Help inform harm reduction in the EDM space

We need your help!

Harm reduction group Energy Control – famous for their international and local drug testing services – have collaborated with Australia’s DanceWize to do some research into safer drug use practices. We will see how drug use patterns and safer use practices differ between Spain and Australia, countries with quite different policy settings.

If you have been to festivals or dance parties recently, please complete the survey and help harm reduction groups understand what’s really happening!

Rainbow Serpent Festival
Rainbow Serpent Festival

Tripping on the Steps of Parliament House

Greg Kasarik will be tripping on the steps of Victoria’s parliament house tomorrow from midday to protest for the rights of all Victorians to legally use Transcendent Compounds for spiritual and religious purposes.

Greg is making an important stand for religious freedom. He is bringing the public’s attention to a lesser understood and acknowledged reason for using psychoactive substances – to gain personal and spiritual insight, and to better understand where we come from and why we are here.

The text below is lifted from Greg’s Facebook event:

At midday on Wednesday 28 November, in celebration of completing two weeks of Hunger Strike 2012, Greg Kasarik will be taking a tab of LSD on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House.

At the commencement of his Hunger Strike Greg had a last lunch of magic mushrooms.

Despite sending out a press release to the television and newspaper news outlets and forwarding a copy to the Premier’s office, cleverly entitled “Mystic Man to Munch Magic Mushrooms in Melbourne’s Marvellous Mall”, precisely nobody turned up.

No media. No Government and certainly no police. This (along with their heroic efforts at pretending we don’t exist: tells me that the Victorian Government knows they don’t have a leg to stand on and that they’d rather simply hope that we all went away.

This is not going to happen and to up the ante a bit, I will be re-enacting my odyssey in the Mall, but this time with a single tab of LSD.

Will anybody care? Will anybody notice? Will the police tazer me to death, or just tell me that my puppy and I can’t sit on the steps after all? Come along and find out!

This isn’t a rally, or anything, as I am doing this as a private citizen and Saasha is doing it as a private dog, but if several thousand people happen to drop by unexpectedly, I certainly won’t complain. 🙂 Feel free to invite anyone who might be interested.

I mean, what else is there to do now university is over for the year?

If you do decide to come along, I’d ask that you dress nicely, cover any tatts and do your best to look presentable in the public eye and behave politely at all times (even if the police do get aggressive). If anything does happen, you can guarantee that the media will be there to observe.

Read more about Greg’s hunger strike and how you can support him.


Last night Episode 4 of Enpsychedelia was released. Along with some other great content, it features an interview with me about the cannabis growers project and other musings on drug policy, the influence of research on government and collective action towards critically evaluating and reforming our drug laws.

You can listen here:

Thanks Nick Wallis for the opportunity. Hope to do it again and looking forward to the next installment.

Drugs and online/offline sociability

Wow it’s been months since I’ve posted. Never fear, I’ve been working away, launching projects and trying to finish off others. Looking forward to writing some dedicated blog posts soon.

In the meantime, an announcement that I’ll be presenting some work from my PhD at VSURF (the Victorian Substance Use Research Forum) next Friday, see below. I’m looking forward to it! 🙂

Date: Friday August 17, 4pm

Title: Drugs and online/offline sociability: Understanding anonymity in an era of media convergence

Presenter: Monica Barratt (NDRI, Curtin University)

Venue: Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, 54 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy

Abstract: Most research about illicit drugs and the internet treats the internet as a tool for consuming and sharing information, delivering interventions, and/or purchasing drugs. In contrast, this paper considers the internet as facilitating multiple ‘online places’ where social interaction occurs, relationships are made and maintained, identities are performed and meanings are negotiated. This paper draws on analyses from a qualitatively-driven mixed-method study of public internet forums where party drugs were discussed by Australians in 2007–08. It outlines the variety of ways that people who use party drugs managed the convergence of online and offline friendship networks and subsequent changes in their drug use practices. In a context of increased media convergence, online anonymity has become more difficult to realise, and new social-media interventions that rely on identified social networks cannot be as easily engaged by ‘hidden’ drug users. ‘Old’ pseudonymous media (e.g., internet forums) may still offer opportunities not afforded by new media forms in the current context of drug prohibition.

My web interview with Release / Talking Drugs

Available here and reposted below with permission.

An Interview with Monica Barratt

Monica Barratt is a Melbourne-based research fellow at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, Australia. Her PhD thesis, which has just been passed, was a mixed-methods study of online drug discussion. Monica is especially interested in how the the internet and other digital technologies intersect with drug use and drug market trends. Follow her at @monicabarratt

Can you describe, in few words, the current Australian legislation on drugs and give us an idea of the history of drug addiction in Australia?

Australia is a signatory to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, which commits countries to a drug prohibition approach. While we have historically prohibited the substances that the US prohibits (e.g., there was no documented cannabis use in Australia when we first prohibited it), we have also at times been ahead of other countries in implementing harm reduction both through services (e.g., needle/syringe exchanges in the 1980s, the medically supervised injecting centre in the 2000s) and through law reform (e.g., various states of Australia have decriminalised cannabis). Similarly to other parts of the world, Australia’s drug policy trajectory is affected by politics. The last 15 years of federal government in this country has been dominated by socially conservative politicians. In some cases, this context has hampered the implementation of harm reduction innovations, although in all cases, government support for vital initiatives such as the provision of clean injecting equipment has continued despite the conservative public rhetoric.

In your PhD thesis, you research the importance and implications of the online drug communities. Can you explain, briefly, the role of the online drug forums and communities in reducing or increasing the risks for young people?

My aim was to explore the role of online drug discussion for the specific sub-group who participate online. I only looked at public internet discussion forums where Australians who used ‘party drugs’ (that is, psychostimulants and hallucinogens) could be found. By examining the data (observations, survey, interviews) through different metaphors of the internet, I demonstrate how the internet is not just a tool through which people learn about drugs, it is also a place where they go and interact with other drug users, and for some, that online place becomes simply a part of their everyday (offline) lives. Using online forums to deliberately find a new social network could result in new avenues of drug supply as well as new networks of harm reduction information. On the whole, I found that the internet and online forums were more often used in order to reduce the harm of drug use and much less often used to directly enhance the drug experience (a practice which may involve increasing drug-related harms, e.g., learning how to take higher doses of a drug in order to increase the effects).

I think it is important to note that there is a specific sub-section of drug users that access and engage with online drug forums. It would be wrong to assume that my PhD findings apply to a more general audience of ‘young people’. Unfortunately for various reasons it took me a while to finish my thesis (any PhD students reading may relate!), so the data were collected in 2007-08, some time ago now. My feeling now is that online drug forums still only appeal to a niche group. However, even though the use of social media (especially Facebook) has increased dramatically since these data were collected, drug forums are still being used which indicates that they offer something people want. One of the advantages identified by my research participants was the ability to remain pseudonymous in online forums and to keep drug discussion separate from day-to-day life. This separation of identities has become more difficult in an age of Facebook and Google where ‘real name’ policies are increasingly implemented.

 In your presentation ‘PMA sounds fun’ you stressed that ‘pleasure and fun’ are often some of the reasons why young people take drugs. Do you think that these feelings are the real feelings expressed behind the urge for drugs, or do they cover other needs and complex feelings that need to be addressed?

Historically, humans (and indeed non-human animals) seek pleasure or positive affect from their activities and from substances. Most drugs, especially those that are popular recreationally, induce a positive state at least to begin with. I think the finding that young people enjoy drug experiences, gain pleasure from them, use them to enhance their social lives, should not really be newsworthy in and of itself if we remember that alcohol is a drug and that most of us can relate to drinking alcohol for pleasure and to enhance our social lives. The reason that it is newsworthy is that the place of pleasure in drugs has been obscured or silenced, perhaps because the presence of pleasure is erased by the pathology or deficit drug discourse, where it is assumed that all (illicit) drug use is a problem and that drug use occurs in response to a deficit either in the individual drug taker or in their environment. The pathology discourse is a dominant mode of thinking about drugs in Australia and internationally, but there are so many examples that challenge it, notably the existence of happy and healthy people who also use (illicit) drugs. This point is encapsulated well in the Release campaign ‘Nice people use drugs’ (which I loved! Thank you Release!). It is also worth noting that the dominant pathology discourse on drugs underlies policies of drug prohibition, so as we challenge this discourse, we bring into focus the potential for drug law reform.

To answer the question more succinctly, yes it is possible that for some people who describe their motivation to use drugs as about pleasure or enjoyment, there are other more complex reasons for their use, and that they may prefer to focus on the positive rather than the negative reasons in their presentation of self. It is also possible that people who say they take drugs for fun really do just take drugs for fun.

