In the '60s and '70s, however, drug regulations tightened and became more punitive, with the addition of many substances to the list of controlled drugs, and the criminalization of drug possession in even the smallest quantities. The last Labour government (1997-2010) supported some initiatives that could be considered harm reduction, but this declined as the political landscape changed. When the Conservative party came to power under David Cameron, many harm-reduction organizations lost their funding. But while the top level of politics has been a difficult climate for harm reduction, local support can be found among regional councils and law-enforcement in certain counties.
In the UK, police are generally afforded more discretion in implementing the law than in the US, and so the experiences of promoters can vary widely from county to county, town to town. London and Hampshire police, for example, have a reputation for being especially harsh, while Cambridgeshire and Manchester have been more willing to work with clubs and promoters on drug-safety initiatives. Nevertheless, electronic music events are sometimes targeted by indirect means, such as the imposition of last-minute, exorbitant fees levied by local councils or police that make events too expensive to carry out. For example, the Glade Festival of 2010 was cancelled by organizers when the Hampshire Constabulary raised its policing fees to £175,000, compared to £29,000 the previous year.
Although the Netherlands is frequently cited as an example of partial legalization and regulation, the country's drugs policy is in fact an interesting combination of tolerance, harm reduction and selective enforcement. While reducing drug use remains one of the official objectives of Dutch drug policy, it's complemented by objectives to reduce harm and "public nuisance," treat addiction and prevent trafficking. According to the law of the land, all drugs are still illegal in the Netherlands, but the authorities don't fully enforce these laws in cases that involve the possession and use of small amounts of soft drugs like cannabis and organic psychedelics. Similarly, the retail sale of cannabis is tolerated in the country's "coffee shops," although there are restrictions on how much they can sell and to whom.
This situation enables the Netherlands to comply with prohibition-oriented international treaties while implementing policies that are more focused on harm reduction. But while personal use and retail sale is generally tolerated, large-scale production and trafficking are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, especially for "hard" drugs like heroin or cocaine. This generates a mostly hospitable climate for dance music event organizers, although the police's efforts to apprehend drug dealers sometimes makes for a strange combination of support and surveillance.
In recent years, Portugal has been at the center of drug policy discussions around the world. Historically, the country has been a major point of entry for drug smuggling, and so it has been struggling to deal with very high rates of drug addiction. In 2000, a new policy was put into place that decriminalized possession of all drugs for personal use. Much like the Dutch system, drug possession remains illegal, but possession of small amounts of drugs (no more than a ten-day supply) became an administrative offense, rather than a criminal one. In other words, the result of being caught with your personal stash was no longer a trip to court and possibly to prison, but instead to a special committee who deal with drug users. These committees include a social worker, an attorney and a psychiatrist, who together come up with a set of sanctions such as paying a fine, being banned from specific places (such as nightclubs), or losing government subsidies like scholarships. If there's evidence of addiction, the sanctions may include being sent to a drug rehabilitation program or being assigned to community service.
These policy changes constitute a form of harm reduction oriented towards public health, prioritizing addiction treatment while discouraging drug use through less radical means than a prison sentence. The effects of these policies on electronic music events can be seen at Portugal's massive BOOM festival, which offers extensive harm-reduction services such as on-site drug testing, counseling, medical care and drug-safety information.
It's fairly obvious that the more you prohibit something, the more dangerous it becomes to access and use it. You only need to look at the period of alcohol prohibition in the US (1920-1933), where the combination of organized crime, violent police raids and poorly distilled bootlegger booze made drinking very risky. And so, there's a fundamental question at the base of all drugs policy debates: are you willing to increase the risk to drug users in order to drive drugs underground?
Not surprisingly, the answer implicit in different drugs policies depends to a great extent on how policymakers view drug users. Under regimes of severe prohibition, drug users are often depicted as criminal degenerates who deserve the consequences of their risky behavior. In contexts where public health is the priority and the focus is on addiction, drug users are seen as sick, vulnerable people who need support to live a drug-free life. Harm-reduction policies tend to be less pathologizing, seeing drug users as normal, everyday people, most of whom partake in drugs in culturally-specific settings that only rarely lead to harm. All of these approaches share a concern for safety, but they have very different ideas about what safety means.
