Why abstinence-only drug education doesn’t work—in fact, it backfires spectacularly.

I talked to a lot of middle-class recreational drug users for my research. None of them had any idea when they were younger that they’d end up dropping acid on a regular basis when they became successful adults. Very few of them grew up in explicitly drug-positive environments, or even around healthy drug using behaviours. Some, in fact, experienced trauma caused by family alcoholism. (One person, Brad, who did grow up with parents who used recreational drugs, actually ended up adopting a teetotalling stance until age 30 as his form of rebellion1: “My parents were really disappointed. They genuinely were like, ‘Brad we’re really worried about you, you’re not gonna try drugs?'”)

Everyone I talked to remembered being taught anti-drug messages in school, and many were staunchly against drug use themselves as teenagers and young adults.

Dave: I had basically not even smoked weed at that point in my life. The only thing I’d ever done was drink alcohol. I was like, OK, I’ll have a drink, but like, I will not do drugs. I’m not going to throw my life away.

Adam: I was one of those people who years ago, I would have told you, no, I would never do those drugs, drugs are bad, drugs kill people.

So why, then, did they change their minds and start experimenting with consciousness alteration?

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Everything is fair game for an anthropologist’s office. You should see my hilarious collection of Far Side comics.

There was a really interesting pattern that came up in discussions of this topic. Without exception, every time I asked a person if they remembered anti-drug education in school, I would be met with the same reaction: a smile and a laugh. They would reminisce on how ridiculous scare tactics are as an educational strategy, chuckling as they remembered advertisements cracking brain-eggs into a frying pan or portraying the average drug user as a person with, as Ella put it, “your teeth falling out, skin all scaly and whatnot”. (“I actually watch those ads on YouTube sometimes because I just think they’re funny,” said Mandy.) They really are pretty funny. I have a “Reefer Madness” poster in my office, partly as a reminder of the messed-up, racist origins of North American drug policy and how that “Danger Will Robinson” paradigm continues today, and partly because it’s hilarious. When drug users laugh at this kind of scare tactic, the laughter comes not only from the ironic awareness that anti-drug education clearly did not work for them, but from the knowledge of how incredibly sensationalized and counterproductive it is in general.

The funniest part is this: Often, drug users talk about how, after being bombarded by frightening images of the worst possible effects of drug use, those internalized messages would actually backfire and have the exact opposite effect of their intention when they ended up trying illegal drugs for the first time. When none of the doomsday predictions come true after their first few times, users are left questioning the accuracy of all of the narratives they’d been given about drugs—including important ones about actual potential dangers.

Eleanor: They do all these anti-drug campaigns, and then you like, smoke weed for the first time. And then you’re like, oh it wasn’t even bad, and you’re like, OK now they’re lying.

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Because “You’ll probably dance a lot, hug all your friends and then maybe have a light headache in the morning” isn’t going to terrify the youth.

The only narratives about drug use offered in an educational context are negative and completely over-the-top. When these narratives fail to prevent use, they’re promptly rejected as incongruent with the actual, real experience of being high. A lot of people are underwhelmed, even, after all the drama and hype around illegal drugs. (Fun fact: Your odds of seeing flying purple elephants on a starter dose of magic mushrooms are pretty low.)

Bobby is a 30-year-old raver from Toronto with an impeccable memory and a sweet disposition. He told me about how, when he was just starting to explore the scene, the stigma he had associated with drug users due to educational scare tactics was challenged when he found out that a good friend of his used illegal drugs. This change in perspective in turn caused him to decide to try them himself.

Bobby: I thought about it for a while before I decided to actually do it. And really the main reason I did it was, my best friend at the time—who I went to high school with and spent most of my time around at that time—him and I started going out, he kind of pulled me into the club scene with him. And then, I didn’t even realize it at the time until after a few months, I somehow found out that he’d been doing ecstasy the whole time and I never even knew about it.

In coming to learn that, that’s when I realized, oh okay, maybe drugs aren’t so bad and evil like I was taught, you know. Like as a kid, that’s what we were all taught. I expected this big change in someone and they’d just turn into this person, you know, this evil person, and I didn’t see that, so I was actually kind of shocked and surprised, like really? I didn’t believe him, and he said ‘yeah, I’m on it right now’. And I said oh, okay, well, what does it feel like? And he started telling me more, and I guess gears started turning in my head, and I got curious about it.

