If you think about it, music festivals are kinda like Gen Z’s version of weddings. A string of blurry days held together by a tight schedule, neighbours who don’t like loud music after 10 PM, people dressing up in their best outfits attempting to make a statement only to silently retreat into the never-ending queue for food (or drinks), and basically everyone showing up from all over in honour of that one main attraction that almost always never has the time to acknowledge your presence, but will still put on a damn good show for the cameras. It’s all the same, except for the fact that instead of an open bar, music festivals are filled with a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of drugs (unless you’ve been to those kind of weddings as well).
Music festivals have always been the bedrock of psychedelic drug-taking, with no amount of policing controlling the influx of people pushing their way through, dropping acid, snorting molly or settling for the good ol' pot, only to go back home with a downer for company. In a country where drug usage has spiked by 30 percent in 2018, you can’t go to a festival and not see (or be?) one of those people clutching a bottle of water like it’s the elixir of life while touching someone’s hair and repeatedly telling them they’re pretty. But the ugly truth of every festival season is that fatal overdoses do happen, and despite that, most festival organisers and those in power are not doing much to educate users on ways to minimise harm.
Between pumped-up bass kicks, electrifying visual accompaniments and a handful of your closest friends coming together, music festivals are seen as the ideal space for tripping balls. From the usual suspects like ecstasy, acid and cocaine to ones with more sinister side-effects like ketamine and speed, drugs have slowly become a starter pack for making the most out of a music festival. “I feel more in control of what I’m doing and the music sounds exponentially better, so why the fuck not”, says Sahil*, a 25-year-old regular festival-goer who says he has taken MDMA consistently at every occasion for the last two years. “I mean I could waste all my money and drown myself in drinks that take ages to kick in or simply pop a pill and be ready to rage within half an hour. It’s not only more convenient, but it’s also way more fun.”
But it’s not all fun and games, especially given how unpredictable a music festival’s environment can be. Apart from the easy accessibility coming with a real possibility of the drugs being adulterated and harmful, music festivals foster an atmosphere where it’s very easy for things to go from lit to shit. Not only can they be overcrowded and hard to navigate, but the scary lack of phone signal can potentially leave you stuck in a space filled with the searing stares of strangers and security guards. “I once ended up stuck in an almost-stampede at a music festival in Pune just when I was peaking on acid. It was a shitshow,” says Siddhant*, a 21-year old student and event promoter.
And it’s especially scary in a country like India, where the lack of resources can render even a hardcore tripper helpless. “Globally, the most effective way to reduce harm caused by drug usage is to conduct safe, anonymous and evidence-based drug testing at welfare sites, which we are not able to do in India”, says Kripi Malviya, the co-founder of TATVA, a Goa-based deaddiction centre and rehabilitation centre for mental health. They're certified to set up harm-reduction welfare centres at music festivals like Magnetic Fields, meant to serve as a safe, informative, confidential and transformative service that artists, audiences or just anyone looking for some guidance can turn to in times of a bad trip. Along with co-founder David Stanton, who was one of the pioneers responsible for setting up such harm-reduction centres at UK’s Glastonbury Festival back in 1970, Malviya advocates pill-testing, a practice that is becoming increasingly common in places like Australia and the UK, by setting up centres for people to anonymously check how pure their drugs are.
According to Malviya, one of the biggest concerns is the possibility of that pretty pink pill being actually laced with some scary, date-rape substances that can fuck with a person’s consciousness and potentially cause permanent damage. “This is the golden era of India’s festival and events industry, but still, you find that most festivals are apprehensive about setting up such harm-reduction centres. Funds are not the problem. What’s missing is the right intention, openness to take responsibility and the willingness to take action. And we should demand it.”
Malviya’s tips for doing drugs responsibly at music festivals include but are not limited to making sure you’ve scored from a trusted source, keeping at hand your friends or a sober trip-sitter who’s simply there to take care of you, and a list of emergency contact numbers in case something were to go wrong.
“When you’re tripping, it’s natural to want to talk to everyone you see, but it’s also important to understand that not everyone will have a good vibe and may not respond well to your chit-chat, which could potentially push you to overthink your actions instead of enjoying the trip,” says 23-year-old Rhea*, an electronic music aficionado who likes to mix MDMA in her drinks almost every alternate weekend. “Just go in with the precaution that it’s perfectly okay to blab off your friend’s ears, but it’s best to avoid doing so with random strangers you found interesting in the moment.” Rhea also recommends that in order to ensure your trip goes smoothly, it’s important to stay hydrated. “Always keep a water bottle handy because if you get too overwhelmed in the middle of your favourite artist’s set, you’re not going to want to go all the way to a filling station and risk missing their songs, which will only make you more dehydrated and debilitate the high. What I do is carry a small cloth bag that is just big enough to fit a phone and a water bottle. It’s also handy to keep my chewing gum and smokes.”
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Samira*, a writer who has previously endured two bad trips says, “At the end of the day, you have to realise it’s all in your mind. So, you have to steer your thoughts when they’re straying to forbidden places. Focus on the music, take a gulp of water or simply change your setting and sit down for a bit. Some trips come in waves and before you know it, you’ll be back in rage mode.” She also advises that whenever possible, it’s always better to pop just before you enter the festival so you don’t have to live with the constant fear of being caught by the guards, and to rent a car and driver instead of relying on cab services. “You can keep it in the parking lot in case of an emergency. Also, because it’s a pain to get cabs or rickshaws amidst the crowd once the festival is over, this way you can head to your afterparty without slipping into a BT.”
Of course, we’d be getting ahead of ourselves if we didn’t stress that drugs are risky and tripping in our country means you can’t exactly test out the dose or purity. Which means you probably have no idea what kind of fucked-up lab-grown toxin is seeping into your body to trigger the rise in serotonin and dopamine levels. But even so, experts highly recommend that if you absolutely must trip your technicolour brains out, it’s crucial to stick to just one drug instead of brewing your personal cocktail combining the chemicals. “Drug use is not a contest,” says Malviya. “You are not cool or hardcore or anything worth bragging about if you do not understand what the mind-altering substances you are consuming can do to you. How much you can take and how many drugs you can mix is not a superpower; it actually shows that you do not respect the substance, the risks, the people around you and the very realistic chance of a very harmful situation.” She strongly advises that substances are not to be mixed, especially with alcohol. She also says that it’s important to keep trusted people—either a harm-reduction centre or your sober-most friend—informed even at the slightest hint of unease and also when you see the red flags on someone else, even a stranger, in distress. “Dress appropriately for the weather, get adequate sleep, eat enough food to give your body energy to cope, keep drinking water, and most importantly, be mindful,” she advises.
At the end of the day, what can help prevent not just a bad trip, but also make sure you are not in real harm’s way is knowledge. Knowing about the purity of what you are having as also the dose that you should be taking, buying from someone you know and trust, remaining diligent of what the drug is doing to you, not shying off from seeking help if you find yourself or someone else showing signs of distress, and later, reimbursing your body for the punishment you put it through. It’s in drugs as it is in life: take care of yourself and take care of each other.
*Names changed to protect identities.
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