Drugs Happen: Getting Real About Music Festivals

Press Release July 24, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, more than 70 people in Gorge, Washington were sent to area hospitals after what was initially reported to be a mass overdose on the club drug 'molly' (MDMA) at the Paradiso outdoor music festival. One man died from allegedly ingesting it. In keeping with unfortunate tradition, the media didn't ask many — if any — hard questions about the event.

No one asked if those 'overdoses' were in fact dehydration due to lack of ready access to water or lack of shady "chill out" areas. No one asked what role alcohol may have played, or any other drugs for that matter. Very little was said about the over 90 degree heat that weekend. This isn't the first time MDMA-linked reported overdose fatalities have occurred at outdoor music festivals and it won't be the last. With more outdoor music festivals happening over the next couple of weeks, including Outside Lands and Lollapolooza, the possibility of more drug or alcohol-related problems is real.

The potentially harmful consequences of alcohol and other drug use aren't going to change until and unless festival organizers start doing some very basic things. But many won't — because the fear of being perceived as 'helping' people who use drugs at their events is so great.

We need to acknowledge that alcohol and other drugs have been omnipresent at music festivals and will doubtless continue to be. We need to make it socially, and legally, acceptable for festival organizers to anticipate that some portion of the crowd may overdo it and may need assistance in staving off serious consequences.

Young people underestimate how intense heat can exacerbate the effects of alcohol and other drugs. Heat stroke, dehydration, nausea, fatigue and severe headaches are just a few of the unpleasant and occasionally dangerous side effects of being in crowded outdoor areas in high temperatures for many hours. Festival organizers need to plan on how to help keep thousands of people who may be intoxicated properly hydrated and cooled when temperatures soar, sometimes reaching 100-plus degrees at festivals at some festivals, like Coachella in the Palm Springs area.

This isn't to suggest that the people who use drugs at festivals are not responsible for their own actions; everyone who uses drugs should, at minimum, know what they're taking and know how to avoid any dangers associated with their drug of choice. Basic awareness of how to negate harmful side effects would go a long way toward reducing accidental overdoses and fatalities.

It would be remarkably easy to include "Have fun, but be very careful" messages with precise, helpful information on festival websites and printed materials. In Los Angeles, the Department of Public Health did just that, in response to a reported Ecstasy overdose at the Electric Daisy Carnival a couple of years ago. They created palm cards explaining the risks of Ecstasy and ways to reduce the dangers of its use. But those helpful, fact-based cards caused such an uproar that they never saw the light of day. Suggestions like, "Take frequent breaks and stay hydrated," "Watch out for your friends and know the signs of possible overdose," "Seek medical attention right away if your friend passes out," "Never buy drugs from a stranger," "If you haven't done it at home, don't do it here for the first time," etc,, may seem very basic, but to many young people those messages may not be deeply ingrained yet.

Festival organizers can make it explicitly clear that there will be medics roaming the event, wearing a specific colored t-shirt or hat, and advise their attendees to look for them if medical assistance is immediately needed. One simple announcement of this from the stage every hour could save a life. They can tell people where medics will be stationed throughout the event. They can hand out palm cards similar to the ones from Los Angeles at the front gate. They can flash messages on any "Jumbotron" -type screens they may have.

Some portion of virtually any large crowd of young people gathered all day will use drugs. Festival organizers cannot ensure that not a single person takes a single drug during their event. But they can and should acknowledge reality and take simple, low-cost steps to help save the life of any of their young customers who may make a dumb mistake.

It's ridiculous to let someone die because it feels awkward to acknowledge that drug use happens. With better drug education and the simple presence of experienced medics, young people can make sure that a mistake made during the day won't mean they won't get home safely at night.

Meghan Ralston is the Harm Reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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