3 min

Overdose conundrum

Cutting back on the 'ooga booga' routine

Credit: Xtra files

Two serious drug overdoses this winter in two of the city’s busiest bathhouses have triggered concern over how gay baths and nightclubs should handle drug overdoses.

The Feb 1 death of Kenneth Arthur Scott at the Spa On Maitland was a result of injecting cocaine. Insp Don Campbell of 52 Division says Scott was known to the police and had been arrested several times before. He was not a bathhouse regular.

In another incident, paramedics were called to St Marc’s for a customer who was out of control, exhibiting symptoms of an overdose from the party drug GHB. He spent several hours in the emergency department.

The close timing of the two incidents has opened discussion about whether there is an increase in reckless drug use and what businesses should be doing to deal with it.

Ron McRae, assistant manager at St Marc’s, says he’s been seeing more problems.

“It was building up. I’d say over a six week period up to that Sunday – all these incidents were just getting out of control,” McRae says. “Every weekend I would come in and somebody would be doing the ooga booga routine, bouncing off the walls with no towel on – which is GHB.”

Steve Ireson, promoter at It nightclub says drug use will always be a part of going out, but that he’s concerned about the popularity of GHB in particular. He says there’s a tiny difference between doses producing happy feelings and doses causing convulsions.

With the unpredictable potency inherent in any illicit substance, people can easily overdose: Their eyes can roll back in their head as they lose touch with their surroundings, become incommunicative, yell or speak loudly, convulse, vomit, lose consciousness or have their breathing slow to the point of flat-lining.

“For a lot of staff members, it can be quite scary,” says Ireson, a 12-year veteran of club management. When he worked at Industry, he barred anybody found with GHB.

McRae agrees that staff can’t be expected to know how to be ambulance attendants. In February, he says his staff was calling paramedics on a weekly basis.

“We’re wasting ambulance resources and city money with these people who are just being irresponsible.”

Jim McMullin, general manager at the Spa On Maitland, has offered to pay for St John’s First Aid training for any of his staff. At bigger parties, like the Black And Blue in Montreal, there’s a medical team on site. Ireson says Guvernment nightclub has three paramedics on staff every night they’re open.

At smaller venues, though, it’s impossible to have specialized staff. And there are concerns that they shouldn’t.

“I think it makes sense for the baths to be careful about providing too much training,” says Mariana Valverde, criminology professor at the University Of Toronto, “because this gives the illusion they’ve got this professional help.”

Valverde says the law makes it every individual’s responsibility to be able to spot drunkenness and, for example, to prevent intoxicated people from driving. There is no such common knowledge for illicit drugs.

All management people I interviewed agreed that they would tend to err on the side of calling for an ambulance in dicey situations – even when customers are uncooperative and refuse treatment.

“Customer safety is definitely the most important thing and all the staff know that,” says McMullin. “If somebody’s not looking well, they act pretty quickly. I don’t think they would hesitate to call an ambulance even if it was unnecessary.”

Ireson blames people feeling that it’s their right to openly do drugs in a club.

“The boys, they tend to get comfortable and then they pop a pill out in the open – or do a bump of K out in the open. It’s disrepectful,” he says.

It nightclub has put up zero tolerance posters at the front door and searches everyone. St Marc’s started an “enough is enough” campaign after the February overdose. McRae says they have permanently barred as many as 25 people under the new policy. Barrings at the Spa are “taken on a case by case basis,” says McMullin.

Valverde says a business’ liability would be limited if they take some initiative to deter drug use in their establishment since police can’t claim they condone drug use. On the other side of things, there’s the issue of privacy, especially regarding what goes on in bathhouse rooms.

“There’s a line that you don’t cross with a customer,” says McMullin. “Unless you really feel that there’s a problem.”

Valverde wonders whether the increased trend may be connected to the clampdown on all-night raves with the accompanying drug use moving to different venues where staff and fellow clients are not as aware about drug use issues. She says peer education is key.

“The best approach is the sort of peer education that happened when the rave movement was at its height. The ravers had these little wallet-sized cards, This Is What An Overdose Looks Like. That was education from within,” says Valverde. “If people are seeing themselves as part of a community… then maybe it’s better for them to share the knowledge and take some responsibility for one another.