5 Questions for Mitchell Gomez
Mitchell Gomez’s interest in psychedelics started very early; when he was around 10 years old, he first read Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert’s book The Psychedelic Experience. He’d assumed LSD was a thing of the past, a drug no longer in circulation, until a few years later when a Tampa police officer leading his 8th grade class’s D.A.R.E lessons cautioned students to avoid LSD. The drug could cause schizophrenia, the officer told the class. Gomez asked what kinds of places he should avoid if he didn’t want to encounter these drugs. “Raves,” the officer replied.
Gomez was intrigued by these stories of illicit mind altering substances, though it took him a few weeks to find his first rave. He’d just turned fourteen. He tried to buy drugs, but because he looked too young, no one at the rave would sell to him. Gomez would not be deterred; he scoured the ground and found tabs of MDMA people had dropped while dancing. Gomez’s first few dozen drug experiences were with these scavenged substances he found on the dance floor. Mostly, he was finding MDMA, but sometimes it was methamphetamine. By the time he was 16, he was volunteering with a harm reduction group in Florida. “I always really liked the idea of creating safe containers for people to explore consciousness,” Gomez says.
Through the trance and Burning Man community, he learned about DanceSafe, a national harm reduction and peer-based public education non-profit group, and he joined the organization in 2014. Now, Gomez is the executive director of the organization, which provides adulterant screening kits people can use to test their MDMA for things like fentanyl and methamphetamine, information about drugs and safety, as well as water and electrolytes at live events. Gomez spoke with The Microdose about DanceSafe’s work and what he sees as the only way forward for harm reduction in the psychedelics community.
What does DanceSafe do to promote drug safety and harm reduction at events?
In many cases, we don’t do on-site testing, because promoters won’t allow on-site testing. When we are doing on-site testing there are a variety of ways we can test. In some cases, we do reagent testing, which is what we also sell online as home test kits. [Editor’s note: In reagent testing, a drug sample is mixed with a special compound, or reagent, to cause a chemical reaction, which can show whether a drug is pure or tainted. For instance, DanceSafe’s MDMA kit description shows what different reagents reveal about a sample’s composition.]
At most events, we focus on fentanyl strip testing. For that, the best way to complete testing is to first dissolve a drug sample in water, but obviously, that doesn’t lend itself well for testing at events, since fresh water is not always available. We’ve found that if a person takes the sample they want to test, they chop it up really finely so there are no big rocks — because fentanyl could be inside those rocks — and then test 10 milligrams. That can be an effective method. It’s been an iterative process of designing protocols around that type of on-site testing at events.
We also have a sophisticated drug analyzing device called an FTIR; it’s primarily used by U.S. Border Patrol and for commercial use by the plastics industry. [Editor’s note: FTIR is short for Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy, a method which analyzes samples by how much infrared light they absorb.] It’s obviously not designed for harm reduction, but drug testing professionals, especially those in Europe, have developed robust open source data sets that can be tested with this machine. Now, it can test around 5,500 drugs.
DanceSafe sells testing kits for drugs that are illegal in the United States, like MDMA, cocaine, and LSD. How have event promoters and law enforcement reacted to your organization distributing these tests?
Historically, we got a lot of pushback and fighting on the issue. Event promoters or venue attorneys were very hesitant to have drug testing at events. But we’ve sold hundreds of thousands of them — they’re exceedingly popular. Sales of the fentanyl test strips, in particular, have been accelerating. The Biden administration is now allowing federal grants to be used to purchase and give away test strips, so we’re now getting large institutional orders from state and tribal health departments.We’re in talks with probably a dozen public health departments who want to have public, drop-in, drug adulterant checking services. There would be a day of the week where you could come by with your drugs, and with permission from local law enforcement, who would be on board not to arrest people, you could get your drugs tested.
I never would have believed one could use federal tax money to purchase our kits, but now it’s happening. There’s been a media uproar around it; Fox News is pitching it as “Biden funding crack pipes.” It used to be that harm reduction and drug checking was an out-of-left-field, controversial thing, but I think that idea is dying.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
You mention there’s been increased demand lately for fentanyl strips. Do we know what’s driving that, and what other trends has DanceSafe’s drug testing illuminated?
