Drug Use and Safety at Electric Zoo Has a Long Way to Go

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August 26, 2014 - By Stefanie Jones

It’s just about one year since EZoo made the news by cancelling its third day after two highly publicized deaths due to drug use.  Preparations for the 2014 event have seen many changes to how drug use will be handled – some good, and some bad.

But what remains unchanged is that we’re still not talking about how underlying drug war policies prevent the best interventions for health & safety from taking place.

EZoo promoters are doing what they can.  They’ve hired “Zookeepers” – young medical students who will roam the grounds to provide aid to those that may need it.  The thinking is that young people are more likely to approach other young people rather than adult security staff, especially in the instance of drug use complications.

On the flip side, their attempt at an anti-drug PSA that will be mandatory viewing for attendees has been widely criticized in the media for being inaccurate and unclear (including by my colleague, Meghan Ralston a couple weeks ago).  One of the most troubling issues about this PSA is that it shows a girl walking away from a young man who’s clearly having a difficult drug experience – when a responsible community member would attempt to get this young man some help.

EZoo is vastly increasing the police force at the event and will be using drug sniffer dogs at entry points.  These enforcement efforts are all about fear tactics and have nothing to do with the health of patrons.  While they may deter some individuals, in all likelihood these practices will lead to a greater number of arrests without providing any discernible impact on drug use at the festival.  They may even lead to risky behavior like pre-loading.

This conflicting response to drug use is sadly typical for big-business music festivals right now: first, by trying harder to keep drugs out via enforcement tactics, and second, by increasing medical and other interventions that recognize the absolute reality that drugs will get in, and be used.

The two goals coexist for now, but it’s not sustainable in the long run. One of them must give way for something else.

There are places in the world where this has happened, and music festivals that can take a different approach as a result.  I attended one of them earlier this month: a week-long festival in Portugal called Boom. Because drug use is decriminalized in Portugal – which means no one gets arrested for possessing small amounts of any drug – Boom can integrate the best and most effective practices to keep their attendees as safe as possible. In addition to the standard onsite hospital they have drug education as well as drug checking (testing substances for adulterants), and they have a sort of onsite mental health service where volunteers will sit with people having difficult drug experiences that are not in need of medical care.

EZoo, as well as most other festivals, must still operate under drug war philosophy: the idea that a desirable and achievable goal is a festival without any drug use (save alcohol, of course, a major profit driver!), and that talking directly about drug use is somehow promoting it. Working under this philosophy means that any drug use safety strategy is unable to go as far as it needs to.

The voice of attendees is powerful: when EZoo recently banned Camelbaks because of a non-specific security risk, the resulting outcry led them to reconsider their policy and at least allow for empty water bottles to be brought in.  If attendees pushed for a more open dialogue about drug use and the education and services needed, imagine the impact we would have then.  That is the path toward a truly safer festival experience.

Stefanie Jones is the nightlife community engagement manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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