How to create a safer nightlife through harm reduction

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Photo: flickr/Shawn Tron

Harm reduction is something we all need to be talking about. It is the belief that even when someone is participating in risky behaviour, that there is still a way to minimize harm. It's a common part of everyday life, whether you realize it or not. It keeps you safer. It's wearing your seatbelt. It's putting on your bicycle helmet. It's not drinking and driving.  

We are the Trip! Project, a Toronto based peer-run, city-funded non-profit. We practice harm reduction to help people party safer. We go to festivals, night clubs, all-ages parties and raves, bathhouses, concerts and house parties. We give out supplies like condoms and lube, talk to folks about consent and safer sex, provide non-judgmental drug education and drug crisis de-escalation services and offer confidential peer support.  

People use drugs. That's a fact. But that doesn't mean that they deserve to be injured, hospitalized or worse.

The recent deaths at VELD are tragic and highlight a dangerous trend across Canada. The Toronto Police have said that "party drugs" are the culprit. As most party drugs are unregulated, the contents are never guaranteed to be what they are being sold as. Now more than ever, it's crucial for partiers using drugs to test these substances before taking them. Testing kits are easy-to-use reagent tests and are available through the Trip! Project and online retailers. Though not perfect, testing kits can determine the presence of MDMA (the active component in the party drug known as 'Molly' or 'ecstasy'), in a capsule, pressed pill or powder. They can also test for a number of other drugs including uppers, downers, and relatively new 'research chemicals'. For partiers new to the festival scene who are looking for "pure Molly," there is no way to be sure that it isn't cut with riskier research chemicals like PMA or PMMA which were directly related to deaths on the west coast in 2012. Lack of knowledge around testing kits has contributed to partiers taking substances that could be literally anything.

But safety isn't just an individual problem. No one should ever die at a party. It's clear that what festivals are currently doing to keep people safe is not completely working.   

We have a few suggestions for event promoters and venue owners about what would help:

1. Do not allow police in medic tents unless absolutely necessary.

As soon as police officers start making regular appearances in the medics' areas, even just nicely asking how people are doing, word gets around. If people are experiencing bad trips or getting sick from party drugs, the last place they want to go is where the police are. Partiers will not take their friend who is vomiting, passed out or overdosing to a medical tent full of police officers. They will be afraid of being arrested, hassled or charged with possession. This is a direct barrier to care, meaning that people will steer away from medical attention until they are in critical condition (and sometimes even then). Organizers need to make going to the medics as easy as possible.

2. Do not automatically kick people out of the festival after they have seen the medics.

This is another common barrier to partiers seeking medical attention when it's needed. They are scared that if they take their sick friend to the paramedics, they won't get back into the festival. When tickets are running upwards of $200, this is a real limiting factor. People who have felt sick but have been pronounced healthy and good to go by the medics need to be let back into the event. Their friends who brought them in need to be let back into the event. Otherwise they likely will not go to the medics in the future. This does not apply to those partiers who are not well enough to return to the event or require further medical attention, but people should not be banned from re-entering the party if they get better.

3. Acknowledge that some people will be taking drugs.

You have to believe that these attendees' safety is still important. That means the onsite medics must have access to information around drug effects, local trends, slang for substances and dosage in order to effectively treat people having negative reactions. Partiers need to have access to safer sex information and reliable, non-judgemental drug education and support. (Trip! provides these services for free! Just get in touch and we'll do our best to be at your event.)   

Harm reduction can't be a dirty word. It can't be taboo. We need to embrace it to save lives.

Include the Trip! Project in festival planning, early and prominently.

The Trip! Project is a Toronto peer run harm reduction non-profit organization. To reach us about testing kits or to book us for your party, email [email protected]. Find more info at and check out our Safer Nightlife blog at

Photo: flickr/Shawn Tron

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