I am honored to be bringing you this chat I had with Linnae Ponté, director of The Zendo Project. This effort, funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), provides psychedelic harm reduction at Burning Man. This is one of those crucial services that can only be found at Burning Man, and nowhere else in the festival landscape. Trained professionals help people through (not out of) difficult experiences, and have probably saved someone you know from a really bad night on the playa. They’re currently raising money to have 2 locations at Black Rock City this year, and definitely need our help. If you’ve got it, they could use it. And most likely, when you’ve taken too much Saturday night, they’re going to be the ones taking care of you. CrowdRX may be in over their heads this year, so I anticipate The Zendo Project will need all the help they can get.1. How was Lightning In A Bottle & Costa Rica? Have you been anywhere else this year? Both events were awesome. Not only are both venues gorgeous in their own ways (I mean who wouldn’t want to be in a tropical paradise or amongst sacred California oaks), but we had great placement for the Zendo in centralized locations and worked in what seemed like seamless harmony with medical, rangers, security, and law enforcement. We served 83 guests at Envision and 62 at LIB, and helped countless more by providing water, electrolytes, and drug education.
We also set up services at AfrikaBurn, which is the largest regional burn, in the beautiful Tankwa Desert and served over 70 individuals.2. How did the Zendo Project come to be? It’s important to pay homage to our roots at the Grateful Dead festivals, where RockMed started offering psychedelic harm reduction in the 1970’s. Fast-forward 30 years or so and we have a resurgence of psychedelic-inspired transformational festivals. In 2002, just following Portugal’s move to decriminalize personal drug possession, MAPS began working in collaboration with BOOM festival and other events to establish harm reduction services.
In 2012, a group of individuals from a large Burning Man village, Fractal Nation, requested psychedelic harm reduction, which led to the official formation of the Zendo Project (which is when I got involved leading the project). I had no idea that in just a couple short years we would have expanded so quickly to Africa, Costa Rica, and other amazing venues. To illustrate our growth, in 2012 we served a total of 60 guests, more than doubling that in 2013 with 156 guests.
This year, we expect this number to increase significantly as we will have two locations at Burning Man (2:45 & A and 9:15 & D), both a short walk to the medical and ranger stations. (We’ll have a training, open to the public, on Tuesday September 1, located at “Something Freaking this way Foams”, at 4 & G.)
Since 2012, the Zendo Project has assisted over 700 guests and trained approximately 500 volunteers, totaling over 10,000 hours of volunteer time. Looking towards the future, we’re currently raising funds via an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign that ends July 23. Donations to will be used to (1) build a new Zendo structure, a 32-foot diameter Japanese-style meditation yurt made from recycled cardboard for Burning Man; (2) train additional volunteers and provide public trainings; and (3) expand the Zendo Project’s psychedelic harm reduction services to more events worldwide.
3. Any tips for people trying to explain the difference between what the Zendo Project does & say, regular event security? Actually our respective work is becoming increasingly synchronized with security, which has been a great area of growth for our program over the years, since they now are more apt to utilize our services and space, thus helping to reduce the number of attendees that might otherwise have to be arrested.
At the same time, however, it is very important that we set ourselves as distinctly apart from security, especially because one of the primary contributors to a ‘bad trip’ is the paranoia of being persecuted, detained, arrested, etc. So it is important that festival participants know that when they come to the Zendo, they are safe, not in trouble, and will be embraced in a way that is confidential and deeply honoring of their privacy.
Take Lighting in a Bottle, for instance, where Zendo volunteers encountered a man in handcuffs being held by the police and security out in the festival grounds one afternoon. The young man was clearly agitated, screaming for help, and very likely on a psychoactive substance. Zendo volunteers worked in coordination with medical staff to help emotionally stabilize the individual, and he was then transported to Zendo, taken out of handcuffs, and released into our care where volunteers worked with him through the duration of his LSD experience. It was extraordinary to encounter police and security who were not only willing, but thankful, to hand off this individual, choosing a progressive, more humane, harm reduction approach rather than reverting to punitive measures.
4. With reports that DanceSafe & The Bunk Police were removed from festivals as of late, have you had any experiences where the Zendo was put up in places where it wasn’t wanted? It’s a shame to hear that DanceSafe and Bunk Police have been removed from festivals lately. We haven’t had this type of experience before. There are, indeed, liability concerns that all festival producers face when they move to establish harm reduction at their event. But from my knowledge, harm reduction services haven’t contributed to any RAVE Act prosecution, though it’s been enough to keep many festivals from adopting a more progressive policy. This is changing, and a coalition of harm reduction groups are working to Amend the RAVE Act.
