Drugs at Music Festivals
Music festivals can be incredible experiences that foster deep connections with music and friends. However, drug use has become an expectation at many festival events, and attendees are susceptible to myriad dangers that are not encountered outside the festival scene.
37 min read
Like Beer and Cigarettes
Music festivals often last several days, and involve camping, attending multiple live concerts and reveling in the outdoors. Attendees are free from school and work obligations, and the drudgeries of their everyday lives. This carefree environment is conducive to dangerous and illegal activities such as drug use.
Drugs have become so commonplace at music festivals that attendees do not bat an eyelash when they witness drug use taking place. In fact, those who do not use drugs are in the minority at many festivals. For parents, teen drug use at these events is a very real concern.
So just why are festivals such a hotspot for drug use? Thirty-one-year-old Washington, D.C. resident Matthew V. chimed in: “Drugs bring your mind to a different place. It feels cool to see things that aren’t there and make your brain think differently. For example, when you read a book, you start thinking a different way. That’s what people do at festivals. You get into the groove of the music. Drugs and festivals go together like beer and cigarettes.”
Emily was thrilled as she stood in line for ForestFest. She had been waiting for months for this festival! She and her buddy Jacob were about to celebrate their high school graduation by seeing their favorite band play, and they’d heard ForestFest was amazing. Tucked away in a giant clearing in the Appalachians and surrounded by teens about her age — most a little older — she felt so independent and free.
She had all the essentials in place. Temporary pink hair dye looking fresh? Check. Glow-in-the-dark bracelets for tonight? Check. Pocketful of marijuana and pre-rolled joints? Check. Emily looked over at Jacob and grinned. They were up next to get inside the gates.
The Popularization of Music Festivals
In the 20th century, the U.S. was home to just a handful of multi-day music festivals. Today, there are over 800 festivals in the U.S. alone, with 32 million people attending them each year. What drove this massive growth?
Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music
Many Americans consider the 1969 event Woodstock to be the original drug-frenzied music festival. And indeed, Woodstock was a defining moment in the melding of festival and drug cultures. The three-day event — which took place in rural New York — attracted some 400,000 attendees, a significantly larger crowd than the organizers anticipated.
Advertised as “three days of peace and music,” Woodstock truly did embody the hippie culture of peace. Not a single fight injury was treated, nor were any incidents of violence recorded. Most of the weekend’s 80 arrests were drug-related, though marijuana smokers were not taken into custody.
Woodstock went down in the history books as one of rock and roll’s great events. It changed lives, and in two tragic cases, took them. Despite those deaths and hundreds of medical emergencies, Woodstock was hailed as a gigantic success. Following this, music festivals began popping up in droves across the nation.
Around the World in Zero Days
The internet has enabled festival producers and attendees to spread the word about events more quickly, easily and thoroughly than ever. In particular, social media impacts the way events and festival-goers communicate.
Eventbrite, the world’s largest self-service ticketing platform, wrote, “Social media is a natural driver for [festival] growth, as fans share the fun and camaraderie that festivals generate. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are a primary pathway for spreading the word far, wide, and fast — from the moment someone buys a ticket until long after the festival stands have been struck and display trucks loaded.”
During the first weekend of the 2015 Coachella Music Festival, a staggering 3.5 million related tweets were posted, spreading word about Coachella across the globe. Suffice it to say, the internet is no small component of festival growth.
Not only do festivals use social media for pre-event advertising, they also use it to convey messages to attendees during events. Before the web, festivals had to rely upon loudspeakers to communicate with attendees during their events.
Now, updates on festival happenings are fluid:
Social media lets festival-goers receive up-to-the-minute information and get fast answers to important questions, such as the location of the infirmary or where they can pick up free bottles of water:
Such accessibility often makes for a richer, safer festival experience, prompting attendees to return year after year.
Feel the Beat
Music-making software has prompted the creation of a new musical genre, electronic dance music (EDM). This style has garnered a fanbase of people who love to party to its fast-paced, heart-thumping beats at EDM concerts called raves.
There are numerous U.S. festivals dedicated entirely to EDM artists, with the major ones being Movement Electronic Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra Music Festival and TomorrowWorld. (That is not to say you cannot find EDM outside of these events. Other festivals — such as Coachella, Lollapalooza and especially Electric Forest — feature EDM artists in their multi-genre lineups.) Electronic dance music festivals are often decked out with dramatic lighting, outlandish decor and other extravagant visuals such as pyrotechnics.
Raves are highly dangerous environments, due to the fact that they are often unregulated, overcrowded and teeming with drugs. The FBI states that “raves are one of the most popular venues where club drugs are distributed.” (Club drugs include but are not limited to MDMA, rohypnol, LSD, ketamine, GHB, methamphetamine and more.)
