Last month, the Daily Mail ran a story about how easy it is to find and buy drugs on social media. Leading with the bombshell scoop that it's possible to source weed on the internet, they then quoted a campaigner who accused Facebook, Instagram and Twitter of "aiding and abetting" the sale of drugs. The same day, Sesh Safety – a Facebook group offering real-time drugs harm reduction advice – was permanently deleted.
"Facebook said the group was facilitating the sale of regulated goods, which it most certainly wasn't," says Dan Owns, founder of Sesh Safety, which was profiled by VICE in July of last year. When approached by VICE, Facebook initially said it was looking into the deletion of the group, before declining to comment any further. A spokesperson did, however, send us a link to the site's Community Standards, as well as a note pointing out that buying, selling or giving instructions for the use of illegal drugs is not allowed on Facebook. It was for one of these reasons Sesh Safety was deleted, said the spokesperson.
The buying and selling bans are covered both by common sense and a section in Facebook's Community Standards forbidding the use of the site "to facilitate or organise criminal activity". Crucially, though, that bit about "giving instructions" isn't mentioned anywhere, and it's certainly not "criminal" to advise people on the safest way to use a drug. Facebook wouldn't elaborate, so these are just theories – but considering the fact no buying or selling was taking place, it would seem the group either fell foul of that not-advertised rule, or moderators – maybe ruffled by the Mail story – got trigger-happy.
"My theory is because all our content is in-depth drug discussion, including names and weights, it's picked up and perceived by Facebook's moderators as selling," says Dan.
Problem is, names and weights are important when it comes to harm reduction. People are going to continue using drugs regardless of any rules, online or in the real world, so should be able to access information that can keep them as safe as possible while doing so. If the difference between having a good time and overdosing on GHB is taking a couple of milligrams too much, potential users should be armed with that information before using the drug. Restricting access to such an invaluable source of information – somewhere you can post a question and get an almost instant response from another user, and an answer from an expert group moderator minutes later – could be jeopardising the health and safety of thousands of people.
To see how Sesh Safety – which had 50,000 active members worldwide – had affected people's lives, I posted on the replacement page asking for testimonies. My Facebook inbox whimpered from the deluge. Here are just a few:
It’s clear that, from bad acid trips to averted panic attacks and conquered addictions, the group – and its team of moderators, who watch over it 24 hours a day – have done a good job delivering non-judgmental harm reduction advice to the people who need it most.
A key facet of Sesh Safety’s offering is the Crisis Chat groups. These are private groups of moderators which members can be added to if they’re experiencing something particularly traumatic or dangerous. "This was probably the most intense part of our work. When we had 50,000 members we’d get four or five people a weekend," says Dan.
He recalls the time Crisis Chat convinced two 15-year-olds who had taken 24 paracetamol-with-codeine and drunk a bottle of vodka to go to hospital. The boys weren’t going to bother and thought they could just sleep it off. One of them was told the next day that, had they not come in when they did, he would have likely died. Anecdotal, perhaps, but it's stories like this which fuel Dan and his team's passion for keeping people safe from harm.
Sesh Safety, of course, is not the first online forum where people can seek out honest drugs information. Bluelight and Erowid have existed for years, and there are endless sub-Reddits for those who have the inclination to find them. So what sets it apart?
"Sesh Safety's presence on Facebook makes it unique," says Dr Henry Fisher, Policy Director of the drug policy innovation hub Volteface. "It's reached many more people; people who would never dream of going on Bluelight or Reddit, or even trust those sources because they don’t look as accessible and don’t seem as trustworthy."
It makes sense: to sign up to a site exclusively dedicated to drugs feels like a big step for the casual user. But Facebook is easy and it's sanitised. Your nan's on Facebook. She’s probably not on Sesh Safety, but she could be if she wanted to.
What is confusing is why Sesh Safety has felt the brunt of Zuckerberg's Nikes when the group has always been steadfastly against the glorification of drugs, unlike other sesh-themed pages with many more followers. "We have noticed a lot less 'triple drop [pills]'-type comments," says Dan. "We give people one chance if they write something like that. The second time, it's a ban. It seems to be sinking in."
As those kind of posts faded away, the group started to skew more towards addressing issues of mental health and addiction, particularly to benzodiazepines like Xanax. Dan acknowledges this and says it's an area where the group and its moderators need to improve, and that he is actively looking to engage mental health groups to help him offer specific advice.
This is an area that concerns Professor Adam Winstock, addiction psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey. "Everyone has a different experience, especially when it’s down the road of problematic use and benzos," he says. "You really have to understand that story to be able to give advice."
Overall, Adam’s opinions regarding Sesh Safety are positive, but he voices concern about people giving advice based purely on past experience. "Your own personal experience does not serve as evidence; I would like to see more 'I don’t know' comments," he says. "People can forget about how life-changing their advice can be."
Henry Fisher from Volteface echoes these concerns and acknowledges faulty advice as a pitfall of peer-to-peer forums. "People will get things wrong sometimes, but Sesh Safety do a good job of weeding that out," he says. "Having met some people that moderate it [including Guy Jones, the face and voice of VICE's Safe Sesh video series], they’re very knowledgeable and only have best interests at heart."
Scrolling through posts on the group, it's hard to disagree: the moderators are professional and responsible, never encouraging drug use and only offering sensible harm reduction advice.
So, what of the future? Sesh Safety has currently been integrated into one of Dan's old groups, "Pill Reports". It's got 12,000 members – which is a start. To circumvent Facebook’s moderators, they have resorted to writing the names of drugs backwards, or using lesser-known colloquialisms. It’s a vaguely ludicrous situation, but "people will have to adapt", says Dan. In the long-run, he’d love to see Sesh Safety have its own group IRL, or partner with an established harm reduction organisation. Personally, he's going back to university to study mental health nursing and wants to focus on substance misuse.
Facebook recently said it's changing the way it works to suit more person-to-person connections, because "when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being". Tell you what else is good for our well-being: access to information that keeps you safe when you're doing drugs. A real progression for Facebook would be to work with these kinds of groups, not delete them altogether.