Alex* was a teenager when he first tried drugs. Like many people he started with weed, before graduating to pills and then LSD. He says his early experiences were nearly always positive—until in 2013 he accidentally bought 100 hits of 25i-NBOMe thinking it was acid.
25i-NBOMe, or just “NBOMe” for short, is a synthetic psychedelic known for inducing powerful hallucinations and, in some cases, fatal blood clots. The drug has been blamed for a handful of fatalities, but in all cases users describe a nightmarishly intense trip, which is what Alex went through.
Alex survived, but decided that if he was to continue experimenting with drugs he’d need more information. And that's how he stumbled upon the user-run drug-discussion forum Bluelight.
Alex describes finding Bluelight as a game-changer. At a time when the bulk of sites framed their drug information around fear, Bluelight was the only site to give scientific answers without stigma. Suddenly, he and his friends were able to read up on specific batches of specific drugs before buying—an experience now repeated by 430,000 of Bluelight’s members around the globe. Over 22 years these members have amassed almost 350,000 threads, which is a remarkable achievement for a site that started as a simple message board.
The site that would eventually become Bluelight started life in 1997 as “MDMA Clearinghouse.” The message board’s stated purpose was to promote safety and awareness around party drugs, and quickly drew a dedicated following. One such member was a young guy from Melbourne who called himself Johnboy Davidson. Today, Davidson is the site’s longest-serving moderator.
Like Alex, he came to the message board looking for safety information and became immersed. “I’d never been part of any communities before, to be honest. I just felt it was the right thing to do," the now-46-year-old recalls. "I was fascinated by the subject, and I was fascinated by what was going on with it.”
Although there were other forums such as Erowid and Alt.drugs at the time, MDMA Clearinghouse had created something new: a platform for anyone to openly discuss drug use, while at the same time strictly banning any talk about sourcing or selling—a policy still enforced to this day. “Bluelight stepped into that gap, and that’s why it became so big so quickly," explains Johnboy. "It became that place where people could share that information. There wasn’t really too much else out there at the time.”
This niche proved to be a success, with 200 to 300 members joining between 1998 and 1999. But the site’s servers were only able to store a few threads at any given time, leading to an upgrade in 1999 and the new domain name “Bluelight.nu.” By the following year the site boasted almost 7000 registered members.
“With ecstasy coming to the club scene and exploding, it drove hundreds, like myself, online to find out about this stuff,” explains TheLoveBandit, one of Bluelight’s current co-owners who joined back in 2000. "Because [Bluelight] was MDMA focused, it was the one light in the darkness, so to speak.”
While you're here check out our doc on the people screening suspicious packages in Australia's busiest mail room:
It’s important to note that Bluelight was, and still is, an ad-free forum managed by volunteers. Which is why by the end of the 90s site maintenance costs were oscillating between $300 and $1,200 a month, which necessitated more serious financing. Thankfully Alan Woods, the Australian mathematician and professional gambler known for philanthropy and a fondness for ecstasy, joined Bluelight in 1999 and began bankrolling the operation. This kept the site afloat through its early years, until Alan’s death.
By the time Alan died in 2008, Bluelight had developed a large team of committed moderators, along with a member base of over 80,000. From this pool they crowdsourced funds to keep the lights on, and began collaborating with other harm-reduction communities such as reagent test supplier EZ-Test and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. There’s now even some cross-pollination between Bluelight and the broader scientific community, as highlighted on the site’s Drug Studies sub-forum.
These days Bluelight isn’t the only drugs-dedicated forum, but it remains the largest. And the secret to its ongoing relevance, according to users, is its culture of inclusivity.
“I joined because I felt a connection with the type of users that were posting here," says Moe*, a member who joined in back in 2009. "I couldn't talk about drugs with some of my best friends. But I found subjects that were taboo to my real life were discussed simply on Bluelight without shaming.”
Bluelight doesn’t just stick discussions about drugs either. Alongside weekly highlights from the pharmaceutical industry, there's a range of threads that address broader topics such as overdoses, addiction, and relapses. This wide scope means Bluelight is not simply a platform for people interested in recreational pharmacology, but for anyone interested in drugs as a cultural phenomenon.
Another point of difference is in Bluelight's diverse range of members. Unlike Moe, who joined in his 20s, George* is a former heroin user who joined when he was 52. George initially signed up to find information on growing opium poppies, but discovered a sense of solidarity within the community and became involved with the site’s administration. Then there’s Joe: a 34-year-old former moderator from Perth. He came to Bluelight as a 25-year-old recovering from an addiction to benzodiazepines. A year after joining, Joe was offered a moderator role, and started voluntarily minding the “Pharmacology” and “Dark Side” sub-forums. And although he eventually stepped down to look after his mental health, he—like everyone else VICE spoke to—maintains that his contribution to the site felt important; that he was helping to make drug-taking a safer pursuit . “My goal was to motivate people to educate themselves before they do harm to themselves,” he explains via Wickr.
In many ways this quote strikes at the core of Bluelight's mission. As the American-led war on drugs limps into its fifth destructive decade, many nations continue to restrict the kinds of harm minimisation measures that could save lives. And while Bluelight doesn't replace something like music festival drug testing, it goes some distance to filling the void.
“WITHOUT A DOUBT WE SAVED LIVES,” Joe stresses in all-caps, before later adding: “I'd describe it as an encyclopaedia. An open door encyclopaedia, no judgement.”
Follow Sam on Twitter
*Name changed at the persons' request.
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.