Due to the number of overdoses that occur at raves, some emergency room doctors have gone so far as to call for the end of these concerts.
Bands Are Fans, Too
Festivals are also experiencing growth because performers like them. Musicians have seen a sharp decline in album sale profits, since the rise of digital file sharing and streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora. However, festivals pull in huge amounts of money and can afford to pay headliners upwards of $4 million. Financial benefits aside, many musicians simply enjoy performing in the pastoral environs of a festival.
Statista.com reported that in 2015, it cost an of average $78.77 dollars to attend a single tour concert in the U.S. However, festival-goers are often able to experience many concerts over the course of several days for $200–$400. That said, festivals offer better bang for your buck than single concerts.
Crooning About Cocaine
Artists have been singing about drugs for as long as they have been doing drugs, and this has done no favors for sober festival culture. When the Office of National Drug Control Policy studied the nation’s top 1,000 songs, they found 18% contained drug references. In 2010, researchers discovered that the average adolescent is exposed to 84 drug-related song lyrics every day.
These references are often associated with peer acceptance and other positive themes, prodding teens to use drugs themselves. When festival-goers are listening to artists onstage sing about how much fun it is to do drugs, it is no shock that crowd members wish to partake as well.
Once inside the gates, Emily felt a flutter of excitement bubble up in her stomach. “So this is what a festival is like!” she thought. Everyone was dressed in wild outfits, and she could tell that a lot of people were drunk and having a blast. And how couldn’t they be, at a giant outdoor party with live music?
Suddenly, a guy with a purple mohawk and no shirt ran up to Emily, hugged her, spun her around, then disappeared into the crowd. Surprised, she giggled and looked at Jacob, who shrugged and said, “Festivals, man. That guy’s on something. Lucky him.”
Understanding the Dangers
Put simply, drug use at festivals is quite dangerous. Jordan Blackburn, age 20, spent three days in a coma following his drug consumption at the Kendal Calling music festival. He told the British Broadcasting Corporation, “I don’t have much recollection, I think because it was such a traumatic event; it was really awful.”
His 18-year-old friend Christian Pay died from taking drugs at the same festival. Blackburn continued, “I think, at festivals especially, teenagers just want to have a good time with all their friends and they initially forget the dangers they can put themselves in by doing something stupid like we did.”
Festival-goers love to connect with those around them, and for many people, that means using drugs together. According to Sergeant Dan Marshall of the Indio Police Department in Coachella Valley, complications arise when drug use — which can be dangerous in and of itself — is piled onto the already-toxic brew of environmental factors.
“At a festival, your inhibitions get lowered,” said Marshall. “Maybe it’s your first time experimenting with drugs like MDMA, which raises your internal body temperature. It’s hot out here already; it’s dusty. People are on a grass field. They’re dancing and sweating and moving around, and they get dehydrated. They drink two beers, it’s 100 degrees outside, and before they know it, they’re in trouble.”
In addition, festival-goers typically don’t get adequate sleep, which can make people even more susceptible to the consequences of drug abuse. Every year, dozens of festival attendees are admitted to hospitals after abusing substances. And a handful of people — like Christian Pay — even die.
Aiming for an Ecstatic Experience
Quite simply, people use drugs at festivals because they believe it will enhance their experience. The festival atmosphere is conducive to drug use for several reasons. First, drugs are rampantly available. Rachel Hodin summarized festivals’ drug ubiquity in a 2014 Thought Catalog article like so: “If you’re going to a festival, you’re most likely taking drugs with you.”
Secondly, even if it is not condoned by producers, drug use is largely accepted by fellow festival-goers. That said, peer and environmental pressure can play a significant role in a person’s choice to use drugs.
Mike Davis, 26, of Las Vegas confided, “The drugs are everywhere. Everyone around you is doing them, and it’s just kind of what you do at festivals. When I was younger, I did it because everyone around me was doing it. Now I do it to feel more of a connection to the world around me and get out of my normal way of thinking, and to experience some weird things with weird people.”
Thirdly, attendees are not under work obligations, and have likely planned their work schedules around their festival attendance. There is a feeling of freedom and invincibility that comes with camping outdoors, alongside hundreds or even thousands of other people who don’t have to worry about getting to work in the morning or taking their dog for a walk. They are free to party for as long as they are able.