And I did a bit of reading and stuff, you know, I Googled it, just to learn some more information, in order to make an informed decision, I guess. So then, yeah, on New Year’s I decided that would be the first time to do it, I waited long enough. So that was the first street drug that I took.

meth

Drug negativity and sex negativity all in one fear-mongering package! Two stigmas for the price of one!

However, from I think age 14 or 15 I was medicated with Ritalin and then Concerta and then Dexedrine. So I guess I had already established some sort of ongoing drug usage.2

But then, what is there to replace those scary life-ruining narratives with? If they’re wrong about pot or ecstasy, what other lies have they told? What else is out there? Curious, bright-eyed little budding drug users are left with nothing to guide them except information from other users and their own personal experimentation. And that’s where problems start. Unchecked experimentation without informed guidelines and boundaries is the main source of bad drug experiences, especially when constrained by access only to unregulated substances (looking at you, prohibition. Man you are just the absolute worst).

Without being armed with any sort of accurate, balanced information about drugs, safe usage or harm reduction, inquisitive experimenters are left to find out for themselves about harms and benefits, relying on their peers and on their own process of trial-and-error to discover a more rounded picture of the world of psychoactive substances. And since not everyone knows about Erowid, you can imagine what kind of ridiculously preventable crap can happen when ‘figuring it out as you go along’ is how it’s done. “Oops, okay, so apparently you shouldn’t re-dose GHB if it’s been less than an hour since your first dose. Too bad I found that out the hard way, by puking on my friend’s shoes and passing out in the middle of a Bassnectar concert. Would have been nice to know beforehand.”

This trial-and-error is a process that often causes damages that could have been be easily avoided had they had access to balanced information about drugs in the first place, framed by a critical-thinking orientation and informed by attention paid to all aspects of drugs’ place in human life: good, bad and neutral. It also—this is where we get into the really controversial stuff—might be preventing a lot of people from experiencing significant benefits from some drugs, especially psychedelics and MDMA.

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Don’t do drugs, k gotcha. I can still get wasted on jager though, right? Alcohol’s not a drug.

Scare tactics might prevent some teenagers from trying psychoactive substances, but they leave those who do end up trying them woefully unprepared. Sound familiar? It’s because we’ve already accepted that abstinence-only education is a gigantic, steaming pile of failure when it comes to sex. Sex is an unavoidable part of life, teenagers included, despite what the puritans would like to believe. But guess what–today, right now, in our culture, drugs are an unavoidable part of life too. The odds are extremely good that you’re under the influence of a drug right now. My guess would be caffeine, especially if it’s morning when you’re reading this. Maybe it’s the evening, and you were sipping a glass of wine as you scrolled around Facebook and saw this post. Only you know what’s in your medicine cabinet. Drugs are such a normal part of life that we barely even remember the fact that most of us take them all the time.

Ignoring this fact is either a significant oversight in health education, or a conscious choice to leave those dirty, deviant experimenters who are curious about drugs to fend for themselves. This might make sense, in some cold, heartless neoliberal way, if human beings didn’t have a pretty clear universal desire to both alter our consciousness and experience pleasure. Either we find a way to get rid of that desire (HAH), or we need to acknowledge reality and have a conversation about what to do next.

“The reluctance to acknowledge research findings which show that experimental drug use is a normal part of adolescent development and that it may in fact improve psychological health, prevents genuine reform of abstinence-based drug education” (Keane 2003:229).

Is it time for education based on moderation and information, then, instead of prohibition and abstinence? This is the stance that public education in Canada takes on sex education, and we know it works far better than abstinence-only education. The idea of allowing young people to make their own, even informed, choices about their bodies is one that doesn’t sit well with many policymakers or parents. It makes them grimace and squirm and protest. However, the fact is that these choices are being made by young people regardless of the lack of information they have to making those choices with. The current strategy of leaving youth uninformed or even deliberately misinformed in the hopes that they abstain from drugs (many of which aren’t even harmful unless they’re consumed improperly) is, quite frankly, immoral.

Let’s treat teenagers with some respect, instead of thinking that lying to them is going to protect them from the world.