Reform, research and harm reduction
Developing drugs policies is a continuous process, and there are many organizations who take part in the debate and push for reforms. In the US, for example, the Drug Policy Alliance has been a major player in drug policy reforms. Based in New York, this non-profit organization has been primarily concerned with opposing the legacy of the War On Drugs, advocating for an approach grounded in health, science and compassion instead of "zero tolerance" and arrests. Much of DPA's work has focused on ending arrests related to marijuana use, whether by passing laws in states to allow for medical marijuana, or more recently, by supporting the successful broad legalization efforts in Washington, Colorado and D.C. as well as in Uruguay, the first country to legalize marijuana. DPA has also been at the forefront of efforts to reduce opiate overdose fatalities by widening access to the life-saving overdose reversal drug naloxone. And recently, the organization has become increasingly involved in reforming drugs policies that impact dance music scenes—mostly thanks to the work of Stefanie Jones.
Jones started clubbing in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 2000s. She was struck by the public debate going on at the time about the RAVE Act, noting a substantial disconnect between her experiences with drugs in the local electronic music scene and how such experiences were being represented by politicians and pundits in the press. Jones discovered the DPA through its vocal opposition of the RAVE Act. Her growing interest in drugs policy took her to New York City, where she studied at NYU's Gallatin School and wrote her master's thesis on drug use and dance in the city's club scene. A few years later, she worked at the DPA as their event manager. But as electronic music became a massive phenomenon in the US later in the decade, she saw a new opportunity for drug reform activism: "As the interest in electronic music and the culture started to expand, I went back to my organization and said, 'There's a place for the Drug Policy Alliance here.'"
Jones became the DPA's Nightlife Community Engagement Manager and launched her own project, Music Fan, in 2014, which introduces harm-reduction principles and drug policy alternatives to partygoers, event organizers and city nightlife regulators. However, the RAVE Act makes her outreach work with event organizers especially challenging, since they're afraid of how including basic drug education and "harm-reduction" services might make them liable under its criminal provisions against a "drug-involved premise." A crucial passage in the RAVE Act targets event organizers who "knowingly" provide a venue for drug dealing and drug use. This is why every EDM festival in the US has a phrase like, "This is a drug-free event!" on the flyer and website somewhere; the organizers cannot risk giving any indication that they may condone drug use on their premises, or they may be prosecuted for running the clubland equivalent of a crack den.
The RAVE Act produces this perverse outcome, where most event organizers are afraid that introducing services that help reduce the risks associated with drug taking will get their event shut down or raided by police. Legislation that was purportedly designed to protect its citizens from drug-related harm ends up giving event organizers a strong incentive to avoid harm reduction of any sort. "Harm reduction is a somewhat charged term," says Jones, who often prefers to use the phrase "prioritizing health and safety" when dealing with people outside of the drugs policy community.
Jones has been working to remove these obstacles by supporting Dede Goldsmith, a resident of Virginia who lost her 19-year-old daughter, Shelley, to heat stroke under the effects of MDMA at a crowded EDM event in Washington, D.C., on August 31, 2013. Rather than lobbying for stricter anti-drug laws—a common response to losing one's child in a drug-related incident—Goldsmith launched Amend the RAVE Act!, a campaign aimed at pressuring US Congress to add provisions to the RAVE Act that explicitly allow event organizers and venue owners to implement measures that reduce the risk of medical emergencies, both drug-related and otherwise. Jones has channeled her years of drug policy expertise and the resources of the DPA into helping Goldsmith promote her campaign and connect with policy makers in Congress.
Event organizers aren't the only ones struggling to grapple with harsh drugs policies. Scientific research into controlled substances has been severely hampered by a combination of restrictive policies, conservative research bureaucracy and public stigma. Given all the money and effort that goes into controlling these substances, it's surprising how little we actually know about how they work, or what the full range of their effects are. Dr. Doris Payer is intimately familiar with the challenges that researchers face when they want to study drugs and drug use. "Why is it," she asks, "that we hear so much more about harms and long-term damage caused by a drug than we do about its potential as a scientific tool, or its contribution to well-being, or the notion that it may not, in fact, kill you instantly?" It turns out that there are numerous factors at play here.
Payer is a neuroscientist who started off as a community drug educator and ended up in the world of drugs policy and research. She went to college near Detroit in the middle of the 1990s, when the Midwest rave scene was at its height. During a trip to a rave in Toronto in 1997, she was inspired by the work of T.R.I.P (Toronto Raver Information Project), a pioneering youth outreach group that sets up a vendor's booth at raves and provides safety-focused information on sex and drugs. She returned to Detroit and launched a local drug education program with a couple of her rave buddies, which eventually turned into a chapter of DanceSafe, the US's foremost rave-focused harm-reduction network.
