Some hobbies require a bit more discretion than Facebook and Instagram can provide. Such is the case with the subreddit r/Opiates, which has more than 70,000 followers and is widely used as a way to show off a recent purchase of heroin or pills. “Name a better duo than Oxy and White Chocolate Mocha,” one redditor posted a few days ago, holding a Starbucks cup and a cellophane bag with a half-dozen little white pills. Others share mini-reviews of their latest scores, commenting on their strength and scent, or good indicators of purity.
That said, r/Opiates isn’t exclusively for tipping off addicts to a specific dealer or product. It has a strict set of rules, the number one being: No sourcing. As the sidebar of the group states, “Sourcing is any post regarding the acquisition of drugs, including legal substances, from a specific person or place, including other subreddit members, online markets and vendors. Posts about finding people in your city/state will be deleted and a ban may be issued. No location-specific posts! This includes neighborhoods AND cities.” The group also prohibits posts with personal information, that suggest meetups or contain personal attacks or begging.
Instead then, users share memes about the realities of their life — e.g., stealing their grandparents’ prescriptions or relapsing — and discuss strategies for avoiding arrest, a la the redditor who uses a Fleshlight to store their drugs or the one who keeps a locked safe inside their car but their drugs elsewhere (that way, in the event the car is searched, the safe serves as a distraction).
The larger goal of the group, though, is “harm reduction,” defined by the Harm Reduction Coalition as a “set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use.” To that end, a moderator known as Tracey distributes kits to members upon request with clean needles and Narcan, an opioid-reversal drug essential to halting an overdose. Other members post about which pharmacies supply free or low-cost Narcan, though (again, per the rules) they cannot include specific city information publicly. Similarly, the desire to quit using pops up regularly. In fact, there are a few r/Opiates spinoffs, such as r/Methadone (dedicated to the opioid maintenance therapy) and r/ReagentTesting (filled with info about Drug Testing Reagents used to determine the chemicals of a substance).
There’s also a specific tag on the group labeled “fentanyl warning.” In this section, people share when a batch of drugs with fentanyl has been identified so that others don’t unknowingly purchase the product and accidentally overdose. Here, users are allowed to offer more specifics regarding their location. (The moderators, however, lock the threads to prevent people from attempting to seek out the fentanyl-laced drugs.)
All of which is why, Spinderella69, a poly-substance addict who has been sober for three years and who serves as a moderator of both r/Opiates and the nudes sub-group r/OpiatesGoneWild, believes such communities are more helpful than harmful. “It doesn’t affect my sobriety in any way,” she explains. “If anything, I get to live vicariously through others, and that actually kind of helps me, cause I can ‘live the life’ without living the life.”
As for r/Opiates, she adds, “There’s really no other place you can go to discuss things that are considered outside of the sexual norm in real life. Most people aren’t comfortable talking to their friends about how their opiate use is giving them ED. [On r/OpiatesGoneWild], they can find people who have experienced similar situations and offer advice, or people can just realize they aren’t the only ones, which can make them feel so much better about themselves and less alone.”
Reef Karim, an addiction medicine physician and the founder of Lumion Center Beverly Hills, more or less agrees with Spinderella that the subreddits constitute their own version of harm reduction. “In this world, there’s a ton of misinformation,” he says. “It’s very hard to get real information. When people are struggling, a part of addiction and drug use is loneliness and isolation. Especially for someone in the throes of addiction, having a support network is a good thing.”
Still, what works for some people (like Spinderella) doesn’t work for everyone. “I don’t read or participate over at r/Opiates,” explains Qui9, a recovering intravenous heroin user who has relapsed numerous times (although has now been sober since September 2018). “I just cannot personally look at pictures of ‘pill porn’ or filled syringes without being triggered or getting cravings.” She offers an alternative instead: r/OpiatesRecovery, a different subreddit where 16,800 subscribers at various stages of sobriety vent, ask for advice and discuss the tools they use to stay clean.
“We support each other in the moment when needed,” she explains. “We share our triumphs and failures. We keep an eye out on each other. We build relationships. Before I had the willingness to go to NA meetings in my community, I had the people from r/OpiatesRecovery to support me and to call me out on my bullshit.” (Qui9 even invited two members of the group to her wedding.)
Here’s where Qui9 and Spinderella have particularly fertile common ground. “[At r/Opiates or r/OpiatesRecovery, addicts] don’t have to worried about being judged,” she says. Which for a couple of moments at least, makes the world feel a little less lonely. “There are few places ‘in the real world’ that you can talk about your use without being shamed.”