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October 1, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Deep Space

The Grateful Dead began touring in the mid-1960s, and the fans who dedicatedly followed them around the United States included not only deadheads and groupies, but also volunteer medics. They provided care for music-lovers going through crises, sometimes induced by psychedelic drugs. At concerts and festivals in the US and around the world, groups of caregivers began to provide unique health care for young people on mind-altering substances. A twenty-something on acid who didn’t feel comfortable seeking help from Emergency Services or Security could instead go talk to a kind volunteer in a safe space, hydrate, and talk in private. Many of the organizations founded in the 1960s and 1970s, such as White Bird Clinic, still exist and continue to hold space at big international and American festivals.
Psychedelic “harm reduction”, a term often used by such organizations, has been slower to reach New Zealand. Deepspace is a new organization working its way into the Kiwi festival scene. I met Olivia Montgomery, its founder, for lunch during my first full day in Auckland. Olivia is 23, with a practical aesthetic and lively personal energy – she talks fast and enthusiastically about the topics she cares about.
Deepspace is a volunteer-run New Zealand initiative that attends festivals and provides a safe space for visitors going through challenging experiences. Olivia’s training manual calls it “a confidential, non-judgemental space where guests who are experiencing difficult emotional and overwhelming situations, often due to unregulated substances, can find respite”.

The team was present at three Kiwi festivals in 2017 (Kiwiburn, Eyegum, and Aum) and has two lined up for 2018 so far.
Olivia first got the idea to found a New Zealand festival care organization after she saw a similar model at an Australian festival. She visited the tent first as a sober festival-goer, and was impressed with their unbiased drug education, with information about dosage and how to identify substances correctly. “It was the first festival I’d ever been to where they had a space for people going through difficult things,” she said.
Later that night she was out with her friends and a guy offered them MDMA, then came back a few minutes after they had taken it to say he had gotten it wrong.

“He came back and said it was ketamine, but he said not to worry because if you eat ketamine, it doesn’t work, and then he gave us some real MDMA. So that was some bad harm reduction advice,” she laughed.
“I was out on the dance floor feeling really good, then the next minute I was puking, and ended up going to the harm reduction place I had gone to check out sober.” Olivia treated this story as a case in point as to why festival care organizations are needed, along with higher quality drug education.
Olivia is still friends with the first sitter who helped her out during that experience, a volunteer with psychedelically multicoloured hair. “So that really started my whole trip with all of this, being a person who needed the care and wanting to pay it forward. That really bad experience turned out to be a really rewarding and educational one.”
When Olivia got back to New Zealand and looked for an organization to volunteer with, she couldn’t find any. “I’m not the kind of person that would say, well, the story ends there,” she commented, shrugging. She founded Deepspace not long after.
Deepspace takes its inspiration from larger harm reduction organizations that not only insert themselves into festival infrastructure, but also support drug testing, education, and research on substance use and abuse. Olivia volunteered with some American organizations after her Australian experience, such as Zendo, the festival care arm of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), going to big American festivals like Burning Man in Nevada. Zendo provides a space for visitors to come sit with a volunteer and/or medic, and provides information on drug effects, dosage, and danger of addiction. When possible, it also provides drug testing services, so that guests can be sure of the real content of whatever substance they have bought or been given.
A Kiwi organization called KnowYourStuffNZ has been providing drug tests at some festivals throughout the country over the last three years. During the summer of 2017/2018, approximately one in five of their drug tests (21%) revealed contents that weren’t what the buyer or user had been expecting. Of these, about half were something totally different than what festival-goers thought they had bought (often bath salts), a quarter were laced with a different substance, and the rest were unidentifiable. KnowYourStuffNZ has a growing volunteer force, and has often informally teamed up with Deepspace to cover all aspects of harm reduction at New Zealand festivals.

In New Zealand, Deepspace’s mission is to “de-escalate all situations” and provide an alternative to physical medical care and security. Its volunteers “don’t give advice, they are just there to listen and hold space”. A visitor can go and spend time with a volunteer sitter if they are having a challenging experience linked to substance use. This does not usually include alcohol: while Deepspace will take care of anyone who needs it, Olivia took great pains to emphasize that their space is not a place for drunk people to congregate. Of the 67 visitors Deepspace helped over their first three events, the most common substances people reported being on were LSD (17) and MDMA (14), sometimes in combination with other drugs. Ages ranged from 17 to people in their 40s, but guests in their 20s were the most common visitors (about half of those who gave their age).

Olivia described what a person can expect to see if they enter the Deepspace area. First, there is “an entrance tent with information and pamphlets about dosage, advice on different experiences, and there are two sitters out front, friendly faces so that people know where to find us. Then we have a courtyard kind of space: you come through our admin space, and then into the courtyard, and then there is a yurt and a beautiful bell tent where we have beds and pillows, spaces to lie down. If someone is really disruptive they can go into one of the more private spaces”. She mentioned that the design of having different areas – the darker yurt, the lofty bell tent, and the outdoor courtyard–was inspired by the uncomfortable layout she encountered during her first experience in a care space in Australia. “Everyone could see everyone which was really scary and intrusive, you could see someone next to you convulsing and someone else freaking out… so we have three main spaces, where people can sit or talk or sleep, with different moods.” Deepspace volunteers are often “health care workers, mental health nurses, and psychiatrists”, and there are usually 20-30 volunteers at a festival with 3-5 people on duty per shift, usually with one roaming the grounds with a radio to see if anyone needs to be brought in. Festival medical and security staff are invited to an introductory briefing so that they know what kinds of help Deepspace can provide, and who to direct there.
Olivia has seen drug cultures vary across the different festivals she has attended and worked – in Australia and New Zealand, she sees a serious binge culture when compared with a few longstanding US festivals. In states like Oregon or California, she had friends whose “parents were Deadheads,” had “grown up going to festivals,” and usually knew how to handle themselves on drugs. At New Zealand and Australian festivals, she believes people “romanticise overconsumption”. She said people often “Snapchat their friends gurning (facial distortions often resulting from amphetamines or MDMA) and freaking out, instead of helping them get to medical”.
Olivia added that better education was really her biggest mission: “Friends are laughing at their friends going through psychosis instead of helping them – no-one gets drug education in high school, no-one knows what to do. We need a cultural shift to make it cool to be safe and know how to look after your mates. If everyone had a little bit of Deepspace training then Deepspace wouldn’t need to exist, because everyone would be having a safe and supported time.”


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