Ten Questions with Terry Gotham: Sara Gael, Director of Harm Reduction, Zendo Project

(Yes, I’m never going to stop banging on about harm reduction. At least as long as Burners are still smoking ground up ecstasy pills and combining heroic levels of dumb drugs. The people at the Zendo Project continue to keep Burners at burns all over the world safe, so I’m delighted to speak to Sara Gael, who has more to do with Burning Man staying sane than most will give credit!)

Zendo Project Manager Ryan Beauregard and Zendo Project Director Sara Gael performing a skit about harm reduction at Symbiosis Gathering in Oakdale, California (2016)

Photo care of Zendo Project

Interview by Terry Gotham

1.What is Psychedelic Harm Reduction like in 2018?
For the Zendo Project Peer Support services, we will continue to attend our regular events, and also expand our training workshop program. We provide both public and private trainings both in the US and internationally. We saw the demand for these trainings grow tremendously in 2017. The purpose of these workshops is to provide individuals and organizations with helpful tools to work with challenging situations, substance-related or otherwise- when they encounter them in any environment. Our public trainings draw a diverse crowd-everything from University students to mental health workers. We have also private trainings and consultation for event producers, emergency service professionals and we are increasing the number of these trainings in 2018. At Burning Man, we still hold our largest annual public training, on the first Tuesday of the burn week. Over 300 people attended this training in 2017. We feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to now train thousands of individuals in the Zendo Project model.

2.For Burners who may only remember the Zendo from a few years ago, what new awesomeness is coming to playa this year?
In 2017 we moved to one centralized location near Center Camp and Rampart. We plan on having one location again this year, in a slightly different location but still near 6:00. We are planning on doing additional talks and workshops later in the week after the main training for people who show up later in the week who can’t attend the main workshop. We are also planning on working more directly with major theme camp organizers to help prepare their camp leads for handling situations they may come across in camp.

3. Besides regional/international Burns, has the Zendo Project had any success connecting with retail/EDM festivals?
We provide the Peer Support component of Project #OpenTalk, a non-profit initiative developed by Insomniac in collaboration with the Drug Policy Alliance, Healthy Nightlife, and MAPS, with the aim of providing drug and sexual health information and emotional support provided services under one umbrella. We have been collaborating with Project #OpenTalk since Electric Daisy Carnival in 2016 and have provided services and trainings at multiple events since then. The initiative that Insomniac is developing is unique in that it serves as a multi-disciplinary effort to combine different harm reduction services. The peer support services that we provide are just one element of the umbrella of event/festival harm reduction which is under the even bigger umbrella of drug harm reduction initiatives taking place all over the world. Our goal is to continue to collaborate with other harm reduction organizations beyond just the transformational festival setting.

Zendo Project staff members Ryan Beauregard, Sara Gael, and Erica Siegal leading a public training about psychedelic harm reduction at Lightning in a Bottle in Bradley, California (2017)

Photo care of Zendo Project/MAPS.

4. For everyone out there in the trenches doing harm reduction for their friends or attendees, are there any principles that they can take from the Zendo Project and use on their own?
Our mission is comprised of two components – direct service and education. It has always been a priority to educate the public by engaging in honest and unbiased conversations about recreational drug use. We dream of a time when the collective is more prepared to work with difficult emotional and psychological experiences, whether related to psychedelic use or otherwise. The Zendo Project model is one of compassionate presence, acceptance, and creating a container for processing and transforming grief and pain, as well as celebrating life. It is a place of connection where people have the opportunity to be witnessed and held in their darkest and most vulnerable moments. All of the principles and practices that we teach are easily accessible through our website and we encourage individuals to take these practices and apply them to their unique communities and situations.

