Interview with Alex Betsos — Co-Founder, Karmik
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is Karmik?
Alex Betsos: Karmik is a nightlife/festival harm reduction organization based out of Vancouver, although they do work all over BC.
Jacobsen: What has been its developmental trajectory?
Betsos: Karmik started out as a conversation between myself, Margaret Yu, and Munroe. Margy and I met in Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Simon Fraser University where I did my undergraduate degree. I started out as the volunteer coordinator, in part because I was Margy’s resident drug nerd, with an extensive interest in harm reduction. We actually did a small harm reduction workshop with CSSDP back in 2013, and even worked a show at Red Room in Vancouver, but it never went further than that [I have a picture of this if you want]. Karmik since its inception in 2014 has gone from 3 coordinators and a couple volunteers just trying to figure out how to do harm reduction in Vancouver, to an internationally engaged harm reduction project. I’m proud of my little harm reduction baby, and it still breaks my heart that I cannot be involved at this time. I still do some advising for my former colleagues from time to time, but that’s mostly between friends having a beer at this point, nothing formal.
Jacobsen: Now, you are in graduate school. However, what has been your role in it? What is your current role in it?
Betsos: I am not involved with Karmik at this point. I stepped back, as my access to things like the Karmik email were a clear conflict of interest for me in relation to my future research.
In the past I was the volunteer coordinator. My job was to structure the training’s, organize them, and also be the bridge between the volunteers and the staff. One of the things about working at a tiny organization is that you normally pick up a couple of other roles too. I also did a lot of the more science-based research stuff, and at some point, picked up communicating with some of the music festivals and drafting the budget. On top of that all of the Karmik coordinators are also event coordinators. That means we go to events, and work with the volunteers to disseminate harm reduction information while making sure people are doing alright.
Jacobsen: How is your graduate school work (congratulations, by the way,) helping with the work in harm reduction, night life, and so on? How is it helping you deep interest in philosophy too, of which I am aware?
Betsos: I’m not sure how much I can say about my research at this point as it is in the preliminary stage. In the past, I have tended to focus on how drug knowledge becomes disseminated and contested. For now I’ll just say that what I’m doing is relatively similar.
My graduate school work does not have a direct impact on harm reduction, or at least not yet (also thanks!). My research area is medical anthropology and science and technology studies. I’m much more interested (at least for now) in how ideas about drugs come to exist. What are the cultural paradigms, the identities of people involved with drugs, whether that’s researchers, activists, or people who use drugs. I kind of come from a mindset where I want my research to be applicable, inasmuch as it shows the nuances drug prohibition. One of the areas where there is a real lack of research on drug prohibition broadly, is with non-marginalized people (that includes people who use drugs, but also people who create services for people who use drugs). My bachelor’s research, for example, explored drug knowledge on online forums, particularly focusing on research chemicals. In a world where drugs are illegal, how do people who use drugs acquire knowledge, and make decisions?
This kind of works in with my philosophy questions around what science is and how it is engaged with by a public. Even the question of what counts as knowledge comes into tension when you’re talking about the experience of drugs and what clinicians might say about drugs.
Jacobsen: How are organizations including CSSDP and Karmik improving the advancement of harm reduction in Canada and British Columbia?
Betsos: So, there are kind of two aspects to CSSDP, there are the local chapters, and then there is the national board. On the local chapter level, I’ve seen drug policy students push for naloxone training, access to drug checking, and safer drug information. On the national level one of the things we’ve done is put out a guide on cannabis education for youth that is based on a harm reduction model. By focusing on harm reduction in cannabis I kind of hope we can shift the perspective on harm reduction more broadly.
Karmik is the advancement of harm reduction in British Columbia! I’m exaggerating, but it is definitely part of the process of making harm reduction more broadly accepted. Munroe has put so much effort into making sure that people have access to naloxone, as well as being involved in working groups. Before Pemberton Music Festival went bankrupt, we had a sanctuary presence there for two years, and last year we did a pilot run on a new style of Sanctuary space at Center of Gravity. One of the biggest things I always thought was important with Karmik though was just providing people in the nightlife community with solid harm reduction information. There were no harm reduction booths at events in Vancouver really before Karmik (although there were some organizations in the past). When I was volunteer coordinator we also taught a lot of people about harm reduction practices. If that in itself is not an advancement, I’m not sure what is.
Jacobsen: What has been the feedback from the younger population and from the professional communities (academic and research)?
Betsos: I have never met someone that did not like what Karmik was doing. I’m not aware of much focus on Karmik in research. It’s worth noting that Karmik is kind of the small kid on the block. Organizations like Dancesafe, ANKORS, Trip! Project, have been around for a really long time, and so in a lot of ways they are better for studying.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Alex.
Originally published at cssdp.org on July 10, 2018.