Blog Post

Let's Get Frank about Drug Use and Prevent Future Music Festival Tragedies

Stefanie Jones
This past weekend, the final day of the three-day electronic dance music festival Electric Zoo held on Randall’s Island in New York City was canceled.  The official press release from the city on Sunday, September 1, didn’t give many details, but stated that “the causes of death have not been determined, however, both appear to have involved the drug MDMA (ecstasy, or molly).” It’s a sad, and yet not unfamiliar headline.  Especially so for someone like myself, who has been a fan of electronic music and attending events for over ten years now. One can only hope the lessons from this experience can prevent future tragedies.
Electric Zoo is a far cry from the relatively small parties that used to be called “raves.” In this era of electronic music events, they are held to the same standards as any other music or large sporting event. And yet even a production of this size can still be stopped in its tracks with news – or even the suspicion – of drug-related fatalities connected to it.  
While not directly acknowledging there would likely be drug use at their event, Made Event, the promoters behind Electric Zoo, took practical preventative steps to ensure health and safety: there were multiple free water refill stations, easily identifiable “help points“ throughout the festival, and roaming medical and security staff keeping an eye on the crowd.  They even worked with New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to develop harm reduction messaging sent out in marketing emails before the event and during through the event app.  The messages reminded partygoers to drink water and to look out for each other.
Which made waking up to the news on Sunday even harder.  Here was a promoter who had taken the right steps, and it was still that same headline – lives lost, event canceled.  
With the event organizer being so on point, why does this headline keep coming up?  And what can we do to stop it from happening?
Actually, a lot.
But it really all boils down to one thing: it’s time for real talk about the drug use at festivals.
If a young person chooses to use MDMA, there is drug-specific experiential information to help them make safe choices. Things like: don’t take molly in the middle of the day and stand in the middle of a packed crowd.  Don‘t try to roll all three days of a festival.  Don’t take multiple doses in one day.  Don‘t mix substances, and if you do, wait until the effects of the first fade.  
Some of this may sound controversial, but it can save lives.  And right now, no one, or almost no one, is carrying these messages.  The exception is a nonprofit called DanceSafe. Around since the first wave of popularity of electronic music in the United States, DanceSafe has long provided accurate, fact-based drug information and guidance on safety practices.  DanceSafe, and a newcomer called Bunk Police, also provide another potentially life-saving service that has been edged out by the squeamishness around drug use – drug testing kits that can determine if the pill or powder is, in fact, MDMA.  
Due to the illegal, unregulated market, MDMA can be cut with other substances like PMA that cause death.  It can also be cut with “legal highs” that have different effects and will skew whatever safety strategies the individual using the drug may have planned.  It makes sense to “test it before you ingest it,” but in fact these kits are considered drug paraphernalia and are illegal in some states.  Certainly an event like Electric Zoo couldn’t have had pill testing onsite even if they wanted to, for the same reason they can’t provide the drug information people need: it would have crossed an invisible and yet quite sharp line in the sand that would demonstrate that everyone involved in putting on the event – city, promoter, law enforcement – knew definitively that illegal drugs would be used.  
First, let me say one thing unequivocally: electronic music does not require drug use to be enjoyed, nor do you have to be on anything to have fun at festivals.  Many, many people enjoy these events with nothing stronger than caffeine and enthusiasm, and some even without the caffeine (bless their energy).  And yet, MDMA remains associated with the scene and some choose to use it because it adds something positive to their experience.  And the added value must be considerable, because anyone who does use it risks arrest every time they bring the substance into a venue, because MDMA is illegal.  Its illegality causes the environment that stifles the education and communication that saves lives.  At this point, after so many deaths at festivals – and not just dance music festivals either – what responsible person can’t help but wonder if our drug laws are actually causing more of the danger that they were ostensibly put in place to prevent?
Three years ago, a young woman died after using ecstasy at a large music event in Los Angeles. As a response, the public health department came together with promoters, artists and the community to produce a video about staying safe when using MDMA. The media caught wind of it and torpedoed the process with accusations of "teaching kids to use drugs." Consequently, the video has only now been officially released. We need more of this kind of information to make its way through the scene. Watch and share the video.
Event promoters must continue to do everything within their power to keep their attendees safe. But everyone who doesn’t want to see another headline about another young person losing his or her life must also demand real drug education and drug checking services. The dance community itself must not be afraid to question the laws and policies that lead us to a cycle of tragedy.  That is actually well in line with the original “rave” spirit, and something that I personally hope the new generation of music fans will carry forward.
Stefanie Jones is event manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Harm reduction