Safe and convenient drug combos are learned online


Kati Kataja
Publicerad 5 Dec 2018

The Internet offers an alternative for the social learning of drug use. In online discussion groups, people who have experience of combining drugs to produce certain co-effects guide those who want to know more about the chances and risks of drug combinations. While the publicity of these websites makes this knowledge easily available, their anonymity enables an open exchange of opinions about sensitive issues, which are risky to discuss elsewhere.

Information technology keeps engulfing new domains of everyday life. When information about any issue is needed, the Internet is the primary source and information concerning drug use is not an exception. According to Howard S. Becker’s (1953) classical theory, becoming a drug user occurs in interaction with other users as the beginners need a model and advice from experienced users in order to claim their place in the users’ community. Alongside the traditional face-to-face interactions, online discussion fora offer an alternative for exchanging knowledge and ideas about drug use, including how to combine pharmacologically different substances. As such, they form a virtual environment for the social learning of drug taking.

In our study, we explored how expertise is built in online communication related to drug combos, how the discussed knowledge is related to pleasures and risks, and what type of social learning an online environment provides for participants. We focused on two discussion fora: the Finnish forum Sauna, maintained by the Finnish A-Clinic Foundation, and the Swedish forum Flashback, which is a popular public site for a variety of topics. Both feature lively discussion of drug use habits, providing users with access to abundant examples of first-hand experience of combining drugs in order to have fun, relax, work, meditate, or to blackout. Users also disseminate tips on how to avoid the risks specific to each combo. Besides the obvious health-related dangers of combining drugs, these risks might also involve moral or illegal aspects such as getting caught by the police or inappropriate behavior under intoxication.

Kati Kataja
Kati Kataja. Photo: Private.

Master and novice positions

Online discussion fora function as sites for users to position themselves hierarchically into different ranks of expertise. Those better aware of the effects of different combinations, even the most peculiar ones, enjoy the respect of fellow forum users. Conversely, those who are less experienced show their respect by asking for advice regarding the characteristics of tricky combos.
In this virtual environment, we identified two positions: masters and novices. These roles are neither fixed nor unambiguous, but are under constant negotiation, in the process of which the forum members reclaim their place and authority in the eyes of their peers. They react to each other’s messages by asking for and giving advice, and by questioning, challenging, teaching, learning, and sharing knowledge. Both mastering the combo-related knowledge and the moral rules of what is regarded as responsible behavior when using these combos, serve as tools and sometimes even as weapons in these negotiations. A person may also easily slip from master position to novice when the topic suddenly changes.

Online and offline worlds side by side

The virtual online environment and the physical offline environment both enable their members to become part of a drug users’ community, where social learning takes place. Both types of contexts have their benefits and disadvantages. For example, on online fora, all information remains archived: it can be searched and applied long after the actual discussion has taken place. Furthermore, the range of advice and ideas gathered in online fora is much more extensive than in offline environments. However, despite the easy access to nearly endless drug knowledge, the anonymous identities make the online world fluid and unpredictable. This is why we assume that users often favor traditional contexts, where real-world communities provide more long-standing relationships. The virtual options have become a way to complement these offline communities. Hence, these two contexts for seeking information and the social learning of polydrug use do not exist in their own rights, but are intertwined and mutually supportive.

Will the ever-easier access to drug information created by public online fora tempt new user groups to engage in drug use and try ever-riskier combos? This is a topic that challenges preventive work agencies. However, from the harm reduction point of view, it is comforting that knowledge of the risks of potentially dangerous, even fatal, drug combinations circulate within the users’ own communities. An ignorant attitude toward these risks is not regarded as respectful, whether this happens in a traditional identified face-to-face context or anonymously online.

Kati Kataja, PhD, University Lecturer
University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland