Turn Up The Volume: The Dangers of Music Festival Drug Use

by Addiction Center |  ❘ 

The Dangers of Music Festivals

With the kickoff of Coachella last weekend and the many upcoming festivals this summer — Electric Daisy Carnival, Wakarusa, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza to name a few — music festival season is officially here! While this is certainly exciting news for those who love to jam out to live bands and have electronic dance music (EDM) parties among thousands in the summer heat, it’s also a huge concern for those in the health, safety and substance abuse fields. Music festivals have become synonymous with drug use.

While there’s a wide variety of different substances used at these events, some of the most common are:

Growing Concern About Drug Related Deaths

The danger of drug use at music festivals has become all too apparent over the past half decade. In 2010, a 15-year-old girl died of an ecstasy overdose at Electric Daisy Carnival in California. At Paradiso Festival in Washington in 2013, more than 70 people were hospitalized for Molly overdoses—one man died. Later that year at New York’s Electric Zoo festival, a college student and a recent college graduate died of an overdose of MDMA. There have been at least a dozen other deaths at similar events around the US and overseas.

Teens and young adults who take drugs at these festivals often don’t even know what they’re getting — there have been recent deaths linked to PMA, a drug that is being sold as MDMA. It has similar effects to MDMA, but has a much longer onset and is more toxic (read: users take more of it to achieve the MDMA high and have a greater risk of overdose).  This unknown factor combined with the mixing of substances and dehydration from the heat can be deadly. Many have called for festival organizers to acknowledge the drug use issue and be proactive by taking a “safety first” approach. This would entail providing plenty of shade and water stations, educating festivalgoers about the signs of overdose and other harm reduction measures. Sounds easy enough right?

There’s one problem: the RAVE Act.

The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003, better known as the RAVE Act, was passed with the intention of reducing drug use and related harm at music festivals and raves. Unfortunately, the law has sort of backfired by making these events even more dangerous. If a festival organizer were to acknowledge the drug use issue and enact the safety measures mentioned before, they could potentially be held criminally liable under this law.

Campaigns for Change

Launched in August of last year, Amend the RAVE Act (ATRA) calls for changing the language of the law to allow organizers to include harm reduction measures at their events. Dede Goldsmith spearheaded the campaign after the death of her daughter, Shelley, at a 2013 EDM event in Washington, DC. Shelley did not die from an overdose. She died from a combination of MDMA and dehydration, which led to heat stroke — the most common medical emergency at music festivals. Goldsmith hopes to save other families from the same tragedy by making festivals and concerts safer. In a press release, she said:

Had the concert hall where my daughter overheated and collapsed offered free, easily accessible water, well air-conditioned spaces, and educational literature on drug use and its risks, she might still be alive today.

- Dede Goldsmith for Amend the RAVE Act

While Goldsmith fights on the legal front, organizations like DanceSafe are hitting the front lines. DanceSafe is a proponent of health and safety within the EDM community. They set up camp at music festivals and provide a safe place for music lovers to hang out and talk about health and drug use. They provide free water to help prevent dehydration, peer-based drug education programs and drug checking services to prevent overdose. The organization is made up of young people from within the EDM community and they have chapters all across the US and Canada.

Other recovery-oriented groups have also started to make their presence known at music festivals. Coachella has “Soberchella,” “Soberoo” at Bonaroo, “Soberball” at the Governor’s Ball Music Festival and more. These groups are made up of like-minded individuals who are in recovery from addiction or just want to enjoy the festival without the use of drugs or alcohol. Some are affiliated with 12-step groups and often hold meetings throughout the festival. Others are not related to 12-step programs at all. Just look for yellow tents or balloons and you’ll likely find these sober music fans.

Tips for Staying Sober

Given the widespread, obvious substance use at these events, the temptation to join in can be hard to resist for some. Here are some tips for staying sober:

  • Find Support. Surround yourself with like-minded friends or find one of the previously mentioned support groups to encourage your sobriety. They can back you up when you say “no” if offered drugs and you’re less likely to be pressured or targeted in a group than on your own.
  • Remember you want to remember! Remind yourself that you don’t want the whole event to be lost in a haze. Remaining sober will allow you to experience and remember the festivities to the fullest.
  • Go in with a plan. Make sure you know when/where the recovery meetings are happening in case you need some extra support.
  • Stick to a routine. Meeting up with friends for meals or coffee each day can be a source of comfort and stability.
  • Prepare yourself mentally. Reaffirm your commitment to sobriety as often as you need.
  • Relax and have fun. You’re sober for a reason and you’re doing great! Take pride in all you’ve accomplished and enjoy yourself.

Now go forth music lovers! Have a happy, safe and sober festival season!

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