Do you believe that the anonymity and ‘pseudonymity’ of the online drug communities is a reflection of the stigma towards drugs and drug use in current societies? Can you expand on this?

The use of pseudonyms in drug forums is a protection against people finding out about the real identity of the individual drug user. Some forum users focused on the importance of avoiding stigma in their daily lives as a major factor whereas others were concerned more about getting into trouble with the law. Interestingly, not all of the people I interviewed who discussed drugs in public online forums were concerned about their privacy or about potential stigma if their friends and family found out about their drug use. Some people, instead of masking their identity, simply ensured that they never spoke about drugs in a way that could incriminate them – that is, they were vague or used coded language when discussing drugs.

I was fascinated by the wide variety of strategies used by drug forum participants to deal with the illegal nature of their activity in their public forum interactions. Given the diversity of responses and actions, we cannot assume that the internet is always valued by drug users due to its facilitation of anonymous communication.

In your presentation ‘Discussing drugs in public internet forums’ you emphasize that internet, technology and society shape each other mutually. What use of the media do you think that public and health policy should make in order to aim at an effective harm reduction strategy?

Good question! The mutual shaping of technology and society is an iterative, dynamic, ongoing process. We need to be careful not to state that technology affects society without also seeing that society affects technology. So, we could conclude that the anonymity afforded by internet forums allows drug users to talk to each other (technology affects society), but it is a crucial point to note that the societal context of drug prohibition sets conditions of stigma and punishment which generate the need for anonymity (society affects technology).

In terms of creating an effective harm reduction strategy, the first point for me is to come back to the participant’s view. From the drug user’s perspective, what are the harms they are experiencing, which harms are important to them, what are the strategies to reduce those harms, what is missing that others can provide that will assist? There is also the type of harm reduction strategy that focuses on the environmental factors, such as providing a safe space for injecting or policies that mandate police do not attend ambulances to encourage people to call for help without fear of prosecution. The internet and especially online drug forums can be useful to obtain the view of people who actually use drugs, by enabling engagement between policy makers and drug users in a safer setting, although as I’ve mentioned before, we can’t assume that online drug forum users represent the wider population. Media can also be used to disseminate campaign messages on a mass scale, but I find these mass media campaigns are generally anti-drug, do not involve any harm reduction, and are not aimed at people who use drugs (they are often put off by such campaigns).

An important emerging area is the use of social media for harm reduction interventions, where campaigns are run through Facebook and Twitter in interactive formats. I think harm reduction agencies should pursue these opportunities to better engage with their clients, especially if they are trying to attract young people into their interventions. In order to do it well though, agencies may need some support and guidance from experienced social media users. For example, in Australia, Hugh Stephens runs Dialogue Consulting, an organisation that specialises in upskilling non-government organisations and others in social media engagement of young people. Honing this skillset will likely be increasingly important for such organisations that work with drugs and young people.

 In assuming that drugs education and information provided on drugs and serious health risks do not stop certain people from taking drugs, to which direction should an effective drug policy turn to? Should the insights of disciplines like psychology and sociology be seriously employed by health and social policies?

Yes, I think health and social policies should be theoretically informed by psychology, sociology, anthropology, social theory, etc. and especially in the context of media and drug policies, these needs to also be informed by media/communications theory. The discipline Internet Studies was really helpful for me in formulating and interpreting my PhD data as it opened up new ways of thinking about how the internet and drugs intersect. I know that it’s not necessarily possible for public policy to access and use the insights from a wide variety of academic disciplines, as often this knowledge is difficult to access and difficult to interpret if you are looking in from the outside! This is one of the reasons I write my blog and post as much as I can in freely available places, but unfortunately there are many barriers to more open access to scholarly content within the system we work in.

