Hard News by Russell Brown


Fire and Earth Erowid: Drug Geeks at Work

"Erowid's as old at the internet, isn't it?" someone quipped to me recently. Well, not quite. But next year will mark 20 years of Erowid.org providing deep, broad and comprehensive information about psychoactive substances, legal and  illegal.

In a note marking the tenth anniversary of the website she created with her partner Earth, Fire Erowid tells how Erowid grew from its beginning as a "very obscure" niche website to become a resource with a "truly global reach". It now serves nearly half a million pages a day to around 55,000 unique daily users (and yes, that is a lot of pages per user).

It is, quite simply, the go-to resource for information and reportage about psychoactive drugs. And when I pitched a story about drug information websites to the Drug Foundation's Matters of Substance magazine, Fire and Earth Erowid were at the top of the list of interviews. I'm genuinely grateful for the time they spent answering my questions by email. They are diligent and courteous people.

I received the answers on February 28 this year, but the latest Matters of Substance was delayed for various reasons. That has an obvious bearing on the answers about our Psychoactive Substances Act, which went awry after the interview was conducted. I've left these verbatim.

But that story is published now (it also mentions the local drug experience and information website, TripMe and explains why it's left alone by police) and I can finally share this absorbing interview.

Just how do you make yourself the “Wikipedia of psychoactive drugs” Do you answer to that term?

Fire: The phrase "Wikipedia of psychoactive drugs" might not be particularly apt, since Erowid.org is very different both in process and content than Wikipedia. The information that Erowid provides to the public includes summarized info like that of Wikipedia, but also archived articles from the past, new articles from experts in the field, and, of course, a large collection of first-person experience reports.

That said, we know that people use the phrase "Wikipedia of psychoactive drugs" as a compliment, since Wikipedia is such a useful tool. Wikipedia is an amazing resource but it relies on sites like Erowid to act as the reference sources on which the entries are built.

How widely used is Erowid? Is it used by treatment professionals? By law enforcement?

Fire: Erowid.org is quite widely used by college professors, treatment professionals, poison control centers, toxicologists and physicians, students and parents, and the general public. Although there are a couple of documented cases of reporters being referred to Erowid by official DEA employees, we don't hear from law enforcement much.

There's every reason to believe that LEOs visit Erowid.org to learn about psychoactive drugs as well. The politics in the US are so sensitive and divided around the issue of psychoactive drugs, that law enforcement professionals often don’t want to admit publicly that they use Erowid. Perhaps they think they're secretly ‘spying’ on those who use recreational drugs by visiting sites like Erowid, which is humorous.

Was there a point where you became “respectable”?

Fire: We’ve always considered ourselves respectable, but there was certainly a point, after the Erowid site was online for 4-5 years when professionals and news sources started recognizing that having direct access to the views and behaviors of psychoactive drug users was more than just a curiosity, but was actually valuable to everyone.  We have always had the goal of providing an information resource that could be used by everyone equally. But since we get much of our key information from the psychoactive drug user—what drugs are being used, dosage, timing info, health issues, risks, experience reports--it makes sense that they would have been earlier Erowid visitors, followed later by the professionals, the parents, law enforcement, etc.

The experience vaults often recount very risky behaviour by users. Are there things you won't publish?

Fire: We don’t censor descriptions of dangerous behaviour in experience reports. We add some warnings to reports that describe particular types of dangerous behaviour, such as driving while intoxicated or using unusually high doses, in order to make sure that readers are aware of the danger of these activities.

Earth: But we long ago realized that nearly every experience report or page about a disapproved drug could be drowned by warnings and cautions and have chosen to use them sparingly so that readers don’t become inured to our warnings.

Fire: The only types of reports that we won’t publish are third-person reports. With only one exception, reports need to be first-person descriptions of a person’s experience. The exception is reports of deaths, which obviously can’t be first person. We accept documented reports of deaths only with verification through media reports, obituaries, or coroner reports. These are often submitted by friends or family of the decedent. In most deaths, there is no blow-by-blow experience report and instead we document them on our ‘fatalities’ pages where appropriate, instead of in the Experience Vaults.

What’s the day-to-day work on the site?

