People use drugs for many reasons, including for fun, to celebrate, to manage physical and mental health challenges, and to cope with stress. The truth is that all drug use carries potential risks – and benefits. And we know arrests and zero tolerance policies don’t stop people from using drugs or protect them from potential harms. In fact, they often increase harms.
At the Drug Policy Alliance, we believe that everyone needs honest, accurate, and non-judgmental information about drugs so they can reduce harm, enhance pleasure, and stay safe. Below are six essential tips that can help us take care of ourselves and each other so drugs can be used in ways that minimize harms and maximize benefits.
An important first step for safer drug use is to review and understand your set (your mental state, mood, expectations) and setting (your physical and social environment). Your frame of mind and the environment you are in can play a huge role in whether or not you have a positive and safe experience.
For example, feelings such as stress or fear, or being in an uncomfortable environment could lead to an unpleasant experience. Meanwhile relaxed or calm feelings while in a warm, welcoming environment are more likely to lead to a pleasant experience. Draw on past experiences with alcohol and other drugs, if you have used them before. Drawing on your past experiences can help you better understand what kind of choices may make sense for you, or which to avoid. Remember – if you are not in the right headspace, you do not have to use and you can stop at any time.
If you decide to use drugs, make a plan beforehand. If you are going out or celebrating with people, make a plan for responsible transportation (i.e., ride sharing, having a designated driver, taxis), use the buddy system, and keep an eye on each other.
If you are alone, let someone know what you’re taking and when and ask them to check in on you periodically with a text, phone call, or online. If you don’t know who to call, you can use the Never Use Alone hotline (1-800-484-3731) and someone will stay on the line with you. Test the substance to know what you’re taking (see tip 4), plan your dose in advance, start with a small amount and wait until you feel the effects until you take more.
And if you decide to avoid drug use or are struggling and need support, there are helpful resources about harm reduction programs, treatment and counseling options.
The best plan for a safer and more manageable experience is to pick one substance, take it slow, and stick with it, particularly if you are using a drug for the first time. If you can’t stick to that, try to just do one substance at a time. There’s plenty of hours in the night – if you’re going to start by drinking, taper off at least an hour or two before starting something else. Or if you know in advance you can’t hold to that rule, research drug interactions on Erowid.org.
Mixing is not recommended because many overdose deaths are due to polysubstance use (using more than one drug). Most overdoses involve opioids, and many happen because of combination of opioids with other drugs. Alcohol, benzodiazepines, and cocaine are some of the riskiest drugs to use with heroin and other opioids so it’s best not to combine them. If that’s not possible, consume less of each drug and remember to never use alone.
Important Note: Even if you take these steps to be safer, it’s important to remember that prohibition has resulted in an unregulated market with a contaminated drug supply, which has allowed synthetic opioids such as fentanyl to become the leading driver of overdose deaths. Fentanyl, which used to be found primarily in the underground opioid supply, has been found in some stimulants.
Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and other substances are often mixed into other drugs resulting in a much higher potency. People are often unaware of the contents or purity of their drugs which leaves them at increased risk of overdose. One way to reduce the harm from a contaminated drug supply to know what you’re taking is through drug checking (see next point).
Due to drug prohibition, most drugs you buy are coming from an unregulated market.
Drug checking (also known as pill testing or adulterant screening) allows people who use drugs to identify the contents within the drug they intend on taking. With this information, you may be able to make an informed decision about whether or not to use the substance, and you can then take the right precautions to stay safe. Simple identification methods, such as reagents (liquid drops that can be applied to a small sample of a substance with minimal user training) and drug checking strips, can help prevent drug-related injury and overdose. With fentanyl-related drug overdose deaths increasing dramatically, fentanyl checking strips are a crucial way to keep people safer from accidental overdose.
Overdoses and other drug-related medical emergencies are preventable and don’t have to be fatal. There are many harm reduction strategies to make drug use safer. And if there is an emergency, anyone can take action to save a life as long as they know what to look for.
As the overdose crisis grows with many of these preventable deaths due to opioids, there are two critical tips people who use opioids should always follow:
*Naloxone (also called Narcan®) is an inexpensive, FDA-approved generic drug that works to reverse an opioid overdose, including fentanyl overdose, by restoring breath to unconscious overdose victims. Visit the National Harm Reduction Coalition to find naloxone near you.
Empowering as many people as possible with accurate information is one of the most effective ways to promote safer drug use. It’s starts with people like you. If you’re reading this page, you already know more than most about this lifesaving information. Help us keep even more people safe by sharing these tips with your friends, family, and on social media.
Treating drug use as a crime instead of a health issue has punished people instead of providing the critical tools and resources that are proven to help save lives. DPA is committed to changing that by empowering people with honest, accurate, and non-judgmental information about drugs so if someone chooses to use they’ll stay safe.
If you’re interested in staying updated on drug facts and other ways to support equitable drug policies, you can sign up for DPA’s emails here and join our fight to end the drug war.