What kinds of challenges do researchers of controlled substances face? "There is something going on at a much more engrained, institutional level," opines Payer, "a set of biases that may not be obvious to non-scientists, or even scientists outside the field—and this, as far as I can tell, makes for a very skewed playing field." During our interview, Payer listed dozens of issues, but a condensed list would include funding, resources, bureaucracy and publishing.
"You can't do research unless you get funded," says Payer, "and funding bodies have funding priorities." In short, this means that the state-funded research agencies with deep pockets have little interest in research projects that may change our understanding of controlled substances. "In a funding climate where even the most politically agreeable of research topics have trouble staying afloat, a proposal along those lines, no matter how perfectly pitched and bullet-proof, will 'not fit into the strategic direction' and the money will go elsewhere."
Even if you do manage to find funding for your project, will your research institution agree to host it? "High-ranking, prestigious institutions tend to be conservative and look to protect their reputation," says Payer, "and so they avoid anything that they think might bring bad publicity or negative attention." Like dangerous drugs, for example.
Once you've dealt with finding funding and a host research institution, you can't just order a big batch of LSD or amphetamines and start dosing your research subjects. First of all, you have to be cleared to handle controlled substances: "In the case of illicit drugs," Payer explains, "this requires licenses—to obtain them, to store them, to give them to people."
Then you have to find a source of the substance you're planning to research, which can be tricky, when producing the substance is illegal in most countries. In some countries, the national bureau for health sciences or drugs research might have some stock they can provide you, but the supply is scarce and often of very low quality. How will it impact your experiment if you're giving your test subjects shitty weed, for example? To top it all off, the necessary licenses are usually expensive and short-term. "By the time all the bureaucratic hoops are cleared," Payer says, "it's time to renew and pay up again."
Let's say you've jumped all the bureaucratic hurdles and you've managed to successfully complete your experiment: where will you publish your results? It turns out that the academic publishing world has its own tendencies and biases that make this especially difficult for drugs research. For example, what do you do if your research shows that a drug doesn't have some purported negative consequence? "The scientist will have a 'null result' on their hands," explains Payer, "A failure to show an effect. No journal is keen to publish something that shows nothing." And even if your experiment has positive findings that show something, journal editors still have the power to refuse publication for other reasons, such as misgivings about negative attention and stigma attached to recreational drugs. For Payer, "it's an insidious case of political expediency overriding scientific accuracy."
But there are some important efforts being made to level the playing field for researchers of controlled substances. Recently, Payer has been working with the Beckley Foundation, a UK-based think-tank headed by Amanda Feilding supporting research that builds the scientific evidence base necessary to develop balanced drugs policy. In the realm of drugs policy, the Foundation has commissioned an influential report on cannabis policy, which has been cited extensively in some US states as they've been introducing cannabis decriminalization and legalization policies. Similarly, the Beckley Foundation is advising the Jamaican government as it takes its first steps in creating a regulated market for medicinal cannabis and recognizing the right to use cannabis as a sacrament.
In the realm of scientific research, the Beckley Foundation has been providing support and guidance to several international research teams that are launching ambitious new studies. Among these projects is the first modern brain-imaging study of LSD—using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—conducted at London's Imperial College under the supervision of David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris. It says something about the current politics of drugs research that this groundbreaking study was partially (and very successfully) crowd-funded via Walacea, since the research team was unable to obtain full funding from the government. It points to a climate where science has to turn to alternative funding sources, even if their grant application received perfect scores from traditional grant reviewers. In addition to Imperial College, the Beckley Foundation has been working with research teams at University College London, King's College London and Johns Hopkins University.
In Payer's view, the drugs policies in countries like the UK and the US continue to be a stumbling block for scientific research. "It's important to know that science is being heavily impeded by these policies," she says, arguing that these policies (and consequent one-sided information) skew public knowledge about drugs. She points out that drugs policies and other bureaucratic barriers to research are based on opinions and moral reasoning—and, ironically, "the only way to get away from that is to find out." In other words, she argues that better drugs research would lead to better drugs policies, but the policies themselves stand in the way of improving that research.
