Did you know?

01Mar11

Did you know that any pieces of dirt as well as clotted blood collect at the end of the barrel of your syringe when you are shooting up? There are real dangers connected to shooting this shit into your vein.

Nowadays, whenever I shoot up, I always leave a smidgen of dope in the barrel of the syringe to keep impurities out of my veins (that is, I don’t push the plunger all the way to the end). What kinds of impurities exist in a shot? It depends on a lot of things, such as the kind of water you use to cook up your shot, the kinds of chemicals your dealer has added to the dope, how the dope was prepared, where it was stored, the kind of surface you prepared your dope on, etc.

Just so you all know, I am not basing this information on any research. I found out that impurities travel to the back of the barrel of a syringe by accident. I was trying to empty an old syringe full of water that seemed to have some kind of growth within it. As I started to push the plunger, most of this growth, which looked a lot like fungus coincidentally, remained at the back of the barrel. I tried the same experiment by adding a bit of topsoil in the water and again, this stuff accumulated at the end of the barrel. The same thing happened when I replicated the experiment without a needle at the end of the barrel. I did this to prove that the dirt didn’t stay in the barrel because its exit was blocked by the needle.

I wish I had known about this a long time ago. Although there is no research about this, I believe that many injection drug users can avoid a lot of problems related to injecting, including endocarditis, cotton fever and abscesses. As this information has not been researched, I don’t have proven strategies to offer to avoid the kinds of problems I discussed earlier; that will come down the road. But for now, you can do what I do: Don’t push your plunger all the way down when shooting up. If your shot is too small and you can’t afford to leave anything behind, simply add some water and you’ll have the same option.

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Cocaine is undoubtedly one of the most versatile drugs that currently exists. Cocaine is used to enhance sex, decrease inhibition, increase energy, increase pain, decrease pain, kill people, love people, love everyone and everything, suspect everyone and everything, dance, romance, sing, play music, and write poetry, among other things. You can get high on blow by snorting, shooting, eating, smoking, or rubbing it and its derivatives over your skin. Also, it’s a different high when you snort cocaine compared to shooting it. The rush is different when you inject cocaine compared to smoking it. There is even difference in taste and texture depending on how cocaine is cooked. And if you’re not confused yet, the subjective feeling of cocaine is quite different when you use it recreationally compared to using it every day.

I was offered my first line of cocaine while I was serving time at Joyceville Penitentiary. I had just returned from a visit. Only a prisoner knows the emotional daze after returning from a visit. During the visit, entangled in the arms of your children and lover, you lose yourself to the fiction of the moment until the time of departure arrives. Then everything ceases to exist and you are left to sort out the conflicting reality of your existence. At such a moment, I was not going to refuse an offer of free coke, even though everyone I knew had recommended against using it.

“I feel nothing,” I kept telling my hosts, while they offered the second and the third line.

I didn’t want a free third line. Drugs are way more expensive in prisons and I didn’t want to take advantage of the generosity of my hosts. So I retreated to my cell and started to type a letter to my wife In fact, I was typing it to myself, trying to understand the emotional vicissitudes of the afternoon. Suddenly I realized my thoughts were going quite faster than my fingers could ever type. That happens naturally, but this time it was like my thoughts were riding a Ferrari, while my fingers were being driven by an old Skoda.

The adage that claims “you do cocaine once, you’re hooked for life” is certainly false in my own experience. During the next few years, I had dozens of offers to try cocaine, but I declined them all. A Columbian friend I’d met in jail invited me to his home for dinner. After dinner, he produced an ounce of pure cocaine and offered me to snort some, which I again declined. I was on parole then and didn’t want to jeopardize it through random urine testing.

I used cocaine a third time under a totally different circumstance. This time I had helped my boss buy an eighth-ball (3.5g) of amazing cocaine from Albert, another man I’d met in jail. Albert was not a dealer; he was a distributor; if you wanted to buy drugs less than a kilo, Albert was not your man. But he did this as a favour to me, and the coke was so pure, my fingers got numb when I touched them.

“You really don’t want any of this?” my boss asked in disbelief. I shook my head. He took some out, nevertheless, cut it into the tiniest particles, made two lines, and gave me a rolled $10 to snort with.

Fifteen minutes later I was biking home pedaling with a warm, intimate feeling. As if I was being cuddled by a warm blanket during a cold and cozy night. I got off my bike and started walking home. I wanted to talk with everyone who walked by me, but I refrained myself. We had family visiting from far away that weekend, and all I could think was to call my boss and buy some of that cocaine from him. By the time I saw him next morning, he said he had used it all. At the time I didn’t believe him. If it were now, I wouldn’t believe him if he said he had some left.