Please share this, or start a conversation, with anyone you know who is reasonable enough to accept that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, but might not have realized that about drug education too.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro


1 A longer interview excerpt from that story, because it’s hilarious:

Brad: My parents were rock and rollers. My rebellion was spreadsheets, computers and math, and you know, getting a job.
Hilary: [Laughs]
Brad: I got a mortgage at 21, and I didn’t even have a beer until I was 30.
Hilary: Were your parents disappointed?
Brad: They were really disappointed. They genuinely were like, “Brad we’re really worried about you, you’re not gonna try drugs?”
Hilary: [Laughing] Seriously?
Brad: Yeah. And that’s because I was on the path to becoming a miserable square. Like, didn’t live. Didn’t party. Didn’t have fun. And that’s, I mean, I was a workaholic, through my twenties. That’s all I did. So I’m kind of going through my twenties now. Kind of backwards.

2 Note that Bobby’s last comment is a great example of the legal/illegal conflation of what is or is not considered a ‘drug’.

 

A state of trance: Inner peace rising from chaos

The experience of getting inside Sound Academy for Armin van Buuren was the low point of the night.

After an evening of rain and dancing at the electronic music festival Digital Dreams in Toronto, we’d somehow made it across town to finally experience the king of trance live. While waiting in line, I learned something interesting: the reason the bouncers take their sweet time checking IDs is because they have incentive to keep people waiting. The bribe to get inside without waiting is called a “line bypass” and that night they were charging $40 per person. What really shocked me, though, was that the people in line behind us were actually considering paying it.

Armin.

Armin.

When we finally got past the first step, the bag-searching girls were seriously pissed off at life. They were lined up in two rows of three, with a seventh girl ushering people forward from the lineup. “Next! Next! …NEEEEXT!” one of them yelled angrily. “Hey, nicely!” the usher in front called back, looking just as annoyed. The woman who searched my bag almost didn’t let me in with my own medication. “This can’t come in,” she said, squinting at the orange bottle. “It’s my own medication, with my name on it… My legal prescription,” I emphasized to her incredulously, when she still didn’t give it back. She looked at me, examined it, then tossed it back into my bag. She took my sealed bag of cookies and a half empty bag of cashews. “Does anyone want any cashews?” I called back to the line. Big mistake. The ladies were pissed. “We don’t have time for this shit!” one said. When she realised that I had not one, but two (very small) bags to search, she let out a noise indicating her thorough disgust for how difficult I was apparently making her job. She stuck her hands underneath my bra through my shirt, and I was glad I had stashed my single precious electrolye tablet in my pants. (They’re called Nuuns, like portable, bottle-cap-sized Gatorade tablets. I’d only brought one inside a ziploc, but my suspicion that they would have taken it away was confirmed by this thorough shake-down.) My partner Diego said they made him dump out his Platypus and gave his junk a good squeeze. To their credit, at least they were getting people in as quickly as possible. I suppose this efficient, grabby circus is still better than waiting even longer.

It was 1 am by the time we got in. But it was worth it. Oh my, was it ever worth it.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

Armin was incredible. That was the first thing I noticed as my eyes adjusted to the flashing lights. I could feel the music shaking the floor and my brain. I was surprised at how gigantic Sound Academy was inside. The light show was a nonstop onslaught in time with the beat; the strobes were even a bit too bright for my tastes.

It was very, very hot in there, especially once we started dancing. I eventually took my shirt off and danced in just my bra and zebra tights, joining the hundreds of other men and women who’d done the same. It’s a beautiful thing, being in a place where a girl can take her top off and nobody bats an eye, aside from maybe a concurring high-five or two from the also-shirtless around her. The PLUR ethos notwithstanding, slut-shaming and misogyny is rampant in some darker parts of the electronic music scene, especially online. Every single woman I’ve talked to has shared negative experiences about their comfort, and sometimes safety, at some point. There are some events at which I would never consider taking my shirt off, even if it felt like we were dancing on the surface of the sun (which it often does). Even just dancing on my own sometimes draws uncomfortable attention from leering, droopy-lidded eyes, though I should note that happens significantly less in electronic music-focused environments than in regular clubs. But here, it didn’t matter. The connections with the real world of social cues and self-consciousness were cut and forgotten inside a sea of sound.

I became lost in the music. I’d been dying to see Armin for years and it was every bit as beautiful as any set I’d heard by him, multiplied by the inimitable sensation of being able to see and feel it and experience it with other people who felt the same way. Later I would find out that this was his second show that same day, the other one being in Ottawa. Which means that he closed out a festival 450km away, got on a plane, flew to Toronto, and went straight to Sound Academy to play. Knowing that, the energy and feeling he put into the show was even more impressive.

