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5 Ways to Reduce Drug Deaths at Music Festivals

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This post is also available in: Spanish

In 2014, 24-year-old Kimchi Truong died of an apparent drug overdose at the Coachella Music Festival. Truong was one of numerous drug deaths that year including others that happened at the Amsterdam Dance Event, Electric Daisy Carnival, Future Music Festival Asia, and Veld Music Festival.

The usual response to these deaths have been for cities to consider banning the festivals or for lawmakers to enhance legal penalties for drug dealers and users, but sometimes these moves backfire. Increased police presence at music festivals encourages “pre-loading” (ingesting a large amounts of drugs before entering) which can be dangerous.

Rather than ban festivals or punish users, panelists at the 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals panel entitled “How Do We Stop Drug Deaths at Music Festivals?” suggested some non-judgmental harm-reduction approaches to the issue. Harm reduction accepts that people are going to do drugs even though they’re already illegal. Instead of trying to shame or arrest users, harm reduction advocates want to figure out ways to keep users safe while keeping the event enjoyable for everyone else.

Here’s 5 suggestions the panelists had for reducing drug deaths at music festivals

– Offer free water at festival venues to prevent drug-induced dehydration. Dehydration can worsen with packed crowds, bright lights, dancing, poor ventilation and outdoor sunlight, so water should remain widely accessible.

– Have a chill out space where folks can stop dancing, escape the heat, and cool down. Festivals should make sure these places are well sign-posted, easy to find and spacious enough to accommodate lots of people.

– Train local police, medical professionals and venue security to be friendly and non-judgmental. Some drug users worry about getting arrested, lectured or (for younger users) ratted out to their parents. Hiring friendly staff can help reassure guests that medical and security staff are there to help. It’s especially helpful if the staff looks like the community they’re serving and are used to working music festivals.

– Encourage the bar to have a “sober period” after last call before rushing people out of the venue, that way people can hydrate, regain energy and sober up a little before leaving.

– Provide educational material on the drug and alcohol use. Some groups like DanceSafe even offer free drug testing at events to educate people about the chemical makeup, effects and responsible use of drugs. Drug testing can help people detect bad batches of psychedelic or synthetic drugs and avoid poisoning.

Laws and local attitudes can stand in the way of harm reduction

Reducing drug deaths is good for business because fewer medical emergencies, arrests and deaths mean less bad press and greater potential for a music event to grow and attract even more artists, attendees and vendors for future events. A National Institute of Health study actually showed that when attendees feel safer, they stay longer, spend more and want to return.

The trouble is that venues, insurance agents, government officials and law enforcers sometimes equate harm-reduction methods like drug testing with encouraging drug use. Because some music events require multiple municipal permits and the participation of local police, fire and health departments, it can take drug reformers anywhere from three to five years to build trusting relationships with them and even then, local venues and government can feel hesitant.

A major law thing that gets in the way of drug-testing at venues is a federal law known as the RAVE Act (or the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act). Authored by then-Senator Joe Biden back in 2003, the RAVE Act makes it illegal for venue owners and event organizers to facilitate the use or distribution of drugs at their festivals. This makes many venues and organizers reluctant to offer drug testing and education at their events.

However, Cameron Bowman, a legal expert on the RAVE Act once told Vice magazine, “I often call the RAVE Act the ‘Keyser Soze’ of laws. Everyone is afraid of it, but no one can recall anytime it was actually used.” A woman named Dede Goldsmith started an online petition asking federal legislators to amend the RAVE Act after her daughter Shelley overdosed on MDMA at an electronic dance music event.

“The 2003 RAVE Act is part of the problem because it is preventing the implementation of common sense safety measures at these events,”Goldsmith wrote. “It is time for a ‘safety first’ approach to drug use that emphasizes harm reduction alongside current law enforcement efforts.”

(Featured image by nd3000 via iStock)