1 May 2014
Politics, the law and logistics make it difficult for official resources to provide frank, up-to-date information on psychoactive drugs. That’s where websites like Erowid and Bluelight come in. Russell Brown finds that it’s not only drug users who find them helpful.
“Heart” … “panic” … “paranoid”. What drug are we talking about here?
You may or may not be surprised to know that it’s marijuana. Those were – overwhelmingly – the most prominent words on a word cloud generated by the American treatment company Rehabs.com, based on the “most unique” words in user experience reports for eight popular illicit drugs. By way of comparison, the top words for MDMA were “feeling”, “experiences”, “loved” and “talked”, and for methamphetamine, “days”, “addiction”, “doing” and “quit”.
The source reports aren’t part of any official research programme. They’re among the more than 100,000 first-hand descriptions of the recreational use of psychoactive drugs submitted to and published in the Experience Vaults of the independent drug information website Erowid.org.
“It’s one of our most influential projects,” says Fire Erowid, the female half of the couple (the male half is Earth) who founded the website in 1995 and still run it day to day.
“It’s a fabulous resource for the public to be able to get a sense of the effects of a drug or drug combination as well as the problems and/or benefits that people get from their use.”
A visit to the Experience Vaults is a glimpse into a world where people experiment with psychoactive drugs, sometimes in ways, combinations or quantities that seem objectively unwise. Transcendent experiences are recorded alongside truly terrible ones. Most users methodically note their bodyweight and dose and the timing and duration of effects along with their subjective impressions and advice. The principle is that, if you haven’t tried a drug, someone else has, and it might be worth checking before you drop.
Fire says the Experience Vaults comprise “certainly the largest such collection in existence, which attracts the attention of researchers interested in analysing it. It’s also widely used by healthcare professionals who can find information about health issues they’re treating.”
The experience reports aren’t all there is. Reports for each drug listed by Erowid sit within a wider Vault containing basic information, chemical and pharmacological papers, media coverage, journal articles and more. Although Erowid is sometimes called “the Wikipedia of Drugs”, it actually functions as a key reference site for Wikipedia articles to link to.
Fire suspects law enforcement officers and DEA officials also use the site, but they “often don’t want to admit publicly that they use Erowid”.
On the other hand, Erowid has never been served with a search warrant or, to the founders’ knowledge, had its computers compromised by law enforcement officials. Nonetheless, they have opted to use an onboard search engine rather than a licensed search from Google or Microsoft, which would store users’ search terms. The home page also offers the option of encrypted SSL browsing.
The ecosystem of drug information extends below as well as above Erowid. Fire and Earth also monitor user forums at Bluelight, Drugs-forum, The Shroomery and other sites.
“We serve different but complementary purposes,” says Fire. “The forums are a place for people to ask questions of others in public and a place for people to add their own input into the conversation. When a brand-new drug hits the market, web forums are one of the first places where discussion begins.
“In long, interesting, rambling threads, people mention how much of a drug they tried, how strong the effects were, what the effects were like and then hash out details with others. But the basic format of a web forum makes these conversations long and arduous to read through. The average user isn’t going to read through 50 pages, trying to determine whose advice to follow.”
While the contents of the forums might inform Erowid, “nothing is published on Erowid that isn’t approved by a crew member. We have no unedited, unreviewed documents. Our publishing process is slower, but our results are more concise. Both are valuable.”
Although user reports frequently describe what might be considered dangerous behaviour, they are not censored. Sometimes, warnings will be added – about driving while intoxicated or, to take a current example, about the dangers of overdose with new NBOMe compounds.
“But we long ago realised that nearly every experience report or page about a disapproved drug could be drowned by warnings and cautions and have chosen to use them sparingly so that readers don’t become inured to them,” says Earth.
Chris Fowlie, co-owner of the Hemp Store and an expert witness in cannabis cases, says the value of Erowid is not only for drug users.
“It’s a very good site for spotting trends – things that are happening in other countries that we need to be aware of here, trends in drug use and consumption patterns – sometimes years before that information comes from official sources.”
Fowlie says Erowid’s moderation weeds out one major problem with forums such as Bluelight: information posted with a commercial motive – up to and including the offer of free samples of new drug products, sometimes in return for favourable “reviews” from forum users.
“Erowid does have credibility amongst professionals.” It’s also of use to the Police, says Detective Inspector Stuart Mills of New Zealand’s National Drug Intelligence Bureau. He says his team “keep an eye” on sites like Erowid and Bluelight “so we have an understanding of what’s going on in the drug market. We read those sites and observe what people are saying. If there’s something new on the market, they’re another independent source to say something’s happening. We can see people warning each other what’s good and bad. Which pills are good and which are dangerous.”
He notes one practical example: when Hamilton schoolgirls became ill after taking so-called “red rocket” pills from a mother’s handbag, the police needed to know quickly what the medical implications were.
He does, he says, look at the local equivalent, TripMe.
“It’s not used by us as an investigative tool,” he emphasises. “It’s an intelligence tool. We see it as promoting harm prevention – and that’s a key focus of drug policy. If people are going to use these products, then hopefully it’s reducing the risk for them.”
Erowid’s independence from official agencies might enhance its credibility with users, but it doesn’t do much for its bottom line. Although it attracts around 20 million unique visitors annually, it doesn’t carry advertising for legal drug vendors as a matter of policy, and Google and other advertising networks have banned Erowid on the basis of its drug-related content.