Boston festival-goer and band member Nicholas C., age 29, offered firsthand insight. He said, “Each of the three festivals I have attended have included pretty excessive binges on uppers and psychedelics. While the LSD can be considered complementary to the live music and therefore purely recreational, the MDMA, speed and coke primarily exist as fuel. Every morning at Bonnaroo, the Tennessee sun wakes you up at 7 a.m. and you watch music until the last bands wrap up, around 3 or 4 a.m. Need a nap? Good luck. String together four 20-hour days of walking miles in 95 degree temperatures, and you bet you’re going to buy that dose of energy-giving molly from the kind gentleman wearing a towel for a shirt. And you think, ‘Oh man, this is fire! Maybe I should buy a few more. Skrillex isn’t going on for another 10 hours.’”
Emily had smoked marijuana plenty of times with her friends, but getting high never compelled her to hug a stranger. “I wonder what that purple mohawk guy was on,” she thought to herself. “It couldn’t have been weed.”
The rock band Sideways Shindig blared as she and Jacob made their way towards the stage, dancing as they moved. As they snaked through the crowd, Emily noticed a guy hold up a little white piece of paper, then lower it dramatically onto his tongue. “Is that what acid looks like?” she wondered to herself.
Emily and Jacob found a good spot to dance, smack dab in the middle of the crowd. After a couple songs, Jacob leaned towards Emily’s ear and said, “Hey, want to smoke?” “Yeah!” she responded, and dipped into her bag to grab a joint. She crouched down on the ground to light it, and they both took a couple hits. Jacob said, “I have to run to the bathroom real quick, so don’t smoke it all.” Jacob weaved back through the crowd.
Emily crouched down again to take a hit when someone tapped her on the shoulder.
Pick Your Poison
There is no ironclad criterion that dictates which substances people use at music festivals. However, festival-goers trend towards substances that produce certain results, such as increased energy, altered vision and euphoria. Below are some of the most popular festival drugs in America.
Usually ingested in pill form, this is the drug that’s most frequently linked to death at music festivals. High doses of ecstasy can cause hyperthermia (a dangerously high body temperature), especially when combined with lots of dancing and sun exposure. In 2014, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study that found that even a so-called moderate dose of ecstasy was deadly to rats when taken in hot, crowded, chaotic circumstances made to mimic the music festival atmosphere.
It is evident that ecstasy abuse is on the rise; the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that the number of ecstasy-related ER visits for people under age 21 more than doubled between 2005 and 2010. In 2011, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported that ecstasy was involved in 22,498 of the country’s estimated 2.5 million annual drug-related ER visits.
Marijuana (or “cannabis”) provides a relaxing and emotive experience for users, making it a common choice for festival-goers who desire a deeper feeling of connection and intimacy with their surroundings and friends. Unfortunately, teen marijuana use can also induce anxiety and has been cited in emergency room statistics regarding reasons for admission. DAWN’s 2011 data stated that marijuana was involved in 455,668 ER visits.
Tim Pruett, Commander over Special Events at the Austin Police Department, and his fellow officers preside over the annual Texas festival South by Southwest (affectionately nicknamed SXSW). He said, “We usually see marijuana arrests more than any other drug arrest.”
This drug, commonly known as “acid” on the street, has been a popular festival drug since the late 1960s. LSD abuse alters a user’s thinking patterns, often causing them to focus narrowly on a single item, such as the pattern of their shirt or the smell of the air. In 2011, DAWN cited LSD as a factor in 4,819 ER visits.
Cocaine is a stimulant that is usually snorted. Among the visible signs of teen cocaine use is hyperalertness for extended periods of time. This drug effect is especially attractive to people who are spending several days at a festival where they wish to party as much as possible. DAWN’s 2011 report showed cocaine was a factor in 505,224 annual ER visits.
Psilocybin mushrooms (also referred to as “psychedelic mushrooms” and “magic mushrooms”) are popular among the music festival crowd, due to the drug’s ability to enhance a user’s perception of colors and sounds. Mixing the drug with ecstasy — a practice calling “trolling” — is a popular move at festivals, helping to amplify the side effects of mushrooms. A recent study showed that hallucinogens were involved in 8,043 visits to the ER in one year.
This drug is mostly used in veterinary medicine as an anaesthetic, as it can cause drowsiness, amnesia and a decreased sense of pain. A ketamine high is powerful, and people who overdose on the drug enter an intense state of dissociation that is commonly called a “k-hole,” which mimics a catatonic state. This makes ketamine users an easy target for thieves, especially when they are at a festival full of strangers. In 2011, ketamine was a key factor in 1,550 trips to the ER.
These drugs, which are commonly ingested in pill form or snorted, are powerful pain relief medications used in hospital settings. Feeling elation and mental “numbness” are a couple of the signs of opioid abuse, making this a popular choice for use at festivals. When combined with alcohol, opioids can wreak havoc on the liver. In recent years, nonmedical abuse of opioids has been behind approximately half a million ER visits annually.