The fourth time I tried coke was with my boss again. This time, he injected the stuff into my veins. Boy, was the high different? The rush was something too. A “taste” that cocaine injectors fondly experience preceded the rush. My ears started ringing, and I withdrew from my world for a few moments to deal with this sudden infusion of energy. Finally I had experienced the rush people talked about and there was nothing scary about it. On the contrary, I felt great! My boss had reserved four more shots for me, but I was happy with two and gave him the rest. If it were today, I would have given him nothing; actually, I may have tried to persuade him to give me some of his.

A few months later, I had physically become dependent on intravenous Dilaudid. There was hardly heroin in Kingston, and it was quite expensive. So was Dilaudid, but it was at least available. I had to sell drugs to finance my habit, and I did the mistake of selling cocaine. The next worse thing to doing too much cocaine is selling cocaine. Clients knock on your door at any hour of the day. Sometimes, I was awakened at 5:00 in the morning by clients who were partying for days and had no inkling of time. Other times, I had parents trying to sell their children’s Nintendo in exchange for a gram of cocaine. In general, few cocaine dealers deal with anything but cash. If you don’t have the cash, you don’t get blow – that simple. I, on the other hand, was owed money by people who were not going to be able to pay their debts; and soon I went broke. At the end of my foray in the cocaine business, I owed my supplier money and had developed a habit for cocaine as well.

Cocaine is one of the most powerful drugs to psychologically content with. I can have cocaine-induced stomach cramps even when I think about using the damn thing. Once I had to take myself to emergency because I almost had a heart attack IMAGINING that I had injected a huge amount of coke. Imagine that! And yes, there is that thing about bowel movement. The anticipation of injecting cocaine causes cramps. When I used to buy powdered cocaine, I had to either use it right away, or head to the nearest can to deal with my problem head on – or more precisely, bottom on.

If you have a cocaine habit, it is extremely difficult to wait anyway. Once I decided to do an experiment to prove to myself that I had control over my craving for cocaine. I bought an eight-ball of cocaine and promised to myself that I would space it out throughout the weekend. I was appalled by my weakness. I went through the 3.5g overnight. To boot, that night was the beginning of the end of my seventeen-year marriage.

This does not mean that people have no control over cocaine. Since then, I have had access to ounces and sometimes kilos of cocaine and have either not used any, or when I used it, I had total control over it. The good news about cocaine is this: one does not go through withdrawal like a habitual heroin user does. Actually, when one stops using cocaine, one could feel healthier. The implication is this: if you can battle the psychological aspect of this drug, you can control it.

I have used cocaine problematically during 2 periods since I started using illicit drugs. When I finally stopped using cocaine, I learned that during problematic use, this drug acted like a monster inside me. The more I fed that monster, the more it wanted to get fed and the bigger it became. But when I stopped feeding it, it became smaller, and it’s influence on me waned. For me, it took three to four days to make the monster so weak, it could hardly influence me anymore. But stopping for three or four days is not that easy but can be done. You have to have some supports, though. For example, If I really needed a break from cocaine, I left the city for a few days – went somewhere I could not find blow even if I had to swindle someone’s grandparents. Nowadays, I use cocaine only on certain occasions, and I make sure that I don’t use it two days in a row in case I awaken that monster in me again.

Cocaine: The Good & The Ugly:

Cocaine the good: For me sex rules supreme when I do cocaine. Do I become horny when I’m high on cocaine or what? I start reciting fantasies in my lover’s ears, each one kinkier and more outlandish than the one before. When I wake up the next day, I pray that my lover doesn’t remember anything I had said. Usually, though, she wakes up telling me, “you were so passionate last night!” My ears usually become crimson red, me trying to hide under the rug under her feet.

Cocaine the bad: Paranoia. When I started working in the field of harm reduction in Kingston in 1993, I used to deliver harm reduction resources to the homes of our service users and I used to be amazed by the paranoia of some of the coke users. There was this couple who would take turns looking out of the peephole after each shot. I used to wander why the hell would someone use drugs if it was going to make them be so fearful? I would never do that, I used to tell myself. Until, of course, I started to develop the same kind of paranoia.

