It’s a Friday afternoon, 25-year-old Julian Riley’s day off. He’s in the kitchen washing vegetables for his lunch before he heads to GoodLife Fitness — the gym he attends four times a week — for a workout. There’s some orange juice in the fridge, but he opts for water. “I don’t drink juice or pop, just water to keep it healthy.” The weekend is here, and nighttime will bring Riley’s weekly opportunity at blowing off some steam. Acid is on the menu for the night, but perhaps cocaine will have to do if he cannot score some in time.
Riley’s living room coffee table is scattered with paraphernalia, and he and his roommates are passing a blunt around. “I consider myself pretty healthy … I try to cook and eat mostly vegetables and exercise regularly,” said Riley, adding that he feels the gym is necessary to stay in shape, having grown up playing competitive soccer.
Riley, who never experimented with drugs or alcohol in high school because of soccer, had his first experience with recreational substance use in his first year of university.
He drank lean, a mixture of cough syrup and Sprite, to attend a Kid Cudi concert and the introduction to other drugs followed soon after. “I was like, well I’ve gone this far so why not,” said Riley on his experience with lean and why he eventually continued to cocaine and MDMA. His relationship with those drugs mostly surfaces on his days off, when he will often go out for a night of drinking to relieve the stress of working five days a week. “I’ll go out, and then I’ll drink a bunch, and once you start drinking your pockets get wider and you get more generous, and you’re like, ‘Why not indulge more? You know? Why not take it to the next level?’ Cause I’ve always been a person to push myself athletically, so recreationally it’s like, let’s go all the way.”
It was also during his first year at university that Riley began regularly working out to stay in shape because of the absence of his high school soccer regimen. In conjunction with exercise, Riley also abides by a relatively healthy and strict diet, allowing only the occasional hot chocolate or bubble tea to satisfy his sweet tooth.
But perhaps healthy living and drug use aren’t as mutually exclusive as they may seem, seeing that Riley is “living proof that you can be both.” Aside from health reasons, he maintains a good physique in order to look good while he’s out partying. “I’m a little bit of a narcissist and self-obsessive … I feel like that’s just a part of, ‘Yeah, I want to go out and feel good and look good and look my best and therefore, I’m going to workout, but I also want to have fun.’”
Riley isn’t alone in this type of reasoning. Michael Hucko, a 23-year-old business student, said, “with festivals and all that stuff becoming huge, people want to do that, and they want to look good, and they’ll work out and stuff for however long and then they’ll go to a festival and do drugs … but I do think it’s common with people our age to do both.” However, unlike Riley, Hucko doesn’t believe you can be both healthy while still doing drugs, which he realized after quitting last year. “You can do both, but one is having the exact opposite effect of the other.” Hucko was a part of the enormous festival and party culture that has become increasingly popular. He did MDMA for the first time at Toronto’s Veld music festival during the summer before his second year of university. MDMA is among one of the most popular substances to take at music festivals. Hucko’s occasional MDMA use at concerts and festivals quickly escalated to cocaine every time he went out drinking, which was about three times a week for him and his friends. Hucko is also extremely conscious of his diet and exercise, spending five to six days a week at the gym, even during his heavy partying phase.
Marilyn Herie is a teacher on addiction approaches at the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Social Work and has worked at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She said that the social media generation has the pressure of looking good because “in the past, people weren’t posting how they looked at parties and events.” She added, “Visual representation of ourselves, through Instagram and other social media channels, means that if I’m now publishing myself and how I look at these different social and cultural events, I need to look good.” Citing social media as a “rigid stereotype of beauty,” the mother of young adults said her children’s friend circles have shared photos like these online: “Picture of myself in the mirror, in the person’s underwear, smoking a joint … with a completely buff six-pack.”
For Herie, it’s the personal branding of individuals with the increasing presence on social media that likely drives the intersection between healthy living and drug use. “It’s all part of that kind of brand, the partier person that’s in festival culture or club culture and wants all the drugs that go along with that and at the same time the kind of vegan and political consciousness. So maybe part of it is, ‘If I’m healthy, I can indulge.’”
Riley’s justification for his drug use comes in a similar form to Herie’s speculation. He said, “if I eat healthy enough and go to the gym enough then on the weekend, one or two nights won’t affect my health that badly.” And his rationale may not be invalid. As a form of harm reduction, Herie said there might be cause to believe that exercise provides a protective factor for hard drug users like it does for tobacco users. An article published in 2006 for The Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco suggests that physical activity may delay diseases related to tobacco use. This is especially relevant for those who find they crave smoking while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, something that Riley and many others are prone to. Factors such as these contribute to the complexity of the health versus substance use relationship, as these variables dictate where a specific person lies on “the spectrum of risk,” according to Herie. Additionally, Herie said factors such as genetics and social capital determine whether someone can use safely and without completely compromising the integrity of health.
One of the factors Herie mentioned was an individual’s social network.
Though drug use is not uncommon among young people, studies conducted in 2015 by CAMH show that non-drug users make up the majority of the teenage population, which Herie said can be extrapolated and applied to young adults. “Depending on who a person is associating with; it might look like that’s what the majority of the population is doing. If you’re going to a festival, going to a club, that is what the majority are doing. But not everyone that age is doing those activities that often.”
“I think it’s actually really common, even just from people I know. I know people who are really into the health stuff, and then they go and do a night out drinking and doing cocaine,” said Hucko, who also admitted that he would only do drugs with his drug-using friends while abstaining around his other friends out of guilt.
Similarly, Riley will rarely refuse drugs when it is offered to him by friends in fear of missing out. “To an extent, it is social conformity,” he said. To further emphasize the prevalence of drugs in healthy individuals, he references professional football players who “train so hard just to go out and do a shit ton of hard drugs,” adding that it seems to be most people’s way of dealing with a stressful work life.
When asked if he plans on eventually quitting drugs, Riley said, “If I’m successful, I already know what drinking does to me, why would I just afford more drinks and drop [the drugs]?” But despite that, he predicts he’ll stop taking drugs by the time he’s 30 — the point when he “should be really serious about his life.” In the meantime, he’s “always down for a drink … and a little indulgence.”