Clinical trials in laboratories are just one branch of research into drugs. Deirdre Ruane is also conducting research, but of a very different kind: ethnographic, qualitative, social and hands-on. Ruane studies a specific kind of harm-reduction service called "psychedelic support," which has been increasingly present at electronic music festivals. She's currently conducting ethnographic research for a doctorate (PhD) at the University of Kent, exploring the psychedelic support phenomenon under three different drug policy regimes: the US, the UK and Portugal. As part of her research, she volunteers with local harm-reduction organizations in all three of these countries, which includes running psychedelic support services at festivals. Although they've been around in one form or another for many years, Ruane points out that, "Nobody has really documented what these services do and what working practices they have."
Psychedelic support services provide a safe space and calming company for people who are on psychoactive substances and having a bad time. "If someone is having a bad trip," explains Ruane, "they will help them through it." This phenomenon grew organically at transformational festivals like Burning Man and Lightning In A Bottle in the US, Fusion in Germany and BOOM in Portugal. Lots of these festivals feature psychedelic trance—a global legacy of the Goa trance scene—and they usually combine elements of ritual and participatory art together with an ethos of personal development and spiritual growth. "In transformational festivals there's a tradition of informally helping someone through a bad-trip experience," says Ruane, "and psychedelic support services make that more official, by providing a sort of sanctuary space or a safe space that is more low-stimulus than the rest of the festival."
These services are staffed by sitters, not guides, which means that they're not there to serve as your psychonaut sherpa. "They're not going to give you a dogma, like Timothy Leary and his Tibetan Book Of The Dead schtick," says Ruane. Instead, they provide non-directive company and a sense of safety, listening and helping you stay calm while you work through whatever is going on in your head (you can check out the The Manual Of Psychedelic Support here). Although some of them have training as therapists, "a lot of them are just party people who have been around the block and know what this experience is like."
During her research, Ruane has worked with psychedelic support organizations like The Zendo Project in the US (supported by the Multidisciplinary Association For Psychedelic Studies), as well as Kosmicare, which has different branches in the UK and Portugal. Similar services are provided in Germany by Eclipse and in Spain by Energy Control. Psychedelic support services also offer support for people who are having a difficult time with non-psychedelic substances, like MDMA or ketamine or even alcohol.
The legal environment in many places makes it risky for event organizers to offer harm-reduction services like psychedelic support. Words matter a lot in these situations, and harm-reduction advocates often have to choose them very carefully when describing their services. For example, Stefanie Jones of the Drug Policy Alliance prefers to use the term "on-site mental health" to refer to psychedelic support, thus reframing the service as more general psychological care that implicitly includes difficult drug experiences. But it's a lot harder to mince words about another crucial harm-reduction service: on-site drug checking. "There's some controversy around drug education and on-site mental health services like The Zendo Project," says Jones. "But drug checking is the thing that is truly controversial."
In principle, drug checking is very simple. You test a sample from a batch of drugs to see what's in them. The harm-reduction angle here is pretty obvious, but worth stating plainly: drugs bought on the street or in the club can contain virtually anything. This is a direct effect of drugs policy, in that prohibition always creates an illegal market that is dangerously unregulated. Add to that the novel psychoactive substances (legal highs) that have been flooding the market in recent years, and it's not hard to see how drug checking reduces harm. DIY drug-testing kits are available in many parts of the world, but casual drug users are not likely to go to the trouble of procuring and using these kits—especially since possessing one may be stigmatizing or even incriminating. And so, many harm-reduction organizations are pushing to bring drug checking into clubs and festivals, where drug consumption is actually happening.
The details of how drug checking works can vary widely, usually based on what is legally possible and/or politically permissible in a particular setting. In drug policy circles, drug checking services are usually divided into "front-of-house" and "back-of-house" models, with "middle-of-house" being a recent trend, too.
Front-of-house drug-checking is the rarest form of this service, since several aspects of it are legally or logistically impossible under most drugs policy regimes. It involves having an on-site lab with drug-testing equipment, which accepts samples of drugs from partygoers and provides them with direct and fast feedback on the results. If any unexpected substances are found—especially ones that are known to be dangerous, like PMA or one of the many new and understudied legal highs—partygoers receive an urgent warning that may also be broadcast around the festival space through signage or over social media.
