Banning Music Festivals Won't Stop Drug-Related Deaths

LA County is voting to ban music festivals, but it won't stop EDM fans from dying.
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Last weekend, Diplo and Skrillex brought out 2 Chainz, Justin Bieber and AlunaGeorge for their performance at HARD Summer, and yet the star-studded act wasn't the biggest story to come out of the festival. Instead, the coverage was (rightly) far more concerned with the deaths of two teenage women, the latest incident in a long line of music festival-related deaths. As ABC reports, Los Angeles County supervisors have now voted to explore a ban on major music festivals on county property.

No ban has been put into effect yet, though that certainly doesn't mean we haven't felt any tangible repercussions from the incident. Two women, Katie Dix (19-years-old) and Tracy Nguyen (18-years-old), passed away on Saturday, the cause of death suspected to be a drug overdose. As Billboard reports, the City News Service says that the board was told a total of 29 other attendees were treated for issues resulting from drugs or alcohol. The situation this weekend echoes one we've heard countless times in recent years, and at HARD Summer especially, as last year another 19-year-old woman also died of a suspected drug overdose. Is it likely the ban will go into effect? Well, in 2010, The L.A. Coliseum put a temporary ban on "raves" following the death of a 15-year-old girl at Electric Daisy Carnival. The ban was eventually overturned, but every new tragedy lends fuel to the fire and it's becoming entirely possible that music festival bans could spread to other cities as well. 

Music festivals have become a pillar of the modern music industry and are becoming increasingly inclusive, blending hip-hop and EDM as rappers ranging from A$AP Rocky and Danny Brown to Big Boi and GZA have appeared at major EDM festivals. Events like Trillectro consciously combine both worlds, while mega-events like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Governors Ball and Bonnaroo (where 10 people have died since 2002, though not all due to drugs), piece together lineups from all corners of the genre spectrum. Guess what? People do drugs at these events. Often, it's the use of MDMA that's generally attributed to the concert tragedies taking place, and though the drug is most strongly linked to the EDM scene, ecstasy (aka Molly) has also become a staple of hip-hop culture in recent years, and deaths like Dix' and Nguyen's could just as easily take place at any of these large-scale events. Festivals are at the forefront of the music experience these days, and EDM fan or not, a ban like the one proposed by L.A. County could have a big impact on all of us who love live music. 

But would a music festival ban actually make people safer? Drug use is prevalent at live music events, always has been prevalent and will continue to be prevalent. Period. It is alarming and deeply saddening that people are dying at music festivals, but banning the event itself is a response that doesn't directly address the issue at hand. Concert drug use is a public health issue, and one that needs to be met with transparency and understanding, not bans. I'm not suggesting selling drugs right out of the venue, nor encouraging their consumption, but recognizing that they exist and giving people an environment better suited for the realities of the world. 

One of the biggest issues at hand is that oftentimes, drug users are not actually sure what they're ingesting. In 2011, the BBC reported that out of 500,000 yearly ecstasy users in the UK, only 27 died as a result (1 in every 18,516 people). By comparison, out of 40 million yearly alcohol users in the UK, 40,000 died as a result (1 in every 1000). Alcohol consumption continues to be encouraged, and is easily found at every major festival in America, yet due to the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, those same venues can be fined $250,000 or even have management arrested for having knowledge of ecstasy use inside the venue, according to a Rolling Stone article. That includes distributing, or even allowing the distribution of testing kits. Since Molly is the powder form of ecstasy, someone can easily pass off another substance under its guise, and the eventual user may be ingesting something completely different from what they had expected.

A documentary released last year, entitled What's In My Baggie?(you can watch the full thing on YouTube), visited six festivals last summer and using testing kits to find out what was really in the drugs people had brought/purchased. The result was that most often people thought they were about to take Molly, it turned out to be bath salts. Yet, one of the documentary's creators told Noisey that "venue owners and concert promoters aren’t allowed to have drugs taken at their festival because it will be interpreted as them providing a venue for drug use. By allowing test kits to be sold they’re acknowledging that there’s drug use and not taking a preventative measure, but a harm-reduction measure."

Diplo spoke to Rolling Stone about the need for a change in perspective back in 2013 saying: 

"How many kids drive a car when they shouldn't? The drug thing happens, and this is the first time music writers can have something to write about. Electronic music is so young, and these audiences are full of 18 - no, 13-year-olds - and people who are 30, and 30 is old. Music writers and critics are old. When I was younger and living in Philadelphia, there was a crazy heroin problem. I had a lot of friends who died from Oxycontin and heroin overdoses. No one wrote about those kids. When 6,000 kids party for three days and two kids die, it's a story because the writers don't write about electronic music, as it's flat and boring all the time."

If music festivals are banned from major cities, do you think people will stop attending, or indulging in drug use? Worse, it will just push the problems elsewhere, to different venues, individual concerts and deeper underground with less supervision. Year after year we hear the same tragic story, yet is any change actually taking place? Instead of pretending that drug use will go away and turning a blind eye towards the problem, we should be using music festivals as a platform for change, an opportunity to create a safe and informed environment. It means venues providing an ability for concertgoers to accurately know what they are putting into their bodies, educational material to understand what the effects and risks are, free and abudantly available water, and open spaces with readily available help. A great resource is DanceSafe, a company who neither condones nor condemns drug use but hopes to achieve zero casualties by helping festivalgoers in a realistic fashion. 

People were shot outside of an OVO Fest after party, does this mean we should ban the festival from that county? No, it means should educate ourselves on the causative factors at hand and more intelligently look at turning the environment into one of safety. It doesn't matter whether you do or do not attend festivals, dabble in drugs or enjoy EDM, this is an issue that continues to become more important with every life lost. I can't say with certainty that if the festival promotors had accepted the fact that drug use was going to occur, and addressed the issue properly, it would have saved the lives of the two women who died. I can say that our approach to the situation is not working, and that banning the festival itself is not the solution to that problem. I doubt that the ban lasts, if it does indeed go into effect, but that is not the story here. The story is waking up to a reality and dealing with it by switching up the policy.

[By Brendan Varan. He hopes that someday we no longer have to worry about stuff like this, and braces himself for daring to bring up EDM. Follow him on Twitter.]

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