It’s 2016, and I’m in the Costa Rican jungle as darkness engulfs the grounds of the Envision Festival. Flocks of eclectic partiers hit the spectacular Luna Stage en masse. A small hut for a DJ booth sits under a 30-foot-high construction designed to resemble a giant moth with extended outstretched limbs, emblazoned with a rapidly pulsing technicolor light projection, giving it the appearance of some kind of anthropomorphic robot alien. Underneath the moth’s abdomen is a DJ called Shpongle, adorned with his plumed fedora, rhythmically swaying over the decks to the beats he’s projecting.
As if in acknowledgment of the crowd’s fixed gaze upon the moth’s cyborgian presence, one of Shpongle’s most popular songs, 1998’s “Divine Moments of Truth,” emerges from a psychedelic glitch mashup of a half-time drum-and-bass beat overlaid with sampled vocals from what sounds like an Indian Sufi singer. I’d like to think it’s the moth talking, maybe because of the highly modulated mantra that sounds more like Stephen Hawking’s speech-generating device, in the track’s main vocal sample, a simple, repetitive edification: DMT, DMT / DMT, DMT / do dee do DMT / LSD do DMT / LSD do DMT / I love everybody / Do de do love / Do da da de.
Envision is one of more than 200 “transformational festivals”—hugely popular counterculture events with DNA stretching back through Burning Man to the Summer of Love—held each year around the world. These festivals, such as Tomorrowland in Belgium, Shambhala in Canada, Transmission in Prague, and Psychedelic Circus in Germany, have an ethos of community building, personal growth, and creative expression. And of course lots of psytrance music, psychedelic drugs, and the occasional bad trip.
As pop culture embraces psychedelic culture, more music festivals than ever have a psychedelic focus. Indeed, psychedelic drugs gave birth to the modern-day music festival. There would have been no Woodstock without LSD. Now, five decades later, despite continued efforts to crack down on these drugs, the music festival scene—a huge industry in itself—remains tie-dyed in hallucinogens. If police go looking for drugs at most music festivals, they will find them.
At the biennial Boom Festival in Portugal this past July, for example, police set up a three-month-long operation titled Full Moon. It was a concentrated effort to target drug selling at the festival, which organizers told me rarely happens at festivals with big corporate sponsors. The operation claimed to have seized a cornucopia of hallucinogenic highs, including 3,650 doses of MDMA, 801 LSD tabs, 26 bottles of LSD liquid, 40 LSD-impregnated chewing gums, 216 grams of magic mushrooms, 492 grams of DMT mixture, 47 doses of mescaline, and 130 grams of ketamine.
Diogo Ruivo, the founder of Boom, grew up in the era of the full-moon trance parties in Goa, India, and by his late teens he was already DJing and producing events in Europe. “My mom was a traveler and freak in the 60s and 70s, so I was raised in the flower-power generation with lots of people trying entheogens,”* Ruivo told me. Ruivo created Boom during the peak of the MDMA, LSD, and ketamine-infused trance party scene in Goa, and aspired to have something in the summer for European festivalgoers.
What exactly is driving the rising tide of hundreds of thousands of people each year who travel to a field to dance, drop acid, and learn how to make wigwams?
Artur Mendes, who took over for Ruivo as one of the lead organizers of Boom, is well aware of the perceived need people have to seek relief from their everyday life stress, but he thinks it’s more about reconnecting than escape. “What people are looking for at Boom is an experience that connects them with something and to each other. That something may be being in nature, observing the arts and culture, or the environmental sustainability efforts and the opportunities to practice spirituality throughout the festival,” says Mendes.
It’s no longer necessary to board an international flight or road-trip cross-continent just to find a reprieve from the stresses of modern life. The increased popularity of psychedelic themes in the international festival scene reflects a growing trend, most notably among young people, in the use of psychedelic drugs.
Maria Carmo Carvalho, who helps run Kosmicare, an NGO set up to provide harm reduction for psychedelic drug users at Boom, told me she thinks the rising popularity of psychedelic drugs and festivals has come from the growth of the EDM scene in the 2000s: “A festival organizer once said to me that modern life is so harsh and demanding for youth these days, that he saw it as his mission to provide the opportunity for them to get a little bit lost under a controlled environment,” she says.