To answer the question of which direction effective drug policy should turn to if providing information on drugs and serious health risk does not stop some people from taking drugs… we need to first acknowledge that people who choose to use drugs may be making an entirely informed decision. The assumption that all people will cease drug use if they had adequate information needs to be challenged. Meeting people ‘where they are at’ is a tenet of most counselling approaches. Similarly here, we should ask ourselves ‘why are we trying to stop certain people from taking drugs?’ Some people don’t want to stop. Instead of assuming they just need more information or a scare campaign to make them stop, we can meet them where they are at and ask if there is anything we (as public policy makers, clinicians, drug workers, researchers) can do which may assist them, and be prepared for the possibility that they don’t want our assistance. In my PhD, I found that the vast majority of drug users were interested in knowing how to reduce the harms associated with their use. I also found that there were some drug forum users who seemed to relish danger and risk, and labelled those who were trying to reduce risk as ‘weak’. It is also likely that people care more about reducing risks in some situations and relish danger in others. The problem is that scare campaigns that highlight the dangers of drug use may indeed make drugs more appealing to this latter group. Piloting such campaigns with different groups, or using social media to gauge the different reactions to these campaigns, could be useful tools for evaluation.

 In your opinion, why are more and more young people attracted to substances and what role do consumerism and capitalism play in this tendency?

I don’t agree that ‘more and more young people’ are attracted to drugs. Humans have always been attracted to changing our conscious state, whether through spinning around until we get dizzy as children, or through the ingestion of psychoactive substances. There is no evidence that I am aware of that young people are more attracted to drugs now than they have been in the past… if anything, the surveys in Australia indicate a reduction in drug prevalence, although it is unclear whether drug use has simply become more stigmatised and therefore less likely that people will report it within a survey.

Although I don’t think drug use among young people is increasing, I do think that consumerism and capitalism play a role in the meanings of drug use. We are now living in consumerist societies where our consumption choices are a vehicle for shaping our public selves. What I buy, what I wear, what I eat/drink/imbibe shapes how others see me (my identity), and this identity shifts (or identities shift) through different contexts and across time. Drugs are part of this consumption pattern. As well as their effects on the body, drugs are also symbols – using them in particular contexts identifies the user as a particular kind of person. Capitalism and globalisation are also macro contexts within which we all live and they therefore affect how drugs are used. One example is the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality of recreational drug use, where young adults with intense full-time jobs would let off steam on their weekends by taking drugs. Drugs, including alcohol, allow them to experience a controlled loss of control- a period of time in their week when they can relax and be themselves in a non-corporate space. To understand how people use drugs and the consequences of these practices, it is incredibly important to include the macro social and political contexts in our analyses.

Discretion or promotion? Reporting back from EGA

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting my work at the Entheogenesis Australis (EGA) outdoor psychedelic symposium. For those unaware of EGA:

Entheogenesis Australis is a not-for-profit association that cultivates a supportive environment to foster mature, open discussion about psychoactive plants and chemicals. We seek to explore ways to assess societal impacts and examine the positive applications of such substances.

For those unfamiliar with the term Entheogen, I found the following paragraph to be a useful explanation – from p. 172 of Blom, Jan Dirk. (2010). A dictionary of hallucinations. New York, NY: Springer.


The term entheogen comes from the Greek words en (within), theos (god), and generare (to generate, to bring forth). It translates as ‘becoming divine within’. The term entheogen refers to a hallucinogen or other psychoactive substance believed to occasion a spiritual or mystical experience, similar to those in traditional shamanic rituals. The term entheogen was introduced in or shortly before 1979 by the American classical scholars Carl Anton Paul Ruck (b. 1935) et al. as an alternative for terms such as hallucinogen, phantasticum, eideticum, psychotic, and psychedelic. The reason for coining this neologism was the authors’ dissatisfaction with the usual connotations of the latter terms, especially in contradistinction to the shaman’s striving for “transcedent and beatific states of communion with deity”. As Ruck et al. state, it would be “incongruous to speak of the shaman’s taking a ‘psychedelic’ drug”. Some examples of traditional entheogens are ayahuasca, cannabis, ibogaine, kava, opium, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, salvia, and tobacco. Today a person intentionally employing an entheogen for the purpose of exploring the psyche may be called a psychonaut.

So, I found myself at EGA to be surrounded by fellow psychonauts. I felt as though I was part of a community of broadly like-minded people: while we all came from different perspectives, we shared an interest in and a reverence of psychedelic or entheogenic experiences, whether they be brought on by the ingestion of plants/drugs or through other methods (eg. meditation, yoga, breath work, etc.).

In my everyday life, I can ‘pass as normal’ in the ‘straight’ world. I don’t have dreadlocks or wear a set style of clothing that differentiates me from the run-of-the-mill folk going about their business in Melbourne’s inner city. I like being able to pass through different worlds relatively easily.

But what I realised at EGA was how good it can feel to be among similar others and to be able to express freely your agreement with otherwise taboo topics.

