The safety dance: Danger at music festivals

Last fall at Electric Zoo, an electronic dance music (EDM) festival in New York, two young adults died and four were hospitalized, prompting organizers to cancel the final day of the festival. In 2011, Bonnaroo reported its tenth death since its inception, prompting the Huffington Post to note “the obvious dangers of cramming some 80,000 concertgoers together in 90-degree heat with an endless supply of drugs and alcohol.”

The list of deaths, arrests and injuries goes on. Certainly, the combination of young people, drug use and rock music has drawn negative media attention since the days of Woodstock and Altamont.

A concert attendee is carted off by emergency responders after being injured at a rock concert called the Tibetan Freedom Concert. Photo courtesy of Gabriel B. Tait.
A concert attendee is carted off by emergency responders after being injured at a rock concert called the Tibetan Freedom Concert. Photo courtesy of Gabriel B. Tait.

Ideally, organizers would provide their attendees multiple harm-reduction methods, in addition to the already-present water stations and first aid. DanceSafe, an organization committed to reducing harm in the electronic music community, already provides resources — such as test kits for drugs, condoms and sunscreen — at festivals.

“Music festival organizers have not been aiding in the harm reduction process at festivals, which has led to many unfortunate and dangerous situations,” Kari Semel, president of DePaul’s chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, said. “Many people wonder why drugs are tolerated at festivals, and the answer is simple: without turning a blind eye to drug use, festival organizers would lose most of their clients.”

Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as organizers taking a more proactive approach. In 2003 Congress passed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, formerly introduced as the RAVE Act, which prohibits individuals from knowingly providing a space for drug use. In this sense, if an organizer were to openly allow drug use at their event, they could be held liable.

This presents a legal gray area: Organizers are aware that a percentage of their attendees are using drugs. Events are often wary of allowing organizations to test pills because it can mean they admit to providing a space for drug use.
Instead, they search bags and pat down attendees at the gate, and provide security, first-aid and water stations inside the festival. While it would be ideal to sell test kits and distribute information, turning a blind eye to drug use presumably avoids liability.

“There isn’t much that (festival organizers) can do,” John Gallagher, a 24-year-old communication student who has attended festivals like Electric Forest and Burning Man, said.

But until anti-drug or anti-rave laws change, the responsibility lands upon us, as festivalgoers, to stay safe. Attendees — especially those who decide to use substances — must take responsibility for their own safety and the safety of those around them in order to maintain this idyllic and brief communal space to enjoy music.

For those who do decide to use substances, it is imperative to, as DanceSafe says, “test it before you ingest it.” According to the Drug Policy Alliance and its cited sources, overdosing on pure MDMA is an extremely rare occurrence; usually, festivalgoers whose deaths are attributed to ecstasy either over-exerted themselves or ingested something else. Semel recommends using a test kit, which can be purchased through DanceSafe, Bunk Police and at some drug stores.

Even those who do not use illicit substances should be constantly aware of their body’s needs. Though it seems obvious, drinking water and replacing electrolytes lost in sweat is a necessity, especially when combined with heat and alcohol consumption. My rule of thumb is that if my water has gotten hot, I am probably not drinking it fast enough.

Similarly, walking miles a day, dancing and toting a heavy backpack requires consistent refueling; a 150-pound person who walks at a moderate pace for just four hours burns nearly 900 calories. Gallagher recommends packing a few supplement shakes — such as Ensure Plus or Boost — in the event you or a friend is undernourished.

And if you find yourself or a friend in a harmful situation, even one resulting from drug use, seek medical attention.
“You really shouldn’t be afraid to use (the first aid station) if you think you are in a bad situation. If you go to them for medical attention, they will be happy that you came to them, rather than the other way around,” Gallagher said. First aid is not the police, and many festivals have a “no questions asked” policy.

As a young person and festival addict myself, I adore the space, freedom and music of these events. Music festivals are not going away anytime soon, but as attendees both new and old, it is up to us to maintain the environment by keeping ourselves and others safe.