Drugs & Health Blog

Concerts and Drugs: Is There a Way to Reduce the Dangers?

The NIDA Blog Team

Summer is back, and outdoor concerts can be an awesome part of it. Concert festivals are all about good music, good friends, and big crowds.  But for some people, these events are also about using drugs. Every year, we hear about drug overdoses and drug-related deaths happening at concert festivals.

These tragedies, as well as the many injuries and arrests, are terrible, life-changing and even life-ending events. There are no words of comfort for the families and friends of those who never come back from their “bad trip.” 

Even concert hosts have to take stock when the drugs used at their events get more news coverage than the bands. It’s against the law to make concerts “drug-friendly,” so many concert organizers have gone with a zero tolerance policy. Others find it easier to turn a blind eye (at least, until they’re shut down).

But some music festivals are trying a different approach to reduce the bad experiences for concert-goers determined to get high on illicit drugs. 

A “harm reduction” approach

“Harm reduction” is an approach that is based on the belief that some people will do risky, dangerous, and sometimes illegal things even if they know that it could hurt them or have an outcome they don’t want. Risky behaviors include things like using drugs, having unprotected sex, and binge drinking. And examples of unwanted outcomes from these behaviors include HIV infection, pregnancy, arrests, and drunk-driving accidents. 

Supporters of harm reduction feel that educating and protecting people about how to reduce unwanted outcomes is more realistic and helpful than educating them on why they shouldn’t do it in the first place. However, others say there should be a “zero tolerance” approach and that by trying reduce harm from using drugs, you are encouraging drug use.

So how does this work at concerts?

Well, in recent years, organizations that promote safe drug use have distributed drug-testing kits at music festivals to help people who buy drugs to be sure that they're really getting what they think they're getting.

For example, much of what is sold at concerts (and on the street) as “Molly” (MDMA powder) is really one of various synthetic cathinones, the extremely dangerous and unpredictable stimulant chemicals in bath salts.  You might have read about this before on this blog. (Drug dealers lie. Who knew?)

The drug test kits are used to check what’s actually in that little baggie and alert buyers when they have been duped. (A recent documentary found that what people bought as Molly was really bath salts 100 percent of the time!) But it turns out that the drug tests being distributed aren’t totally reliable. They may not be accurate, and they might miss the presence of many potentially harmful chemicals. So they could promote a false sense of security.

Lightning in a Bottle

The Lightning in a Bottle Music Festival, held over Memorial Day weekend in California, took extra steps to try and reduce negative outcomes for concertgoers who used drugs by partnering with harm-reduction organizations like DanceSafe. This group offers drug testing and tries to educate people at electronic music festivals and nightlife venues about potential warning signs connected to drug use, like heat stroke and dehydration, since these are the main reasons people die or become seriously ill from MDMA at music festivals. DanceSafe also hands out water.

Lightning in a Bottle also offered help to anyone going through a difficult experience while on psychedelic drugs like acid or mushrooms.

But is harm reduction helpful?

Not everyone thinks harm reduction is a good idea. Some people think trying to make drug use safer is just a way to promote drugs rather than keep people from using them altogether. By making it a little bit safer, they say, you are giving people the green light to go ahead and do something that could harm them.

Few would argue against the idea that knowledge—including a person knowing what’s really in the powder they bought at a concert—is always better than ignorance. But we don’t know how much that information actually influences people to change course when they find out they got swindled. Does finding out they've bought bath salts and not Molly keep them from taking the product they just spent money to get? We also don’t know if these harm-reduction programs have prevented any overdoses or deaths, or if anyone has been more likely to use drugs when they know an aid station is there to help if something goes wrong. In the end, the only way to ensure good health is to stay away from drugs offered at these concerts.

What do you think? Will harm-reduction programs at concerts help people make smarter decisions about their health, or encourage risky behavior?

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.

Comments

By simply stating that harm reduction encourages drug usage, you are putting a higher value on eliminating drugs worldwide than saving human lives. Worldwide harm reduction interventions ranging from methadone clinics, syringe exchanges, and pill testing all the way to legalization of possession of all drugs in Portugal. Whats been observed in comparison studies between the U.S. and countries with comparable conditions, but with different approaches to handling these substances, is that usage rates across a lifetime tend to be about equal however those in other countries have better experiences, and are able to remain healthier because of these interventions. I currently work at a syringe exchange located in NYC and everyday I am here I here a different story about how the harm reduction services we offer has saved countless lives. Services such as pill testing and aiding those having bad trips at festivals and concerts need to be encouraged rather than seen as enabling users. Drugs such as molly/ecstasy are notoriously cut with other substances or contain no mdma at all and are misrepresented to consumers. Taking a substance you don't know could cause major complications such as: weird feelings, side effects you weren't prepared for, accidentally taking too large of a dose, unable to communicate to EMS what you took which could put you in greater danger, dangerous behaviors, and possible fatal interactions with other substances. Furthermore a bad trip can havbe long lasting effects on a persons mental health, sometimes on the magnitude of a person experiencing PTSD like symptoms. By having aid for a bad trip interventions on sight, we are able to help people at a critical moment and possibly turn their experience around. No drug use is safe nor would I encourage it, however the curiosity to explore altered states of human consciousness dates back to the beginning of human existence. In not acknowledging this fact we're putting countless lives in jeopardy. The war on drugs has been an utter failure and cost us too much time, money, and lives. Its time to reroute our efforts to save lives in an effective manner based on science, rather than politics and personal opinions.
Hey.. Educate them, then they can make educated decisions, knowledge is power, and can help people be aware of what's happening when they ingest drugs! Test before you injest guys! Dancesafe.org
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NIDA please stop censoring my comments. Or tell me why you are censoring them! I will not stand for government censorship!