This psychoactive chemical — which commonly exists as a waxy powder — causes users to feel as if they have entered an entirely different dimension. It can be ingested or smoked, and causes users to experience intense visual disturbances. That said, taking DMT at a festival can result in a very scary and confusing situation, since the drug plunges users into a temporary psychosis.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Sergeant Marshall pinpointed the substance that results in the greatest number of arrests at the Coachella festival: “Alcohol,” he said. “We have drug arrests, but alcohol is our biggest problem.”
Since alcohol has dehydrating properties, it is not a smart choice for active occasions like festivals. It is easy for festival-goers to overindulge in alcohol since they are enjoying concerts all day long.
This substance slightly differs from the rest on this list, in that it is perfectly legal for Americans over the age of 21 to use it. Thus, festivals often sell alcohol on the premises. Although some festival-goers consume alcohol responsibly, others overindulge or mix it with mind-altering substances.
Unfortunately, “legal” is not synonymous with “safe.” Alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of preventable death in America, and nearly one-third of ER visits for injuries involve alcohol. Each year, over 75,000 people in this country die from alcohol abuse — about one person every seven minutes. Sadly, alcohol was a major factor in the 2014 death of 24-year-old Coachella attendee Kimchi Truong.
Emily looked up when she felt a tap on her shoulder. A girl wearing a bikini top and a long, flowing tie dye skirt was crouched down next to her, staring at the joint in Emily’s hand.
“You don’t need to be so secretive about it!” the girl said. “Nobody cares. Seriously. But give me a hit!”
Emily smiled shyly. “Here.” She passed the joint to the bikini-clad stranger.
“Thank you sooo much,” the girl said, and took a long drag. “They found my bud in my bag at the gate, so you’re totally saving me.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m sorry to bum, though. Ugh. I hate being that girl. Hey, you want some molly? I just bought like, five million more than I need.”
The girl plopped four white pills into Emily’s hands. “I’ve never done it before,” said Emily.
The girl assured her, “Just try it. It’s so much fun; everybody here is on molly right now.”
Emily hesitated for a minute, but thought, “I’m going to college in the fall. I should start doing more fun stuff. I’m always so lame.” Emily took a deep breath and put the pills in her mouth. “Good thing I can swallow pills without liquid,” she said. “I’ve heard the water here is like ten freakin’ bucks.” The girl said, “Yep. Well, have fun! Thanks for smoking me up!”
Hey Kid, Wanna Buy Some Drugs?
Many festival attendees bring their own drugs, and conceal them in handbags or even undergarments in order to gain access to the event. But for those who do not wish to face festival security with illegal substances on their person, an abundance of illegal drugs is available for purchase from dealers within each event.
In fact, countless drug dealers attend festivals with the sole purpose of distributing drugs to attendees. It is easy money for them too. Reddit user Draewa explained, “The best way to find dealers is to just ask around. Go up to people and just ask them if they’re selling or if they know anyone who’s selling, and after some time you’re pretty much guaranteed to find someone.”
During the New York State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team’s 2015 sting operation at the four-day FolkFest music festival, undercover officers seized tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cash and drugs from dealers and buyers. State Police Major David Krause told Syracuse.com, “This was pretty much an atmosphere where everything was available […] like an open-air drug supermarket. There was no […] hiding substances that were available for sale.”
Though many dealers operate as lone wolves, there are some highly organized groups of drug distributors. One example is the so-called “Nitrous Mafia,” which travels to music festivals across the country — especially in Boston and Philadelphia — selling balloons filled with nitrous oxide for $5–10 per hit. With such steep pricing, the ring can make $300,000 from a single festival.
Due to the profits at stake, the scene can turn violent if anyone threatens the dealers’ ability to make money. One festival-goer witnessed a drug dealer chase a competitor with a knife, barely missing the attendee’s infant daughter. Boston police officer Scott Percival once found a dealer lying in a festival parking lot, battered and beaten by competitors. The festival drug market is not a safe place for anyone.
About an hour after she had taken the molly, Emily started feeling really energetic. An EDM band called Echo Mouse was rocking the stage. “Oh my god, Jacob!” she yelled. “I can’t believe we’re here! I love this, I love this, I love this, I love this, I love this!”
She looked at the sky, twirled around a few times and threw her arms up in the air.
“Yeah, ForestFest is pretty sick,” he said. “I had no idea you had this much dance in you, though!”