Front-of-house drug checking is the "gold standard" of events-based harm reduction, but, when workers handle drug-samples to test them, it risks running afoul of drugs laws in most countries—they could be prosecuted for drug possession or even drug dealing/distribution. The fact the service gives real-time feedback to partygoers is viewed by critics (such as politicians and police) as tantamount to endorsing and facilitating drug use. The most complete and successful example of front-of-house drug-checking is in Portugal, where the "Check In" service at the BOOM festival is located right next to the dance floor. Since possession of small quantities of drugs have been decriminalized in Portugal, workers can handle drug samples without fearing prosecution. A similar service in Austria, called ChEck iT!, deals with prohibitive drug-possession laws by using a carefully choreographed procedure where the workers never physically touch the drugs and the results are posted anonymously on a board with a reference number.
By contrast, back-of-house drug-checking is the most conservative version of this service, which usually involves an off-site lab and no face-to-face interaction with partygoers. Samples are usually collected from drugs that have been confiscated by security or police, or sometimes they're tested from "toilet affluent" after the event (yes, that means sampling and analyzing sewage). The samples are tested at a lab housed either in a police station or at a research institution (like a university) that has received a special dispensation from local police to handle drugs. A crucial difference with back-of-house testing is that the whole cycle is much, much slower. It can take weeks for results to come back, so this is of little use to partygoers during the event. It's more of forensic interest to police and drug-use researchers, although the results are sometimes made public afterwards as a warning to the local party community about an especially dangerous batch of drugs.
"Middle-of-house" drug-checking is a relatively new concept, which represents a combination of aspects from both front-of-house and back-of-house systems. For example, the drug-testing scheme that Prof. Fiona Measham has been conducting at The Warehouse Project could be called a "middle-of-house" system, in that the testing happens on-site, but there's still no face-to-face interaction with drug users. Instead, Measham's team usually receives samples from police-confiscated drugs and sometimes from an "amnesty box" placed somewhere in the event space. Their on-site lab is located behind a police cordon, so that they can handle the drugs without officially committing a crime.
Back-of-house and middle-of-house drug testing are happening more often in some UK counties, but this depends entirely on the goodwill and cooperation of the local police force. It's indicative of the severity of the current US drugs regime that pretty much no variant of these schemes is available at most EDM festivals. DanceSafe sells DIY drug-testing kits online, but providing these kits at a music event would put event organizers at risk of running afoul of the RAVE Act, since it could be construed as acknowledging and facilitating drug use. Some US states have even classified drug-testing kits as "drug paraphernalia," which effectively makes possessing one a crime. Indeed, as Stefanie Jones suggests, on-site drug testing seems to be testing society's willingness to talk frankly about drug use. "With drug checking…that's when the questions arise. How comfortable are we with the fact that drugs really are here, at these events? Which do we care about more: prohibition or safety?"
Psychedelic support and drug checking are just two among a wide range of harm-reduction services. Many harm-reduction organizations also provide drug-related health information, like DanceSafe in the US or T.R.I.P in Canada. Some event organizers make a point of distributing free water, ensuring good ventilation of the dance floors and providing ample "chill-out" spaces. At many festivals, harm-reduction services work closely with on-site medical teams and security to ensure that people in distress are identified and get the right kind of help quickly.
But most of these harm-reduction organizations are still working within prohibition-oriented regimes, dealing with restrictive laws, hostile local authorities and nervous event organizers. And event organizers have good reason to be nervous, as so many things can go wrong—police raids or closures, cancellation of operating licenses or impossibly high fees, sensationalist press and local politicians looking to set an example. These risks are intimidating enough for a small-scale outdoor festival or urban club, but they're terrifying if you're organizing one of the EDM mega-festivals that have been dominating part of the dance music landscape over the last decade. In these contexts, it can be nearly impossible for harm-reduction services to even get into electronic music events at all.
Raver survival strategies
If prohibitive drugs policies weigh heavily on event organizers, drug policy reform activists and harm-reduction service providers, it is the partygoers themselves who bear the brunt of the consequences. For example, event organizers may try to avoid police intervention by encouraging their security team to be aggressive about drug use. This creates an environment of suspicion and paranoia, which not only diminishes the "vibe" of the event and contributes to distressing drug experiences, but also discourages partygoers from accessing whatever harm-reduction services may be available at the event.