Hi! Because comments are moderated, there may be a delay before your comment appears on the site. All comments that follow the rules in the comment policy (which you can read here: http://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/blog-policies) will eventually appear.

Harm reduction is probably one of the cheapest and most effective ways of saving lives. Because of drug prohibition, it is much harder to study drugs and their effects on the human body. Because of this, people who take drugs often do so without being informed of the risks and dangers. Harm reduction and education helps to mitigate most of the risk that comes with drug use. Until drug prohibition is ended, harm reduction booths provide the easiest way to get important information about drugs into the hands of those that are most likely to use them.
Harm reduction and education absolutely makes a difference! I remember when TomorrowWorld came to the US. It's first year was on the tail end of a lot of bad press about deaths and other incidents at the larger festivals and shows that happened before it. People were nervous, people were skeptical. Plenty were ready to brush it off as another disaster waiting to happen. BUT they had made the groundbreaking decision to bring DanceSafe into the game so people could make good use of the knowledge and unbiased opinions that they offer. As the article linked below says, that first year was a great success with a very low amount of incidents and no deaths. People were so excited and happy to hear those numbers and I know a lot of people were attributing it to being able to ask questions and get the feedback that they did at the DanceSafe booth. People want to be safe and they want to learn, and if we have the tools available to them to help them make more informed decisions, why wouldn't we share them? It's an obvious choice to me! [link removed; website does not exist]
The no tolerance model and prohibition has proven to be ineffective time and time again. We must accept that drugs are a part of our society and do the best we can to reduce the potential harm they may cause by educating others on the dangers as well as safety precautions if they so chose to take these drugs.
Harm reduction at shows/festivals definitely helps people make more informed decisions. Simple pamphlets of information on different drugs and drug combinations (which ones to avoid) can go a long way. Although test kits are not perfect by any means, they at least can eliminate the risk of a person taking substances that are being completely misrepresented. An example of a harm reduction approach that is successful is in Portugal. In 2001, the country of Portugal decriminalized drugs and moved to an approach of harm reduction and treatment rather than punishment. The results have been extremely successful with both drug abuse and addiction on the decline.
Thank you so much for this article and for highlighting both Dancesafe and Lightning in a Bottle as the responsible, progressive organizations they are. To answer one question, I can say, personally that I have purchased drugs at a music festival, tested them at a Dancesafe tent and thrown them away because I considered them more dangerous than what I had intended to purchase. I was so grateful to have the option to test instead of "chance it". If the choice hadn't been there, I definitely just would have taken them. It is true that many people will choose to participate in risky behavior and continue to do drugs at festivals. We see it all the time, it is just a fact. Zero tolerance is not realistic. Harm reduction acknowledges reality and makes it safer, just like fire alarms and floaties on little kids in a pool. What's more, when drug use becomes an actual addiction, harm reduction takes a public health approach rather than a criminal one. This approach has seen success in Vancouver, Portugal, and most recently Gloucester, MA. Here are some links about the successes in these areas! Vancouver: http://vancouver.ca/people-programs/four-pillars-drug-s... Portugal: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/06... Gloucester, MA: http://www.thefix.com/content/addiction-not-crime-Glouc... Creating a harm reduction discussion is a great initiative and I am grateful that you brought it up! I hope this response has helped to shine light on some of the questions posed in this article and to show you some actual examples of harm reduction policies and the positive effects they can have on a society. Thanks again for creating a positive discussion on the topic!
Making the user aware of the main component has a significant impact on their choice of whether to consume a drug. A good example is Shambhala, where out of all those who had their substances tested at a testing booth on site, 7% disposed of the substance once a test revealed it was not what they bargained for. Knowing how many bad drug-related incidences this prevented exactly is impossible, but even if one of these people avoided an overdose by testing their drugs then in my opinion a harm reduction booth has done its job. This is the Shambhala article I referenced: http://drugpolicy.ca/2014/12/safety-through-harm-reduct...
While this blog post went up a week ago. I still feel that I should respond to it. First let me introduce myself. I’m Carl-Cyril and I am a (recreational) drugs harm reduction educator in the Netherlands at Unity for over a year now. I’ve been to over 25 festivals as a peer educator and have done tons of work for the organization behind the scenes. This is a volunteer job and it does take some dedication. It’s my hobby, but some people around me say it’s my calling ( I really love doing this). When I first started I got a two-day training to learn about the drugs out there, what their effects are, what the risks are for every drug, and how to reduce these risks. Unity bases all communication about drugs as much as possible on scientific literature. When no research is done on a specific (usually new) drug, then we look at similar drugs and gather information from the community. This is then distilled in to a message, but mind you we side on caution and are honest about not (being able to) knowing everything. Drug use is never 100% risk free. We provide