There is a tension, however, which ran throughout EGA and which continues to run within my life. The tension is between discretion and promotion. Being discreet about one’s own use of entheogens (or psychedelics or just ‘drugs’), keeping it hidden, ‘passing as normal in the straight world’, is one way of infiltrating and hopefully, one day, being able to change power structures of the status quo.

But does this work? Can you sustain your opposition when you are constantly suppressing it? Does power corrupt? In a more personal example, can I continue to do the work that is important to me in the face of funding pressures to do work that serves, rather than challenges, the status quo? So far I’m ok, but I know I’ll be faced with this very challenge one day, probably one day soon.

The other option is promotion. Well, perhaps promotion is too strong a word. But if we allow ourselves to think this way, and we did at EGA, why shouldn’t we promote the entheogenic experience to more and more people? With the right set and the right setting, many more people could experience the world and their lives in radically different ways. These changed people could be enough to change the world. This is exactly why the promotion of these experiences is suppressed – if enough people truly understood that their lives could be radically different, the current power structures would be seriously challenged.

The discretion/promotion tension continues for me and for many others who I spoke to at EGA. People deal with it differently. I have this blog and it has my name on it. I explore these ideas publicly and am willing to wear the potential consequences of being honest. I’m not perfect: I wish I could do more. But, really, we must recognise that drug experiences are not all bad. In fact, they aren’t even bad at all. This is the key part that is missing in public debate. (Edit: ‘In fact, they aren’t even bad at all’? This statement could be misinterpreted. Drug use can cause harm, no doubt about that. But I don’t believe it is helpful to demonise the drug itself, when it is how these substances are used and the context within which they are used that combine to make harm or to avoid harm.)

A highlight of EGA was meeting Fire and Earth Erowid, founders of Lovely people, very smart and lots of fun. Fire and Earth’s first presentation on the Heaven and Hell of tripping illustrated that even the worst of the worst tripping experiences are not necessarily all bad. Many people who have a self-described bad trip feel that they have learnt important information about themselves through the experience. Heaven and Hell often occur within the same tripping experiences. Part of what we learn when we take the psychonautic path is how to cope with negative as well as positive emotions and experiences. All of these experiences affect our baseline levels: the possibilities we have for living and being.

Another tension for me at EGA was the choice of term ‘entheogen’ and the discussion of spiritual, religious or shamanic use. To me, it seems somewhat elitist to disregard use of drugs for other reasons, such as just for pleasure, for relaxation, or for inducing an ecstatic experience just because you like feeling good (rather than with spiritual aims). Then I thought more about this issue. Do you need to intentionally seek a spiritual experience to have one? When you take a drug to experience those sensations or for relaxation or for pleasure, you may also have an experience that could be described as spiritual – and this experience may then open your mind to a wider range of possibilities or subjectivities, not just while taking the substance/plant, but also at baseline.

Being in the bush and connecting to the amazing plant life and the earth had a profound effect on me. I felt strongly that listening to my initution was and is critical (A. C. Ping and Margaret Cross also emphasised this point). Through a meditation, yoga and writing workshop, I experienced the significance of feeling the grass under my bare feet – connecting with the land and the spirit. Ingesting plants grown in our surrounding is another way of connecting with the land. We have co-evolved with plants for millenia – this is not new. What is new is the denial of this symbiotic relationship between plants and human (and animal) beings.

As well as presenting my talk on the internet filter and drug websites, I also participated in a panel called ‘Beyond evidence-based drug policy’. There was much discussion but one thing that I take from that panel was the question: do we stick to our authentic message, what we really believe, that drugs/plants are beneficial and our lives are enriched by them… or do we speak within the dominant discourses on drugs so as to be heard, even though it dilutes/distorts our message?

Related to this was Carl Turney’s talk on strategies for drug law reform. Carl said that it is critical that we understand who our target audience actually is – 2 in 81 people are all that matters! These two groups of people are:
1. Pro-entheogen, swing voters, in marginal seats, who currently aren’t letting it affect their voting;
2. Swing voters, in marginal seats, who are unsure about entheogens, and could change their voting after learning more. these are the important people.
If campaigners can move opinion among these two groups, they could have political impact.

I must again thank the wonderful people who made EGA happen. I do truly hope we can do it all again in 2 years time! It was great to meet you all and I hope to stay in touch 🙂