Fire: A lot of the work is unglamorous. We field corrections and suggestions being sent in by readers, which might include tweaking dosage charts for new substances, fixing typos, and making sure links to external sites are working.

Earth: We have a lot of technical tasks, making sure the site is responsive and secure, updating software, handling the barrage of spam emails, maintaining servers, as well as communicating with members and volunteers, shipping gifts, and doing the normal work of running a small non-profit. Who doesn’t love banking and accounting?

Fire: We add new substances to the vaults. Reply to incoming emails asking questions from researchers, authors, poison control centers. We spend a lot of time coordinating between and communicating with various experts. We write articles on current psychoactive drug topics for the site, for our newsletter, and for other publications. We just finished writing a chapter for an academic book about kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) as well as a foreword to an upcoming book about Psychedelic Support Services at festivals. We post to public and private forums, read and take notes on new medical and technical scientific literature, and manage our heroic volunteer team.

We’re also gearing up to do a redesign of the site later this year. We have limited funding, and when making the choice on a day-to-day basis between making the site prettier/newer looking or making sure the data is accurate, we have continued to make the choice to focus on content. But it’s time to direct some additional energy towards front-end appearances, so we’re excited for that next step.

Where do you source data and information?

Fire: We source data from anywhere that has good quality information. There’s a lot that is only known by users, especially data about novel psychoactive drugs. And there’s a lot that’s only known by researchers and professionals. It’s a combination of the two that we think provides the best quality data. We have a network of thousands of people we communicate with, including our more formal Erowid Expert Network, which professionals can volunteer to occasionally help us out when we need their particular expertise.

How would you compare Erowid with sites like Bluelight?

Fire: Web forums like Bluelight, Drugs-forum, or the Shroomery are great places for individuals, from novel users to drug geeks, to discuss and hash out information and facts about new drugs. We serve different but complementary purposes. The forums are a place for people to ask questions of others in public, and a place for people to add their own input into the conversation. When a brand new drug hits the market, web forums are one of the first places where discussion begins. In long, interesting, rambling threads, people mention how much of a drug they tried, how strong the effects were, what the effects were like, and then hash out details with others. But the basic format of a web forum makes these long and arduous conversations to read through. When a drug gains more popularity, the average user isn’t going to read through 50 pages of conversation, trying to determine whose advice to follow.

Web forums, along with first-person reports submitted to us, provide invaluable views into what users are experiencing, both positive and negative.  They are one of the many resources that we use when putting together information pages about a drug.

Erowid’s published resources are more reviewed. Nothing is published on Erowid that isn’t approved by a crewmember. We have no unedited, unreviewed documents. Our publishing process is slower, but our results are more concise. Both are valuable.

What’s your response to Russia’s banning of your site? What will be the consequences of that?

Earth: First, we strongly believe that those who use psychoactive drugs, whether legal or illegal, should have access to information about the drugs they use. Second, we think that it is actually counter productive to attempt to ban information resources because, like prohibition, it creates a variety of negative side effects. One negative effect is a race to the bottom of the barrel; as information sources become established, they become banned, so the only info sources that aren’t banned will be new, less established sources. Also, there are many, many ways around the blockades so such rules work to help train people to disobey the rules and work around the censorship systems.

In the very general sense, we have been in the middle of various debates about what should be published about psychoactive drugs since we started working on the project. Curiously, people on many sides of the debate have repeatedly expressed that frank, open information about some drugs should not be available. Some parents don’t think their children should be able to find the information. Some law enforcement don’t want anyone other than police to have access to the information. Many doctors believe that some of the specific information should be restricted to medical professionals. And many psychoactive drug users believe that the information should be kept secret so that parents, law enforcement, and policy makers won’t rain on their parade. It’s a fraught, complex field.

Overall, we’re very American in our view on publishing and believe strongly in freedom of information, speech, and publishing.  Other countries and cultures seem to have very different views about whether centralized authorities or small minorities should be allowed to stop other people from speaking or publishing certain viewpoints, about certain topics, or restrict data to approved groups.  Good luck with that.

We tried letting centralized, government information be the primary source of information about recreational psychoactive drugs and that didn’t work out very well. The future will clearly have more mind-altering drugs and technologies, with more varied effects, in ever increasingly complex combinations. The hope that censoring information will lead to the best long term outcome seems pathetically absurd. It’s even more depressing than the ongoing “ban everything” model of the War on Drugs prohibition thinking.

