New drug safety course is like sex-ed, but for drugs

New drug safety course is like sex-ed, but for drugs

VicesJanuary 16, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Sexual education teaches you about using condoms for sex. Drivers education teaches you about wearing seat belts for cars. They both help reduce the instances of STDs and car crash deaths. That’s a good thing.

But what about drugs? What about the overdoses, freakouts, bad interactions or psychotic breaks that sometime go hand in hand with illicit narcotics? Who's working to reduce those dangers?

For this, a gallant few are developing a necessary campaign: drug-ed.

The other night in Denver, inside a venue called Deer Pile, on a stage usually filled by singer-songwriters and improv comedy, a couple of volunteers gave a free drug education workshop: part of a growing national trend toward drug safety (often called ‘harm reduction’). It's a realistic approach recognizing that, just as people are going to have sex, drive and do other risky things, so too are they going to do drugs, whether they ought to or not.

The educators on this particular night are named Kristin Karas and Jacob Tobey. Karas is manager of health communications and programs with DanceSafe, a safety coalition that often has pop-up tents at EDM shows to test drugs on the spot or hand out pamphlets about safety. Tobey volunteers with the Zendo Project, which acts like a ‘babysitter’ of sorts at big hippie music festivals for people having a bad trip. On stage, they tell stories of people seriously losing their minds on drugs. They also gave Powerpoint presentations to an audience of about 20 — teaching them how not to get too messed up when they're getting messed up.

It really felt remarkably like sex-ed. Remember that? It’s where the school nurse used to say, basically, "We don't recommend having sex until you're ready. And don't sleep with needle-sharing sex workers in Swaziland. But if you decide to do that, use a condom, and get tested regularly."

In the same vein, Karas spent the night saying, "We don't condone or condemn drug use" — but if someone is going to use drugs, they should research and read and follow advice. "The Internet exists for a reason," she added.

The talk was both wildly exciting (because you're talking about something taboo) and incredibly boring (because there are few things more vanilla than safety). Oddly (or maybe not), someone there was selling drug testing kits out of a backpack too, the way sex-ed classes used to give away free condoms.

Samantha and Tyler Prock, a husband and wife couple there, who claimed to have done 21 acid and 5 DMT trips last year, came to the drug-ed meeting for an education that's hard to come by. They were there because they had been through both good and bad drug experiences.

"You can get PTSD from a bad trip," Samantha, 28, told me. "But," added Tyler, 31, "you could also get over PTSD with a good trip."

The speakers gave practical advice. The basics include:

Test your drugs before you take them. "If you can afford an 8-ball of blow," Karas said, "you can afford a drug testing kit." (They're only around $60, she said.) Otherwise, you might be taking cow dewormer.
Start small.
Be in a safe environment.
Be emotionally stable.

Tobey added that, if one of your friends does freak out, remember:

Talk them through it, not out of it. You can't convince someone not to be messed up on drugs, just like you can't talk someone out of being drunk. Don't try. Help them accept the anxiety as a real feeling.
Difficult is not the same as bad. Know that some people learn from their freakouts.
Don't be afraid to take a rescue medicine. He said antipsychotics, especially Risperidone, are the best. But check with a medical professional first, by calling an emergency room. 
Never be afraid to call 911.

Though getting more common, giving drug-ed talks like these is still socially risky. Huge majorities of Americans still think most drugs — except alcohol, tobacco and marijuana — should be illegal. (Only about 10 percent of us think LSD or MDMA should be legal.) One nurse at the talk refused to reveal her name because she worries about losing her job, she said — just for being at a meeting like this. At her hospital, the only acceptable thing to tell her patients is: "Just say no." Even when talking about marijuana, a legal drug.

But just saying no isn’t a realistic option anymore. The world of illicit drugs has changed drastically in the past 15 years. After being told for a generation that marijuana kills, the Internet now tells us that marijuana cures anxiety and cancer.

"The world of drugs has gone from 'Just say no' to 'Just say yes,'" said Brigitte Mars, a Boulder educator who also works in drug-ed. "We need a middle ground."

Drug-ed is that first step toward finding a safe and healthy middle ground. At least, as safe as one can be had when dangerous drugs are involved.