5. If I could wave a magic wand, what would a system of modern harm reduction look like at big festivals? It’s my hope and dream that psychedelic harm reduction becomes a normal and required part of festival safety infrastructure, ensuring that attendees return home after transformational experiences not only in one piece, but grounded and more engaged in their life and in their communities.
BOOM festival currently has, what I could consider, to be the leading world’s model for psychedelic harm reduction. It’s in a centralized space, it’s promoted and included on the map and survival guide. The volunteers collaborate with medical staff and security, and the work is funded not only by the event, but by the local government. They offer on-site thin-layer chromatography drug screening for free, so attendees can find out not only whether their sample is adulterated, but which adulterants it contains. Talk about quality control!
BOOM established psychedelic harm reduction in 2002, with the help of MAPS, after the country decriminalized all drugs. I had the chance to interview Dr. João Goulão, who was part of the expert panel who developed the initial recommendations for the decriminalization of drugs presented in 1998, about the role of decriminalization in harm reduction in Portugal.
Another crucial component that makes BOOM the leading model is that these services have been integrated into the culture. It’s not an abnormal choice for someone having a hard time to go to KosmiCare and receive support. There’s no fear that going to KosmiCare will result in punitive measures, and there’s no paranoia about drug-related arrests. It’s incredible, and it changes the culture from a fear-based approach to bad trips, to one that provides opportunity for healing and growth. This, in my mind, constitutes the structure for a transformational gathering.
6. Do you have a dream festival you’d like to bring the Zendo to? I really love the philosophy and principles of Burning Man, and the continuity that this creates with other regionals, so I’d have to say I’m partial to expanding to other regional Burning Man events.
7. As a veteran of Burning Man, are there any practices that Burning Man or burner-style events & regionals get right that EDM events could should emulate? From what I can compare, having been to only a handful of EDM events, Burning Man events are produced by the community, and communal effort and civic responsibility are part of the fabric of each event. Burners develop needed services, and there are countless grassroots efforts at each, such as Zendo or the Bureau of Erotic Discourse, which provides information and education regarding rape and sexual assault on the playa. Bringing a little of that community participation and advocacy among attendees back to the EDM scene would be a good thing. It would create more space for harm reduction services and it would encourage people to see the event as their own community’s creation, and one where they can affect change.
8. Does the Zendo deal with issues of consent or help in de-escalation? How does the Zendo interact with Green Dot Rangers? Sometimes if the alternative is going to jail, hurting themselves or someone else, or going to the hospital, we have to make judgments to ensure the safety of the guest and other attendees, including doing what we can to help them stay in our care. Further, people who are having psychedelic crises can be extremely insistent that they need leave, go home, call their mother, whatever. But we have to use our best judgment and know from our years of experience where people are at in the arc of their experience, knowing that these types of exclamations are often warning signs that the person is still working through a difficult phase, and should not leave or do things they might regret the next day.
At Lightning in a Bottle, we were stationed right between medical and Rangers, and interacted extensively with Green Dot Rangers. Sometimes both Zendo and Rangers would respond to a call in the field and bring the guest to the Zendo. Some Green Dots have been doing this work for decades, so they’re very experienced and adept at triaging. Our models work very well hand-in-hand.
9. Do you think the adoption of the Zendo Project across the country/world is just a matter of time, or do you believe there are real barriers to deploying the project elsewhere? I think it comes down to both policy and economics. The policy being how comfortable festivals feel moving toward enacting services that point to or acknowledge that drug use is indeed taking place at those festivals. I think that this will continue in positive directions thanks to national drug policy reform efforts, especially where personal nonviolent drug use is less seen as a criminal issue and more of a public health issue, like we have seen in Portugal. In terms of economics, simply put, festivals need to see that investing financial resources in harm reduction services is a great cost saving tool, especially when it comes to medical transports and lawsuits. Unfortunately, our culture has not come to understand the social and personal cost of psychological trauma that we are helping to mitigate, but eventually that might come to be. Let’s hope.
10. Any last tips for people who appreciate what you’re doing but hope to enjoy their experiences without needing your assistance? Obviously know the substance, know the dose. Often less is more. Stay hydrated. Take breaks. And it’s still good to know where we’re located, just in case 😉 (2:45 & A and 9:15 & D, one more time for everyone playabound)
Join The Zendo Project on Reddit’s AMA channel July 15th (Today!) at 12:00pm EST!