The sheer depth of the content is dizzying. It includes more than 10,000 documents scanned and uploaded from the collections of Albert Hoffman, Alexander Shulgin and others. Erowid also separately operates ecstasydata.org, which provides lab-test analyses of street pills.
Erowid’s core audience – users from 15 to 25 years of age – is not in the typical demographic of non-profit donors, but, says Earth, “We sometimes lose out in the funding game to people who promise bigger, future changes. In our opinion, it is the slow-motion shifts that create the groundwork for policy change.”
The two self-described “drug geeks” are not policy absolutists, says Earth: “We believe in regulation. We like stop signs. They’re very handy. But we tend to put more weight on personal liberty than many policy makers. We believe that civilisation will be better served over the long term by erring on the side of allowing more.
“We hope our work and the work of others in our field will help create increasingly better data from which society can make rational choices. It seems obvious that the drug war has been a train wreck, but we also don’t think heroin should be sold in colourful foil packets out of vending machines in schools.”
Erowid has been following and reporting on New Zealand’s Psychoactive Substances Act, he says. “For us, it is probably the most interesting thing happening in public policy about psychoactive drugs in the world. It might not be perfect, but it’s a novel approach that might teach us something new about how to find the right path forward.”
Erowid’s own future, as “a small non-profit, bumping along in a political minefield” is less certain. The founders agree that an “organisational cross” between agencies like the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, harm reduction services such as DanceSafe and educational projects like Erowid, “with a permanent endowment of $30 to $100 million a year,” would be the ideal.
“Unfortunately,” Earth notes, “such a thing is well over the horizon.”
New Zealand also has its own drug information websites. The most prominent of these is TripMe.co.nz, launched in 2006 with a core principle, according to its publisher, Neo, of “sharing knowledge in a safe environment”. “I was young and experimenting with drugs while learning about the world, and I realised there didn’t appear to be any accessible, friendly and ‘cool’ websites for young and open-minded people to actually learn about the drugs that they were experimenting with.
“There was very little education about these substances in school, and even in my peer groups, people were taking drugs without knowing how they worked, what they did to the body and the mind, how much was too much, correct dosage levels and how to relieve any negative side effects.”
Now in his mid-20s and living in Auckland, Neo still runs the site but is keen to emphasise that he errs on the side of caution in what he will allow published on TripMe – and to give credit for the site’s longevity to the community that has grown around it.
“TripMe has never allowed any discussion about acquiring, sourcing or dealing any illegal substances. TripMe does not allow discussion about how to manufacture or grow any illegal substances.
“It’s a community for like-minded individuals. It exists as a place for people to feel safe to discuss, with some level of anonymity – no longer available on the likes of Facebook – things they might otherwise not feel comfortable or have the opportunity to discuss with their friends, family or online using their real name. It’s a place of knowledge and information.
“Many of the more active community members are very open minded and are very willing to help and offer advice to those who may have questions about anything in life, from health and fitness, to relationship problems and drug use. Over the years, it’s probably done more for drug education, drug safety and mental support for certain demographics in New Zealand than any other website I know.”
The recently revamped site offers regular news items on drug issues, science and culture up front as a lead-in to its community forums. A lengthy “rules” page sets out the conditions for using TripMe and includes a legal disclaimer and a note that: “Anyone looking through our site will be able to find examples of irresponsible behaviour, but we believe it does not glorify recklessness but instead reinforces the idea that people need to be more cautious.”
It attracts around 30,000 visits monthly and has a larger share of overseas traffic (44 percent of visitors are from New Zealand, 24 percent from the US) than most local websites. Neo expresses great respect for Erowid and Bluelight. “Both these sites were incredibly influential and have saved many, many lives.” But he is at pains to emphasise that his own site is not, and never has been, solely about drugs.
“There’s more to life than that.”
Founded in 1997 as an MDMA Clearinghouse, Bluelight is now the internet’s largest drug-related messageboard, with around 100,000 daily visitors. It was funded for years by the late Australian professional gambler Alan Woods, but no one’s getting rich from it now. All staff are volunteers, and a donations page launched in May last year had brought in only $390 by November. Around 100 moderators look after its sprawling forums. From its chaotic beginnings in rave culture, Bluelight has achieved a fair degree of respectability. A “research portal” invites contact from professional researchers (in some cases, it earns revenue by connecting its users with them), and current co-owner “Sebastian” was invited to speak at a National Institute on Drug Abuse symposium.
“Magic mushrooms demystified” is the billing. The site contains information on using, harvesting and identifying psilocybin mushrooms, but the community forums range across other psychedelic drugs, philosophy, gaming and even home improvement tips. It has been run for more than a decade by Mind Media of Santa Cruz California, which also publishes the marijuana-themed The Growery. More commercial than its peers – it even holds a trademark for use in clothing and merchandise.
Founded in 2003 by two former addicts in the US Pacific Northwest for users of opiate drugs – both prescription and illicit – with the user base said to be split evenly between each. Forums cover everything from safety and problems with dealers and doctors to advice on getting clean. A Vice.com story this year quoted Candy, a 45-year-old nurse who overcame her own dependence and now moderates Opiphile forums and offers basic medical advice.
The EMCDDA was established by the European Union in 1993 to provide “factual, objective, reliable and comparable information at European level concerning drugs and drug addiction and their consequences”. The EMCDDA’s focus on information makes it philosophically the closest of the official internet resources to the user-operated forums.
Russel Brown blogs at publicaddress.net.
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