The Evolution Of Psychedelics At Dead Shows, Burning Man


To trip or not to trip on psychedelics? That’s the question many people ask themselves before going to a Dead & Company show. It’s the same question asked by Deadheads and newcomers to the Grateful Dead going back many decades. Given the stigma around psychedelics for the last 50 years, the presence of law enforcement at concerts, and varying degrees of tripping experience in the crowd (and access to the drugs in the first place), it can be a complicated question.

On the one hand, the answer to the question has to be “yes” because the music is meant to be experienced this way. It seems almost sacrilegious not to trip. If there’s any moment in life to say “damn the torpedoes let’s do this,” it’s at a Grateful Dead concert. On the other hand, the answer might be “no” because a giant rock concert can be a tough set and setting to trip in; all kinds of things can go wrong and an uncomfortable trip could take hold of the most experienced psychonaut.

When Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters did the Acid Test parties in 1965-66 throughout California, most attendees said yes and took the psychedelic Kool-Aid provided by the Pranksters. The Grateful Dead played at most of the concerts, oftentimes tripping themselves as a band. It took them some time to learn how to do it, but the band soon found their groove and the extended jam was born.

Some concertgoers drank the LSD-laced Kool-Aid without knowing there was acid in it. While this prank by the Pranksters seems irresponsible and crazy now, in the 1960s, not so much. LSD was legal until 1968. This powerful compound was turning young people onto a new way of being during a tumultuous time. LSD became a gateway out of hell for a lot of them in the 1960s.

There was a vicious war happening (Vietnam) and teenage men were being drafted to go die in it. Racial divisions and violence were common events on the American nightly news. Baby Boomers were coming of age and they were pissed off at their parents and the government sending them off to war and stoking racial tensions. In this context, dosing people at a concert dubbed “Can you pass the acid test?” was not all that bad. It was considered a necessary act of revolution and survival. Such was the ethos of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

I would guess a few attendees of the Acid Tests had difficult trips. Many others had good trips that changed the trajectory of their lives. The Pranksters did their best, I’m sure, to create a safe space for hippies to trip and dance. It was all very new and there was no playbook. They were inventing the playbook. No doubt there was chaos and a healthy dose of fear and loathing going down at the Acid Tests. The range of experiences had to be mixed and filled with contradictions and complexities. It took a lot of guts to take the acid at the Acid Tests. That was the point. Do something your parents and the establishment would never dream of doing.

Safer Tripping Today

The good news is there’s now a well-established playbook for concertgoers to follow when considering tripping at a Dead show, or any show for that matter. Over the last 50 years since the Acid Tests, the rock-and-roll underground community has learned to do things in a safe and positive way. There are some rules of the road folks can access while pondering whether or not to indulge.

Tripping at any concert safely requires prior experiences with psychedelics and being with other trippers during the concert—having a designated driver and non-tripping sitter is considered a best practice. Looking out for each other, dosing each other properly, and keeping everyone safe and steady is part of the creed.

Madison Margolin, author of Exile & Ecstasy: Growing Up with Ram Dass and Coming of Age in the Jewish Psychedelic Underground, agrees that using psychedelics at a festival can be profoundly fun, therapeutic, and life changing, but cautions “ it also carries some unique risks—due in part to the variability and unpredictability of an uncontrolled environment with a large amount of people and commotion.” For those who do decide to trip in a festive environment, Margolin suggests a few harm reduction techniques like staying hydrated, well nourished, and having a water bottle handy, in addition to making sure your friends know you took something in case you need support or just to know that people are looking out for you.

