Despite its popularity, recreational drug use remains stigmatised. Thus, it can be difficult to find reliable information, and if you do end up on a bad trip, specialised help and emergency rooms at festivals are not only few and far between, but users might also feel discouraged from seeking help for fear of being reported to the authorities.
The Czech Psychedelic Society is working to change that. Their PsyCare initiative is a cozy and safe tent, where users can get information about drugs, as well as be helped through a bad experience. Qualified volunteers accompany the visitors for hours, making sure they feel comfortable – PsyCare is thus an important program of on-site harm reduction. You can support the crowdfunding campaign here.
Anna Azarova: In your experience, is drug consumption common at the festivals you work at?
Svatava Bardynová: Yes, definitely. The international experience is that roughly 1% of festivalgoers visit PsyCare tents. At a festival where we worked last month, we had more than 20 out of 1300 guests – around 1,5%.
Festivals are required to have on-site paramedics at all time, and many people don’t see the point of harm reduction or drug sitting tents. How is your work with PsyCare any different?
The biggest difference, I’d say, is that we don’t judge people for taking drugs: we know that it’s very common to take them, especially recreationally. When people have a bad trip, they can have difficult psychedelic experiences, and the paramedics can’t really help them properly, because, as we see it, their needs are more psychological, and they often see it differently. But we can approach it from this point of view as well.
So if someone is, let’s say, on acid and isn’t feeling very well, and goes to the ambulance, they really don’t know what to do. Sometimes they give them diazepam or some other benzodiazepines. That’s often not very helpful: you can calm people down a bit, but at the same time, the psychological aspect of the trip is prevented from ending on its own terms.
Some people have stayed with us for 6 hours, and our volunteers are with them throughout the whole time.
The way we see it, is that in this state people need a safe environment and education. Almost all volunteers working with us are experienced with psychedelics; we are all trained, and some of us work as psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers with drug users, so we know both the counselling and the therapeutic sides of the work. We can really help them to go through the psychedelic experience in comfort and safety to do what they need, be it crying or screaming, or simply just lying down, or even closing their eyes if they want to – but often talking, or being close to others is very helpful in itself. We can stay with them and support them for hours – some people have stayed with us for 6 hours, and our volunteers are with them throughout the whole time. With psychedelics, it is very important to finish the trip so there is no unresolved residual issues. If you prevent the psychedelic high from resolving on its own, you risk having psychiatric issues, such as flashbacks, in the future. In a way, PsyCare is focusing on prevention to avoid those issues. Paramedics are not prepared to do this work.
What is it about the festival environment that can trigger a bad trip? Does it happen often?
It’s difficult to say how often it happens, and there are many factors that can influence the experience, whether it be a bad trip or not. Some people are more sensitive to psychedelics, and of course it also depends on the dose. And, thirdly, your experience: most people who have a bad trip are first-time users.
Festivals can be a risky environment for taking psychedelics, especially if you’re inexperienced.
Furthermore, festival settings can be quite overwhelming: you have to remember not to lose your wallet or phone, your friends are coming and going, it’s chaotic, and the music is often very loud. And of course, there are also other drugs, which visitors combine with the psychedelics – the combination with alcohol is especially risky. After the psychedelic experience, you should also be able to take some time off to rest – which can be difficult with everything around you being chaotic. I wouldn’t say that it’s all crazy at festivals, but it can be risky, especially if you’re inexperienced.
Apart from helping people through their bad trips, is there anything you are currently unable to do, but would want to?
The biggest limit in PsyCare work is that the whole process is improvised. When people come to our tent, they’re already under the influence, and it can be hard to make agreements with them, for example that they don’t take any other drugs.
Apart from that, it would be great to be able to provide drug testing, but at the moment we can’t: it is very expensive, and we don’t receive any funding.
The Czech Republic has the reputation of being one of the most liberal states in Europe concerning drugs. Is the legislation on psychedelics different from more widespread drugs, such as marijuana or MDMA?
Psychedelics are considered to be hard drugs in the Czech Republic, and are illegal. Even though we have a lot of mushrooms growing in every forest, if you pick them and run into a police officer, you can get into a lot of trouble.
On the other hand, drug use is very wide-spread in the Czech Republic: we are among the biggest consumers of cannabis, MDMA, and methamphetamine in Europe.
Under this legislation, to what extent is harm reduction work possible? What is also impossible, but should be possible?
It’s mostly alright – we are allowed to do our work. But now it is mainly a question of money: it would be great if we could raise enough to pay at least the coordinators, if not all the volunteers.
It would be great if we could provide drug testing, but (since we work here on voluntary basis) it is a lot of work to write and apply for governmental grants; and the chances of receiving money for this kind of project are incredibly low. Ideally, we would be able raise enough money independently to use for both the testing and the PsyCare projects.
Currently, there are no organisations doing drug tests in the country. There used to be some a couple of years ago, until the National Anti-Drug Office (which is part of the police) forbade independent organisations from doing it. Through this organisation, the government could exert pressure on the NGOs so that they could receive no funding at all if they engaged in drug testing – so they stopped.
But if we would be able to stay completely independent from the state, we could start offering it again.
[Update: The article has been edited on July 24 to correct some mistakes.]