Stefanie Jones, the director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance, thinks “there’s something to be said for the accessibility of psychedelics and festivals kind of going hand in hand.” Jones runs the Safer Partying program, which for years has been working to bring harm reduction principles and drug policy alternatives to party promoters in some of the largest festivals in the United States, such as Las Vegas’s annual Electric Daisy Carnival. “Going to a festival is an activity that encourages new experiences,” Jones says. And increasingly these experiences can be of a psychedelic nature, because the setting is ideal. Festivalgoers are surrounded by like-minded people in a natural, stimulating atmosphere, often over a long weekend with plenty of time to come down.
In the past if you wanted to get to one of these festivals you’d have to really commit to the expense and hassle of traveling long distances, but Jones says that in the last five years “there’s been an explosion of festivals—it seems like there’s annual festivals in every city for every genre.” She thinks positive media coverage of the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” in clinical therapy may be another factor explaining the drugs’ increasing acceptance among people looking to experiment.
Transformational festivals seem to attract an eclectic variety of people that’s paradoxically both predictable and unpredictable, everyone from the clichéd barefoot, crunchy-granola drifter to the heiress who gets dropped off at the gates in a limo, her bags carried for her to her full glamping accommodations. Yet people know that regardless of where they come from or what roles they play in their lives outside the festival gates, if they parade around with good vibes offering gifts of free hugs to total strangers, they transform for a brief time into vessels of abounding love and positive attitudes, desperately filling the void from the human disconnection seen throughout dominant culture.
But not all trips are idyllic. With the rise in music festivals has come a rise in NGOs such as Kosmicare, specializing in harm reduction, including providing safe advice for taking drugs, drug checking, and looking after people who are having a bad time on drugs.
A UK-based organization called the Loop conducted drug-checking services at more than half a dozen festivals this summer, including Boomtown, Love Saves the Day, and Bestival, where roughly 8,000 people utilized the resource to determine how pure the drugs they bought were. This is a critical service in conjunction with other harm reduction efforts, like providing peer support for people having bad trips, because these people are often too incapacitated to report what they’ve taken.
In 2012 the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) launched the Zendo Project, a psychedelic harm reduction service similar to Kosmicare but with a wider reach. Ismail Ali, who works at MAPS and is involved with the Zendo Project, says he is seeing a new generation of festival trippers, some of whom can get into trouble while getting high.
Ali tells me that even though people see tripping on acid at a festival as a diversion from their day-to-day lives, it’s not as simple as that. He says people’s trips sometimes turn sour because they are mentally shackled: “The constant pressure to succeed, according to traditional measures of modern life, strongly affects a person’s ability to celebrate, find joy, and relax, and that pressure does translate to their relationship to taking psychedelics at festivals when they’re trying to blow off steam.”
As a peer support volunteer working at festivals, I’ve seen firsthand some of the ways a trip can cause problems for people who get a little too spun out. I’ve found people curled in a ball on the dance floor or wandering around naked and giving away their money to strangers. However, the most common drug used at festivals is alcohol, and it also happens to be the most problematic for health workers.
Adam Aronovich, a Kosmicare volunteer, says alcohol is the “perfect drug” for the type of society we’ve constructed in modern times. “It allows people to work their ass off in a job they hate for 50 hours a week as long as they have the opportunity to get drunk on the weekends.” Psychedelics are maybe not so practical, he says. “The experiences are too powerful, too meaningful, and sometimes too uncomfortable to be done repeatedly by most people.”
The rising number of music festivals inspired by psychedelic drugs are clearly tapping into a growing need to take time out from normal life, but also to go on a mental journey, surrounded by like-minded people. And the more festivals that are willing to set up drug harm reduction facilities like Boom has in Portugal, the safer these people will be while they cut loose.
* The word entheogens is derived from Greek and refers to substances that “manifest the divine from within,” or, in other words, drugs that can bring on spiritual experiences.
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