Planet Earth (TalkingDrugs) – Gone are the days of furtively Googling “how long does MDMA take to wear off” in the university library whist angling your computer so that no one else can see the screen. And the familiar, daunting sensation of scrolling through a forum discussion where everyone seems to know far more about drugs than you do, and is sharing stories about the highs and comedowns of a mystery character called “SWIM” (a popular acronym, commonly used with a wink in online forums to chronicle the wide-ranging drug-related experiences of “Someone Who Isn’t Me”).
The technical language and the air of experience that pervades in many drug forums can be very off-putting to a novice: it contributes to a sense that you’ve taken a clandestine peek into another world which can’t be integrated with the off-screen one. A quick glance around at the other people in the library, and you immediately log out, reflecting that drug-taking is, by and large, an unmentionable part of university life.
Enter drugsand.me. Billed as “your harm-reduction guide to safer drug use,” this new resource of safety information about drugs is designed precisely for “me”, and you, and everyone else. It’s for the second-year who never tried any drugs before coming to university, but is becoming increasingly tempted having watched his friends drop regularly throughout their first year, with no apparent adverse effects. It’s for the fresher who’ll happily accept an unknown pill at a party but “doesn’t want anything about drugs on her internet search history.”
I spoke to the brains behind drugsand.me about their motivations for creating the site, and the impact that they hope it will have on student drug-taking behaviour.
Pablo Lubroth and Gabriel Hirschbaeck have been friends since their schooldays. Pablo realised there was something amiss with the UK’s harm reduction landscape when he began studying pharmacology at UCL in 2013, which they remember as “the year lots of people were dying from PMA that had been mis-sold as MDMA.”
Gabriel studies Computer Science at CEU in Madrid. So their brainchild, a website which takes a scientific approach to drugs, is a perfect blend of their interests. They co-founded the site with Ivan Ezquerra Romano, who is taking his MSci in Neuroscience. Arthur Sebag, who studies biomedical sciences, and Sean Kelly, who studies Law at King’s College, London, make up the rest of the team.
First impressions of London university life? Each member of drugsand.me grew up or spent significant parts of their teenage years abroad, mostly in Spain and Switzerland, where harm reduction measures like drug testing are well established.
In Spain, for example, the pioneering Energy Control drug checking service has been using the most precise drug testing methods available (liquid/gas chromatography followed by mass spectroscopy) to affirm the safety of drugs for recreational users, both in the post and at festivals, since 1999. So the boys were all individually shocked by the industrial quantities of drugs which British students consume, the gaping lack of corresponding harm reduction initiatives on offer, and their fellow students’ resultant lack of knowledge about differences between various drugs, how to take them and how much to take.
Whilst the UK university drug culture is rampant and risky, it’s also what Ivan describes as “a complete bubble; you don’t see addictions; everyone smokes and drinks but you don’t see any long-term effects of that.” So illicit drug taking, too, feels fairly safe. For exactly this reason, a more widespread knowledge of the effects of these different substances is badly needed.
The homepage of drugsand.me “should immediately look like it’s obvious that students made it,” Gabriel explains. Visiting the site should feel as much as possible like having a chat about drugs with a knowledgeable friend. But, as all the information on the site is sourced from peer-reviewed academic publications, the advice they offer – on cocaine, MDMA, alcohol, cannabis, and now ketamine and LSD – is certainly a cut above a rapid-fire consultation in the loos with your fervently gurning mate who’s “tried it before”.
An example of the site’s interactive feature, allowing users to investigate the risks when mixing different drugs.
The UK’s drug policies have created a situation whereby most Brits (myself included) come from schools and families where knowing as little as possible about drugs is actively lauded and often passed off as positive moral character trait. So it can be deeply confusing when you’re spat out onto a dancefloor where everyone is drinking alcohol as though actively chasing oblivion, while simultaneously experimenting with illegal drugs.
When it comes to illegal drugs, we’re taught to fear foremost for our legal safety, rather than our physical wellbeing. But these fears seem unfounded when one’s peers take drugs surreptitiously, with recurrent success.
The sense of having gone off script is compounded by the fact that, after you’ve disregarded the tokenistic warnings issued in induction week about drugs being “strictly forbidden on campus property,” there’s no readily available drugs advice. Alcohol is consumed to excess with no evaluation of its health-risks because it’s legal, and, alongside this, a social microclimate tacitly develops, in which it’s acceptable to take other drugs, but not to talk about them.
True to its promise of welcoming first-time users with no prior knowledge base, the site opens with a quick definition of harm reduction, and how it intends to reduce drug-related harms:
“drugsand.me is an educational website that teaches about the existing harm reduction methods for drug users. We do not promote drug use, but we do encourage you to be safe if you are thinking of taking any kind of drug. This website was inspired by the thousands of deaths that occur in the UK due to the lack of correct drug education.”
The team were quick to point out that other resources do already exist, but do not fit the target audience of their project. They insisted that Talk to Frank, the government’s drug education service, is “too biased”. While the Erowid website, a brilliant carefully-curated mine of information, “can be a rabbit hole”; if you’re looking up a drug with a rich cultural history and a panoply of possible effects, like LSD, a search would yield vast, bountiful vaults of information.
Bluelight is excellent if you want to interact with others, but the drugsand.me team points out that, “for someone thinking about trying a drug,” anecdotal evidence isn’t always relevant or helpful. If you’re planning your first experience with a hallucinogen, you don’t want to get sucked into reading a description of someone’s acid trip from hell in 2013.
So drugsand.me is something new: impartial and accessible.
They chose to focus their first guides on alcohol, cocaine, cannabis and MDMA because they were “the four drugs that were most prevalent” at their universities. “Initially, we looked at Erowid and DrugScience and tried to marry the two.”
As well as a beautiful new aesthetic by Meaghan Li, the latest incarnation of the site boasts harm reduction guides for more drugs: the guide to ketamine is contributed by Miranda Heneghan, whilst their forthcoming psychedelics guides on LSD and psilocybin draws on information from the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme’s neuroimaging studies on the classic psychedelics, as well as input from the Beckley Foundation’s Science Officer Dr Anna Ermakova.
“The UK binges like nobody’s business, so we really wanted to make the point that alcohol is a drug,” explains Pablo. In the comparison to the rest of the substances on drugsand.me, alcohol is relatively harmful, so it’s worth finding its interactions with the others. Luckily, you can do so very easily by consulting the interactive “Interactions” feature. It’s a particularly excellent tool for checking any of the drugs against another, and it’d be a good idea to use it before a festival, or in any other situation where several drugs are likely to be taken in combination.
“Alcohol aside, the UK has 38% of the total drug-induced deaths in Europe,” says Gabriel. Clearly, it’s high time we talked and thought about drugs, at least as much as we take them.
Feedback so far? Online, drugsand.me has been widely praised by academics working in both drug science and policy. The boys also report a hugely positive reception from peers, who have started to seek advice, and to talk about drugs more intelligently and openly; it’s all about creating a culture of mindfulness and discussion.
This project has been launched at the perfect time. Students have been primed to be receptive to a scientific safety resource such as drugsand.me by the activism efforts of Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK.
The case for drug policy reform is continuing to gain speed in the UK; this summer, The Loop were permitted to engage in drug testing at music festivals, and a new drug policy innovation hub – VolteFace – is becoming a pivotal player in heightening the visibility of the movement.
drugsand.me are excited to see that “more and more people are getting involved in trying to change the way we talk about drugs.” A warm welcome to this user-friendly, thoughtful and potentially life-saving resource!
This report prepared by Rosalind Stone for TalkingDrugs.