Dance 'til you literally need to tape your legs together to keep going.

Dance ’til you literally need to tape your legs together to keep going.

By 2:30 am, three straight days of dancing were screaming from my lower back. I went to sit down against the wall, joining a few others who’d set up camp there. I found a poncho and spread it out on the floor to cover the miscellaneous liquid spills.

“Hi, I’m Karen,” said the girl beside me. She was sitting for the exact same reason. We had one of those great chats where later, you can’t remember exactly what you talked about, just that it was lovely. I do remember that her best friend, who came to sit with us at one point, had blown out her knees—from raving too much. Which is as unbelievably badass as it is shitty. She used something called KT tape to “keep her knees from falling apart”, which I made a note to look into, thinking about how all of my favourite activities are terrible for my knees (hiking, snowboarding, dancing). They already hurt sometimes the morning after a long night.

A guy that turned out to be Karen’s boyfriend came up to her. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Yeah I’m fine,” she reassured him. “My back hurts, I’m just chilling.” He gave her a kiss and walked away. Karen explained that they’d made a check-in plan, where he would come find her at 3 am. She showed me her phone. It was 2:55. The mix of sweetness and responible raving genuinely warmed my heart. (The More You Rave!™)

Karen's diffraction glasses.

Karen’s diffraction glasses.

As I stood up to dance, Karen lent me her diffraction glasses, which turned the lights into an overwhelming kaleidoscope of colours. Now, I’m no good at meditation. I want to be, I really do. But until I get better at it, or my knees give out, there is another way to calm the nonstop onslaught of thoughts and memories and emotions and analysis that cycles from the first drawn breath in the morning until sleep overtakes at night. For myself and many others, the only way to quiet the mental noise is to be immersed in sensory overload, rather than sensory deprivaton. Your eyes are flooded with colour and light, your entire body is an extension of the music that’s being sculpted in real time all around you, and with every person you lock eyes with, you know they’re feeling the exact same thing. There’s an untouchable inner peace that rises out of the chaos, and connects you to others. It’s raw and it’s real, no matter how often it’s dismissed by those who don’t understand it.

* * *

A state of trance.

Toronto Trance Family, representing in the front.

I met Matt, a skinny guy with a very calming presence, in the same spot where I’d met Karen. “So what kind of music do you like?” he asked me. I looked up at Armin from our vantage point on the floor, across a sea of faces, visible through white and pink flashes. He had just mixed “We’re All We Need” by Above & Beyond into his set, officially melting me into a mushy pile of joy. “…Apparently I like trance!” I replied. The smiling, knowing look on his face—eyes closed, hands raised, yet another trance convert—reminded me of a young woman I’d interviewed. She’d told me about going through various different genres of EDM before realising that trance was the one that resonated with her the most. I still don’t have a single favourite genre, but I now have a top three.

Matt was sober that night. “I drew the short straw. I’m DD tonight. But as long as I have trance,” he said as he spread his arms wide to the world of ceaseless movement in front of us, “I’m good.”

Matt’s friends were upstairs. “There’s an upstairs?” I asked. “There is. Grab your husband and I’ll show you.” There were only a hundred or so people up there. Deep Dish, who was almost invisible, was buried in the darkness with people dancing on all sides of him, making him seem like a part of the crowd.

We went outside for some cold air. The view of the Toronto skyline, lit up in the dark sky, was beautiful. The slightest hint of a sunrise was warming the deep blue atmosphere. I didn’t bother to take a photo, figuring stupidly that I’d be back some other time to take it. I wish I had. Some other time will not be that time.

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I would get much better photos if they’d let me bring my damn DSLR into events. But this blurry mess actually captures the essence pretty well.

Back downstairs, a new song came on, and Diego froze and listened for about two seconds. He then ran so fast to the front he left a dusty trail like a cartoon roadrunner. Armin had started remixing the Game of Thrones theme song.

* * *

I tried to keep dancing through my exhaustion, savouring every second of the music. Armin slowed it down, and spoke.

“Many people ask me, what is trance for you,” he said. The lights surrounding him were blue and vibrant.

“Let me show you. If I can.”

A gently rising piano cushioned his words.

“Trance is a feeling.”

