In The Festival Harm Reduction Project series, we examine drug use at music festivals and clubs across the globe, and explore what artists, organizers, harm reduction groups, and concert-goers are doing to make nightlife safer.
With at least 2300 fatal overdoses in Canada last year, Canadian Minister of Health Jane Philpott recently said opioid crisis deaths has surpassed the AIDS epidemic at its height, while the United States is seeing equally alarming statistics. The latest discovery by a pharmacy in Victoria, British Columbia that 90 percent of the street drugs they tested were cut with fentanyl only underscores the importance of people knowing what's in the drugs they're taking.
One grassroots youth organization at the forefront for advocating testing is the Canadian Students For Sensible Drug Policy, which has chapters in universities across the country. In their bid for effecting change at a policy level, they're first hoping to change the stigma around drug use by promoting a culture of education and compassion. They see better access to test kits for substances as central to that mission.
THUMP recently attended an event held by the University of Toronto branch on using reagents to identify the presence of a specific drug within a given sample. Reagents are inorganic compounds and acids that cause predictable reactions when mixed with specific drugs. They can be used to spot test for the presence of everything from 2C-B to sugar.
As instructor Dmitry Lipkanou of the Toronto Psychedelic Society and Checkitkit explained, it's a common practice that's been used for decades, first by government agencies in the late 70s/early 80s, and gradually later by harm reduction groups. Though the reagents themselves can't detect the presence of fentanyl when it is laced in drugs like cocaine or MDMA in very small but powerful doses, the workshop demonstrated that testing substances can save lives even when fentanyl isn't involved. (Kits that specifically test for fentanyl do exist but so far they are not widely available in Canada.)
There we spoke to the chapter's communications director, Sab Rich, and a number of students about their reasons for attending. Some use substances recreationally, while others were interested in learning out of a feeling of social responsibility. As the workshop demonstrated, no matter how far removed someone might think they are from "drug culture," everyone is affected by it in some way.
THUMP: Do you have a background in harm reduction?
I started out at a Queen West community project called The Trip Project. And through that I met so many people. All of us, it's the same story for everyone involved with CSSDP, pretty much. We started in one place, and it just branches off. We all work hand-in-hand, and make those connections as much as possible.
Could you talk a little bit about CSSDP's approach to harm reduction?
Primarily [drug use] is a health issue. If you just focus on [criminality], it's a bandaid solution. A drug policy that doesn't focus on that isn't going to fix anything. You're just perpetuating the same cycle that we've seen historically with prohibition.
At CSSDP, we like to approach drug policy from a way that's focused on harm reduction and not so much on the criminality. Drug use is a really complicated issue that involves a lot of factors: socioeconomics, education, race, gender. So we want to step in and help out with the fentanyl crisis going on right now. It's starting to appear in what people think is LSD blotters, cocaine, and people who are using heroin are also being affected by it. So if there's anything we can do to curb that, then we'll be doing it.
As a campus resource, are you hearing from students about their own concerns?
Yeah, we try to reach out to the student population as much as possible, and we do get students coming up to us. They tell us about their own experiences and why they believe this is important.
Is this the first workshop and what are you hoping to do in the future?
We're having another workshop about the mysticism, the religion around drugs. So historically, we like to go into that as well. We've done psychedelic storytellings, which is like a comedy event with an open mic section where people can talk about their own experiences, be they good, bad, funny. It's really all about giving people the chance to voice whatever it is they want to around drugs. They don't all necessarily hang out with people who would be comfortable talking about these things. We want to do a naloxone workshop where we can distribute kits and teach people how to use them properly, as well as talk about the dangers surrounding this crisis.
In the info for this event you say that you don't advocate for the use of drugs, but some of your other programming has more to do with the recreational community.
We don't advocate for the use of drugs. But we are aware that people are going to use them, regardless of the risks involved. Because of that stigma, a lot of people might not know where they can get the right information, like on how to test their drugs or something like that, and that puts anyone who's a drug user in danger.
Is this the first workshop you've attended on this subject?
I went to the CSSDP conference a few years ago. It was a great experience.
So you have an interest in harm reduction strategies then?
I have lots of friends that use recreationally. I have a lot of friends who are that whole "crunchy granola jam band type following Phish on tour for entire summers at a time." I don't do that, but I think that if my friends are going to crawl around and eat glue, then they should do it responsibly.
I have siblings who have had experiences with addiction. Being an addict is a lifelong thing, but my sister currently does not use heroin. So I thank god for that. But I also live in a time when what you're being sold could be anything. I think everybody who chooses to function within a society that is as large a thriving metropolis like Toronto or Vancouver, you have a social responsibility to have the naloxone training, [to learn how to use the reagents] to do what needs to be done in order to de-stigmatize these aspects of our society.
Why are you interested in drug checking?
I have a few friends who use drugs, and they've talked about getting the stuff. I've seen them take substances from different places, different sources, and I've heard them talk about testing. But nothing bad has happened yet so no one is motivated to get it done. I wanted to learn to [use the reagents] to help facilitate, or at least be able to encourage them and show them how to use it.
So you've all had the conversation about harm reduction?
Exactly. I've hearing different accounts from people about how their experiences have been different when they take the same substances and that alone is troubling. Even though I haven't had any terrible experiences yet it's clear that things aren't always as they appear to be all the time. I feel like motivated enough to try to test these things and figure out.
How did you hear about this workshop?
I tree planted with Dmitry last season, and my godfather found the event page on Facebook and passed it along to me. I had acquired the kits, but was a little apprehensive about exactly how to use them. They can be a little trial and error. You want to make sure you're being safe with these kinds of chemicals.
What made you want to get your own reagent kit?
I think [the fentanyl crisis] keeps me on my toes about not just taking anything that anyone gives me, which is important. It's a crisis and we need to be prepared for that. For me going out tree planting, I personally go into it for the work. There's a lot of play that happens in those camps, but for me I can't do all that play and then get up in the morning at 6 AM to work. A lot of people do that, so if I'm going to be the sober one, I'd like to properly know how to reduce this harm, right?
Even in every step with these testing kits, with these reagents, you can get a better idea of what you're taking before you take it. It's more of a preventative measure than learning the naloxone kits, which only helps to keep someone who is overdosing alive to their trip to the emergency room. It's important, but hopefully by testing we can stop that trip to the ER from happening.
All interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
All photos by Colin Medley.
Michael Rancic is on Twitter.