The increase has been directly related to the increase in law enforcement at the border under the Trump administration. An increase in border patrol leads to an increase in strength of these substances, because when you make it harder to move drugs from point a to point b, people switch to carrying stronger drugs. The main metric for payoff is doses per smuggled gram. So the increase in fentanyl and powerful synthetic fentanyl analogs was entirely predictable; this is always what happens when you increase enforcement of unregulated markets.
In terms of drug adulteration, we’re always playing the same game that law enforcement is playing, which is to keep up with unregulated markets. We don't know which of the million potential fentanyl analogs somebody is going to release, so the only way to deal with it is reflexively, not proactively. We keep a close eye on darknet marketplaces because that can give hints about what’s being sold.
Sometimes we’ll hit on a really shocking wave. We've had the FDIR machine out at a few events post COVID. We are starting to see eutylone, which for years was being sold as a substitute for MDMA. It works similarly to MDMA, and I personally know people who have had great experiences and prefer it to MDMA. It’s one of the less problematic drug misrepresentations, but it’s not MDMA. For years, it had disappeared; China cracked down on production, so I thought it was gone forever. But now it's been at multiple events, and people all the way from Miami to New York have encountered it, so we're talking about the entire East Coast.
In 2021, overdose deaths rose dramatically; over 100,000 people overdosed on synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Last year, the DEA put out a safety alert warning that they’d seen a “dramatic rise” in pills containing at least 2 mg of fentanyl, which is a lethal dose of the drug. The DEA specifically mentions that these pills are counterfeits of opioids like oxycodone, but they don’t mention psychedelics. Does the fentanyl crisis affect psychedelics users?
The fentanyl crisis is not just about opiate users. There’s this perception that if you don’t do heroin, you don’t need to worry about testing for fentanyl. I literally just saw this sentiment the other day on a psychedelics Facebook page — someone was posting Narcan resources, and the page was blowing up with people being like, “Get this off here! We’re not doing heroin.” They didn’t want this comparison between them and those “other” drug users.
But fentanyl ends up in MDMA and in ketamine. There was a recent case where someone bought a gram of DMT and gave it to a friend of theirs, and it was fentanyl — the baggies got switched. People say things like, “Oh no, I don’t need to test — I have a good source.” It can be hard to accept that accidents happen until they do. We get donations all the time from people who say their friends accidentally took adulterated drugs from people they trusted, and it killed them.
How do you think psychedelics decriminalization efforts and medicalization efforts will influence drug harm reduction work?
I believe the problems we see with drugs are not intrinsic to the substances themselves, but are created by drug prohibition. Of course, there are intrinsic risks to drug use; MDMA can kill you, if you don’t have adequate water. But for most of what we do — everything from drug checking services for non problematic substance users to giving out clean needles for intramuscular or intravenous heroin users — the risks we address are driven by prohibition.
For instance, the reason why so many people use heroin the way they do is because of the price point; by shooting it, you get more bang for your buck. And the price is so high because of prohibition; every single person has to be compensated for the risk of carrying this illegal drug. If you could just walk into a store and get morphine or opium or powdered heroin at its actual production cost, which is very low, people might start snorting or smoking heroin, not injecting it, and suddenly you wouldn’t need needles. Over the years we have blamed the ill effects of prohibition on the substance, and used that as further justification that it should remain illegal. People cannot tease apart the harms of a drug from the harms of a drug because it’s illegal.
Prohibition as a system is flawed. We need not just decriminalization, but legalization. We need to allow people to access all drugs in whatever kind they want. For a lot of people, that might sound like a step too far, but I encourage them to think about why. Until we have legal regulated markets, DanceSafe is shoveling the ocean with a fork.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Excellent interview; DanceSafe is doing such important work! I would love to see the psychedelic community be a vocal partner in harm reduction advocacy. It's great there is growing public acceptance of cannabis and psychedelics - let's build on that momentum to dismantle the war on drugs!
How beautiful. Thank you for sharing these incredible stories!