How a group of local Toronto DJs are educating people about safe drug use

It’s a Saturday night and you’re in a club you’ve never been to before. Cradled in the darkness of the dance floor, you feel the music vibrate throughout your entire body. You can feel the effects of the alcohol you’ve been drinking beginning to ripple through your system. You start to think about the drugs your friend offered you 15 minutes ago. What were they? Where is she?

Looking around, you see the silhouette of your friend slumped over in the corner through the crowd and you rush over. She’s unconscious and looks pale. Do you know what to do?

Local DJs Chhavi Nanda (Chippy Nonstop), Katie Lavoie (Babygirl), and Stacey Sexton organized a panel event “Community Meeting” about mental health, drug-use harm-reduction, overdose, and nightlife safety on Sept. 30. The panel was comprised of: Moss Park overdose prevention site worker Marjie Francis; registered nurse, DJ, and former supervised injection site worker Orla Adams (Owabawa); harm reduction worker Faith Marie Alexandra; social worker Viktoria Belle; and pharmacist and DJ Nora Gharib (Nora Tones).

Overdose is an issue close to home for Ryerson. A Toronto Public Health (TPH) report released in August identified the Church-Yonge corridor and Moss Park areas as having the highest number of suspected opioid overdose calls to Toronto paramedics in the last year. And it’s not just people who use opioids who are at risk for opioid overdose. On Aug. 31, TPH released a notice announcing an increase in opioid overdose-related emergency room visits in “West Downtown” where the patient had believed they were using cocaine.

“Cases of opioid overdose following cocaine use are rare. They are thought to be due to inadvertent contamination, for example by a dealer who did not use hygienic practices in cutting drugs,” TPH spokesperson Rita Shahin said.

But Adams said before the community meeting that the most dangerous misconception among people who use drugs is, “it won’t happen to me.”

If someone is unconscious and overdose is suspected, call 911 for an ambulance.

Aidan Lising and Emily Craig-Evans/Ryersonian

When Adams isn’t DJing, she can’t help but feel on edge in nightlife spaces where people are using drugs. She says she can’t turn off her “nurse brain.”

People who use party drugs casually on weekends might not think that they need to carry harm reduction supplies or a naloxone kit, but Adams said that no drug use is safe.

“As long as drugs are illegal, we can never 100 per cent know what’s in them, even if it’s your trusted drug dealer who always gets you the best stuff,” Adams said.

In 2013, the American College Health Association (ACHA) reported that 33.3 per cent of post-secondary students have used drugs other than alcohol, marijuana and tobacco. Thirty-three per cent of Ryerson’s student population during the 2016/2017 school year is 12,175 students. Because the ACHA figures are self-reported, it’s likely that the number of students who have used drugs is actually much higher.

The two rules to remember: never use alone, and tell someone what you believe you’re using.

But a combination of stigma, shame and denial often will keep people silent.

Overdose prevention site worker Marjie Francis said that “it won’t happen to me”, is not the only harmful attitude, particularly among users of party drugs such as xanax, MDMA or cocaine.

“I think an important thing for people who do party drugs to remember, just in the interest of all people who use drugs and decreasing stigma, is that they’re no different than maybe the person who is injecting opiates. Their drug uses are not somehow safer or better than that of someone who’s a lower-class drug user.”

The social hierarchy in drug use further quels communication and increases stigma. It can work against harm reduction efforts, and divides the community.

“Pretty much everybody uses some kind of drug,” said Francis. “For some people, it’s cigarettes and caffeine. For some people, it’s chocolate, sugar. And then some people use cocaine, which is seen as above crack cocaine, which is seen as above injecting opiates, or injecting anything. Basically, if you’re injecting drugs, you’re at the bottom of this hierarchy. These hierarchies create stigma that is really harmful to folks who are perceived as the lowest rung on this ladder, but also for people using drugs higher on the hierarchy, because it still contributes to shame.”

Like so many harm reduction workers, Francis is personally connected to this vicious narrative. In 2008, Francis’ brother died by fentanyl overdose, but she said she’s tired of telling his story to get people to pay attention.

“At some point after interview after interview and rally after rally of me using that as something to get people to listen to me, I’m starting to feel exhausted by it,” said Francis. “The conversation could shift from being about me bearing my grief to just looking at the facts that are all very clear.”

Francis faces those facts at work every day. She began volunteering at the Moss Park overdose prevention site when it opened as an unsanctioned site in August 2017. The now publicly funded site has reversed 270 opioid overdoses since it started. There were 303 opioid overdose deaths in Toronto in 2017.

Opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone is also publicly funded in Ontario. Francis brought 30 naloxone kits to the meeting for attendees to take home. After Francis and Adams taught how to administer the life-saving medication, the panel reinforced that you can get a naloxone kit and training at any pharmacy for free. According to the Canadian Pharmacists Association, in places where there is no public funding for naloxone, the nasal spray can cost as much as $125 to $145 for two single doses, and $30 to $70 for a complete injectable kit.

The panel members said they think that  if provincial funding cuts need to happen, the Conservative government will probably cut social services first. So they said people need to be prepared.

Personal and grassroots initiatives like the Community Meeting are key contributors to being prepared to support each other in difficult situations.

You’re back at the club. Your friend is still unconscious. What do you do?

Orla Adams, Aidan Lising and Emily Craig-Evans/Ryersonian

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