Toronto Takes (Baby) Steps Toward Making Recreational Drug Use Safer

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Toronto Takes (Baby) Steps Toward Making Recreational Drug Use Safer

Compared to some other cities, the current approach to drug safety at Toronto raves and concerts is far from progressive.

Photo by Stilez from the Torontoist Flickr pool

Photo by Stilez from the Torontoist Flickr pool

On Monday, the City of Toronto’s Board of Health passed a motion directing the City to explore the feasibility of creating a risk management strategy specifically for electronic music events held in private venues. While the motion, introduced by Councillor Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto Danforth), won’t do much to immediately increase safety for drug users and partygoers, it comes amidst a larger municipal debate about harm reduction in the shadow of the opioid epidemic. 

While the fentanyl crisis dominates news headlines, the lack of harm reduction strategies for other drugs also continues to take a toll. On December 16, a 19-year-old woman died of a suspected drug overdose at Rebel Nightclub. On the same night, at least two others—one of them only 16 years old—were also taken to hospital for drug overdoses. While the event, billed as all-ages, did have medical personnel on-site, they were a private EMS company rather than Toronto Paramedic Services. As a result, they were forced to wait for City paramedics to arrive before any of the people who needed help could be taken to hospital.

While tragic, Fletcher points out that at private events, the City has only limited powers to effect change. “In the event of large scale public permitted events, the City across numerous agencies and divisions, undertakes a risk assessment and has an established protocol by which to manage risk, including emergency medical response plans,” she wrote in a December 22 letter. “A similar process does not exist for private events … A risk management plan that includes the presence of Toronto EMS who are permitted to transport people to hospital may help save lives.

While Fletcher’s motion on Monday will not immediately alter the type of safety measures the City of Toronto is able to provide, it is a step in the right direction.

Many who take drugs, like MDMA, at raves have difficulty or are unable to have them tested. Photo courtesy of Tanjila Ahmed.

Many who take drugs, like MDMA, at raves have difficulty or are unable to have them tested. Photo courtesy of Tanjila Ahmed.

Compared to elsewhere in the world, the type of safety measures in place at raves and concerts across the City are far from progressive, and are still rooted in war-on-drugs philosophy that often doesn’t work and puts people at risk. At no electronic music events in Toronto, for instance, will you see drug testing stations. In the case of the overdose on December 16, police efforts to help were hampered when those involved were unwilling to answer questions, ostensibly for fear of being arrested.

This can all be avoided. In 1999, the City adopted the Protocol for the Safe Operation of a Rave, a joint effort between the City and the Toronto Dance Safe Committee. But its provisions, such as a 1:50 police-to-attendee ratio had largely “fallen apart” by 2002, according to a review conducted to inform Calgary’s bylaws. Besides, these regulations only ever applied to City-owned property: many rave organizers simply took their events to private venues, beyond the reach of the City. Except for a brief and ill-fated attempt to ban raves on City property in 2014, the City has steered clear of legislation that might keep partygoers safe. 

While many venues and festivals in Europe and the UK offer on-site drug tests (such as at BOOM, in Portugal), the practice remains rare in North America. Larger festivals like Evolve and Shambala in B.C. offer these types of services, but very few one-off private events do. The need for insurance makes it difficult to host events with common harm reduction policies, like drug testing stations. Just ask the organizers of Evolve, an electronic music festival in Nova Scotia, who were forced to cancel their drug-testing service after a dispute with their insurance company. It’s also risky for independent organizations, such as the TRIP Project, to provide drug testing, because doing so could run the risk of legal trouble.

Over-the-counter drug testing kits available in Spain.

Over-the-counter drug testing kits available in Spain. Photo courtesy of Beverly Yuen Thompson.

The chasm between what the City can do to reduce harm on City-owned property and what they can do to reduce harm on private property is what Fletcher’s motion is attempting to fix. While it contains little indication of what may be to come—or, in truth, even whether what may come will be focused on harm reduction or further crackdown on drug use—it is a glimmer of hope. Toronto’s latest foray into making raves safer comes at a time when organizations like the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse are calling for harm reduction rather than anti-drug policies. As Toronto considers the issue of concert-related drug policy in the shadow of the opioid crisis—where harm-reduction strategies like safe injection sites are seen as the way forward—the City has a chance to become a leader in drug safety policy.

What that would look like remains unclear. The possibilities range from simple, easy fixes (such as making Toronto paramedics more readily available or allowing private EMS services to transport individuals from concerts to hospitals) to larger, more polarizing ones (like sanctioning, or even funding, drug-testing programs).

Of course, City-sanctioned harm-reduction initiatives—to say nothing of mandated ones—can never fully escape some basic structural hurdles. Namely, if a city will allow (or tolerate) someone to have cocaine in a nightclub in the name of testing and harm reduction, what does that mean for the kid who gets arrested for possession on the street? Clemency, selectively applied, may seem logically comfortable, but here’s the inherent problem: when it comes to drugs, good health policy does not always make for good drug policy, politically speaking at least.

In some brief comments on Monday, Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) referenced the Portuguese system: Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and overdose deaths have since plummeted. But that sort of policy is both politically unthinkable, not to mention well out of the City of Toronto’s purview. Toronto certainly could (and should) do more to improve the safety of partiers, but in the absence of blanket, Portuguese-style decriminalization, doing so will always be fraught. This is not necessarily a reason not to pursue those goals, but it may in turn require a re-think of what is being achieved with the City’s drug policing more generally, and what sorts of harm reduction measures may be possible there, too.

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