We are cautiously very optimistic about the new Psychoactive Substances Law in New Zealand. It might not be the perfect solution, but at least it’s attempting something new. [NB: See note in the introduction about the date of this interview.] The current system virtually guarantees that the most available, legal substances that young people are exposed to will be the least well tested and understood. Would you rather have your kids smoke pot or smoke an unidentified waxy solid from China that has effects similar to cannabis? That is, whether you like it or not, a very real question that the public faces.

Have you ever had cause to fear for the privacy of your users? How big an issue is that?

Earth: We have always prioritized the privacy of our visitors and authors and continue to go to extra lengths to maintain control over our servers and systems. One of our longest operating principals is to not keep private data that would be of law enforcement interest. We either publish the information or we don’t collect it in the first place.  There are server logs and other data that could be mined, but there are lots of better ways to track what individuals are doing. Online forums and vendor sites are much more prone to be a target for secret law enforcement monitoring, since actual commerce occurs both visible and privately.

Erowid runs its own search engine so that people can search the site without their search terms being stored by Google or Microsoft, linked to their other web wanderings and online identities. It’s a trade off, because Google’s search engine is better than ours (and just about everyone else’s). If the privacy of your searches doesn’t concern you, you’re probably better off asking Google where to find things on Erowid, but for those who are concerned, we maintain an alternative.

Erowid has never been served with a search warrant or (that we’re know of) had our machines compromised by law enforcement. And we try hard to know. With the revelations about global government surveillance in July 2013 (Snowden, NSA, etc), everyone should be aware that nothing they do online is really secret, and that’s been true for a long time. It is increasingly true that anytime one leaves one’s home, they might be monitored by cameras (traffic, bus, bridge, business, etc), RFID tracking devices, and the like. It isn’t healthy to feel paranoid all the time, but the now-or-near-future reality is that everyone is monitored to some degree.

Curiosity about the effective dose of psilocybin mushrooms doesn’t say much about a person. Are they a parent concerned for their child? Are they a tripper looking to re-check the dose before they swallow shrooms tonight? Are they a police officer who wants to understand how many doses they have just seized during a bust? I think people should be careful but not too worried. Are they a student completing an assignment from their cognitive science professor who included Erowid in the list of suggested references?

The web is a pretty safe place and, in most of the world, one doesn’t have to fear that searching Google for information about any drug from LSD to the new NBOMe compounds will result in scrutiny from some public agency.

Does Erowid itself have a stance on drug legalisation and policy around it?

Fire: Erowid Center doesn’t become particularly involved in politics, except through the continuing fight to make sure that accurate information is available to the public.

Earth: The two of us have our own personal opinions and it is very obvious to us that the current control regime is broken and not serving society in many ways. Prohibition-as-regulation has some well-known downsides and it doesn’t take a rebel or a genius to point out the problems. In some ways, the problems associated with psychoactive drugs are as old as human civilization but in other ways we’re in a very new era. Alcohol use and its problems go back as far as we have records. Opiates were some of the earliest medicines and humans have been enjoying them a little too much for thousands of years. Tobacco is a sacred medicine plant from the Americas, but smoking it daily seems to be problematic.

In general, we’re not absolutists about public policy and we believe in regulation. We like stop signs. They’re very handy. But we tend to put more weight on personal liberty than many policy makers. We believe that civilization will be better served over the long term by erring on the side of allowing more. But, we could be wrong. We hope that our work and the work of others in our field will help create increasingly better data from which society can make rational choices. It seems obvious that the drug war has been a train wreck, but we also don’t think that heroin should be sold in colorful foil packets out of vending machines in schools.

In a perfect world, would work like yours be done within the establishment? As an academic or public health resource, perhaps? Or is there a virtue in independence?

Fire: It would be fantastic if a well-funded public or academic organization would take on accurate, detailed education about the use of psychoactive drugs. Unfortunately, politics quickly become involved and there’s a lot of pressure not to provide practical information (how much of a drug people use, steps to take to have the best experience, etc). Warnings and dire predictions get too much focus, and then people (rightfully) don’t trust the resource.

