This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
The internet is a brilliant place to find advice. Not all of it's good advice, of course, but there is some handy stuff out there if you know where to look. When it comes to harm reduction, forums and Facebook pages are a godsend, allowing people to speak openly and honestly in a way you rarely see elsewhere. "Been doing a load of gear and my nose won't heal," might be the thread-starter. "Well then stop doing gear for a bit," might be the answer, repeated 20 times over.
Leaping from zero to 26,000 members in six months, Sesh Safety has become an online hub for new and experienced users alike to seek and share non-judgmental drug advice. Curated by a worldwide team of admins and moderators, it takes a zero tolerance approach to the glorification of drugs, so if you go on there expecting digital high-fives because you nailed the "Hotline Bling" dance in a K-hole, you'll get booted off. Just the helpful stuff please, lads.
The group was started by Dan Owns, who has an evangelical zeal for keeping people as safe as possible on the sesh. I called him up to find out why Sesh Safety is vital in 2017.
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VICE: What made you decide to start Sesh Safety?
Dan Owns: I made the group initially to focus on harm reduction advice for drugs like codeine and xanax. I saw that legal drugs were becoming more popular, largely thanks to the glorification of lean [the codeine / promethazine drink] by rappers and other high profile figures. However, the explosion of members in the group led to discussion of all substances being allowed, with no judgement.
I was surprised at how many people post about opiates. I figured it was all going to be about MDMA, coke and ketamine.
Yeah, opiates are really popular. They're so dangerous because they can lead to high risk drugs like oxycodone and heroin. The most common FAQs revolve around MDMA use and SSRIs [anti-depressants], which can have fatal consequences such as serotonin syndrome. Benzodiazepines ["benzos"] are frequently asked about due to a rise in black market xanax.
Have you got a personal history with these drugs that inspired you?
I started dabbling recreationally with drugs at 15, smoking weed, moving to MDMA, opiates, dissociatives, then experimenting with benzos. I formed a benzo habit which lasted four years, and it was absolute hell. I think benzos are only going to get more popular in England, which is primarily why I originally started Sesh Safety, to try and warn people away from making the mistakes I made.
You can imagine that some people will question whether you and your team are qualified to curate advice that could lead, ultimately, to someone harming themselves or worse.
That's a fair point, but the reality is that the group collectively has centuries of drug use experience. We are also a pro-science group and we have academics and pharmacologists who volunteer to support our group, who are able to leverage their qualifications and provide evidence to support discussions.
How many admins and moderators do you have?
Currently, 23 admins and 19 moderators, and they are from all over the world, including the US, Australia and New Zealand.
Your moderators are renowned for being hard-asses and banning people who glorify drugs or give poor advice. How do they qualify for a role?
They will be monitored first, through their contributions. They must be active within chat on the group. We need people who are able to be active daily, and we need people with reputable profiles or who have some qualification. As the group has grown we have been able to become more specific in who we choose to represent us; after all, a bad piece of advice or misinformation from an admin is going to negatively affect our reputation.
Couldn't someone ask a question at a strange time when no moderator is there, get bad advice from a member and end up harming themselves?
We try to make the best use of available resources; admins and mods have been selected based on knowledge they have posted in the group and with their location in mind also. As it is a voluntary service, there is no guarantee that it will be monitored 24/7, but there will – more often than not – be someone to respond to questions at any time of the day.
Are many of the admins users, ex-user or abusers?
Many of them have struggled with benzo or opiate addiction, or have had near misses, or misuse/abuse of other drugs such as MDMA and ketamine.
"Instead of using Google for information, or posting on forums where you often won't get answers for hours, they can be provided with advice and support almost instantly"
Is there a danger with Sesh Safety that really you're just preaching to the choir?
I don't think so. Ultimately, we have users with all kinds of histories and all different ages. Some people come on here and it's their first time trying a drug, and we can provide meaningful assistance to them. The other side of this is the dark side to drug use, whether that's a comedown or addiction. It doesn't matter how experienced you are; you can always benefit from the sociality that our group offers.
In general, harm reduction seems like it's gathering momentum. What can be your role within this?
The whole notion of harm reduction is becoming more prevalent thanks to the efforts of Portugal, the Netherlands and other countries and festivals. This can only be a good thing. We felt there was a gap in harm reduction which we have exposed, building a community of people who have a culmination of wealth, knowledge and wisdom. Not many casual drug users are going to spend the time to bother scouring Bluelight or sub-Reddits for hours, like many of our members have. Instead of using Google for information, or posting on forums where you often won't get answers for hours, they can be provided with advice and support almost instantly.
Lastly, you have a regular job, but it looks like Sesh Safety takes up a lot of your time. Is it basically your hobby?
It's my passion, man! I'm 27 and have been researching forums since I was 14. I just have a pure interest and thirst for knowledge, and want to make sure people don't make the same mistakes I did. In the future, I also want to change career and work in drug rehab, and eventually turn Sesh Safety into a not-for-profit harm reduction organisation. The Facebook group is just the start!
Additional information provided by Liam McCaffrey, Pierce Fox and Jens Andreas.
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