SSDP Takeover: Q&A with Bristol Drug Project’s Sorcha Ryan

by Eleri Crossland

Sorcha Ryan is the Festival and Harm Reduction Lead of Bristol Drug Project, an organisation belonging to Bristol ROADS (Recovery Oriented Alcohol and Drugs Service). Here, Sorcha will be sharing advice on how to stay safe on campus and within the community when using drugs during lockdown. 

How has your work with BDP changed as a result of Covid? Have you observed any significant changes to youth drug culture?

A lot has changed in my job since the beginning of the pandemic. BDP would normally spend the summer providing harm reduction information and advice at all the biggest Bristol festivals and club nights but obviously that couldn’t happen this year. This has presented a huge challenge to us as we no longer get to see our target audience face to face at events and drug use has become far less visible, which makes engagement more difficult. In addition, patterns of drug use have changed. Drugs that would usually be taken at a club or festival, like cocaine and MDMA, appear to be being used far less but ‘downers’ like ketamine, cannabis, alcohol and benzos seem to be much more popular. This means the focus of our messaging has had to shift towards discussing dependence, mental health and tolerance and away from the messaging that is appropriate for people who are using alcohol and other drugs primarily at events.

With most student nightlife likely to be put on hold as a result of the pandemic, do you predict a significant increase in illegal raves and parties? If so, what advice would you give to any students looking to attend such events? 

It’s difficult to tell whether there are more illegal raves going on at the moment or whether they are just under more public scrutiny because of the pandemic. However, it does seem that a lot of parties that have been happening recently have been huge, with dozens of sound systems and thousands of attendees. This may be because organisers know that if a party gets to a certain size, it’s almost impossible for the police to shut it down safely, meaning they get to play their tunes for a while longer. This obviously has implications for safety. With thousands of people gathering with people from outside their bubble, the risk of a Covid outbreak is increased, especially when you consider that people are likely to be sharing things like balloons, snorting equipment, drinks, cigarettes and joints. In addition, the more people in a space using alcohol and other drugs, the more likely it is that someone will have an adverse reaction.  Whilst most established free party crews will have at least a vague plan of what to do if someone needs medical assistance, getting an ambulance through can be really difficult when there aren’t security/stewards to clear the way and identify the casualty. This means it’s really down to each individual to make sure that they and their friends stay safe.

The advice I would give to anyone who attends an illegal rave is:

  • If you’re going to take drugs, only use substances you are experienced with. It’s unlikely that there will be support to help you out if something goes wrong.
  • Stick with your mates, know what each other has taken and look out for each other.
  • Read up on dosages, interactions and harm reduction advice before you go.
  • Bring plenty of water and food. It’s not like a festival and there won’t be designated water points or food stalls to keep you going.
  • Wear a mask, use hand sanitiser and don’t share snorties, drinks, cigarettes or balloons to reduce the chances of contracting or passing on Covid.
  • Have a designated driver – you never know when the party might get shut down. Sitting in your car waiting to sober up for hours on end isn’t fun and neither would crashing it or being arrested for driving whilst intoxicated.
  • Respect the land. You wouldn’t throw rubbish on the floor in the city so don’t do it in the countryside either.

Do you believe that mainstream drugs and alcohol services (e.g. the NHS, university welfare support services) will fully cater to the needs of the student demographic during this period? If not, what other services can you recommend to students who are seeking help for drug and alcohol-related issues?

BDP and the two universities here have a really good relationship and have been meeting regularly throughout summer to plan ahead for the coming academic year. As part of this, The Drop is running a survey to ask students what they would want from a service that supports people who use drugs recreationally. We’ll use this data to make sure the support we offer meets the needs of our target audience. The two myths we struggle with most are that if a student discloses drug use to university staff that they will be at risk of disciplinary procedures and that drug services only cater for people who are dependent on crack cocaine and heroin. Neither of these statements are true.

BDP provides support to anyone that feels they need it, no matter what substances they are using or where they are in their drug taking career. This ranges from providing harm reduction advice on dosage, interactions and reducing risks; to supporting people wanting to gain control of their use; and helping people access treatment. The golden thread running through each of these is our judgment-free approach. BDP also provides information and advice to people who are concerned about the alcohol or drug use of a friend or family member. If you want some harm reduction advice you can visit our website and if you would like to speak to someone ring BDP’s helpline (0117 987 6000 – and we will ring you back if credit is in short supply), drop us a message on WhatsApp (07814617687) or visit us at 11 Brunswick Square. There’s also some great online tools and resources. I would recommend The Drugs Meter, Global Drugs Survey, Release and TripSit.

Eleri Crossland is President of Durham Students for Sensible Drug Policy and a committee member of SSDP UK Network

Sorcha Ryan is the Festival and Harm Reduction Lead of Bristol Drug Project


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