The rise of legitimate companies taking care of drug users tripping their balls off
It was turning dark around a house in the woods far from the city, where friends had set themselves up with music and food and chill lighting. Then, a semi-terrifying variable started to kick in: the drugs.
Molly, marijuana, LSD and mushrooms. To be exact.
Molly and LSD together is called candyflipping. It’s relatively harmless to your health. But it can also come with bonkers hallucinations and baffling visuals.
One kid in a trippy shirt, in his early twenties, grew agitated. Delusional. Worse, his friends had jetted. His girlfriend couldn’t calm him. Trippy Shirt Kid wasn’t candyflipping, he was candy-spinning-out.
That’s psychedelics. One minute you’re chasing rainbows, next thing you know the stuffed deer head on the wall is telling you to call 911. And when the cops come, they bring tasers. Or worse.
But these particular partiers had taken a radical step. Just as people doing ayahuasca bring in a shaman or curandero as a guide, so too did these partiers invite their own people to oversee the trips. Not leathery indigenous dudes with rattles and chants, just Coloradans sporting North Face jackets.
They were from The Nowak Society, a Colorado nonprofit that focuses on changing the way the country relates to drugs.
The volunteers from the Nowak Society are like scouts, mapping out the minefield that is a night on drugs, matching personalities to substances. No LSD or mushrooms for super anxious people; molly is easier to control.
They make sure newbies don't eat ten-strips and detach their frontal lobes; they make sure folks set intention before they got lost in a druggy fog; they even act as chemists, testing the drugs to make sure they’re safe and that the MDMA isn’t actually bath salts.
Festival Medical was there too, a group of emergency medicine pros. They brought stethoscopes and blood oxygen testers, to prove to the drug users they weren’t actually dying — even if it felt like it.
To the Trippy Shirt Kid who was candy-freaking-out, the Nowak Society brought out its “Trip Kit” — the company’s specialty. It’s a suitcase full of Etch-a-Sketches, Play-Doh, rattles and pinecones. Crayons and art supplies. A white stuffed unicorn. Because high people are toddlers. Fun stuff calms them down. The Trip Kid has been to Burning Man, Sonic Bloom and Arise. A Nowak member gave Trippy Shirt Kid a stuffed Beanie Boo rainbow owl, a toy with giant pupils that looks like it’s high on LSD itself.
The Nowak Society calls this “Party with Purpose.” They don’t provide the drugs, which makes their actions completely legal. Still, it’s a controversial operation at the fringe of social acceptability. And it makes the other side of the Drug War, cops and doctors, nervous. After all, the Nowak Society is doing the opposite of what the DEA and D.A.R.E. and teachers did for two generations: Nowak is making America safe — not from drugs, but for drugs.
Nowak is just at the cutting edge of a movement beginning to trip-sit an entire culture. It sounds novel, but variations on what Nowak did at that forest party will happen all around the world this summer.
At Red Rocks, party buses will haul riders to concerts this summer, many of those riders will be high. A company bringing them there, Bus to Show, has been trained by the Nowak Society on how to help riders Party with Purpose — or at least not lose all their shit and jump out a window.
At Burning Man this summer in a desert in Nevada, the Zendo Project will set up tents on the Playa with soft blankets and calm words, to bring in those who are wigging out and un-wig them.
Festival Medical in Colorado and White Bird Medical in Oregon will provide EMTs and paramedics to concerts, to figure out who's just having a bad trip and needs a calming hand, and who needs lights and sirens and IVs and sedatives and a giant hospital bill.
These efforts are usually called “harm reduction” — but to varying degrees, these groups are taking it a step further, supporting what’s being called “conscious or intentional use of illicit drugs.” Not, be sober forever. Not, boof all the drugs all the days. Simply, do drugs better. Drugs 3.0. Out of the Drug War, into the light.
The Nowak Society formed last year, in 2017 — named after beloved local radio personality Daryl Nowak. The organization knows many drugs are scary, and illegal for good reason. But they also know that 50 million people took an illicit drug last year. An estimated 3 percent of those people had bad trips. Which means, the Nowak Society points out, 97 percent had pretty good trips. Nowak Society members themselves have had some sweet sessions: used ketamine to deal with anxiety over being adopted, used DMT to overcome the fear of death, used MDMA — molly, ecstacy — to bond with grandma.
Nowak Society members say America is hypocritical. After all, America has never done more drugs in its rich history with them. There are as many painkiller prescriptions as human beings. One in 10 young people take a medication such as Adderall or Prozac. One in four middle-aged women is on antidepressants. We are a nation of pills.
