Excellent article on DanceSafe and front-line Harm Reduction in the US

By radiometer · May 24, 2007 · Updated May 24, 2007 ·
  1. radiometer
    Having worked with DanceSafe for many years, I am pleased to see such a positive article on their activities. I wasn't sure if there might be a better forum in which to place this thread, feel free to move...



    April 27, 2007

    The line for KandieLand III, a recent happy hardcore rave in Fountain Hills, snakes around two walls and then stretches into the distant parking lot. Gauze-winged fairies, brightly colored cartoon characters, and lots and lots of beads (known as candy among ravers, remember?) stand out against jeans and T-shirts.

    Wait, raves still exist? Didn’t they die the same death as sock hops, discos and other party fads? After trying to find a parking space at one of these “non-existent” events, the answer becomes obvious: Raves are still very real, especially in Arizona, which happens to be a national hotspot.

    “Nothing will ever die; it will just go underground,” explains Charlie Christensen, 20, a purple-haired raver at Cupid’s Revenge — a legal, yet arguably underground desert rave at Cowtown in Peoria. Darker and less rainbow psychedelic than KandieLand, the scene at Cupid’s proves his statement true: pumping trance music, writhing bodies, lights bouncing off the surrounding canyon walls. So, while their popularity peaked in the late ’90s, raves still thump, dancers still wave glow sticks and, despite the anti-rave laws, people still do club drugs (i.e., ecstasy, GHB, ketamine, etc.).

    That’s where DanceSafe comes in. In a nation where the main drug policy is preaching scare-tactic abstinence, a rave (or club or bar) can be a confusing place. DanceSafe, a nonprofit, all-volunteer, donation-based organization with 15 local chapters scattered across the U.S. and Canada, fills the void. And it’s been doing so since 1998.

    The Coolest Nonprofit Ever

    “In three words, I would say [DanceSafe] is about safety, education and responsibility,” says Aaron Hess, a Ph.D. student at ASU and DS member. “The rave community has a saying called PLUR … that’s Peace, Love, Unity and Respect. DanceSafe oftentimes adds an extra ‘R’ on the end of that to highlight the responsibility angle of what we do.”

    “DanceSafe provides accurate and factual information without fear, uncertainty, doubt and propaganda to those who are going to use recreational drugs,” explains Andrew Chi, 23, the informal vice president of the Arizona DS chapter. “We are here to simply educate people, so that they can make informed decisions and know the consequences of drug use.”

    Turtle (real name Brandon Miller), a 23-year-old raver at Cupid’s Revenge, is one such beneficiary of DS’s straight talk. “DanceSafe is a wonderful organization. They tell you what’s really going on, not what the government wants you to know,” he says.

    Sandy Pho, 22, who founded the new AZDanceSafe in 2004 with Lauren Hathorn and is currently its co-president, describes the organization’s services in an e-mail: “We … [provide] literature on drugs, drug abuse, sexual health, various other health and safety issues (i.e., hearing, heatstroke, etc.), civil liberties, supplies for personal health needs (i.e., food, water, condoms, Band-Aids, etc.) and peer counseling services ... Additionally, we patrol venues to make sure no one is either harming themselves or those around them.”

    Drug Test

    DS also sells 30 to 50 drug testing kits online per month (according to Former National Director of DS Le Liu), it provides onsite pill testing at some local chapters and it offers online pill identification. “Probably the biggest problem that [ravers] face is the contamination of pills, which is why DanceSafe came [up] with the pill testing,” says Hess.

    But do ravers actually test their pills? Yes … and no. Turtle says that he used to do the onsite pill testing, but has never ordered a testing kit. At Cupid’s Revenge, Paperdoll, a 27-year-old raver with pink hair and a tutu, says, “I appreciate what they do, but I’ve never taken advantage [of DS] other than the free candy.” (Incidentally, Paperdoll has been hospitalized twice for bad pills, though she says she plays it safer now.)

