Harm reduction in recreational settings

When we hear the term “harm reduction,” we often think of supervised consumption services, needle exchanges or clean crack pipes. These are all important, life-saving measures, but is there a way harm-reduction can be applied to more casual substance users, such as the student who takes MDMA at a music festival, or the guy who likes to have a few beers after work or on the weekend?

About 15 years ago, I moved to Victoria from a small town in northern Canada to go to university. Almost immediately, I was introduced to the electronic music community. Soon, I was spending many a weekend dancing the night away at bush parties, sweaty halls or cramped basements. The scene was vibrant, welcoming and offered opportunities to experience all kinds of new things—including drugs I had never heard about before. Suddenly, I was seeing people ingest things with names I couldn’t spell or pronounce. I had a lot of questions: what did these drugs do? Where did they come from? Were they safe?

Luckily, there was an easy way to get some answers. At almost every one of these parties, there was a booth decked out in Christmas lights and beaded bracelets. A hand-painted banner was draped across the front that read “IslandKidz.” Modeled after the Dancesafe movement emerging around the same time in the U.S., the booth and its tireless volunteers were on hand to give out balanced information on various substances, hand out safe sex supplies, test pills or powders for adulterants, or just be a sober person to talk to if you were feeling overwhelmed or needed a safe space. They weren’t there to condone or condemn you for using drugs; it was your choice, and they believed you had the right to accurate information in order to make an informed decision.

An old photo of the IslandKidz booth in action.
An old photo of the IslandKidz booth in action.

I couldn’t believe that a service like this existed. (And, it turns out, we were lucky to have it; many other similar organizations weren’t able to operate with the relative ease that IslandKidz did at the time.) It made me feel empowered and respected, not vilified or dismissed—as many in that subculture often felt, whether they chose to use drugs or not. I didn’t know it then, but this would be my first encounter with harm reduction—and it would be far from my last. I would eventually end up volunteering for IslandKidz, driving down countless logging roads and spending many a late night chatting with partiers, handing out info flyers, and scraping mystery pills to see what they might contain.

Harm-reduction organizations like this appear to be making a comeback these days; look at groups like Karmik in Vancouver, ANKORS in the Kootenays, DanceSafe across the U.S., or Toronto’s TRIP Project. But they are far from the only harm-reduction measure trying to reach recreational substance users. In this series, we will hear about a website offering safer-use limits for illicit drugs developed by users themselves, a report that became a touchstone for almost every media article on festivals this summer, and some advice on ways to possibly avoid “bad” ecstasy. We hope these pieces help expand your idea of what harm reduction can be.


amanda photo

Author: Amanda Farrell-Low, Research Assistant, Centre for Addictions Research of BC

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC

Film-based Classroom Resource Lets Teens Open Up About Cannabis, Choices and Consequences

The Cycles logo

“The film encourages students to come to their own conclusions about marijuana use through showing a variety of situations rather than just ‘telling them how to think.”—Teacher

….the video stimulates conversation because it is so powerful. So in all honesty the video did most of the work and I just kept the conversation going, changing its direction when needed and appropriate and prompting where I could.”—Substance use counselor

Teens need opportunities to talk openly and honestly about cannabis (marijuana). This is the thinking behind a new, award-winning classroom resource called CYCLES, developed by researchers at the UBC School of Nursing and based on studies involving youth in three BC communities.

The Cycles logo
Cycles is an educational resource to help engage young people in productive discussions around cannabis use.

The goal of CYCLES is to help engage young people in productive discussions involving decision-making and cannabis use. The resource features a locally produced short film (28 minutes) about two fictional high school students and their relationships with cannabis. There is also a facilitator’s guide containing lesson plans, teaching tips, student handouts, and quick facts about cannabis use. Together the classroom materials support self-reflection and dialogue about factors that can influence a teen’s choices to use—or not use—cannabis or any other drug.

Facilitators of the 50-minute module (or longer if a deeper discussion is desired) do not need to be drug experts. Their role is simply to guide a thoughtful class discussion, whether students are experienced with cannabis and its effects or not.

“Meaningful dialogue with young people about marijuana use can translate into informed decision-making,” say the resource’s creators. In other words, talking things out may make frequent users consider cutting down on how often they toke up, and it may delay or deter other students from trying cannabis in the first place.

A recent survey of BC students supports the call for open, non-judgmental conversations in schools about cannabis and other drugs. Teens who are able to discuss such issues with parents, teachers and other adults are more likely to make healthier decisions. Rates of substance use among students have been declining for a decade, says McCreary Centre Society’s 2013 Adolescent Health Survey. The vast majority of students in Grades 7 through 12 said they had never tried cannabis (74%), and many of those with experience reported waiting until they were at least 15 before first experimenting with the drug. Eight percent of students reported using cannabis on the weekend before the survey was taken, down from 12% in 2008.

“Judging young people for their choices regarding marijuana is not helpful,” reads a CYCLES footnote. “Rather, engaging in meaningful discussion contributes to healthy dialogue.”

For more information, check out the CYCLES resource on the CARBC website. While the CYCLES guide is currently published in English only, the video is available with French subtitles. Student worksheets will soon be available in French. A script of the video is also available.

Bodner Nicole-

Author: Nicole Bodner, Centre for Addictions Research of BC

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.