A smile broke out across Emily’s face and she said, “I may have taken some molly while you were at the bathroom!” Jacob’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious? That’s awesome! Dance, girl!”
And dance she did. A few hours later, when it was finally time for Emily’s favorite band, The Combustibles, to take the stage, she started feeling lightheaded.
The Dangers of Festival Drug Use
Drug use on its own is dangerous, not to mention when it is combined with dehydration from dancing. Also, there is not always safety in numbers — festival-goers put themselves in peril when they stand in a crowd of intoxicated strangers.
There is a litany of threats associated with taking drugs at music festivals, many of which are simply disregarded by users. However, perhaps the most frightening dangers are those that users do not anticipate, such as being sold the wrong drug.
The festival environment is quite exciting and can promote abnormal risk-taking. Coupled with the invincible ethos that often accompanies youth, extensive drug availability creates temptation for people looking to have a fun time.
Festival-goers often don’t know the person selling them drugs at an event, and can easily be sold something ambiguous. Reddit user Draewa shed some light on the situation: “Event/festival dealers are notoriously unreliable, will rip you off with delight and best case sell you untested RCs [research chemicals], worst case sell you rock salt.”
In 2013, five friends decided to explore the prevalence of misrepresented drugs at music festivals. The crew traveled across the U.S. to six different festivals, consulting drug experts and documenting drug test kit usage. Legitimacy of samples varied from festival to festival, but What’s in My Baggie? producer Jeffrey Chambers told The Weeklings, “I can confidently say that from what we saw, over half of the substances were misrepresented, most commonly bath salts being sold as MDMA.”
It is no secret that drugs are misrepresented when they are sold on the street. After all, illegal drugs do not have a governing body such as the USDA, monitoring their ingredients. Users are at the mercy of makers.
Former Senior Research Specialist for the Drug Enforcement Administration Sean Dunagan explained to the filmmakers of What’s In My Baggie?, “Drugs are never sold at the retail level in the same form they’re produced, so necessarily, there are adulterants and additives in virtually every sort of retail purchase of drugs. […] There are a number of problems with that. One, of course, is that the adulterants are dangerous because they’re completely unregulated. A corollary problem is widely varying potency levels. That’s what […] leads to a lot of accidental overdoses.”
Founder of Neurosoup.com Krystle Cole confirmed that exact dosage in festival drugs is wildly variable. Cole told the What’s in My Baggie? crew, “If you take a dose and you’re expecting to have a 12-hour trip, but then all of a sudden, you have a two- or three-day experience, that can be very scary and it’s going to cause hospital visits.”
Due to the wide variety of drugs available at festivals, attendees often use more than one drug. Researchers found that 18% of festival-goers mixed two drugs, and 12% mixed three or more. Also, they found that the average ecstasy user at a festival mixed three or more additional substances with the ecstasy, and cocaine users averaged four. This polydrug abuse — especially when drug users are taking unknown substances — can end quite badly.
Las Vegas resident Mike Davis said, “When I went to Serenity Gathering at Joshua Tree National Park in California, I did molly, acid, coke, weed and alcohol simultaneously.”
Unfortunately, Mike is not in the minority.
Sherry March, 24, of Washington, D.C. chimed in and said, “The most intense drug combo I’ve consumed at a festival — which I now realize was very stupid — was molly and acid. Weed is usually my drug of choice and I usually mix it with alcohol, but I’ve also mixed it with molly. Other drugs I’ve taken include Adderall mixed with beer and a codeine and beer combo. No wonder my body is falling apart.”
According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, most fatal overdoses are the result of multi-drug use. Sadly, Mike and Sherry are not the only festival-goers who use more than one drug at a time and position themselves for a fatal accident.
When people are taking a mishmash of unknown substances, overdoses are prone to occur. Venue medical supervisor Tom Jamison explained, “When you see an overdose, it’s usually one of two categories. It’s the first time they’re doing a drug and they do too much. Or it’s people who have done it before and they get a bad batch, and they’re reckless and combine substances that should never be combined.”
Festival-goers’ overdoses are not limited to certain drugs or combinations, but there are threads that run through festival overdose instances. Sergeant Dan Marshall said, “We see ketamine, PCP, MDMA. I would have to say that the drug that’s most commonly overdosed on at Coachella is MDMA products.”
The risk of overdose is just one more reason why drug usage is so perilous. Not only can overdoses land users in the hospital and produce permanent damage, they can kill. Every day in the U.S. alone, there are about 120 overdose deaths, and festival-goers are not immune. In 2016, five people died from overdoses in a single evening at the Time Warp music festival in Argentina.
Music festival attendees often experience a brew of heat, exhaustion, dehydration and overstimulation. When combined with alcohol or illicit drugs, these factors create “the perfect storm.”