Every eye was on him. Even the cheers had died down. I felt Diego’s hand clasp mine.

“Now if you will, please. Raise your hands, and close your eyes.”

A State Of Trance

The music grew stronger as we all raised our hands high. Armin did too. I closed my eyes. A second later, the beat dropped. It was Ferry Corsten/Gouryella’s Anahera.

“Do you feel that?”

Cheers were erupting. I opened my eyes. The guy beside me had tears in his.

“I said Toronto, do you feel that?” LED stars shot from Armin where he stood. Thousands of hands were up in the air, and he was right. This wasn’t something you just heard. You could feel it.

“This… is a state of trance, ladies and gentlemen.”

* * *

It was 4:15 am. We hugged Matt goodbye outside, and talked about interviewing him for my research. “I definitely have lots of stories. Lots of good stories, lots of…” he paused. “Well actually, no bad stories.” I was surprised. “No bad stories?” Matt shook his head and smiled. “They were all learning experiences. Not bad stories.”

The photo I did end up getting of the skyline, on the walk home. Using my shitty, shitty iPhone 4S.

The photo I did end up getting of the skyline, on the walk home. Using my shitty, shitty iPhone 4S.

We walked the muddy 3.5 km to Union Station, refusing to be party to the disgusting system of late-night Toronto cab extortion—they wanted $50 to take us, and would roll up their windows if we asked about putting the meter on. Apparently most of them won’t even take you unless you’re going somewhere well outside of the Toronto core, like Mississauga or Richmond Hill. As we started walking, we watched a couple of guys trying to flag down cabs that would drive right by them. I had a flashback to scenes I’d seen in shows of black guys in New York not being able to get cabs. It was eerily familiar, though I’m pretty sure these cabbies didn’t care that they were black—they just knew that if these two guys were willing to walk away from the club, they weren’t willing to pay the outrageous fees.

It took us an hour to walk to Union. We got directions from a guy on the side of the road who looked like he had no good reason for loitering underneath the Gardiner at 5 am on a Monday. It was a rough walk. We were thirsty, hungry and exhausted. It felt like being on a hiking trip, at the end of a long day when you’re still not close to your campsite and have no choice but to keep going. My brain was full of happiness, but my body was hanging by a thread. A few other people were walking home too. We walked for a bit with another couple, all of us too tired to say very much, but feeling the same glow.

As I waited by the bus stop at Union Station for my partner, who went to find us some food, I lay down on a low concrete wall behind a bench, drinking water and watching a building slowly turn pink with reflected sunrise. The windows were wiggling and the walls were bending. I could still hear music in my head. The sight of ­Diego walking back from his long journey to the train part of Union was like a bolt of sunrise warming my face. It might have been the worst bagel I’ve ever had, but it was food. Seagulls crowded around to grab at our fallen crumbs.

Off camera: The pink building.

Off camera: The pink building.

The bus left at 5:50 am. As soon as it pulled up, I was hit with a strong need to pee, but it was too late. We spent the whole ride reminiscing, snuggling, and talking nonstop. We were glad that we’d taken our chatty selves all the way to the back of the bus, away from the silent and tired early-morning commuters. Diego told me about how he’d run into a group of guys inside Union while he was getting us food. They’d also been at Sound Academy, but didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest of us because “there were no girls!” The idea of boner-blinders strong enough to make a person oblivious to the magic happening between Armin and the crowd was astounding. Not to mention, they could have chosen a less expensive event if they were just trying to pick up.

A terrible shot of an amazing sunrise on the bus ride home.

An amazing sunrise on the bus ride home frames an amazing billboard.

At 6:30, the bus dropped us off and I immediately ran down a hill to pee behind a tree. The people from the bus could probably see me, about which I gave absolutely zero fucks. My bladder hurt. Twenty minutes later, home and exhausted, I stuffed a bunch of chips and tzatziki in my mouth and fell asleep with my clothes still on.

I didn’t wake up until 7 pm. But I woke up smiling.

Note: All names have been changed. These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. My ideas and assumptions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective.

Thanks to Saruj Patres, who posted a video of Armin’s speech on Toronto Trance Family facebook page. I went on there the next day, hoping that someone had captured it, and he did.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

Field Notes: This data collection is interfering with my dancing.

