Keeping You Safe From Harm
Harm Reduction for Safer Partying
by Matt Kalkhoff

Have you been dying for a good party lately? Sadly, some people literally are. Parties and dance clubs are usually relatively safe havens where friends gather to have fun and celebrate life. But the introduction of more powerful and volatile drugs in recent years, and the resultant triage units that have become all-too-familiar to the modern party boy or girl, has dramatically shifted the party scene by sometimes turning these innocuous retreats into risky endeavors. In other words, today’s dance marathons are littered with some very hazardous obstacles, and not everyone is making it to the finish line.

According to the U.S. government’s 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), 15.9 million Americans over the age of 12 reported using an illicit drug in the month preceding the survey interview, an increase of almost 3% from 2000. The largest group of current users is 18-25 year olds at 18.8%. Additionally, the survey found that an estimated 8.1 million persons have tried Ecstasy (MDMA) at least once in their lifetime (1.9 million of them for the first time in the last year alone), and 1.3 million people were current users of hallucinogens (including MDMA, LSD, PCP, peyote, mescaline and mushrooms).

These numbers may not shock you, but they do demonstrate just how widespread drug use is in America. But the issue is not as black and white as the government would have the public believe. Just like alcohol and tobacco (109 million and 66.5 million users, respectively, as reported in the 2001 NHSDA), many people successfully manage and moderate their drug use. But sometimes even the most experienced users run into trouble, and that is where the concept of harm reduction comes in.

"The landscape of recreational use is changing," says health advocate Alan Brown, founder of the non-profit Electric Dreams Foundation (EDF) and its harm reduction website, EDF seeks to improve health and well-being within the social arenas of gay culture" while striving to "reduce both the physical and mental health risks associated with drug use, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections." "Things have gotten much more complex in recent years," Brown continues. "It takes a lot of work to be a savvy drug user."

Nobody wants to see our dance parties disappear. Nobody wants to see friends leaving events on stretchers. And nobody wants to lose loved ones to the dark despair of drug addiction. Accordingly, EDF and similar organizations are attempting to create an open and honest environment where people can set aside their moral and philosophical views on drug use, and band together as a community to approach these potentially dangerous situations head-on in a non-judgmental, pro-active manner. As the AIDS Committee of Toronto urged in its recent "A Safer Place To Party" campaign, we need to stop looking at drug use as a criminal or moral issue and start treating it as a health issue.

While harm reduction can be defined in many ways and applied to a myriad of situations, the basic premise is eloquently outlined by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a nationwide organization dedicated to fostering alternative models to conventional health and human services and drug treatment, on their website,

"Harm reduction strategies meet drug users ‘where they’re at,’ addressing conditions of use along with the use itself. [It] accepts, for better or for worse, that illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them." (See sidebar for harm reduction tips.)

Do You Know Where You’re At?

Have you ever asked yourself, "Why am I doing drugs?" Do you ever step back and take stock of your substance use and partying? Do you talk about these issues with your friends? Many of us probably don’t, but this is perhaps the most valuable thing we can do to help protect our friends and ourselves. It is also important to figure out where you’re at with your usage. Are you an experimental user, a binge user, a functional user, or have you crossed over from recreational use? By understanding the different stages of drug use, you can make more informed decisions and hopefully know if it is time to ask for help.

While there are risks associated with all drugs, two in particular are wreaking havoc on our community and destroying lives. Both are used responsibly and relatively safely by some, however, an increasing number of people are getting into trouble with crystal methamphetamine ("Tina") and GHB (and its precursors and related solvents).

Crystal is a highly addictive substance that almost inevitably leads to physical and psychological dependence over time as well as other severe health consequences. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports a disproportionately high number of emergency department visits due to methamphetamine – 13,505 in 2000 compared to 4,969 for GHB and 4,511 for MDMA. GHB is clearly the wild card in the party mix, though. It is deadly when taken with alcohol or Restoril (or any drugs in the benzodiazepine family), and its volatile nature often yields unpredictable results. Fall-outs from GHB, which can be frighteningly gruesome, contributed to the demise of GMHC’s Morning Party on Fire Island and the legendary nightclub Twilo.

Hospital transports continue to threaten other national benefit parties and nightclubs, but the compassionate efforts of Dr. Chris Mann and his MedEvent teams of volunteers are helping make our parties safer while keeping them off of the 11:00 news. These licensed physicians, paramedics and nurses who are familiar with the party scene are patrolling the dance floors at circuit parties and other large events to provide on-site medical assistance, saving countless lives in the process.

Another group that is working tirelessly to make our community building dance parties safer is DanceSafe. With 26 local chapters in cities throughout North America, the non-profit organization "promotes health and safety within the rave and nightclub community" by "creating successful, peer-based educational programs to reduce drug abuse and empower young people to make healthy, informed lifestyle choices."

Volunteers staff booths at events to "provide information on drugs, safer sex, and other health and safety issues concerning the electronic dance community (like driving home safely and protecting one’s hearing)." They also test Ecstasy pills at events when they are able to obtain immunity from local authorities (an invaluable albeit increasingly rare service) to help users avoid fake and adulterated tablets that may be even more dangerous. Personal pill testing kits may also be purchased at

Since the government’s ruinous war on drugs has failed and abstinence does not work for everybody, Brown and other health advocates agree that we must accept that drugs are a part of our culture, and work to empower our community to implement and exercise the lifesaving elements of harm reduction. Knowledge is power, after all, and the more you know about what you’re doing and how to mitigate the risks, the sooner we can all get back to partying safely.

© 2002 Matt Kalkhoff

This article appeared as the cover feature in November 9, 2002 NEXT Magazine.