In contexts where there is a lot of surveillance and paranoia, drug use tends to be more hidden, which only makes drug taking riskier. "Due to undercover policing," says Ruane, "at certain US festivals there's a culture of, 'You must never, ever mention drugs to anyone who is not part of your camp.' You just don't talk to strangers about drugs, and you don't display your drug use to anyone." At these festivals, horror stories circulate about police tactics bordering on entrapment (e.g., undercover police inviting people to share their drugs and then busting them for drug dealing) and intrusive surveillance (e.g., using heat-sensitive cameras to detect pipes in tents), so everything goes further underground. This makes festivalgoers even more reluctant to ask for help when they're in distress, sometimes waiting until there's a medical emergency before approaching someone.
A major challenge for partygoers is the lack of reliable information about drugs and drug safety. Sure, every country has its official "drug education" program, but they lack credibility within nightlife communities. "People develop a mistrust of any official-looking source of drug information," says Ruane, "because so many other things they say are untrustworthy." Many government-sponsored information sources vastly overstate the dangers of illicit substances and depict drug users as helpless addicts. While describing Talk To Frank, the British government's official drug-awareness campaign, Ruane parodies its hyperbolic anti-drug message as, "If you smoke a spliff, immediately afterwards you will find yourself under a bridge, shooting heroin into your eyeballs."
In the US, generations of teenagers have been bombarded with slogans like "Just say NO" and "Not even once!" These campaigns also frequently treat soft and hard drugs as equally dangerous and addictive, which runs counter to the experiences of most drug users. None of this reflects the diversity of partygoers' personal experiences, many of whom have taken drugs on many occasions without dramatic consequences. When they're told that every instance of drug use leads to addiction and tragedy, they stop listening.
Of course, this doesn't mean that partygoers are helpless without support from harm-reduction services. Ravers are remarkably resourceful when it comes to managing drug safety under clandestine conditions. For Ruane, most of the survival strategies she saw were intensely social: "Largely, I see a lot of friends looking out for each other." This usually means sticking together with a small partying crew, who provide advice, support and mutual protection. Friends learn to "check in" with each other, share gossip and knowledge about drug safety, and above all stick together.
But if your crew is your only source of drug-related support, that also means that you're deeply dependent on them—and not all friend groups do that sort of thing well. During her time volunteering in psychedelic support services at festivals, Ruane estimates that, "About 60% of the bad-trip stories I've collected involve people losing their friends, being left by their friends, or being alone in some other way." Ruane has also seen friend groups show admirable dedication in caring for their own: "We've had lots of groups of friends who've wheeled in [to psychedelic support] one of their number who was having a really hard time, and then sit with them for the rest of the evening while they recover."
Festivals are often described as temporary "micro-cultures," and this also applies to drug safety practices at these events. Some festivals are known for cultivating a particularly pro-social environment, where friends actively look after each other and strangers will approach people who seem to be having a bad time. But other festivals are infamous for having more of a "to each his/her own" culture, where everyone is left to their own devices, and those in distress are actively avoided. Some of these differences can be mapped to the size of the event and the repressiveness of local drugs regimes, but event organizers also play a decisive role in shaping these dynamics.
When it comes to peer support, age is also a factor. Older partygoers are more likely to have more experience dealing with difficult drug experiences, and so they're more likely to know what to do when a friend freaks out, falls ill or has an unexpected reaction to something they took. "People on the scene tend to have only their own experience and that of people they have known who seem trustworthy," says Ruane, "And if you're young and you've just started going to festivals, you don't have a sort of library of that information at your disposal."
Although some party crews benefit from having seasoned ravers in their midst who can provide guidance, such multi-generational peer groups are rare at large-scale dance events, which attract younger and newer crowds. If you're relatively new to partying with drugs and your group is similarly inexperienced, the help you receive from your friends in a time of crisis may be ineffective, misguided or even counter-productive. In this sense, smaller events and scenes often provide some added protection. Since partygoers are more likely to know each other personally—or "familiar faces" at least—the drug supply chain is somewhat more transparent as well as harder for police agents to infiltrate.
But are they more reliable? These face-to-face trust networks share a fundamental problem with other forms of "grassroots harm reduction," in that it works fine until it falls apart. All you need is one weak link in the network of distribution, rumors and support, and partygoers can find themselves in dire straits. For example, Ruane has observed that many festivalgoers compensate for the lack of drug checking and reliable drug information by "only buying from people they know and trust, but that can backfire really, really badly." In the absence of harm reduction and reliable information, partygoers learn to help each other out and develop collective survival strategies—but the consequences when they fail can be disastrous.
