Inside a Music Festival in a Country Where All Drugs Are Decriminalized
Over a decade ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs in a radical decision to counter drug use. By focusing on rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration, Portugal is leading the way with progressive drug policy. Kevin Franciotti from Vice asks how effective those policies are when applied to music festivals.This article originally appeared on Vice
If you've been to a mainstream music festival in the United States, you've probably encountered your share of robust security measures. Long bag-check lines and uniformed police or private security guards are routine, and they're often tasked at least in part with weeding out illegal drugs.
But in Portugal, where the government's approach to drugs is almost completely outside the realm of law enforcement, the climate at music festivals is rather different. Onsite drug-checking services test purity, and virtually no one is hassled for their supplements of choice. That's because 15 years ago, a bold national policy was implemented where low-level possession of all drugs was decriminalized. Now the people doing the regulating are health officials, not cops.
As a frequent festival-goer in the past few years, I wanted to see for myself how one of the countries that's come the closest in the world to ending the drug war handles substances at these events. So I reached out to Dr. Maria Carmo Carvalho at the Catholic University of Portugal, head of Kosmicare, an organization that helps concert-goers dealing with a bad trip—or worse. At the Boom Festival, a biennial gathering held near the Spanish border around the full moon last month, about 100 Kosmicare volunteers committed to round-the-clock care for the more than 30,000 attendees throughout the weeklong event. I was one of them.
Kosmicare is in the thick of what's called the "harm-reduction" trend—which is to say it's all about minimizing risk and keeping people from going off the deep end. But unlike the harm-reduction efforts aimed at, say, providing clean syringes for heroin users or safe places for them to get high, Kosmicare is a pioneer in psychedelic harm reduction, specifically drug use at musical festivals. That means drugs like LSD, shrooms, ketamine, and various psycho-stimulants, often in combination with alcohol and weed. After all, when you combine a dry, hot environment with 18 hours a day of pounding psytrance, bad trips are bound to happen.
"We estimate that our service covers around 1 percent of the total festival population," Carvalho told VICE, adding that many people who come to the festival are from countries like France and the United Kingdom and are not used to the openness of such a service. While drug use itself is still not technically legal in Portugal, the decriminalization process has all but removed police involvement from casual use, instead keeping cops' focus on interdiction and high-level suppliers. Because of this, Carvalho explained, "People have nothing to fear from using our services, which includes our staff."