The following is a selection of some of the more entertaining notes from my first official field research night. (The last post was a preliminary getting-a-feel-for-things outing.) I took out a lot of the reflections and will be putting those into a separate post. If any real anthropologists are reading this… Forgive the crude and candid nature of these notes. I have never been able to maintain the illusion that I am above using words like “clusterfuck”. I see no point in censoring my notes before the real analysis has begun in earnest. I’m sure that buried deep somewhere in Margaret Mead’s field notes, she talks about sick beats and squashing everyone’s buzz. She just didn’t have social media outlets to gloriously rip down the curtain that obscures the raw unfiltered human idiocy from which eventually crawls coherent insight.

Whether or not it’s a good idea, it’s happening.

For the same reason that motivates most of my decisions. Because it amuses me.

* * *

Hey, it wasn't me who said it.

Neo-tribalism in action.

Arrival: 12:30 am. After a clusterfuck of ridiculousness involving forgetting my ID. They wouldn’t let me in. I had to go back to the house to get my passport. I should be happy that they’re being strict about IDs, but right now it’s just a pain in the ass.

Bathroom attendant is a black Caribbean woman. Again. What is up with this town? It makes me super uncomfortable since 90% of the partiers are white. A girl came up and asked her, “can I sneak a piece of that gum?”

“Tip,” she said flatly.

“Ahhh…” The raver walked away. I made eye contact with the bathroom attendant and she rolled her eyes. “I guess she didn’t want it that bad,” I said.

I can already tell that the bathroom is gonna be a gold mine for overheard conversations. If I’m only listening it’s not unethical right? I’m peeing, I can’t close my ears.

Coat check guy liked my shirt. Friendly. Though a guy once told me that any time a guy compliments your shirt, he’s actually complimenting your tits. He was really nice though so it didn’t seem offside.

The Uniform: Girls in short shorts. Guys in tanks or shirtless. Lots of hats. Reminds me of Thailand.

I’m more worried about my bag than I should be considering everyone in here is probably wealthier than I am.

Holy shit this DJ is really good! Frank Walker?

Dude with LED finger gloves! Ha haaaaa! I love his face, his enthusiasm!

I really will need better ear plugs. Fuck it’s loud in here. It also reeks of weed which is always oddly comforting, even though I don’t smoke anymore.

Second finger glover. This one is definitely high. He’s really working one girl. Do they use these things to get laid?

3LAU!

3LAU kills it.

1:00 am

I can literally feel the heat emanating from the guys beside me. It’s like standing next to an oven.

More men than women here for sure. There’s a group of shirtless dudes dancing together. Gay? Bros? Who knows?

Guy in a giraffe mask. Love it. He is loving it too. I feel like a douche not dancing right now and writing things on my phone.

There’s a guy trying to catch my eye. I guess he didn’t notice my engagement ring. I just want to talk to him about my topic. …Ethical? Can I smile at him on to make contact, even though I know he’s trying to flirt? Use my female-ness to my advantage, since it’s not my goddamn fault that so many men have zero interest in making a genuine connection with another human being unless she’s DTF? I didn’t make the system and I don’t like it, but can I still work within it?

Ohhhhh 3lau. It’s really fucking hot in here. But 3LAU. Amazing beats. “London… I have a lot of Canadian friends who tell me that you guys party the hardest!” (He could say that everywhere, but London, ON is actually pretty well known as a party town.)

SERIOUSLY THIS DATA COLLECTION IS INTERFERING WITH MY DANCING. …OK that double shot kicked in pretty quick. That’s enough for tonight.

Sweaty muscley beef guy just sold some drugs behind me. I want to ask what but for several reasons I won’t.

How the fuck does everyone know and agree when a particularly sick beat is happening? I was getting so pumped up because it was awesome. And somehow everyone else’s tastes were the same. How much influence do we have on each other?

It’s so hot in here and I’m not even on MDMA. I can’t imagine how brutal it feels for everyone who is. This has to be… [interrupted by a guy telling me to get off my phone] I am squashing everyone’s buzz with my seeming phone obsession. Should have brought my shirt.

Research uniform. It's come in handy.

My t-shirt brings all the participants to the yard.

1:37 am

Made friends! Lewis*, who was the one to tell me to get off my phone, introduced me to everyone as “This is Hilary! She’s here on her own!” Which made me very popular. They all seem to just absolutely love how badass I apparently am for coming on my own at the last minute. Girls probably don’t do that too often. But because of it they’ve welcomed me into their group. Really friendly of them.

