Zero tolerance on drugs risks lives of music festival-goers

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Author: Fiona Eustace

Spring has sprung, and along with it, so have a series of music festivals across the country. People of all ages flock to Coachella’s double-weekend debut and other highly-anticipated music festivals across the U.S., many native to the West Coast, including Electric Daisy Carnival, FYF, HARD and Sasquatch. Many college students, including Occidental’s own, have begun their pattern of migration to polished polo fields not only for musical enjoyment, but for socially acceptable, recreational drug use. The care-free atmosphere makes experimenting with drugs an embedded and even expected norm among festival-goers during the short-lived utopia of a festival.

The ubiquity of drugs at music festivals has been a socially understood and often shunned phenomenon since Woodstock in the 1960s. But in the past few years, there seems to have been an increased pattern of ecstasy-related deaths among millennials at music festivals. Dangerous substances are being sold to festival-goers, often highly contaminated with unidentifiable synthetics as cheap substitutes for ecstasy. Festival goers infamously refer to this all-encompassing, feel-good drug as “molly,” which is essentially ecstasy in powdered form, but rarely contains any real form of the substance.

As a result of zero-tolerance attitudes toward drugs in the U.S., festival coordinators are unable to pursue honest dialogue about drug use with their attendees. Instead, they are solely increasing their security as a way to prevent drugs from entering the festival grounds. As I’m sure many festival-goers can attest to, this prevention remains ineffective. As long as young people are continuing to gather in massive concert crowds, drugs will inevitably persist. Maximizing security only further prevents harm reduction — necessary conversation about the reality of drug use and how festival communities can protect and inform their attendees, rather than condemning them. It seems to be an acceptable, general consensus among millennials that taking drugs comes with some personal risk, but American society falsely stigmatizes and implicitly shames millennial drug use at festivals.

In Portugal, where recreational drug use is decriminalized, festivals have readily available drug testing booths where festival-goers can check to see if their drugs contain harmful chemicals. For concert attendees in Portugal, there is no social stigma around providing information about how drugs work and the dangers of mixing substances, often resulting in a festival with no deaths, few medical emergencies and non-judgmental interactions between festival attendees and law enforcement.

Dance Safe, a nonprofit drug testing and harm reduction agency within the electronic music community, provides unbiased pill testing on site at festivals. They openly acknowledge that molly itself, like any drug, is not entirely safe. At the core of this organization is education; while they test pills, they simultaneously distribute unbiased educational literature explaining the potential effects and risks when taking drugs.

Dance Safe has worked some music festivals in the U.S., but most U.S. festivals fear that having such services will explicitly condone drug use. It seems valid that openly allowing drug use might encourage festival-goers to do more drugs, therefore risking more lives; but without the presence of organizations such as Dance Safe, we lose a critical advantage: saving some lives, rather than none at all. Harm reduction protocols don’t promote drugs, but rather encourage education and open dialogue. It is morally and medically neglectful not to have some form of education about how drugs actually work readily available for festival-goers.

While most festivals in the U.S. offer easily accessible cool-off areas and access to water, holistic harm reduction like pill testing ultimately remains a component needed to help festival-goers mitigate their own risk. Young people often make mistakes and may accidentally take the wrong amount of a substance, improperly mix drugs with alcohol or unknowingly purchase cheap substitute drugs, but our zero-tolerance ideologies do not allow room for inevitable human error.

Festival-goers need stigma-free education about the reality of drug use, which includes information regarding the dangers of combining drugs and alcohol, the importance of hydration, the necessity of testing drugs for purity and the risks of mixing drugs. Festival-goers also need access to drug checking services. This method may seem controversial, but it is also the only harm reduction protocol that will hold real impact for people to make smarter, more informed decisions that can potentially save their lives. Whether or not to take drugs ultimately remains an individual choice, but it should be made socially and legally acceptable for festival coordinators in the U.S. to easily provide information about health risks, preventive factors and pill tests when taking drugs such as molly.

These preventive actions may be interpreted as promoting recklessness, but it’s unacceptable to let someone die because of social condemnation and rigid legality. As my friends start to purchase tickets for summer music festivals across the country, I’d rather them be aware and have the proper resources while (potentially) taking drugs so they can come home safely, rather than not come home at all.

Fiona Eustace is a sophomore politics major. She can be reached at feustace@oxy.edu.

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