In the fall of 2013, a vibrant, brilliant star student named Shelley Goldsmith had just started her sophomore year at the University of Virginia. On August 31, Shelley was at a rave at Echostage in Washington, D.C. and she took molly. After much dancing and not enough water intake, Shelley fell very ill and was pronounced dead by 3 a.m. In the words of Shelley’s devastated mother Dede, “Because there will always be young people who choose to experiment with alcohol and drugs when they go to music events, it is critical that we adopt a ‘safety first’ approach that emphasizes harm reduction alongside current law enforcement efforts.”
Tom Jamison has cared for young people like Shelley. He recounted, “I’ve had people die on me before. I’ve had long response times for medical units where people have gone brain dead in my hands or have gotten to a point where you can “work” them, but they’re in that single digit percentile of surviving or being anywhere near where they used to be, after loss of oxygen. I think the scariest thing about it is that these kids have this idea that, ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me,’ or ‘Oh, I trust my drug dealer.’”
A 2014 study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene took a look at a three-day music festival that took place in New York City in 2013. They found that 95% of attendees were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and toxicology testing most frequently found methylone, a compound very similar to MDMA. Out of the 40,000 daily attendees, 22 of them required hospitalization due to substance abuse at the festival. Two of these hospitalized persons died. Sadly, they were just two of seven total persons that perished at 2013 music festivals globally.
Tramplings are prone to happening anywhere where a crowd gathers, such as a store on Black Friday. However, when crowd members are under the influence of drugs — as is the case with many festival-goers — their collective awareness is lowered, putting them at risk of both being trampled and trampling others.
Even security officers are not immune to being harmed by festival-goers who are under the influence. In 2014, a security guard at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival was trampled by a mob of festival-goers and ended up in the hospital with severe brain hemorrhaging.
Additionally, it can be difficult to navigate through a crowded area. If a festival-goer begins to experience distress from substance abuse, their location in the middle of a crowd prevents them from obtaining prompt medical attention.
Emily kept feeling woozier and woozier, but tried to keep dancing. Finally, she sat down right in the middle of the crowd, on the grass. Jacob looked down at her. “Dude, The Combustibles are coming on! Get up!”
“I can’t,” she moaned. Jacob’s brow furrowed. “Are you like, not okay?” Emily’s eyes drooped and she swayed to one side. “I feel sooooo sick,” she said. “Wait, how many did you take?” Jacob asked. In a daze, Emily wailed, “I don’t know. A whole bunch.” “Crap,” said Jacob. “Come on, we’re going to the medical tent.”
I Get By with a Little Help from My Festival Organizers
Festival organizers aren’t stupid — they are very aware that substance abuse takes place at their events, and they attempt to curb it. Various protective measures are employed to prevent harm to festival-goers. Measures vary between events, but the goal is always the same: to have a safe and enjoyable festival. Indio Police Department’s Sergeant Dan Marshall says, “As insensitive as it sounds, having 100 overdoses at a festival is not good for a brand. Promoters wish we never had any arrests or overdoses.”
People who are under the influence of drugs behave in ways that they may not otherwise. In fact, music festivals sometimes see hundreds of arrests at a single event. For example, nearly 250 people were arrested over the course of two days at the 2016 Beyond Wonderland festival, which drew a crowd of close to 70,000. Twenty had to be hospitalized due to complications from substance abuse. Offenses included trespassing, public drunkenness, and possession and intent to distribute MDMA.
Security Staff and Law Enforcement Presence
Not only does each American music festival hire their own fleet of security guards, they are required to have a police presence as well. Sergeant Marshall offered some insight on the Coachella festival, which is held in his jurisdiction. He said, “During festival time, we deploy law enforcement agencies from throughout the Coachella Valley and have them on site 24 hours a day, to handle the attendance levels. During the concerts, we are kind of acting as the police force for 30,000 people. So everything that would happen in a normal 30,000-person town in a given week, happens there.”
Zero Tolerance Policies
Police departments are legally obligated to engage in zero tolerance policies when it comes to illegal substances. If they find someone at a festival in possession of an illegal substance, they must arrest that person. However, police officers always prioritize a citizen’s health over making an arrest. That said, although they have separate functions, law enforcement and festival medical staff are ultimately on the same team.
