Drug Use at Music Festivals, A Public Health Issue…


music festival drug use concerns

Music Festivals create a world where an individual can escape reality for a weekend and surround themselves with fellow music lovers listening to a line-up derived from all four corners of genres; that is hip-hop/rap, rock, indie, pop. That’s the unique part of these events; music artists partake in collaborations and cross music styles to create exciting sounds to keep the attendees on their feet… literally.

The duration for a music festival is typically an entire weekend in a remote area or at fairgrounds of some sort. Usually the event site is miles away from the nearest state road or major highway. This helps create the illusion that the festival is isolated. Granted, some festivals are located directly on a main road. For example, Electric Daisy Carnival in Orlando, FL is held at (what used to be) Tinker Field, which is in the heart of downtown Orlando. Cars are passing by and people are walking on the street, all while this booming festival is going on from dusk until dawn.

Music Festivals are no judgment zones. Attendees have the chance to wear unique styles of clothing without feeling like an outcast; the designs of different outfits are more of an art-form, really. An accessory to these eccentric outfits are beaded cuffs, known as ‘Kandi.’ These bracelets resemble the word PLUR (peace, love, unity, respect) which is the mantra for rave, goa trance (electronic music style), and Electronic Dance Music cultures.

I discovered the rave culture in 2014 when I attended my first music festival. After listening to electronic music for a while, I wanted to experience something bigger and powerful. Electric Daisy Carnival was coming to Orlando and it had been a dream of mine to attend. I came home from class one day and my roommate had been waiting for me – next thing I know she holds up two tickets to EDC for that upcoming Saturday. The feeling was unreal and I think I actually may have cried; that night we stayed up all hours preparing for the event.

Saturday was finally here and we were ready to go dance, jump, and be happy with everyone who were just as excited as we were. Arriving to the festival grounds sent a wave of chills through my body; I had never experienced something like it. Carnival rides, booming beats, neon colors everywhere, it really was entering a completely different world. The experience of being surrounded by good vibes is something I will never forget. Aside from the excitement and energy from the lights, music and clothing… there is a darker side to these events that should be discussed.

Since the booming of music festivals – primarily in 2014 – the use of drugs has increased greatly at these events. Eliminating this kind of behavior from any live music event would be similar to banning alcohol from an NFL football game—a sad reality. One of the biggest incidents that recently happened was at the HARD Summer Music Festival in Ponoma, California this past August (2015), where two young women died of what is suspected to be an overdose of a bad batch of methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA). This drug, usually known as ecstasy (pill form) or Molly (powder form), in its natural state is said to be safer than cocaine according to studies. However, a crushed up, white powder – referring to Molly – can be a mixture of many substances, which is usually the case found in the toxicology reports.

A documentary on Netflix called “What’s in My Baggie?” takes a visit to six different music festivals and used testing kits to see what kind of drugs were exactly being ingested at these events. The most shocking discovery was finding out that people who thought they were in possession of Molly was actually a batch of bath salts.

It’s amazing and sad to see how little people know about this. I’ve been to several festivals and it’s hard to keep track of the number of times I have heard people seeking Molly. A part of me loses control and a sense of anger takes over, but then I remember that these people probably have no idea the effect of this drug. I wish this matter was better understood by those seeking to blend the line of music and mind altering experiences.

Two groups who are acknowledging the prevalence of drugs at music festivals have taken a proactive stance in keeping attendees safe. DanceSafe is an organization who promotes health and safety tips for the nightlife and electronic dance music community. While they do not condone nor condemn the consumption of illegal substances, DanceSafe provides a way for festival attendees to see what exactly they are ingesting by using testing kits. The goal is to provide a protected and unbiased environment to support those who may be involved with drug use and help them make informed decisions about their safety and health. DanceSafe also provides information for safer sex, driving home safely, and how to protect your hearing.

Another organization, known as the Zendo Project, helps with minimizing psychiatric hospitalizations and arrests that are presumed as drug related. With the support from both groups, the goal is to minimize negative outcomes that may occur from the intake of drugs. However, there is one thing that continues to hinder these organizations from helping those who may be victims of drug use. In 2003, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act was established. This law targets dance events specifically, where if event organizers know that drugs are present at their event and are being used they will be fined $250,000 with the possibility of an arrest.

It’s a big controversy because having organizations like DanceSafe and the Zendo Project at your events; it indicates the existence of drug use. Could these groups actually benefit the safety of attendees? There is no encouragement of ingesting illegal substances, but more so educating those who think they have an “innocent drug” that could actually be extremely lethal. After the performance of a testing kit, it is the person’s choice whether or not they take the drug.

It’s unfortunate the power this law has over live music event promoters. Education could not be more important for this topic, and this RAVE Act is eliminating the opportunity for promoters to provide drug-related information to their attendees. A simple drug-awareness pamphlet handed out could easily be interpreted as the encouragement of doing drugs, therefore leaving the event organizer with a huge fine and a record. Instead of pushing blame towards event promoters, let’s start spreading awareness of drug use at live music events.

In 2013, one of New York’s largest music events – Electric Zoo – had drawn an overwhelming 90,000-person crowd to Randall’s Island over three days. On the second day of the event, two separate incidents involving drugs occurred, causing the festival to take a dark turn. A 20-year-old female and a 23-year-old male both died of what was reported as an overdose of Molly and MDMA. Along with these tragedies, four others were hospitalized and 31 arrests were made.

After a long night of conference calls, it was announced that the third day of the festival should be cancelled. Electric Zoo officials stated that the event had the maximum medical personnel on the festival grounds. With 70 emergency medical technicians, 15 paramedics, 5 ER nurses, 2 physicians and other medical response teams on hand during the event, it was enough to say that the festival was at its safest. But even with these precautionary efforts, tragedy struck Electric Zoo, not just once, but twice on the same night.

Drug use at live music events is a public health issue. More importantly it is an issue that is minimally discussed. Some say a ban on these events is the best solution, while others are fighting to continue them. Providing educational methods about drug use is not condoning attendees to partake in the action of using illegal substances, but providing knowledge about how to stay safe. Safety is a common ground between everyone, so why argue against different methods that provide information and help with making safely informed decisions? Banning these events will not stop individuals from using drugs recreationally, but will only cause those to take their actions elsewhere. People think that nothing bad will ever happen to them – until it does. The risk is there, and will always be there.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jordyn Rothberg, an Intern at Event Safety Services, is studying Hospitality and Event Management at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management (expected graduation, May 2017). Jordyn has taken an interest in event risk planning, especially in the music festival industry.

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