Earth: Our best theory for what would serve the world best would be an independent international organization with the mission of providing accurate, practical, specific, non-judgmental information about psychoactive plants, drugs, technologies, and practices. The EMCDDA is one of the closest existing organizations to our fantasy drug info org, but they are deeply tied to law enforcement and government policy interests such that they often only publish summary information that’s not subject to review and do not publish information that is directly useful to the public or medical professionals who are faced with making real world decisions about psychoactive drugs.

An organizational cross between the EMCDDA; street drug analysis groups like Energy Control, EcstasyData, SaferDrug.ch; harm reduction services such as DanceSafe; health groups like the WHO; and educational organizations such as Erowid, with a budget of about 30-100 million USD per year coming from a permanent endowment would do the trick.

Unfortunately, such a thing is well over the horizon. A very wealthy individual could found that organization and make sure it is independent of influences from entrenched moneyed interests in the Drug War, pharmaceutical industry, and cultural lobby groups, but the fact is that being independent is unusual and difficult in a world driven by commerce and its politics.

Of what elements of the site are you most proud?

Fire: One of our most influential projects is the Experience Vaults, where we’ve compiled over 100,000 first-hand descriptions of the recreational use of psychoactive drugs. The collection receives more than 105,000 views per day. It’s a fabulous resource for the public to be able to get a sense of the effects of a drug or drug combination, as well as the problems and/or benefits that people get from their use. It is certainly the largest such collection in existence, which attracts the attention of researchers interested in analyzing it. It’s also widely used by health-care professionals who can find information about health issues they’re treating.

Earth: We also think our archiving projects are good for the world. We’ve scanned and indexed over ten thousand articles, letters, and other documents from the collections of Albert Hofmann, Myron Stolaroff, and Alexander Shulgin, among others. We strongly believe that the most important thing for our generation of “drug geeks” is to make sure the next generation has as much access to the hard-won wisdom of those who have gone before as possible. Most of the problems and questions people struggle with are not new and it’s important that we learn from the mistakes of the past and benefit from the lessons learned.

The broad class of “psychoactive drugs” have remarkably positive effects on people’s lives, and the deaths and tragedies that accompany the more dangerous drugs are not the start and end to the story about substances and activities that alter how we think and feel.

Are you familiar with New Zealand’s new Psychoactive Substances Act? What do you think of it?

Earth: We have been following it for a few years now and have been actively trying to promote awareness about it through our site, newsletter, and in talks we’ve given over the last couple years.  For us, it is probably the most interesting thing happening in public policy about psychoactive drugs in the world. It might not be perfect, but it’s a novel approach that might teach us something new about how to find the right path forward.

What’s the long-term future of Erowid?

Earth: Good question!

The biggest problem we face is simply funding. Giving away drug information for free isn’t very profitable. Working in this topic area and being independent of government interests, non-political, and unwilling to advertise for (legal) drug vendors makes it very difficult to find traditional revenue sources. Google and similar paid advertising services have cancelled ad service to Erowid Center because of our “drug-related content”. They are clearly afraid of political backlash.

Finally, the primary target demographic for information about recreational psychoactives is 15-25 years old. People of that age have less money and are less likely to have a charitable contribution plan than older people. We hope that more older folks begin to realize that they’re the ones who need to fund reliable information for younger generations. These topics are difficult to talk to one’s children about. It’s a service to parents and grandparents (and we hear from some of them) to have independent, trustworthy resources they can themselves read, learn from, and point young people at.

So, we’re a small non-profit, bumping along in a political minefield, creating resources that have benefited people yesterday, today, and 20 million more each year. We sometimes lose out in the funding game to people who promise bigger, future changes. In our opinion it is the slow motion shifts that create the groundwork for policy change. Erowid’s work helps normalize rational discussions about psychoactive drugs by promoting resources that everyone has access to.

The future of psychoactive drugs is as hopeful as it is complicated. It’s easy to get worried if one only thinks about the downsides, but the rough patch we’re going through right now, with the multitude of research chemicals and  novel psychoactive substances, will hopefully lead to understanding how to use new tools to improve human experience as well as leading to more balanced, more effective ways for society to relate to and regulate psychoactive plants and drugs.

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