non-judgmental open minded knowledge and education based on scientific proof but with compassion. After having done this for over a year I can say that the peer-to-peer drugs harm reduction approach is amazing and probably the best way to go. I ‘teach’ people from all ages (16 to 60+) about how they can minimize the risks of taking specific drugs. When doing this I have a connection with the people that come visit our information booth. In almost every conversation I have. The other person learns something that will reduce the risk of getting hurt by using a drug. Every now and then I get to witness that special moment when someone learns something that opens their eyes. I will get a heartfelt thank you and quietly move on to the next. But knowing that this person is less likely to get hurt by drugs. I don’t tell people to do or not do drugs. That is a personal choice. What I do is try to teach people the knowledge that reduces risks for when they decide to take something. Having done this for over a year I often have people come up to me and thank me for teaching them something earlier at a different event. In some cases, it just made their drug experience more enjoyable, but in other cases it prevented injury. With this experience and knowledge in my mind I can only say that the harm reduction approach is a no brainer and should be adopted everywhere. On a final note I want to share a word cloud that was made based on the feedback we get from people that visit our booth at festivals (link to the image: http://i.imgur.com/fU9gxjB.png ). It’s in Dutch but there are a couple English words in there (for fun, try and find them all). You can see that the word that stands out (and is the biggest) is ‘GOED’. This word translates to ‘good’. It is the word that came back the most frequently in our feedback forms and gives an impression of what the general feeling is about what we do . If you’re curious about what kind of materials we use in our job you can check out this picture: http://i.imgur.com/MtbUCMD.jpg For more information about what we do and how we do it check out the website of Unity at www.unity.nl or the American equivalent DanceSafe at https://dancesafe.org/
This is pretty much a no brainer - We need to recognize that prohibition has and always will fail at keeping people from using drugs. We all use drugs, many of us every day. MDMA is a powerful chemical and should be taken with caution, but the drug has been shown to be very effective in treating people with severe PTSD. No drug use is 100% safe, but we can take measures to reduce the risks and the possibility of having a bad reaction by understanding the science, interactions, and effects MDMA and other drugs have on the human brain. I know DanceSafe has drug education cards that they bring to the shows they table at with informational blurbs and warnings for the most common and some less common drugs. Stop incarcerating non-violent drug users- this is a health issue, not a criminal one.
Government should take action against concert which supplies the drug during concert so that rate of death happens due to drug consumption can be reduced. Drug-testing kits at music festivals and safety dance are good idea. Thoughtful article. Regards, Suraj [link removed per commenting guidelines]
Thank you NIDA for opening the dialog on this important issue (and for spending my tax dollars more efficiently). First of all, stop teaching kids that "Drugs make you do things you'll regret." For kids with a rebellious streak, this is an invitation for mischief. Instead, teach children: "You are responsible for your behavior whether sober, drunk or high." Specifically for 'harm reduction': one common mistake is that kids naive to a substance will take waaaay too much. They think, "I'm supposed to pop the whole pill in my mouth like they show in the movies." Eminent neuroscientist Dr Carl Hart gives some great advice for how to start out slowly with a new drug. Also many drugs are potentially dangerous (and neurotoxic). It turns out that the way people act on drugs is highly influenced by media portrayals. We must do a better job of debunking this. No, you don't have to go crazy because you're drunk or high. You don't have to crash through a glass window. You don't have to commit rape or assent to it. If you don't feel safe, then stay where you are and ask for help and keep asking until it arrives. You'll be fine.
Harm reduction is probably one of the cheapest and most effective ways of saving lives. Because of drug prohibition, it is much harder to study drugs and their effects on the human body [link removed per commenting guidelines]
Of course it will .. it is the greatest way to save lives and it is effective as well ... Harm reduction and education are crucial Please keep us informed about similar articles [link removed per commenting guidelines]
I think instead of doing all these summer drugs I think people should go out and do something less dangerous and more hobby liike basketball or different sports s or riding bikes around something to stop losing brain cells and risk life in general. H.A.S nick Carbone
harm reduction shouldnt be allowed. all comcerts should have a zero tolerance because even if they say they should be educated instead of punished theyre bringing a bad environment to those who dont want to do drugs. drugs can be tempting to thosw who havent done them before. concerts should only be about music. you can have fun without drugs
Overheating and dehydration are well-recognized hazards for people dancing at concerts or any other crowded musical venues, especially if they have taken MDMA or other drugs that raise body temperature, why not offer free water and space for cooling off? [link removed per commenting guidelines]
I don't like drugs
We can ban everything a person uses in a harmful manner we simple have to think about what could happen to you physically and mentally and what you want to tell your kids and family that you made the right or wrong decision with your life.
no not really there is not unless u make a concert teaching teenage that doing drugs is bad or pat them down for drugs making sure that no one else will get adicted to drugs u know to keep it safe

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