    One young couple’s experiences illustrate the tension between drug education and drugs’ inherent dangers. Though not members of DS, they share their stories while hanging out at the DS booth at Cupid’s Revenge. (DS also staffed a booth at KandieLand.) Drew Mohr, 19, represents the “ideal” of drug responsibility. He says, “Before I ever dropped a pill, I figured out everything it does to your brain. I know all the axons.” He then paused the interview to explain the effects of club drugs to three ravers who were anxious to consume any substance. After Mohr cautioned them, he returned to praise DS,

    “It’s not prosecuting people for using drugs, but educating people, like, don’t leave your water around.”
    Mohr’s girlfriend, Tiphani Allison, 21, who started going to raves at 14, illustrates how education doesn’t always provide safety. Allison has used the DS Web site to check pills, and if she got a pill at a party, she would hold onto it to find out if it was safe. Despite these precautions, Allison says that sometimes she would white out and throw up violently. Still, Allison commends DS. “People are going to do drugs regardless,” she says. “This is really nice because it helps people understand what’s actually going on.”

    Harm Reduction vs. Abstinence

    The unique aspect of DS is that it does not go around breaking eggs and saying, “This is your brain on drugs.” Instead of abstinence, DS advances “harm reduction,” a philosophy based on the assumption that people will do drugs.

    “Drug use has been present in society forever, and will be present in society for a long time,” says Hess. “Given that, we think that people should have the education necessary to make a better choice about their drug use.”

    But here’s the million dollar question: Does the acceptance of drug use actually promote it? The American government says yes. According to an information bulletin posted April 2001 by the National Drug Intelligence Center (a part of the U.S. Department of Justice), “Many law enforcement agencies believe that the practices of harm reduction organizations encourage drug use, and they support their position with national statistics that show an increase in club drug overdoses as harm reduction organizations have become more active.” (Interestingly, in a phone conversation, a representative of NDIC said they had no knowledge of or opinion on harm reduction organizations.)

    Chi disagrees. “Harm reduction is moral and legal, providing factual information that all people can use to make a choice,” he says. “We as members of DanceSafe are here to assist those who have nowhere else to go to for information and help.”

    “The gray legal and moral area of harm reduction frustrates me more than anything,” continues Pho. “I think this is because I know the only reason why there is a gray area is because somebody (in essence the government) told us what we are doing (i.e., providing harm reduction services) is ‘wrong.’”

    Still, the harm reduction line can be slippery. According to Pho, “the past AZDS was apparently dealing drugs under the table and slowly fell out of the scene.” In founding the new DS, Pho had to counter the skepticism of people who remembered its previous incarnation.

    But that’s the compelling part about harm reduction, it lies in a gray area that most people simply don’t know what to do with. Government agencies won’t advocate drug use, but they also can’t discount the value of drug education. This catch-22 led to a string of flustered government officials (including the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office, the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, some federal agencies and more) either not responding, refusing to comment or referring the task to another agency, who in turn would refer to somebody else. A representative for the Office of National Drug Control Policy promised to call back with an opinion, but has yet to do so.

    Of course, it is strange that a nonprofit organization could just stand by and watch people break the law. But this seeming paradox is the crux of harm reduction. “As far as … blatantly seeing illegal activity going on, there is a strange duality to it all,” Pho says. “I see kids (usually under 18) high out of their minds and sprawled out on the floor. It’s not particularly a pretty sight, but it makes me feel better knowing that [we] are there looking out for their safety. I can’t promise they will not harm themselves or others, but the chances are slimmer when there is someone watching over them.”

    Shining through the shades of gray is the unifying principle of DS: the desire to protect people from harm. Pho takes that goal seriously, even if saving somebody means killing that night’s party. “If, in my best judgment, I feel someone is in danger of harming themselves or others, I have made it an Arizona DanceSafe policy to contact the promoter and discuss the situation,” Pho says. “All in all, I sincerely believe with all of my heart that what I am doing is in the best interest of our community. Only good can come out of our services.”

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