Tom Jamison said, “We have a zero tolerance policy because our venue pays thousands of dollars in permits. So when kids are caught doing drugs in the bathroom, we kick them out. You have to have zero tolerance for allowing drugs to come in. We watch for kids in the crowd doing or handing out drugs. But at the same time, we understand that these kids are still going to find ways to do drugs. If a kid makes a mistake and gets sick, we have to be the bigger adult and say, ‘We’ll help you out. We’re not going to ruin your life. We’re going to try to let you live another day.’ There shouldn’t be that fear of, ‘Oh my goodness, my friend’s not doing so well. Should we take them to the medical tent?’ I think that’s the big thing. Like most black and white ideas, zero tolerance is never going to work [to totally eradicate drugs from festivals].”
Minimum Age of Admission
Some festivals uphold minimum age requirements for attendees. Following the trampling of security guard Erica Mack at the 2014 Ultra Music Festival, the event instituted an 18 and older age requirement. They stated that the decision was made “to reinforce and promote the safety of all Ultra Music Festival fans and to ensure the overall enjoyment of all future attendees.” Electric Daisy Carnival, Electric Zoo and HARD Summer also require that attendees be at least 18.
However, a number of festivals — such as Burning Man and Vans Warped Tour — allow all ages to enter. Some adventurous parents even bring their infants to these events. That said, teenagers can get in without a hitch.
Onsite Medical Care
Each and every music festival has a medical area onsite. Of course, festival-goers experience the same types of minor ailments (scrapes, headaches and the like) that happen elsewhere. On paper, medical tents exist to treat these types of issues. However, they are also available to help attendees who are experiencing drug-related medical dilemmas. Some festivals are more blunt than others about this service.
For example, Bonnaroo includes the following information on their website: “If you see someone who is sick, upset, scared or clearly having a bad experience, get help. Find a medical tent or festival staff member. Provide all the information you can to safety or medical staff. Our ‘no questions asked’ policy means neither you nor the sick person can get in trouble when you seek help.” Lollapalooza’s website, however, only mentions medical issues unrelated to drug abuse.
Tom Jamison confirmed that festival medical services do in fact get used, but not to the extent he would like to see. He said, “We do have some kids that will say, ‘Hey my friend’s not doing well.’ [But overall, festival-goers] definitely shy from getting medical help because they assume that once they come to me, I am law enforcement. It’s been a hurdle for me to express that I’m not. We want to make sure they’re safe. Unless they’re selling drugs, there’s no reason for us to involve the police.”
If a festival-goer has brought drugs with them, but changes their mind at the last minute, many festivals offer amnesty receptacles for drug surrender. People can deposit their drugs and continue into the event, consequence-free. By no means do these cans collect all or even most of the drugs that are passing onto festival grounds, but they do manage to gather some.
Sergeant Marshall supports the use of these bins and believes they are a moderately effective way of preventing drug abuse at festivals. He said, “At every entrance to Coachella, we have amnesty cans. Everybody has to walk past one to get into the venue. We are not there standing there watching what goes in them. And they do fill up.”
Angels All Around
There are several organizations devoted to reducing the harm that may come to festival-goers who use drugs. DanceSafe is a nonprofit that aims to educate festival-goers about drugs, and assist attendees who have taken too much of a substance. The organization has branches all over the U.S., allowing them to be present at a number of festivals throughout the year.
The PLUR Angels are a nationwide group of volunteers who meander about festivals and seek out people who appear to be experiencing drug-related distress. They remain sober throughout festivals and do their best to ensure everyone has a good time and receives help if necessary.
Many law enforcement officers fully support the harm reduction approach taken by DanceSafe and the PLUR Angels. Sergeant Marshall said, “We are 100% harm reduction. We are there for the physical safety of everyone who goes to [Coachella]. We are not standing outside the hospital tent with a set of handcuffs. We are there to have a safe event and we care about our patrons. At Coachella, if you have a friend that needs help, we do not care how your friend got to that state. We just want to help.”
Drug Checking Kits
Because street drugs are not regulated by the government, they are often “cut” with other substances. For example, cocaine is commonly adulterated with baking soda, sugar, anesthetics and other dubious substances. The only way to be certain what drugs are actually being taken is to chemically check them.
There are several organizations in the U.S. that offer drug checking kits, such as the Bunk Police, a private group that aims to help festival-goers identify drugs that have been purchased for use at festivals. The Bunk Police sets up stations at various festivals across the U.S. and sells their kits for around $20.
While organizations like the Bunk Police exist to reduce harm, authorities do not always look kindly upon these methods. When Canada’s Evolve Festival announced that free drug testing kits would be available at the doors, its liability insurance underwriter retracted support. The 2015 event was almost cancelled.
Adam Auctor (not his real name), founder of the Bunk Police, told the What’s in My Baggie? crew, “We just don’t take no for an answer. Festivals have shut us down, and we just keep [offering drug checking kits] anyway. We do what needs to be done to save lives and to keep people from injuring themselves, potentially permanently.”