There’s a guy walking around with a folding fan, cooling people down with a big smile. This man is a best friend machine. I love him.

Guy says to me: “I know a guy who did that (mushrooms all the time) and now he’s retarded.” …..OK

Random people are still getting mad at me for using my phone. The night is supposed to be about getting away from the tech-obsessed, alienated world – me on my phone is like an affront to the rave ideals, it’s almost rude, indicating that I’m not as into the music and the atmosphere as everyone else. I might have to keep my phone usage on the floor to a minimum, and move to the side to take notes. Though Lewis decided that my research was an acceptable excuse.

Offered MDMA a couple times by guys in the group I’m hanging out with. Being offered in this context is really a nice gesture, truly – reminds me of the joke saying, “if a stranger offers you drugs, say thank you – drugs are expensive.”

“I’m gonna have to drink a Culligan jug tomorrow” – Lewis. He is indeed sweating so much he looks like he just climbed out of a lake.

A girl bumped into a guy and knocked his beer all over him. She started to apologize, but he smiled and said “no worries” and offered it to her! I’ve found Rave Jesus.

To break the ice, it always goes:
First question: “Are you having a good night?”
Second question: “What’s your name?”
Guys shake hands, girls hug – though this might be me taking the lead on the second one. I like hugs.

“Are you studying me right now?” Asked sort of jokingly but also hard to answer because, well, yes. Surely this is a question encountered by lots of anthropologists – need to get feedback on how to answer it.

Girl in the bathroom: “I’m never wearing jeans to a rave again!”

Accepted a paper towel from the bathroom lady. Awkwaarrrrdddd. I put a dollar in her jar.

2:25 am

I need a dancing break. Geez, I’m not even taking my own advice. I need electrolytes!

Gotta get in touch with those Colombian girls! Rave scene in Colombia? Anywhere else in Latin America?

I really need to work on my courage. I feel too shy to talk to bartenders or the bathroom attendant but they’d have lots of great insights.

3LAU: “For stealing my London virginity, this was awesome!” I love it when DJs are just as into the vibe as the crowd is.

After telling a guy that I’m an anthropologist: “Oh yeah, I went to see that T. rex in Alberta!” What I thought: …Sigh. Yeah I study dinosaur bones. At raves. Man, not all anthropologists are archaeologists, but archaeologists don’t even study dinosaur fossils, that’s palaeontologists! What I actually said: “Oh awesome!”

I should ask my optometrist if all these lasers are bad for my eyes. Lol.

Light finger guys who gave me a show… Wanted to ask more about it, why they do it etc. (pretty sure I have some ideas but still), but it felt like it would ruin the spontaneous experience to start digging into it, to bring the implicit shared bond out into the open. Once again this applies to so many little social situations… Saying it out loud changes everything, like explaining a joke, or pointing out that someone’s flirting.

4 am

When the music was over I went around looking at the garbage to see what kinds of leftover drug baggies were littered around. One of the guys cleaning up got excited when I told him about my project. “You looking for drugs? There’s lots! I’ll help you find them!” We swept the place for tiny ziplocs. He got an idea when I told him I had a test kit, and ran away and came back with some white powder crumpled up in tinfoil. “It’s a prescription drug from Russia we got online!” he said. We chatted about ‘cocoa puffs’ and how dealers put cocaine in weed to get you ‘hooked’. I’m not sure I believe it. Need to ask around.

I called out to the crowd leaving: “If anyone lives off Richmond, I have two spots in my car, I’m sober, I can drive you home.” No takers. One guy yelled out “STRANGER DANGER!” Hah. I’m both affronted and strangely proud of their reaction. Good little ravers, dont accept rides from strangers! Except when its a clearly sober woman. Enjoy your $30 taxi.

Drove Lewis and his friend home. He tried to invite me in. Lol no. “Nah I’m good.”

Going home. So tired. This research is really gonna mess with my sleep schedule. It’s also gonna be really fucking expensive. Gotta plan ahead so I can email events beforehand and tell them I’m researching harm reduction, maybe get in free. Maybe.

*Not his real name.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

Eat, sleep, anth, repeat: It begins

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.

Bangarang.

Dancers come out to wave giant glowing balls around for some reason during Sensation in Toronto.

“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. 


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro