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The War on the War on Drugs

Vancouver harm reduction goes to a Costa Rican jungle rave.

This article appeared in the April 2017 VICE Canada print magazine.

It was Saturday night in the jungle of Costa Rica, and the ornate, technicolour main stage at Bamboo Bass Festival was blaring with music as harm reduction worker Munroe Craig did a walk-around looking for anyone who appeared distressed, intoxicated, or otherwise in need of help. Wearing black jean shorts and a black-and-white T-shirt with Karmik printed across the front, Craig did her best to blend into the dancing crowd, occasionally stopping to groove to the music. It was peak time, near midnight, and she carefully scanned the audience. If she saw someone she was concerned about, it was often as simple as saying, "Hey, how's it going?" with a smile—something medical and security personnel can't usually do at EDM festivals without freaking out attendees.

Now in its second year, Bamboo Bass Festival hosted about 800 attendees over a weekend in February in Jacó, Costa Rica. It's an intimate electronic music fest in the jungle run by Canadians and Costa Ricans, complete with imported new millenia hippie aesthetic typical for British Columbia. And this year, Vancouver-based harm reduction group Karmik travelled there to lend its services, helping to calm people tripping balls or offering water to those getting dehydrated. A constant worry was cocaine, since the Americans and Canadians who attend the fest are used to lower-quality product cut with all manner of things, including—and increasingly in Canada—the deadly drug fentanyl.

This is part of a VICE Canada project investigating the impact of drug policy in Costa Rica.

Part 1: The War on the War on Drugs
Part 2: The Costa Rica Model: Why Decriminalization of Drug Use Sometimes Isn't Enough
Part 3: Inside a Drug Tourism Economy

My first night in Costa Rica, I hung around some Canadian festival-goers buying coke: They easily scored 12 grams wrapped up in a thin piece of a plastic bag for a couple hundred American dollars. In Jacó, the threat of getting fentanyl in your coke (or other party drugs) is thousands of miles away. The biggest burn for this crew was that the price they got it for was "gringo" and that blow should go for about $10 per gram.

"As far as cocaine goes, it is much cheaper than we're used to in Canada, and it's much stronger, and that's a huge concern for us—people just going a bit hard," Zoë Tipney, Bamboo Bass Festival's volunteer coordinator, told me. "The heat catches on, so having a harm reduction crew here is so important."

Karmik, and harm reduction in general, is a middle ground to dealing with recreational drugs—an approach less common in the dominantly Catholic society of Costa Rica, where drug use from cannabis to cocaine is heavily stigmatized, at least by older generations. This was Karmik's first venture of this nature outside of BC—a trip where they would be doing pragmatic harm reduction training in another country—and a rare occurrence at a Costa Rican festival like Bamboo Bass, even though the country plays host to multiple fests, such as Envision, annually.

Groups like Karmik are becoming even more important in Canada (and the rest of North America) as the opioid crisis continues to loom large over both individuals in the throes of addiction and those who casually use recreational drugs. Their approach is one that I could have used during my first years going to festivals as a raver. On several occasions, I refused to go to medical because of how much of a scene I imagined it would cause. Fortunately I had more experienced friends who would look after me, but that's not always the case. As I've been covering the opioid crisis in Canada over the past year, the one silver lining has been that the harm reduction movement is gaining momentum in response.

Karmik members Cameron Schwartz, Alex Betsos, and Munroe Craig in Vancouver

A few weeks before Bamboo Bass, I'd met up with Craig near one of the alleyways popular for drug use in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Craig, who works two jobs in counseling and mental health and addictions support, was a smiling, bouncing ball of energy who immediately lightened my mood despite the setting. The Downtown Eastside is commonly referred to as ground zero of Canada's opioid crisis—an area that sees drug-related deaths daily, mainly due to fentanyl. It was early on a frigid January morning, and Craig had invited me to check out the trailer that is part of a safe injection and harm reduction space that her organization Karmik helps manage.

The presence of such a facility and a group like Karmik in Vancouver is a testament to the times. Fentanyl, a potent opioid, has been detected in non-opioid drugs in Canada, including coke, MDMA, and counterfeit prescription pills such as fake Xanax, in addition to other substances such as heroin. It's been involved in thousands of drug-related deaths across the country in recent years (BC saw 922 overdose deaths in 2016). While Vancouver has for years been a leader in harm reduction in North America, opening the continent's first legal supervised safe injection site, the situation in that city now requires unofficial locations like some of the ones Karmik has worked for.

"The main result of the war on drugs is death: Your friends die, your family dies, people in your community die, people you don't expect to die, die," Craig explained to me. "Right now, everyone is dying."

Through their integration with the nightlife scene in Vancouver, festivals, as well as attending community meetings and holding training sessions for administering the opioid antidote naloxone, Karmik has become a strong force in the harm reduction landscape in Canada. Founded in 2014, The organization is currently independent and doesn't have outside funding other than donations and contract work in order to maintain autonomy; core members Craig, Alex Betsos, and Cameron Schwartz are all in their 20s and got into harm reduction via electronic dance music culture. Craig and Betsos grew up going to raves in Toronto.

But Karmik's involvement in harm reduction extends beyond the boundaries of the opioid crisis and parties. They attend international conferences on harm reduction and drug policy. After meeting a Latin American drug expert from Costa Rica at one of those conferences and being presented with the opportunity to embed at Bamboo Bass, the Karmik team booked a trip to Costa Rica.

Festival-goers at Bamboo Bass display some of the drugs they bought locally: cocaine and weed

Jacó, Costa Rica is a beach town with a population of about 10,000 with a seedy reputation for sex and drug tourism that seems to be at odds with the country's catchphrase, pura vida ("pure life" in English). In February, the temperature rarely drops below 80 fahrenheit during the day. When I arrived, the hostel I stayed at was full of surfers and the special brand of festival people you'd usually see at Shambhala: tattoos, multi-coloured dreadlocks, new age shit.

The country acts as an artery for cocaine coming from South America and destined for North America. But the Central American country is also a unique case study on drug policy. In recent years, violence has surged due to the illicit drug trade. However, since 1988 the country has employed a policy of decriminalization for personal drug use; more recently, fines associated with possession of small amounts of drugs were dropped. Now, if a cop finds you with a personal amount, usually the substance would simply be confiscated and, as mandated by law if you are in a public place, you'd be offered voluntary free addictions treatment.

Though festivals and drug tourism in Costa Rica represent one aspect of how substance use manifests itself within the country, urban areas are a different ecosystem. With cocaine as cheap as it is in the country, crack cocaine is even more so: A rock can be bought for under one American dollar, and it's not uncommon to see people smoking it on the street in broad daylight in some parts of San José, the country's capital city.

Which is why, after a sleepless night tossing and turning in the heat of my hostel dorm room, I dragged my sweat-soaked body out of bed to witness something that rarely happens in Costa Rica: pragmatic training in how to help people more safely use drugs.

Karmik's Alex Betsos starts the harm reduction training session on the rooftop of a hostel in Jacó with his Drugs 101 talk, even though that morning he found out that a Karmik volunteer in Vancouver had just died from an overdose. "We have to treat substances with a balanced view," Betsos, a self-proclaimed "drug nerd," told the group, which included Canadians and Costa Ricans. "We can talk about positive effects of drugs—not just negative." Betsos ran through a range of drugs we might encounter in Costa Rica, including pharmaceutical-grade ketamine and, of course, the high-quality cocaine that is standard in the country: "Cocaine," Betsos pointed south, "comes from just a couple borders away."

A Bamboo Bass attendee from Ontario displays high-quality ketamine she bought in Costa Rica

A cornerstone of Karmik's pragmatic approach is providing people with condoms and lube, straws for snorting drugs—tangible actions of harm reduction that extend past safer drug use to safe sex. For Costa Rica, a place where abortion is illegal except for emergency health reasons and the Plan B pill is not available, these objects given out in Karmik's "party packs," which also include drug and health safety info, represent a divergence from Costa Rican societal norms.

