The evolution of substance safety from designated driver to buddy circles

Published Oct 20, 2020 11:00 a.m. ET
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Since the very beginning of time, human beings have sought out mind-altering drugs that could help them to achieve a higher state of existence. It’s a natural draw that can even be documented among other species within the animal kingdom, regardless of what some anti-substance folks might like us to believe, and it’s something that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

Though the benefits of drugs like cannabis are clearly documented and proven, we also know that safety must be our number one priority moving forward. This approach has worked many times in the past, and it’s most recognizable feat came from campaigns that advocated for the importance of having a designated driver after consuming alcohol.

The designated driver strategy

The promotion of the designated driver began back in the 1920s in Scandinavia. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the term was widely recognized in the western world after Harvard University’s School of Public Health in the United States launched the Harvard Alcohol Project to prove how a designated driver could reduce the incidents of drinking and driving.

The project partnered with Hollywood and the communications industry, and this was when big television series like Cheers and The Cosby Show began to include messaging of preventing drunk driving, by directly referencing a designated driver in their scripts. This strategy garnered national recognition as an incredible success,  and the proof of its effectiveness can be found by the drop in impaired driving rates immediately following the public health campaign.

There is no way to measure the exact number of lives that may have been saved by the designated driver strategy, but what we do have is proof of a clear drop in impaired driving rates. In 1988 when the initiative began, alcohol-related deaths were at an astounding 23 000 in the United States alone.  Only four years later, as awareness of the issue increased, alcohol-related deaths dropped down to 17 858, which is 24% lower than when it all started.

A need for an update

Public health safety campaigns can work well, but the legal drug trade is evolving and expanding at an exponential rate, with many all-natural illicit substances expected to follow loosely behind cannabis and psilocybin as society becomes more willing to accept them and that means its time to reassess the recommended protocols for consumers, to include any risks that might arise with drugs that aren’t alcohol-based.

Right now, some agencies are looking at the risks that are associated with edibles, like the delayed effects that could increase the risk of impaired driving. As they can take up to two hours to kick in, making it realistic to assume that some users will after waiting awhile, will believe they just didn’t get high and as a result, get behind the wheel before the potent mind-altering effects take hold. This is a great start, but something else might be needed if we want to help consumers to cover all of their safety bases.


The buddy circle

The buddy circle is a concept that is not meant to replace the designated driver campaigns that we all know so well. Instead, it is designed to offer an additional layer of protection on top of the standard recommendation to find a safe way home after a night of using any legal substance. This idea is an excellent harm reduction strategy that can help us to build on the successes of the designated driver.

A buddy circle is a group of close friends that you trust, who should attend all significant substance focused events and outings, with each individual taking on an essential role to create a foolproof safety net. Instead of a designated driver, one person is selected to act as the buddy guard. This role includes all protective tasks like watching out for dangerous strangers and discouraging embarrassing behavior.

The buddy guard, just like the designated driver, would be expected to avoid all substances so that they can be attentive to the needs of the group. They would also be doing things like keeping the circle together, closely supervising anyone who might have a low tolerance for a bad reaction and helping to ensure that everyone whose there manages to find a safe drive home.

The importance of awareness

There are certainly more tweaks that will need to be made to our current public health recommendations if we want to accommodate an influx of brand new products on the market in our safety net. Still, for now, the buddy circle offers something that can help in most situations, regardless of the substance in question. What is essential is that no one is alone and that someone always stays sober, so that help can be sought if it’s ever necessary, and that simple advice alone should help to keep consumers of all types safer.

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