After every episode of cocaine use, I used to promise myself that I was not going to become paranoid when I heard footsteps outside my door. “Your paranoia is irrational” I would declare to myself; “nobody has raided your house ever. Why do you keep scaring yourself?” But a second after my first shot, I would convince myself that there was the first time for everything. And that the car that stopped downstairs was driven by a cop. The paranoia compelled me to go through my drugs faster, making me vulnerable to overdose. Towards the end, I made a science of my paranoia and designed my use around it. For example, I used in the bathroom, behind locked doors. If cops raided the house, I still had time to get rid of my drugs. Soon, I had peace of mind, and more pieces to use.

Cocaine the bad: overdose! Fatal overdose (OD) from cocaine is rare. When people die of cocaine overdose, they usually have been using other drugs as well. In my opinion, there are two kinds of cocaine overdose: 1) acute OD and 2) Cumulative or Temporal OD.

Acute overdose is when someone does too much cocaine at once. For example, when someone injects a huge hit, or smokes a huge rock. The first thing that happens with this kind of overdose is extreme accumulation of heartbeat. When you race to an uphill finish line, you won’t have that fast of heartbeat compared to the one I am talking about. People experiencing this kind of overdose KNOW that their heart cannot sustain this fast for a long while. When you or someone you love is experiencing this kind of overdose, I would recommend the following.

1. Call an ambulance.
2. Dim the lights, stop music or any noise in the surrounding. If there are lots of people, move them to another room or ask them to leave the apartment or your house – you want as little stimuli as possible. Don’t allow too many folks around the person who is overdosing. If it can be helped, the person he or she trusts most should be the only person guiding him through the overdose.
3. Speak with low, confident tone. Don’t let the person going through overdose think that you are afraid.
4. Calm the person down. Impress on her or him the importance of remaining calm; and…
5. Have the person take deep breaths. You want to make sure that you get as much oxygen as you can to the person’s heart muscles. A heart attack happens when you don’t get enough oxygen to your muscles. But also make sure that he or she doesn’t hyperventilate. The best way to do this is for you to take deep breaths, asking the person to inhale and exhale with you.
6. Have someone wrap a cold towel around the person’s neck for short intervals. The neck has several receptors informing the brain the amount of blood it needs to pump. The cold towel around the neck slows the heart rate. But keep it too long, it increases it. Keeping the towel too long also aggravates the person, increasing his or her heartbeat. Don’t leave the side of the person if there’s no one else to take care of this chore unless the person going through the overdose is calm and breathing properly.
7. Have the person drink water constantly.
8. If you have Valium or a similar drug, crush it and put it under the person’s tongue – provided it’s not more potent than the equivalent of 10mg Valium. Be careful not to give the person too many Valium. The half-life of cocaine is much shorter than Valium. When the effect of cocaine wanes, the person could overdose on Valium.
9. If by this point the ambulance hasn’t arrived, the person going through overdose will get exhausted and will fall sleep. That’s generally a good thing because he or she will be calmer when sleep. But keep an eye on her or him.
10. Sometimes, when ingesting a huge amount of cocaine, people start to convulse – in the cocaine using community this is called “doing the chicken”. From what I have seen, this happens more often among crack smokers. If you see friends doing the chicken, remove any sharp objects from their vicinity so that they don’t accidentally hurt themselves. Try to put a pillow under their heads if you can. Remain calm until the convulsion stops and read #1 to #9.

This has been a longer article than I wanted to write. But cocaine has such a rich heritage. It inspires and obstructs; it creates and destructs. It has affected people’s health, their culture, social norms and their economy. No wonder there are a million names attributed to cocaine; among them, snow, blow, Charlie, more, gin, zip, cola, snow bird, dama blanca, flake, line, stardust, line, and so on, so forth. If I had to give this drug one more name, it would be versatile.


To get a hit, an injecting drug user (IDU) has to get the needle right between the vein walls of the injection site.  To make sure that the needle is in the right location, this IDU has to pull the plunger back to see if the syringe is filling with blood.  This process is called aspirating in health care circles, and flaggingamong people who use injecting drugs.  As soon as the blood gushes into the syringe it means that the needle is in the right place and the injecting drug user pushes the plunger and completes the injection.

Between 1993, when I injected my first hit of morphine, and 1998, all needle exchange programs in Ontario distributed 28gauge BD syringes.  For those who don’t know about gauges and other syringe terminology, here is a brief syringe 101.

For our purposes, the syringe has 3 main parts:

  1. 1. The Plunger
  2. 2. The Barrel, and of course,
  3. 3. the needle

1) The PLUNGER is a long, thin rod that fits snugly inside the barrel of the syringe.  It easily slides up and down to either draw the liquid (drugs, blood, etc…) into the barrel or push the solution out of the barrel through the needle.