5. What is the wildest thing your teams have seen in the last year or two? Would you say the volume of Burners you serve is going up or down as the years go on?
I’d say that the wildest thing we have seen is harm reduction being more accepted and integrated as a theoretical framework and practice at events, and how exponentially this grows from year to year. Zendo was born at Burning Man and even prior to the Zendo Project, MAPS worked to help develop harm reduction at transformational festivals like BOOM in Portugal. Transformational festivals have really led the way as far as modelling what it looks like to incorporate services such as the Zendo Project. It is exciting to see bigger event and festival producers begin to adopt a harm reduction model. The general public knowledge of harm reduction and peer support has also expanded. We have had an increase in the past couple of years of professionals looking to

The general trend at all the events we attend is that our numbers usually increase every year. We believe that this is related to a few factors:

  1. More people learning about and thus accessing our services.
  2. An steady annual increase in attendance at most of the events we attend.

6. How does legalization advocacy and the work that MAPS does collide with the Zendo Project’s goals? Have there ever been big synchronicities or (conversely) conflicts due to the slightly differing goals of the different groups?
Psychedelic harm reduction, clinical research, advocacy, and education are all elements of MAPS mission which I believe are intrinsically linked and mutually supportive. MAPS is currently primarily focused on doing clinical research to help MDMA become a medicine for the treatment of PTSD while also doing advocacy work for substances like MDMA and cannabis. While MDMA and other psychedelics have therapeutic value and potential, it is important for us to simultaneously address the risks of recreational use of these substances. The Zendo Project helps accomplish this through education and direct service. We believe that providing safe environments and support for challenging psychedelic experiences is community advocacy work in action. Providing these services decreases the number of incidence of arrests, sedation and restraint, and unnecessary psychiatric hospitalizations. This in turn influences the public view and stigma surrounding psychedelics. The legal and political climate and punitive policies in place do not keep people from doing drugs. As we work toward medicalization of psychedelics and decriminalization advocacy work, we must simultaneously address the fact that millions of people are taking psychedelics in recreational environments. These individuals are at a greater risk without harm reduction initiatives.

Photo care of Zendo Project/MAPS.

7. Besides donating to MAPS & the Zendo Project, how can people who love what you do help you do it?

  • Continue to learn about harm reduction and peer counseling.
  • Encourage festival producers to implement harm reduction services at their events.
  • Sign up for our newsletter via our website to learn about our local workshop events and attend and promote them!

8. Is there music played at the Zendo? If so, what do you play & how do you select the tunes?
We currently don’t have music playing in the Zendo but we have considered having some soft background music like chimes, singing bowls, flute, hang drum, live sound healing to help move the energy in the space. One of the challenges is that music is very personal and so we have opted out until now. Also, there is already so much music at these events that we decided to offer a place of silence, similar to an actual Zendo meditation hall. We may be shifting that up a bit in the future. For the first two years at Burning Man we were located right inside one of the bigger sound camps on playa:  Fractal Nation/Fractal Planet. The Zendo structure shape itself turned out to produce a bit of a sub-woofer effect, so that it was often louder INSIDE the Zendo then outside. That drove people crazy-volunteers and guests alike. We have had a relatively quiet few years since then and we’ve been enjoying that aspect!

9. What is the biggest barrier hampering the Zendo Project’s efforts currently, and what do you believe will be the biggest obstacle to summit in the near-term future?
Funding is still an obstacle, though becoming less so as people really start to see the importance of this work and event organizers see it as an essential service. In the beginning, it was sometimes a hard sell because we were doing something that wasn’t really being done. When people have a new idea that solves a particular problem, sometimes it is hard to see the problem until you see the power of the solution. With initiatives like the Zendo Project, if you build it they will come. Many festivals don’t realize how many of their participants are in distress except in the more extreme cases where people are violent or disturbing other attendees. Once event organizers see how busy we were and the pressure we were taking off of the other emergency service departments so they could focus on their areas of expertise-they begin to recognize that this is a real issue and that money and other resources need to go toward this type of work. Then other organizers and producers follow suit. If you are going to have a medical tent or security at your event, you should also have people who specialize in emotional and psychological support. Just because you can’t see someone’s emotional wound doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We need to move toward becoming a more compassionate society that takes these things seriously and care for one another. This work is labor intensive. In some ways, it’s like the opposite of a Western medicine get in, get out model. We have a “come, stay as long as you would like as long as you would like” model. People will spend hours getting help from a sitter in the space. This requires a lot of staff and volunteers. It also requires that we stay open 24/7. This all costs money. We are blessed to have had the support of our successful crowdfunding campaigns and the forward-thinking festivals we have worked with over the past 6 years.

