Sunglasses in the darkness. White shorts, no shirt. Perspiration shining on his skin in the wild, flashing lights. A familiar-looking backpack on his shoulders, strapped over his muscular chest. I used to sell those backpacks. I worked at an outdoor gear store for a year and a half—tents, sleeping bags, hiking poles, boots. And Platypus backpacks. They come with water bladders and an attached tube that sits on your shoulder so you can stay hydrated while you’re hiking. “They’re amazing,” I used to tell customers, and I meant it. “You don’t have to keep stopping to get out your water bottle.”
The dancing man in front of me took a sip from his pack. “Check it out,” I grabbed my partner and pointed. His eyes widened. He was as delighted as I was. “A Platypus?” We both looked at the water bottles we were holding. Six bucks and they throw away the cap so you can’t easily re-use the same one all night. You have to hold onto it while you dance. Big pain in the ass.
Baggi Begovic was rotating in a circle on the stage in front of us. My ears were drowning in “Call of the Wild”. The bright orange earplugs hidden by my mop of long, sweaty hair were doing a passable job at keeping out the highest amplitudes. But the bass was vibrating my bones. I fist-pumped up to the shirtless raver.
“That is amazing. So smart,” I yelled into his ear. He gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up.
“I know right?!” he yelled back. “I don’t get why everyone doesn’t do this!”
“How did you get it in here?” asked my partner as he joined us. They were searching everyone’s bags at the entrance to the Rogers Centre. Not that well, judging by the pupils of everyone around us. But they were more concerned about liquids, anyway. The event was sponsored by Bud Light. They only sell one kind of drug.
“Just walked right in,” said our new friend, like worrying about security’s sometimes overzealous zero-tolerance policy was naïve of us. “No big deal.” His joyous grin grew even wider as his movements rode the wave of sound washing over us. The beat dropped and he became a one-man riot.
Jackpot. This guy was a pro. My last-minute decision to go casually check out harm-reduction activities at a rave in Toronto was shaping up beautifully.
This summer I’m doing ethnographic field work and interviews for my Master’s on the subject of drug use, harm reduction and EDM (electronic dance music) culture in Toronto. Techniques that ravers use to minimize the potential harm stemming from drug use are varied and inconsistently applied. But they can be found everywhere, in sometimes subtle ways, embedded in behavioural quirks.
From what I’ve learned so far, there seems to be a hierarchy of harm-reduction priorities for party drug users, personalized based on their individual cost-benefit calculation, the norms perpetuated by the people around them, their access to accurate information, and which drugs they use. Since, when it comes to MDMA (and its cathinone variants), dehydration is the main enemy—an equal-opportunity destroyer of one’s precious verticality—water is the key to success. Water is the source of all solutions to the most dangerous potential disasters that lurk behind every too-strong dose. MDMA raises your body temperature on its own while simultaneously making you want to do things to worsen the impact even more, such as dance for hours without a break. At some point, we’re not sure if it was before or after a few sad and media-hystericalized cases of deaths from dilutional hyponatremia (water poisoning), someone figured out that H2O alone wasn’t enough. And as fast as you can say, “Look at those marathoners, do as they do!”—electrolytes got thrown in the mix. Later came vitamin supplements, testing kits, tums, magnesium, 5-HTP, pre- and post-loading, a haphazard mix of urban legends, old wives’ tales and scientific research. Everyone’s trying to make life easier for the noble raver. But let’s not get too crazy. Just getting these adorable bug-eyed dance machines to drink enough water is step one. It’s still the holy grail of MDMA safe practice in the land of harm reduction advocates.
And here, at my first preliminary outing, was a man who was beautifully exemplifying that practice. His scant clothing ensured that he kept as cool as possible. His sunglasses protected him from both the intense laser lights and the scrutinizing gaze of police officers at the event. And having a constant source of water allowed him to stay hydrated and keep dancing for however long he was there at this eight-hour-long event. These techniques to mitigate the negative effects that the drugs he was on (he told me later, MDMA and “a few bumps” of cocaine) could cause was not only about about minimizing harm, but about not letting anything stand in the way of dancing more, dancing harder, and dancing longer.
Note: These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. Real names and specifically identifying features have been changed. My ideas and conclusions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective.
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Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro