Drug-checking and advice, judgment-free.
This past July at Belgium's Tomorrowland EDM festival, not far from a security checkpoint with a huge sign warning that no drugs were allowed, Anton Gomez-Escolar Sanz stood at a booth reading "PARTY DRUGS INFO." On the table in front of him lay snorting paper, a chart showing how different drugs interact, pamphlets describing several popular drugs, and a bowl of oranges—which, he explained to festival-goers who didn't know, provide vitamin C, fructose, and hydration to reduce drugs' negative effects.
Madrid resident Gomez-Escolar Sanz has three master's degrees, one of which is in psychopharmacology and drugs of abuse; he puts his education to use as Tecnico de Salidas (roughly translated to "party technician") for the Energy Control Project, an organization that aims to reduce drug-related harm at music festivals and clubs around the world. His job is to scope out events in need of drug-checking and education, negotiate with the venues about what they can and can't talk about, lead the teams manning the booths, and alert guests and paramedics about any dangers they identify.
While Gomez-Escolar Sanz never encourages drug use, he believes that providing information is a far more effective way to reduce harm than finger-wagging. Research has shown that drug-checking stops many people from consuming dangerous substances, and as Gomez-Escolar Sanz's work demonstrates, the mere opportunity to ask questions can save lives. Over the course of Tomorrowland's final night, he told a man who put a popper in his mouth why he should never do that again, cited crime data to explain to me that alcohol is the drug contributing most to festivals' sexual assault epidemic, explained why you should take acid alone if you want to gain any insights, and fired off a litany of foods and vitamins that make MDMA comedowns less hellish.
A month later—after giving him some time to reflect—he shared with me the craziest things he's seen on the job and the dumbest mistakes people make at music festivals.
What drugs do people ask you the most about at festivals?
You find a lot of people are asking MDMA-related questions, because the illegal drug that people take the most is MDMA. But you also find a lot of questions related to alcohol as well, because the most consumed drug in music festivals above all is alcohol. People have very basic misconceptions about alcohol.
The most important misconception about alcohol is that people most of the time don't consider it to be dangerous, or they don't even consider it to be a drug. When it comes to people mixing drugs, most of the time, they will tell you "no, I'm not mixing drugs" or "no, I'm not doing drugs," but that's not true.
What other big misconceptions do you come across?
People think MDMA is better taken in small dips of the finger, but it's much better to take doses inside a paper or a capsule and know exactly the amount you're taking. If you're taking it in a pill, you should always cut it in half and even in quarters. We are detecting pills with very, very high amounts of MDMA—like 250 mg and even 280—that can be extremely dangerous if you are taking a whole pill.
We always ask people to avoid going over 1 to 1.5 milligrams per kilo [2.2 pounds] of body weight. Another misconception is related to the time it takes for drugs to come up. You find people who take a drug, and in 20 minutes time, they're saying "this isn't going up, I'm going to take more," and this is a huge mistake because most of the drugs take more time to [feel effective]. If you start redosing thinking the drug's not coming up, you will end up overdosing.
What's the weirdest question you've gotten?
[One] thing that is very common to see in different countries: People asking who we are and what we do, and after being told, they start laughing a lot and going away... and coming back the next second to ask "private" questions about drugs. It's also very common to hear people asking "what drug do you recommend me to take?"
How do you answer that?
I usually say that if they are interested in taking a drug, they should go for the safest they can find in that context. And I find that most of the time, the safest drug in that context is the one you have more information about.
What are the most dangerous habits you see in people?
People taking a fucking lot of alcohol, sometimes combining a lot of alcohol with a lot of energy drinks as well. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, so you'll dehydrate a lot with both. The mix of a lot of alcohol with a lot of MDMA is another problem that you see quite often. Alcohol dehydrates you a lot and makes you pee a lot, and that's not good when you're talking about MDMA, which raises your body temperature.
Have you ever had to save someone's life?
I've seen some overdoses, and we don't provide emergency medical services, but we are all trained in first aid, and we try to help the people until the doctors arrive. I've been in some situations where I found people having overdoses, maybe not life-threatening, but overdoses that made them feel extremely sick or fall to the floor.
What tends to cause these situations?
The most dangerous thing that brings people to that situation is usually misinformation. Misinformation is the worst enemy we have. We have two kinds of misinformation. One kind is related to not knowing exactly what you have been given. Someone sells you "cocaine" and it has adulterants so you don't feel it, so you overdose and have a different reaction because that is not cocaine.
The other kind of misinformation is that the user didn't do their homework before. So, we try to help eliminate both kinds of misinformation: what to expect from this substance, what doses are the safest, what are the main risks, and we also provide information on what exactly you have been sold. You can be an expert in whatever drug, but you are never safe from being scammed.
It seems like most festivals don't want to admit the people there are doing drugs. Does that ever make it hard for you to get in?
When you cross the door of the festival, you know what the festival wants and what the festival doesn't want. Sometimes, it's the first time they are working with harm reduction and they are fearful and they want to do less drug-checking and focus on alcohol or energy drinks or things with less stigma. But most of the time, they really switch their focus, and they end up seeing that what you're doing is extremely useful in terms of safety and saving lives. And they give you the freedom to do everything.
Do you have any crazy stories from your time at festivals?
This summer, we were working in a big music festival in southern Spain when a guy came and started looking at our pill catalogue with the results of our pill testing from the last three months. He stopped at two pills that were labeled with an "Alert" for being very strong (close to 250 mg of MDMA each one): a pink "SoundCloud" and a grey "Silver" pill. We told him that those pills were very strong, and if he had any intent to take them, he should always start by having a quarter. He looked at us and pointed to his arm where he had a red spot and told us, "I wish I had known this before having both pills yesterday night. I ended up in the emergency room really, really sick. I swear to god I will never ever take any pill again before checking it with you guys."
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