Getting serious about fun
Although I said that this story isn't an entirely "top-down" one, I'll admit that it's hard to deny the impact that policy has on nightlife scenes. There's a morose realism to this, perhaps. The vast majority of us dance, listen to and make music under political regimes that have taken a very top-down approach to regulating our musical activities, particularly where they intersect with controlled substances. As unromantic as they may be in comparison to dance floor euphoria, policy debates matter.
I can't say I envy the policy makers either. Policy is general in nature, but drug experiences are diverse and highly individualized. A major difficulty in trying to manage drug use on a societal level is that most of the policy discourse is based on generalizations about how people deal with mind-altering substances, but then these policy decisions impact a much more diverse field of practice on the ground. Is a drugs policy targeting crack houses going to be appropriate for electronic music festivals? Does a drugs policy intended for intravenous heroin use make sense for the recreational use of club drugs? Will a drugs policy oriented towards the therapeutic use of cannabis also impact recreational pot smokers?
Drugs policy debates tend to think about drug users as populations, demographics or user types, but the people who bear the brunt of these interventions are individuals with unique combinations of life experiences, body chemistry, personality, upbringing, genetics and so on. As Jones points out, "Drug use is different for each person—and even different every time the same person uses a given drug. That's an incredible challenge for policy."
However, political regimes have found ways to regulate dangerous and addictive substances, such as alcohol and tobacco. What was the "designated driver" campaign but a harm-reduction initiative aimed at drinkers? As Jones points out, alcohol is "germane to our culture, and we've found a way to regulate it and to have it make sense in our lives." The irony here is that, as far as psychoactive and potentially addictive substances go, alcohol is a lot "harder" and riskier than many common club drugs.
But not all problems with drug safety are found at the top of the political pyramid. In many societies, attitudes towards drugs equate drug use with criminality, thus implying that drug users are bad people who get what they deserve when bad things happen to them. We're not immune to this, either. When Jones was conducting research in New York's club scene for her MA thesis, she found that clubbers had subconsciously absorbed these moralizing attitudes, frequently applying them to themselves and their friends. "Even people who used drugs and had positive experiences with them, they still carried that cultural stigma deep within them," she says. Jones had expected to find confident, unashamed recreational drug users who were eager to rebuke these dominant cultural stigmas. Instead, she was met with defensiveness, guilt, unease and avoidance.
It could be helpful to think about how our own attitudes towards drugs might reproduce the same cultural logics that have long been used to stigmatize dance music culture. For example, when we dismiss other partygoers for only being into clubbing "for the drugs," what do we gain by excluding them in this way? By shaming each other about drug use, do we risk perpetuating negative stereotypes and buying into a repressive moral system that denigrates bodily pleasure? That is surely a game where everybody loses, considering that this music grew out of a community of the racially- and sexually-marginalized; these same pleasure-phobic moral hierarchies were a key element of that community's oppression.
There may have been times when we have failed to look after ourselves and each other because of deep-seated, culturally-ingrained morals about pleasure and propriety. At times, this leads to the cruelly ironic situation where some people within the electronic community endorse the dominant moral paradigm of prohibition (to protect themselves, their careers, their image), even though they themselves have experienced the incoherence of such policies firsthand.
Discussing drugs in electronic music culture means covering a lot of ground. There are many moving parts, so to speak. At a global level, there is a wide spectrum of drugs policies in effect, from full-on prohibition to varying degrees of decriminalization and regulation—but most of them still lean towards a heavy-handed prohibition that seems to only make drug use more dangerous. But there are those who are pushing for reform, arguing that drug use is a ubiquitous and longstanding part of human culture, and that our priority should be to give those who choose to partake in drugs the information and tools they need to stay safe and healthy. Partygoers currently have to navigate a complex landscape of law, politics, ethics and knowledge every time they go out. Sometimes we find our way through it; sometimes there's help.
Either way, we need to keep ourselves informed about what's going on in these worlds that seem so far removed from dance floors and music studios. We should be making our own voices heard in these debates. After all, these battles are being fought on, in and through our bodies, whether we like it or not. And this is just a small overview of a handful of places in the world—mostly in the "global north," too—and so there's a lot more to be said about how these issues play out in other cultures and under other political regimes. Maybe you have some personal experience or expertise to expand this account. If so, jump into the comments section and contribute to our collective knowledge. There's still a lot to learn, and the stakes are high.
Doris Payer contributed to the writing of the Research section of this piece.