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#SeshTok: How harm reduction creators are promoting drug safety

As politicians continue to fail to protect drug users, TikTok users are spreading life-saving information online

Love or loathe them, drugs are an undeniable part of youth culture: 15 per cent of all 18 to 24-year-olds in England and Wales report that they have dabbled with drugs. In spite of this, successive governments’ ‘war on drugs’ policies have created a society that stigmatises drug use and shut down vital conversations about harm reduction in the process.

But, according to Drug Wise, this approach is likely to be ineffective, and even counterproductive to the health of young people. Sadly, deaths from drug poisoning have been on the rise since records began in 1993: in 2021, drug deaths were recorded at a rate 81 per cent higher than nine years previously in 2012.

Education is desperately needed to help reduce drug deaths, but the government’s policy remains unrobust, to say the least. Now, TikTok is proving to be a powerful tool for breaking through this stigma, creating open conversations driven by creators who are passionate about teaching people how to sesh safely. Hashtags like #harmreduction, #pingtok and #addictionawareness have racked up millions of views on the app, providing a platform for people to discuss the importance of testing, the overlooked dangers of substance use, and tell-tale signs of overdose.

One of these creators is Teddy, who started making harm reduction content on Tiktok when she first joined the sobriety community online. “I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to put in my opinion on things and help support others,” Teddy tells Dazed. “I had information that I could share.”

“There’s just not enough education available on how to keep people safe because of the demonization of drugs,” she continues. “When you eventually try [substances] and realise you’re not dead or haven’t ruined your life immediately, then you question the truth in these campaigns and whether you can keep doing it. Generally, there’s little education on how to use drugs safely and, because of that, people have lost their lives.”

Cara is another influencer pushing the narrative on how to use substances safely who has been creating harm reduction content on the platform since 2020. “It’s incredibly important to me,” Cara tells Dazed, recalling how her regular MDMA use left her with “bad mood swings” and severe memory loss. “A lot of young people don’t know the dangers, or at least how to use drugs safely. When I started there wasn’t much content about it, so I thought I’d start.”

Another creator is Simon Doherty, a freelance journalist and columnist about drug culture at The Face. Unlike Teddy and Cara, Simon’s harm reduction content veers away from personal anecdotes and focuses on sharing alerts made by the drug testing charity, The Loop. “One of the great things about The Loop is that the data has high validity,” he explains. “When they test at a festival they give information about the particular drugs that are going around at that time.”

@thatmushybish Sorry reuploding this one as i felt it was a bit flakey #harmreduction #serotoninsyndrome #antidepressants ♬ original sound - cara

TikTok is increasingly becoming one of the most powerful platforms to convey information to young people. A recent report by Ofcom even found that TikTok saw the largest overall increase in use as a news source over the last two years – with half of new users aged between 16 and 24. “Young people are not interested in consuming linear television, and they’re certainly not interested in buying a newspaper,” Simon notes. “The way they consume information now is through social media.”

With this in mind, TikTok provides a vital space for guidance on drug use where people who need to see this information can easily access it. “When we have campaigns in schools or on television you’re being forced to consume that media,” Teddy adds. “On TikTok, it reaches people who actively want to engage with the content.”

But it’s not all plain sailing. Ultimately, anyone can post a drug-related video on TikTok, even if they have no credentials or expertise. As a result, misinformation can spread like wildfire. Plus, creators are constantly under threat of censorship, battling an algorithm pitted against them. “TikTok, like other forms of social media, does censor harm reduction content,” Jay Jackson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the research and advocacy organisation, Volteface, told Dazed.

Creators in this space are often forced to adapt their language, using pseudonyms like “MDM@” and “AC!D” to minimise the threat of their content being removed and their profiles being banned or shadowbanned. Intentionally misspelling words has long been a tool in a creator’s arsenal when it comes to dodging stringent content moderation, but it’s a short-term fix – plus, it adds to the enduring stigmatisation of drug use and makes potentially complex information about drugs even harder to comprehend.

When approached by Dazed, a spokesperson from TikTok said that the safety of their users is a top priority. “While we don’t allow the depiction, promotion or trade of drugs on TikTok, we support people who choose to share their personal experiences to raise awareness, educate and help others in our community who might be struggling,” they said.

“It’s a sticky situation,” Cara admits. “It should be a safe space but on the other hand, there are a lot of very young children on the platform.” Jay agrees. “[Social media companies] are only just protecting themselves, they probably don’t want to get a reputation for being a platform where drugs are spoken openly about,” he says.

“Ultimately it’s a dereliction of duty. They have a responsibility [to keep their users safe]. But if they’re going to come down on harm reduction content, they need to come down just as hard on people selling [drugs] on social media,” Jay continues. “People are buying drugs on social media, anywhere and everywhere.” He highlights a recent report from Volteface which found that 24 per cent of young people reported that they see illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media.

“This isn’t Wolf of Wall Street – this isn’t romanticising drugs, if anything it’s doing the opposite,” he adds, reflecting on harm reduction TikTok. “It’s making drugs boring: breaking them down into their chemical components, telling you the effects and how to do it as safely as possible. It’s actually an anti-glamourising tool. It takes away the mystery and intrigue of drugs.”

It’s a complex web to untangle. Ultimately, the emergence of this TikTok community reflects a deeper social issue – one that goes further than just teaching people how to sesh safely. It spotlights the inadequacies of our current education model around drugs, which is forcing creators to take matters into their own hands. 

“Harm reduction [content] like this is a means to an end but they can only go so far… If we’re really focused on reducing the harm that drugs cause to individuals in society, it has to be set on a wider path,” Jay says. What would this path look like? For some, it means decriminalisation and legal regulation, for others, it means reforming an education system which communicates the nuanced issues surrounding drug use – instead of shrouding the topic in a blanket of fear.

Until then, however, content creators will continue to use TikTok to fill the information void: outsmarting algorithms and providing life-saving information to those who need it most.