Ten Questions With Terry Gotham: Stefanie Jones of The Drug Policy Alliance

(This week, it is my privilege to bring you a conversation with one of the hardest working women at the intersection between nightlife & safety, and a dear friend, Stefanie Jones, Director of Audience Development  at the Drug Policy Alliance. Her #SaferPartying initiative & MusicFan programs are crucial to for harm reduction, drug policy activism and global dance population at large. Interview by Terry Gotham)

Stefanie Jones_Music Industry session_Nov 2015

1. How was Burning Man 2015? Did you go to any other transformational festivals that actually didn’t suck when it came to harm reduction & forward thinking drug policy?
Burning Man 2015 was a definite revelation. As I like to tell people, I’ve been invited to it by various friends and people I know practically every year since 2002 but for a lot of reasons never went. It was nice because all that time let me develop a theory around what it would be like for me to go and what the best approach was, and without feeling totally wrong about what I thought, during the preparation process and the actual experience of course it’s all out the window. Even if you know, it’s not the same as when you actually do a thing, right?

Burning Man is making some strides when it comes to integrating harm reduction. In 2015 they went further than they ever had before by giving the Zendo Project two locations on the playa – two safe spaces for people who are feeling overwhelmed for whatever reason, to stop by or be brought to and be cared for by trained volunteers and therapists. Burning Man Org also listed Zendo ahead of time in the JackRabbit Speaks newsletter and in their entry materials. I volunteered with Zendo and it was incredibly rewarding, as it always is. It’s a start but there’s certainly more they could do. They have a huge challenge because the event is on federal land and there are MANY enforcement and health agencies in the mix the organizers have to keep happy. A lot of people are surprised Burning Man isn’t leading when it comes to drug policy and harm reduction, but quite honestly, given the nature and location of the event, it would be hard for them to lead.

The gold standard is actually the Boom Festival in Portugal. They have an unfair advantage maybe, because all drugs are decriminalized in that country and it really clears the way for comprehensive harm reduction to take place. Nonetheless they do it all: onsite drug education and drug checking (testing drugs for adulterants), as well as a Zendo-equivalent compassionate care service called Kosmicare. All harm reduction groups are fully supported by and integrated into the event.

In the US the clear leader is Lightning in a Bottle. We have a little harm reduction coalition working with them, and the work is summarized here.

Also, it’s not a transformational festival, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Backwoods Festival in Oklahoma. Last year they invited DanceSafe onsite and not only let them do drug checking, but integrated an early alert system if dangerous or misrepresented substances were found. In Oklahoma!! Giant respect for this scrappy event.

2. You’ve been a dance music aficionado for years, how do you think the culture has changed as Burning Man’s shadow grows ever larger?
It’s hard to know actually, which culture has grown bigger: electronic music or Burning Man. Not to say that they’re entirely separate – they never have been. There’s a large overlap in that Venn diagram. If I had to tease out Burning Man’s influence on electronic music I would say it’s allowed greater space for the success of transformational festivals. To me, they exist on a continuum between a straight-up electronic music event and the wildly self-reliant chaos that is Burning Man: more structured, but still keeping elements beyond music (like art and social causes) centered at the fore.

3. The Music Fan program is something you’ve been working hard on at the Drug Policy Alliance recently. What are you hoping to get out of it?
The Music Fan program is the culmination of all my years on various dance floors AND in drug policy circles! It’s a chance for people who love festivals, concerts and clubs to advocate for a better experience when it comes to how we handle drug use in those spaces. This year I’m initiating the #SaferPartying campaign that has 4 key goals to get us there. 1) Stop hating on people who use drugs (end stigma), 2) Amend the RAVE Act and advocate for drug education & harm reduction however possible, 3) Make drug checking available everywhere, 4) Stop criminalizing partygoers – end drug possession arrests. More details here 🙂

4. How do you feel the average Burner can contribute to changing the conversation when it comes to the War on Drugs?
Is there such a thing as “the average Burner”? That point aside, what’s best about Burners is when their beautiful visions for the future turn into action and something gets made. Art is one thing, and it’s important, but I hope more Burners turn that type of enthusiasm toward social systems like drug policy. At the very least, to be able to “come out” about your own drug use, especially if it has benefited your life in some way, is incredibly important. And to be able to do that while acknowledging that not everyone has access to places of privilege like Burning Man where it’s relatively “safe” to engage in drug use is even better.

5. What is the most frustrating part of being both an advocate & an attendee?
I think I manage it pretty well, but sometimes it’s hard to keep those headspaces separate. Everyone needs a night off! Sometimes you gotta go to the party just to party. But at the same time it’s hard not to notice where improvements could be made…

Stefanie Jones_Jan 2012

6. Are there any countries that have it “right” when it comes to drug policy? Or would you advocate a blend of a lot of measures?
No one country has it right, but the Netherlands seems pretty damn close. Portugal because they’ve gone even further and not only decriminalized small amounts of all drugs for personal possession, but their system is truly based in that country’s health departments and not jails or prisons. When it comes to actual moves toward regulating substances, New Zealand absolutely had the right idea with the system they proposed for novel psychoactive substances (“synthetics”) – even though it’s not currently operational. And even though our country has a lot of work to be done, we DID legalize marijuana in 4 states and DC. That’s a great signal to the world if the country that invented prohibition is beginning to undo it, even in small ways.

7. What does post-legalization look like for a lot of drugs? Can we buy coke at Starbucks? Will LSD require a doctor’s note? What does that reality look like, do you think?
It’s such an interesting question, and one I wish more people were talking about. (But hey, I moderated a session about it – psychedelics anyway)

There are so many possibilities, but I honestly believe I’m building towards one of them: drugs being available in a specific context. Think about it: if festivals actually had drug education, psychedelic harm reduction a.k.a. onsite mental health like Zendo, robust medical services and security that was there to stop theft and violence instead of drug use AND the best music and visuals, haven’t you just created a pretty safe and ideal place in which to use drugs? All that’s left is to control supply and distribution so the drugs themselves aren’t adulterated and you could set up some kind of “responsible serving” model like they have for alcohol.

I don’t think that’s the endgame of legal regulation, actually, but maybe it could be a middle point.

8. Do you feel that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to advocating for Drug Policy reform or have you been treated respectfully in discussions & debates?
Sadly, I don’t think drug policy reform is an exception when you think generally about how women are doing in terms of coming into power. On an individual basis I have always been treated well, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see how many white men are still the ones in the shot-caller positions. And when you talk about music industry – oh boy (no pun intended). HOWEVER, I am overjoyed to say that the two programs I work most closely with on nightlife harm reduction – DanceSafe and MAPS’ Zendo Project – are run by women. (Shoutout to Missi Wooldridge and Linnae Ponte!) This is a pretty wonderful thing, and I encourage women in stepping forward to take charge whenever I can.

9. If I could wave a magic wand and you could have any DJ, producer or live act on play on playa next year, who would that be?
I know there’s a tiny bit of controversy about it, but I wish Maceo Plex had made it to Burning Man last year. And/or any year I go in the future. But to be honest I love just wandering toward the sound of good music whether or not I know the artists. It’s always the new discoveries that have the biggest impact, right?

10. Favorite Burning Man memory?
Daft Punk playing at the trash fence. 😉

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