10. If I could snap my fingers and make it happen, What would your dream event to host the Zendo Project for, be?
Burning Man, of course! ☺ But really, I would like the bandwidth to implement services at all the regional burns. We aren’t there yet but hope to work toward it. We helped get the Sanctuary at AfrikaBurn off the ground over the past 5 years. We are at the point where the local leads are carrying the torch and we no longer need to be there. Although I will miss going to Africa every year, this to me is one of our great accomplishments and demonstrates an effective training model.

10 Questions With Terry Gotham: Brad Burge (MAPS)

(When meeting Brad Burge several years ago, I was immediately struck by his masterful ability to communicate to all comers at an academic conference we were speaking at. He connected immediately, and never lost the purpose, message, or empathy that we all strive to have when speaking to people we care about, even when addressing someone he’d never met before. He’s become one of MAPS’ most effective ambassadors, overseeing a period of rapid visibility expansion, to the point where MDMA & PTSD is coming up at the watercooler and at the holiday dinner table. I wanted an update on the MDMA/PTSD clinical trial after my previous article on it, so I was overjoyed when he obliged! Enjoy the chat, and feel free to refer to it while talking about MDMA & PTSD with your family over the holidays!)

Photo courtesy of MAPS.

Interview by Terry Gotham

1. Even with the recent Breakthrough Therapy designation, how do you keep going in the Age of Trump?
We have been able to make a lot of progress since the election, including getting the FDA’s stamp of approval for Phase 3 trials and the Breakthrough Therapy Designation, which came in August. Trump has taken a fairly hands-off policy when it has come to the FDA so far and has given every indication that his administration supports facilitating accelerated development of pharmaceuticals and new medical treatments. Plus, and more importantly, we see psychedelic science and psychedelic therapy research as bipartisan issues, since they are not about being countercultural or revolutionary or being oppositional in the traditional sense, but rather about being careful scientists and treating serious mental health conditions. Of course we think that this research has tremendous transformational value, and that the approval of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is likely to change how our culture understands and treats mental illness, but we are working with the system to make those changes happen, not outside it. We have had equally positive media reports, for example, from The New York Times and Scientific American as from Fox News and Breitbart.

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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.

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LSD Research: Where We Are In 2016

by Terry Gotham

Since the interview with MAPS went over so well, I figured I’d keep the hype train about psychedelics research going. Over the last couple of years, really great thing have happened surrounding MDMA & Magic Mushrooms, but for some of us, LSD is the Holy Grail of psychedelics research.

To provide some history, back in the 50’s & 60’s, there was a significant amount of research surrounding LSD. Everything from autism to homosexuality to childhood schizophrenia was treated with LSD in places like the Silver Spring Maryland Hospital. Dozens of studies were performed, and LSD was seen as a promising psychomimetic (insanity mimicking) and later as a “psychedelic” (mind-manifesting). But we all know what happened next.  Manson used a bunch of it to trick girls into killing people and horror stories about hippies & kids going insane and never coming back pervaded the landscape. Oh yea, and Nixon shit all over it.

However, over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a resurgence in research associated with those very same psychedelics. While MDMA for PTSD & Psilocybin for terminal cancer anxiety has stolen the spotlight, LSD has quietly been examined by a number of research groups, with some encouraging results. LSD has been shown to be effective for anxiety surrounding terminal cancer as well, as the recently completed Phase II clinical trial sponsored by MAPS has shown. If you’re interested in bypassing the hype and getting directly to the full text pdf, here it is.Two other avenues of LSD research have been making steady progress during this psychedelics renaissance.