Ernesto Cortés, who works for a non-governmental organization named ACEID (which translates to Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention in Drugs), attended Karmik's training and is an expert on drug policy in Latin America. He explained that there is little in the way of reliable stats for drug use or overdose deaths in Costa Rica, because of how surveys are administered and the method for tracking drug deaths. Cortés said that organizations doing outreach work here are few and far between. He mentioned a suggestion of distributing clean pipes was met with protest when he was working at the government—it was construed as "encouraging" crack use.

Cortés used to work for the government in Costa Rica from 2010 to 2014 but quit due to "personal ethics," as he said. "I found out it's too hard to change things from the inside," he told me. Despite decriminalization of drug use, prisons in Costa Rica remain overpopulated (specifically the men's ones). A significant portion of those in Costa Rican prisons are there due to drug-related crimes, such as selling and trafficking. "It is a bigger issue because of the proportionality: There are more women in jail for drug offenses than men," he said. "They are poor women, all of them. It is a way of living and bringing food to their houses, because most of them are mothers."

Back in Canada, politicians have started discussing decriminalization of drug use in response to the destruction of the opioid crisis. The Canadian government is also on the verge of legalizing and regulating cannabis—something that Costa Rica likely won't see for decades, according to Cortés.

Karmik members Cameron Schwartz and Munroe Craig (left), along with volunteers, secure an area in the jungle for their sanctuary space.

At Bamboo Bass, Karmik found that bringing their teachings into action was a bit challenging. It took about a day for party-goers to show some interest in their drug- and alcohol-free safe space at the festival, which was happening at a ziplining course just outside town. But by the second day, their space was attracting a steady stream of ravers who came to check out the table sprinkled with coloring supplies and LEGOs, a drinking water tank (the fest itself also supplied free water), and plenty of party packs and earplugs available for anyone who stopped by.

Throughout the weekend, I repeatedly witnessed people coming up to Karmik volunteers and thanking them for the work they do. Bobby, a 23-year-old from Ontario, told me, "Everyone knows that there is drug use going on. It's what goes along with the culture. But when we're getting educated about them and there's a safe space, it helps everyone."

For some artists, the presence of harm reduction at their gigs is basically part of their riders. "I wouldn't play a festival without harm reduction," Kevin Tyson, aka Crow, who performed at Bamboo Bass Festival, told me. "Having a team like Karmik who are available is a necessity and a relief for me and other performers."

As more people dropped in to color, pick up pamphlets about drugs, and seek advice from Karmik, it reminded me of an adult day care at times. But when I spoke to Cortés later, I realized it was more.

"The art working table—I think that's a great idea, if we can ever do something like that [in the city], not only in party context, I wish we can have a drop-in centre in San José in some years," Cortés told me after the festival. "I think that also really helps people, and then also to have a protocol on how to work with people: Listen to them, validate them."

Drug info cards are displayed at Karmik's sanctuary space at Bamboo Bass

Days later, Cortés took me to an area of San José locals call " la Zona Roja" where homeless people line the sidewalks, sometimes openly smoking crack out of metal tubes. As we walked through the area, he explained to me the lack of harm reduction at this level in Costa Rica: There's only one official homeless shelter in the country, located in San José, that houses people temporarily overnight after they've been searched. He explained how sharing ideas with Craig and her team, and seeing harm reduction in action at the event, had shown him the potential impact of bringing any sort of harm reduction approach to people using drugs on the streets of San José. (Recently, the Costa Rican government approved a harm reduction model.) "You [can see how to] do something similar in different spaces, with different context," he said. "The idea in general is the same: not judging, trying to help people, a more pragmatic way of looking at how to treat people who have any challenges."

The Karmik team hopes to take their approach further next year in Costa Rica. They weren't able to do drug testing, mainly due to time constraints, but also insecurity around whether that kind of activity would be pushing too far outside of Costa Rican cultural norms.

And while it might seem odd to think of spending the weekend making sure ravers are being safe with their drugs as a way to clear your head, Craig said that Karmik's trip to Costa Rica helped her take a break she didn't know she needed. "I really didn't notice how much [the situation in Vancouver] was holding a space in me until I stepped out of it," she said. Karmik may have returned to the opioid crisis, but their knowledge has already planted a seed in Costa Rica.

Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter.