Molly is Not What's Killing People at Music Festivals, Prohibition is to Blame

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December 17, 2013 - By Meghan Ralston

Reports on deaths related to Ecstasy and methamphetamine use are always heartbreaking. It’s easy to understand why people are worried about young people consuming stimulants at music festivals. Drug-related fatalities at large music events are, thankfully, still pretty rare given the sheer number of music festivals and the enormous crowds many of them draw, and with a little effort, we could reduce drug-related harms even further. But don’t expect event promoters to do all the work—people who use drugs and our prohibition-approach to all of this bear some responsibility, too.

People who use drugs, particularly young people, need access to the information that could save their lives. We do an abysmal job at educating about the basics of drug use safety and risks. We tell young people, “Ecstasy can be dangerous, don’t use it.” But we fail to provide lifesaving information, such as “If you do decide to use Ecstasy, make sure you have constant access to water, sip it frequently, and remember to take ‘chill out’ breaks from dancing to avoid potentially dangerous overheating.”

Concert promoters should be encouraged to share this kind of lifesaving information with attendees. It would be so easy and simple for musical festivals to add a “Stay Safe” section on the event’s website, including information about how to avoid or respond to a suspected drug overdose. The promoters could allow non-profit organizations such as DanceSafe to make drug safety testing kits available at the event.

Just two festivals alone – Burning Man and Coachella – each attracting more than 50,000 guests each year--could set an incredible precedent for the rest of the festival industry by stepping up and simply making overdose prevention and response information more widely available to their customers, on the event website and at the event itself.

Many young people, despite our warnings and threats, will experiment with drug use at music festivals and other major events that attract scores of their peers. This is reality, whether we like it or not. One of the best ways to reduce the possibility of drug-related death is to not ingest a substance without knowing what it is--and to have a plan in place to deal with the very rare health emergencies that might occur.

Don’t use drugs alone. Stay hydrated. Rest if you feel fatigued. Don’t mix different substances. Take small amounts of a substance until you can determine how it affects you, “start low and go slow.” And most importantly, call 911 if someone needs emergency help. California has a 911 Good Samaritan law that protects callers and overdose victims from arrest for small amounts of drugs and drug paraphernalia when medical assistance is summoned to the scene of a suspected drug overdose.

Music event promoters need to do their part to help save lives, but so do all of us. Talk to young people about what it means to be safe if they choose to use drugs. Educate yourself about risky drug combinations and overdose response. It’s simple education, and it can save lives.

Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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