Alcoholism treatment with LSD was evaluated by two researchers in the Dept. of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology. A meta-analysis of the current research findings surrounding LSD & alcoholism were evaluated, and the findings were very encouraging. From the paper’s abstract:

A single dose of LSD, in the context of various alcoholism treatment programs, is associated with a decrease in alcohol misuse. ~Krebs & Johansen, 2012

This isn’t surprising to some of you, who have commented about how psychedelics have helped cope with addiction & addictive tendencies. But for the effect to be verified academically, is very important.

The second area of research that is getting some LSD-infused love is cluster headaches, also known as suicide headaches. A study published in the Journal of Neurology 7 of 8 LSD users stated they saw a termination of cluster headache attacks. MAPS has also published on this phenomena. Cluster headaches have very few treatments and they paralyze those who experience them, so researchers are very excited at the potential for LSD & LSD analogues to help.

Another aspect of LSD consumption that deserves more study is microdosing. After I was critical of the loose reporting surrounding this practice, I had a number of interesting conversations with burners who reached out to discuss their anecdotal use of LSD to improve their life. Some microdose daily, others told me about habits where they’d microdose one week on 2-3 weeks off, and back and forth. There’s a giant uncontrolled experiment going on out there, and instead of trying to generate page views by claiming executives are dropping tabs in the office, I agree with Forbes (a phrase I don’t use often) that we need to evaluate this in a much more sophisticated & systematic way.

If you’re really hankering for some LSD & don’t want to break the law, head to Dr. Peter Gasser in Switzerland. VICE did a great little round up of how and why this psychiatrist is able to prescribe LSD to his patients. It’s a nice little story, and continues to back up my claim that Switzerland isn’t a real place. It’s totally the future with Alps & chocolate.

So much more work to be done, but hope you found a couple of reasons to celebrate how far we’ve come as you’ve read this.

Ten Questions With Terry Gotham: Brad Burge – MAPS

(Interviewing the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has been a dream of mine for years. I’m honored to present this conversation with their Director of Communications & Marketing Brad Burge. Not only does he give us an update on the SIX (6!) Phase II clinical trials of MDMA for PTSD, but he also shares totally new developments & tips on how to talk about this stuff for people who don’t quite dig yet. And a couple of his favorite tunes to boot!)
~Interview By Terry Gotham

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brad_burge1. How was 2015 for MAPS? Any good news from the front to share?
Just a little.

I can say without hesitation that 2015 was our busiest, most exciting year yet. This year (2016) we celebrate MAPS’ 30th anniversary, and all that we’ve accomplished in those three decades. Our Phase 2 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are now nearly complete, and this year we’ll be meeting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to plan the much larger Phase 3 trials needed to make MDMA a legal prescription medicine, approved for use in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat PTSD. We are on track for FDA approval as soon as 2021.

As one of the first steps to getting this first approval, in February 2015, we announced the formation of the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MPBC), a new wholly owned subsidiary of MAPS which will serve as a vehicle for conducting MAPS’ research, and for balancing social benefits with income from the legal prescription sale of MDMA, other psychedelics, and marijuana. We also initiated the purchase of one kilogram of pharmaceutical grade MDMA manufactured under current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to be used in our Phase 3 trials. This batch of MDMA will cost us approximately $400,000, which we are seeking to raise this year through the Global Psychedelic Dinners and 30th Anniversary Banquet in Oakland, Calif.

Another major 2015 success is our Canadian Phase 2 study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, which finally started after eight years of effort. This study has already completed treatments as of early 2016, and has been the first clinical psychedelic therapy trial in Canada in over 40 years. In 2015, we also completed and fully funded our two largest Phase 2 clinical trials, one in South Carolina primarily in U.S. military veterans, and one in Colorado primarily in female survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

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