"If somebody decides to take an antidepressant to get out of their slump, everyone's all for that," says Nowak board member Rob Colbert, PhDc. "But if someone decides to take some LSD to have an experience to get outside themselves, no one's getting behind that, and it's kind of unfair."
MDMA and mushrooms might have as many upsides as Prozac and Adderall. For the Nowak Society, the question is always: are drug making life better? Or worse? "If my creativity is boosted, my network is expanding, and novel experiences with close friends are nourishing my life, then I take this as an indication that I am practicing right relationship to the substances I'm choosing to consume," says Andi Ciovacco, a Nowak board member.
The organization teaches this stuff. Bus to Show, the bus to and from Red Rocks, was among the first to listen.
On any given night, Red Rocks stands look like there’s a fog machine or a wood-burning stove sending smoke signals into the air. Concertgoers get spun like turntables, shriveled up and paranoid, like snails — or wilding out and flailing. "I don't even know what drugs these kids are on," says Bus to Show driver Marla Dashiell, 60, shaking her head. "In my day, edibles meant underwear."
So, the Nowak Society spent a full day in a classroom of Naropa University teaching a dozen Bus to Show drivers the pharmacology, effects and risks of popular drugs. It urged the drivers to make their buses calm and comforting. To make a Trip Kit, with their own version of that Beanie Boo owl with the big ‘ol LSD pupils.
"Things sure have changed," Bus to Show driver Andrea Pliner marveles. "It went from, ‘Let’s win the War on Drugs’ to, ‘Drugs can be growth experiences, if someone's tripping out, give 'em a stuffy.’"
THE COPS REACTION
What the Nowak Society and these other groups are doing isn’t new. There have always been Peyote shamans and ayahuasca curanderos — even an “acid doctor” who attended the first official U.S. rock festival in 1967, Magic Mountain Music Festival, to mitigate bad trips. In the West, those types have gone underground, but they’re still there: Grateful Dead parking lot patrols and river guides with good connects and cool RA’s. Nowak and Zendo and DanceSafe are, arguably, just the above-ground, open, law-abiding version.
But bringing it out into the open is a controversial idea, a repulsive plan, for people who think drugs are immoral or unethical, who think drug users, and anyone who helps them, should go to jail.
The group known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — LEAP — are pro marijuana legalization. But LEAP isn't ready to support trip sitters.
"We don't want to appear to condone use," says Mikayla Hellwich, spokesperson for LEAP.
Bill Masters, a long-time opponent of the Drug War, is the sheriff in Telluride, Colorado. Drugs are a legitimate problem at his county’s events, from Phish to the Mushroom Festival. Kids get lost in the woods. A dude once stole a car, drove it up a mountain, broke into a mansion and took a dump on a bed.
Masters appreciates when the events are self-policing. Like when the Grateful Dead set up a tent for bad trippers. That was "certainly better than having them run amok,” Masters says. But he worries about what kind of a tone that set. "One of the biggest risks is: Does it encourage risky behavior even more?" he asks.
And how far is too far? In New Zealand recently, a high school handed out drug safety pamphlets that included advice on how to smoke methamphetamine. "When taking meth, eat something every 4 or 5 hours," it said, and "brush your teeth." Some New Zealanders got mad.
"That's the equivalent of telling someone who has shot someone to wipe their prints off the gun," said a spokesman for MethCon, an anti-drug organization, in a statement.
But for the most part, what’s remarkable isn’t how much backlash these groups have gotten, it’s how little. No intimidating calls from the DEA, not many angry letters to the editor or fear-mongering features in the local news. The government cares less than ever if folks get peacefully thrashed. And since these efforts include so many different people working so many different ways, they'll be hard to stop.
The Nowak Society is pushing it even further. It’s working on getting legal access to mushrooms and MDMA for dying people, or those undergoing through opioid withdrawal, under something called the Right to Try act.
As this new post-Drug War world takes shape, groups like the Nowak Society, Zendo and DanceSafe will trip-sit the country. If you ask them, they might sit for you, too.
That night in the hills, at Party with a Purpose, Trippy Shirt Kid snuggled up on the Beanie Boo owl with the big ‘ol pupils. Stared at it, acting like the toy was spun out, too. “Did your friends leave you, while you were tripping this hard?” the Kid said to the owl. “That must be rough.” Before long, the Kid forgot his troubles, and got up and danced.
And 911 was not called. No one got tased. The party candyflipped on. The Beanie Boo owl and the stuffed unicorn sat on the side and watched.