Test your drugs. “No drug use is 100% safe, this includes psychedelics,” shares DanceSafe founder Emanuel Sferios. “But knowing what drug you’re actually consuming, as well as the dose, can make it safer.” Sferios founded DanceSafe in 1998, a few years after counterfeit ecstasy tablets began killing young people in the rave culture. A simple chemical reagent test could distinguish between the real and fake pills. Over the last 25 years, DanceSafe added eight other reagents, each of which can be used to help identify specific drugs in an illicit drug sample. “Although reagents aren’t perfect—and they do not detect purity—make no mistake reagents can positively identify the presence of certain drugs,” exclaims Sferios. “And given that prohibition has created an unregulated market, where you have no idea what’s in a pill or powder being sold to you, they are an important first line of defense.”

Groups like DanceSafe are often present at events to assist with anyone who may be having a difficult trip or to help test psychedelic drugs for purity. Margolin says, “DanceSafe is a reliable place to order a drug testing kit from and bring to a festival if you get your drugs there, or you can test them in advance.” DanceSafe is one of the pioneers, but other groups do similar work at music festivals of all genres and types. By now, there have been decades of experience with this and the community has built institutional support for using psychedelics at events. Trippers are not alone anymore.

“Seek out a harm reduction zone before you take anything,” advises Margolin. “Such as the Zendo Tent at festivals like Burning Man or Garden of Aydin on the east coast, where you can go if you’re having a challenging experience, a medical episode, or simply a caring knowledgeable hand.” Burning Man has people from the non-profit organization The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and their harm reduction division Zendo Project to help out. MAPS saw a need to be on the playa for people who need support during their trips. Thousands of people all tripping together at events like Burning Man is too powerful a thing not to have some support around for folks who need it.

There’s also NEST, short for Network of Emotional Support Teams. “We work with event producers, medical, security and local law enforcement and emergency responders to help increase awareness around substance use issues that might arise at the event,” shares NEXT Founder Erica Siegal,who’s been working in harm reduction and psychedelic care since 2011. “We provide training and education for staff and attendees around risk reduction and how to support friends through challenging emotional and psychological experiences; and depending on the event, we also curate a “sanctuary” space for those who need a place to get support and talk with a trained compassionate care provider.”

“If you hit a rough patch, you can also call a service like Fireside Project to help get you through,” notes Margolin. Fireside Project is a peer support line staffed by training and compassionate volunteers from diverse backgrounds that provides emotional support during and after psychedelic experiences, and you can reach them by calling or texting 62-FIRESIDE everyday from 11:00 am – 11:00 pm PT.

Educational materials like books like Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind and magazines like DoubleBlind are more readily available for people to study before making the decision to trip at a concert. These non-profit support networks and easily accessible information were not available during the Acid Tests. We’ve come a long way.

Continuing to educate everyone at concerts about responsible tripping will be increasingly important as more people get access to psychedelics in societies across the globe. There will be a need for many organizations like Dance Safe, the Zendo Project, and MAPS to be there for people when needed. Above all else, passing the creed down to new generations will be critical as psychedelics get more integrated into society, and more readily available to the public.

Saying yes to psychedelics at your next concert has never been safer and easier—it does require a responsible and educated approach. People need to study up, learn the creed, follow best practices, and get help when they need it. The knowledge and support is there for people now. This should help calm nerves and give people the power they need to say yes.

I was lucky enough to attend one of the last three nights of Dead and Company in San Francisco. My big brother and I almost always say yes to psychedelics at Dead shows and we took a healthy dose knowing this may be the last trip we take with this band.

When intermission came and the drugs were peaking, I noticed pink fluffy clouds hovering over the stadium, breathing with my breath, and filled with images of skeletons and elephants all whispering their wisdom to me. I heard them say “You got this” whenever I felt a little overwhelmed. Those clouds reminded me to lighten up and relax. I call it therapy by hallucination.

My brother turned to me when the lights went down and the band came back on for set two. “Alright, boys, take us to church!” and with that, we put our arms around each other and went on the magic carpet ride known as the second set of a Grateful Dead show. The band must’ve heard him because they came out strong and did not let up one bit. It was by far the best set I’ve seen from Dead and Company.

As author and revolutionary Emmet Grogan would say after the Acid Tests back in 1966, “A good time was had by all.”

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