Tom Jamison is decidedly on the side of the Bunk Police. He said, “I’ve seen children lose their lives at very young ages, for a couple hours of fun. Their friends and family are affected for the rest of their lives. So when I hear people talk about offering drug checking kits, I’m on board.”
The RAVE Act
In 2003, Congress passed the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act, a piece of legislation that was headed up by then-Senator Joe Biden. The RAVE Act begins by naming its goals: “To prohibit an individual from knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance, and for other purposes.”
In essence, this law slaps harsh penalties on any event (including music festivals) whose organizers are aware of patrons’ use of ecstasy. The RAVE Act was created in good faith, in an effort to reduce the number of people being harmed by ecstasy. However, it has been widely criticized because it may dissuade event organizers from instituting harm reduction measures or drug checking stations, since it could appear as confession of the knowledge of patrons’ MDMA use.
Everything was spinning inside Emily’s head, and her heart was beating incredibly fast. Jacob had her by the hand, and was leading her to the medical tent. When they arrived, a blonde nurse took one look at Emily and said, “Too much molly?” Jacob’s lips pursed. “Yep. I guess.” The nurse asked Emily a few questions, then hooked Emily up to an IV. “You really need fluids right now. And rest.” The nurse turned to Jacob. “You should stay with her. I’ll be back to check her vitals, but just let her sleep it off.”
Emily could barely think, but she opened her eyes when a big bald guy with double tattoo sleeves popped into the tent to grab a band-aid. Her eyes fell shut again, and she heard Tattoo Guy say to Jacob, “I go to festivals all the time, and I never do drugs at them. You have such a better time that way. And you don’t end up here.” He shrugged. “Or worse. I’ve definitely seen worse.
Sobriety — The Beginning of Life
Though statistics show that many — if not most — festival-goers use mind-altering substances at events, certainly not every attendee is high. Founder of The Sobriety Collective Laura Silverman, who is in recovery from alcohol abuse, shared her experiences of enjoying festivals without partaking in drugs or alcohol: “I’ve been to countless festivals, all in sobriety. The key to making the most of the event is to truly want to be there for the music and atmosphere and friends. Stay hydrated, take photos, people-watch, listen to the music with an open heart, and be yourself. Remember that being sober isn’t the end of fun. In my humble opinion, it’s the beginning of life.”
Recreational drug user Sherry March of Washington, D.C. admitted that drug abuse has impeded upon her ability to fully enjoy a festival. She said, “I’ve done a festival sober before and honestly, it was still pretty great. I just danced a ton, which basically gave me the endorphin boost I was looking for. Honestly, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the people you’re with make the biggest difference at a festival, not the drugs you’re on. If you’re too [messed] up, it can really dilute the experience. When I saw Radiohead at Bonnaroo, I was so excited. I took molly for the first time, which I thought would make it even better. Instead, I was distracted by other things and didn’t really get to enjoy Radiohead the way I would’ve if I was sober.”
Festival-goers who wish to stay sober during events can seek support in like-minded friends or in organized groups dedicated to sobriety, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
A few hours and a couple of IV bags later, the nurse let Emily go. As Emily and Jacob walked out of the festival and back to his car, Jacob shook his head. “You can’t do that crap. I didn’t know it could mess you up so badly.” Emily cringed. “I’m sorry. I thought it would be fun.” “You’re lucky you didn’t get in more trouble,” he chided. “I know. Never again.” Emily stopped walking, hugged her friend and said, “Thank you.” He said, “Don’t apologize to me; just don’t do it again. Come on. Let’s get you home.”
Does Your Child Need Substance Abuse Treatment?
Sergeant Marshall believes that treatment is the best avenue for handling drug abuse. He said, “For now, we just write people a ticket. This does not have the same teeth in preventing issues [as treatment]. I know treatment is a key component.” At TheRecoveryVillage.com, we could not agree more. That’s why we offer free assistance to parents seeking substance abuse treatment for their teenagers.
If your child struggles with drugs or alcohol, it is not your fault. Addiction stigma often prevents parents from reaching out for the kind of help that can help get their teen on the road to recovery. Whether drug abuse is taking place at a music festival or in a living room, addiction can creep up silently, it is important to understand that help is available. Your child’s recovery requires you to act without hesitation.
Find out about teen drug rehab facilities that specialize in treating children like yours. For co-occurring drug and behavioral disorders, there are addiction counselors who are available to speak with you about your concerns. Call our drug hotline at (844) 217-6651 for 24/7 support that is confidential, professional and completely free.
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