The plunger has a rubber seal at the lower end to prevent leakage.  The rubber seal lines up with the digits on the barrel to measure the correct amount of liquid/drugs/solution.

The ease with which the plunger is pushed into and pulled out of the needle is called “The Action of the Needle”.  The action of a needle is important for many reasons.  The easier the action, for example, the less likely the needle will move in your vein and get out of it while you’re shooting up.  So, overall, you are less likely to miss a shot if you’re using a syringe that has a smooth action.

But something always has to give: generally speaking, the smoother the action, the less resistance, and the less suction.  Therefore, although the plunger is manipulated easily, the blood isn’t sucked up as strongly.  Because resistance and the action of the plunger are inversely related, the smaller the barrel, the more resistance there is, and the harder the action becomes.  So ½ cc syringes generally have harder action.

PARTS OF A SYRINGE

2) The BARREL is the long, thin chamber that holds the fluid.  The barrel is marked with lines to measure the number of fluid units

For intravenous drug use, barrels usually come in two sizes: ½cc  and 1cc.   ½cc syringes take up to 500mg or 50 units of fluid.  Whereas 1cc barrels contain up to 1 cubic centimeter, or 1000 cubic millimeter or 100 units of fluid, ½ cc barrels contain up to, as you may have guessed it, ½ cubic centimeter, or 500 cubic millimeters or 50 units of fluid.   Of course there are syringes with much larger barrels – but these are generally bulky and inconvenient for intravenous drug use.[1]

Smaller barrel syringes are more compact and generally easier to manipulate.  For novice injection drug users, these needles are easier to flag and shoot; unfortunately, if you don’t have good veins, these syringes fill up very fast and become cumbersome to use.  This is one of the reasons why ½cc syringes are not very popular among veteran IV drug users.

3) The NEEDLE is a short and thin metal covered with a fine layer of silicone that allows it to puncture the skin easily and with less pain.

Most needles are divided into three parts (below), but insulin needles (the ones distributed by needle and syringe distribution programs) come attached to the barrel and have two parts:  The shaft and the bevel.

PARTS OF A NEEDLE

When you pick up a syringe, three numbers stick out:

1) its Size,

2) its Gauge, and

3) its length Continue reading ‘All You Wanted to Know About Needles But Were Afraid To Ask’


“This is the 3rd message I’ve left, Raffi.  I don’t think you’re busy.  I think you no longer care for our friendship – I get the message.  I am really sorry you feel this way.”

Amin, one of my best friends, left this message in my voicemail in the summer of 1996.  He hadn’t done anything wrong – on the contrary, he had been helpful and caring.  He dotted over me during bad times as any good friend would.  But my cocaine use at the time had gotten so out of hand, I didn’t want to be with anyone that didn’t use drugs.

Amin (not his real name) was the last friend I had who didn’t use illicit drugs.  Actually that’s not true.  Amin smoked hash or pot every hour of the day.  But he had a hard time accepting my drug use.  Not that he was mean to me, or he was angry with me.  The man respected me, cared for me, and was glad to be around me.  But he always looked for signs of drug use.  When he asked me how I was doing, it was clear he wanted to know if I was using, and how much I was using.  When he saw me sweating, his face took a look of pity – as if to say, “why are you doing this to yourself?”  When he talked about my future, he always predicated it with, “When you get out of this stage, we’ll take our girlfriends and go to ….”.   There were times when Amin would put his hand on my shoulder and say, “When am I going to get the old Raffi back?”

If I had a nickel for every “old Raffi” I’ve heard, I’d have about 25 cents, maybe less.  But I’ve heard the phrase enough to infer that I’m less of a person now than I was before I used illicit drugs.

Now don’t ask me to write about my relatives.  Okay, since you insist…

My relatives stopped talking with me about my drug use very early on – not because they didn’t want to, but because I ran circles around their arguments, painting their mundane habits much more damaging than my puny drug use.

“Why do you keep talking about my heroin use?”  I would say.  “Look, you smoke in a roomfull of grandchildren, damaging their lungs, making our clothes smell; and tomorrow, when you have lung cancer, I am going to have to pay part of your humongous hospital bills.  At least I’m doing something that I enjoy.  If you think I’m hurting myself, at least I’m not hurting anyone else”,

Or,

“How many egg yolks did you eat this week? FOUR?  Fuck, you probably have so much cholesterol, your arteries are chocked.  Instead of worrying about my drug use, go get your blood work done.” Continue reading ‘Birds Of A Feather’