If you've been to a mainstream music festival in the United States, you've probably encountered your share of robust security measures. Long bag-check lines and uniformed police or private security guards are routine, and they're often tasked at least in part with weeding out illegal drugs.
But in Portugal, where the government's approach to drugs is almost completely outside the realm of law enforcement, the climate at music festivals is rather different. Onsite drug-checking services test purity, and virtually no one is hassled for their supplements of choice. That's because 15 years ago, a bold national policy was implemented where low-level possession of all drugs was decriminalized. Now the people doing the regulating are health officials, not cops.
As a frequent festival-goer in the past few years, I wanted to see for myself how one of the countries that's come the closest in the world to ending the drug war handles substances at these events. So I reached out to Dr. Maria Carmo Carvalho at the Catholic University of Portugal, head of Kosmicare, an organization that helps concert-goers dealing with a bad trip—or worse. At the Boom Festival, a biennial gathering held near the Spanish border around the full moon last month, about 100 Kosmicare volunteers committed to round-the-clock care for the more than 30,000 attendees throughout the weeklong event. I was one of them.
Kosmicare is in the thick of what's called the "harm-reduction" trend—which is to say it's all about minimizing risk and keeping people from going off the deep end. But unlike the harm-reduction efforts aimed at, say, providing clean syringes for heroin users or safe places for them to get high, Kosmicare is a pioneer in psychedelic harm reduction, specifically drug use at musical festivals. That means drugs like LSD, shrooms, ketamine, and various psycho-stimulants, often in combination with alcohol and weed. After all, when you combine a dry, hot environment with 18 hours a day of pounding psytrance, bad trips are bound to happen.
"We estimate that our service covers around 1 percent of the total festival population," Carvalho told VICE, adding that many people who come to the festival are from countries like France and the United Kingdom and are not used to the openness of such a service. While drug use itself is still not technically legal in Portugal, the decriminalization process has all but removed police involvement from casual use, instead keeping cops' focus on interdiction and high-level suppliers. Because of this, Carvalho explained, "People have nothing to fear from using our services, which includes our staff."
In order to be accepted on the Kosmicare team at Boom, this past February, I tried to gain some experience by volunteering for the US-based Zendo Project in Costa Rica. Helping people stuck in the throes of challenging psychological experiences, often stemming from drug use, is the more modest goal here. One man I encountered kept asking, over and over again, "Really, though, am I in trouble, did I do something wrong? This kind of work is confidential, so I can't reveal his name, but can say that for the previous few hours, I'd been chasing the 20-something from Canada around the grounds of Costa Rica's Envision Festival, trying to contain his fitful behavior.
"That's where services like Zendo come in," explained Sara Gael, the Colorado-based psychotherapist who heads up the organization. She said the group has served some 1,000 guests since 2012, both in the United States and abroad.
Not knowing for sure what, if anything, this particular man took, I could only try and make sure he was safe and didn't do anything he might later gravely regret, like giving away all of his money to strangers in the food court. (He tried repeatedly.) Once in my care, he eventually calmed down, presumably when he stopped peaking. When he came to shortly after sunrise the next day, he was confused and upset with himself. But he was also grateful that he wasn't in jail or a hospital—that a modern approach to recreational drug use had helped him out of a jam.
Once I made it to Portugal, I learned that unlike the legal atmosphere back home—where those who try to test drugs on site risk expulsion or arrest—a culture stressing safer use has been inculcated in plain sight and spanned the entire course of the festival.
Every night near Boom's main dance stage, a team of volunteers ran the check!n table, where people could drop off small samples of drugs and a few hours later learn the results of what was actually in their baggies. In addition to this service, funded by a Portuguese NGDO, Boomers could receive drug information pamphlets, ear plugs, and even tiny water bottles for nasal rinsing and paper cards meant to be used as snorting paraphernalia.
Facing my own culture shock with such progressive services, I was encouraged by the dozen guests I sat with throughout the week at Kosmicare, most coming by themselves after they realized their need for support. Instead of telling me they took "acid" or "molly," they referred more specifically to drugs they had tested at check!n, which informed them that they were actually consuming LSD or MDMA.
One of Dr. Carvalho's former classmates*—also a Kosmicare volunteer—is actually conducting a study on the impact this information from drug checking has on someone's decision-making over the course of a given music festival. For example, check!n received several samples of one gram baggies of coke going for €90 (about $100) that, when tested, revealed no cocaine. The former classmate, Helena Valente, wants to know whether people cut their losses and tossed the bag, or rolled the dice and gave it a sniff anyway.
All of this may sound like some kind of utopian vision for a drug-fueled future of partying, pushed by the clandestine agendas of private organizations taking advantage of international legal flexibility. But as festivals around the world attract more and more people, Gael hopes that calls for broader social cohesion—and harm reduction—will prevail in the United States, too.
"I believe that we are seeing increased public awareness of the importance and necessity of services which support the mental and emotional well-being of people who choose to use substances," she said.
Kevin Franciotti is an independent journalist in New York who work on psychedelic research has appeared in New Scientist magazine and Reason.com. Follow him on Twitter.
*Correction 9/15: An earlier version of this article said the study was being conducted by a student rather than a former classmate.