Events & Concerts: Teachable moments in Drug Decriminalization in Vancouver

David R Penny
Together We Can
Published in
5 min readFeb 21, 2023

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Recently, the province of British Columbia decriminalized personal possession to change the narrative around substance use and make services more accessible. This has had an interesting effect on how things like bars and events/festivals have had to respond to the general public’s ability to carry personal-use substances openly. As a person in recovery and no longer a user of substances, I generally look at things like concerts or events with a different perspective, and recently I had an eye-opening experience.

Photo by Aleksandr Popov on Unsplash

This last weekend, I attended two separate Electronic Music events from two different promotion companies, each with different policies on personal carry/drug use, and had two vastly different experiences. One event, a ‘History of House Music’ with multiple DJs, was put on by a local festival, and the other was a long list of headliner DJs put on by a company well-known across Canada for its events.

Both events had some similarities; for example, both had liquor licenses and served alcoholic beverages, both had pre-sale tickets, and both had a variety of music that would let anyone in attendance find something that they enjoyed listening to. Still, the differences became more visible once you made your way to the entrance.

From the moment of lining up at the first event, even the differences in how you were greeted by the security company that was hired was a stark and shocking difference. At the entrance, a posted list of rules first welcomed you to enjoy the space and also asked that if you did anything, you did so safely, acknowledging that people who use substances like drinking should do so in the safest possible way and that if you used any alternate substances, there were harm reduction supplies available, and also people to talk to if you needed to. This inclusive space went so far as to have genderless bathrooms and security staff at the door whose primary concern was ensuring that safety was number one, there were no capacity issues for the space that the event was held in, that no discrimination or hate speech was tolerated, and that consent was a mandatory topic. During my time at this event, there were zero issues, no problems that needed to be addressed, and everyone genuinely had a good time.

Arriving at the door for event number two had a much stricter, regimented, and entirely different feel. You weren’t welcomed when you arrived at the door; you were told what metal detector lineup you were going to. This has been the way for many years, so it’s expected, but again the difference in being greeted by overly aggressive security staff set the tone for the entire evening.

Stock photo of an event security guard in a stairwell
Photo by Flex Point Security Inc. on Unsplash

As someone who doesn’t use substances, I knew I wouldn’t have an issue, and I continued through the door while examining the lineups on either side of me. At some point, someone, either with drugs or on drugs, would come through the same entrance as me, and sure enough, they did.

A gentleman came through the door with what I could see from my close proximity: two pills of ecstasy in a baggie. The amount of the substance, allowed under the new decriminalization/personal carry rules in BC, was confiscated by security, he was promptly barred from ever attending one of their events again while being escorted off the property. Meanwhile, inside the event, hundreds of people took and used substances, and even more differences became evident in their approach to personal use.

Almost everyone who came through the entrance made their first stop at the bathroom lineup, obviously to take whatever they had to hide out of whatever hiding spot they had used. As you looked around the space, people gravitated to the darkened areas or to once again lining up for the bathrooms to hide their substance use, knowing a glance in your direction by an overzealous security guard would mean the end of your evening. There were no spaces to relax, no people for anyone in distress to talk to, and no acknowledgment of the fact that the same people they were selling overpriced beverages to were more than likely indulging in a variety of other substances that go along with the style of music that was being played.

Less than two hours after the doors had opened, security and first aid staff rushed through the crowd dramatically, and after a moment, they returned with a person who had consumed perhaps a little too much of something yet was still walking and talking with the person they were with were being escorted away by ring of security, not to be seen again.

Photo by Mishal Ibrahim on Unsplash

These fundamental differences in how we approach substances and the people who use them are ‘teachable moments’ and precisely what decriminalizing personal use is meant to address.

When substances and the people who use them are made to feel like criminals, you push the substance use into rooms and darkened spaces where people don’t feel safe, they are isolated, or they are inclined to use more before venturing out into the rest of the population. This space, where people feel judged or marginalized for their drug use, pushes them to use in unsafe ways, perhaps even taking more than intended and leading them not to seek support when a problem arises for fear of the consequences.

As someone who has come out on the other side, and is now in recovery, I still go out to have fun, and do the things i used to do, like going to concerts and seeing my favorite DJs. Now I can enjoy them, remember them, and while I am there seeing things from a different perspective, maybe my sobriety will inspire others.

When people feel supported and can use in safe, non-judgemental spaces, the entire scope of recovery from addiction becomes a conversation that can move from decriminalization to harm-reduction, to treatment. All of these methods are valid, and the groups that support those methods should be talking to each other, as they all have a space, all have experience in the human condition, and all support the goal of improving lives.

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David R Penny
Together We Can

David is a recovering addict & advocate for Addiction Recovery. He works at Vancouver’s Together We Can, a nonprofit addiction treatment center with 300 clients