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Ways to Protect Yourself from Drug Use at Festivals
Overview: Outdoor music festivals are popular venues for Millennials to meet and share a unique experience while surrounded by like-minded people. For all the benefits of these festivals, they are also linked with high rates of drug abuse, which can result in negative consequences, including overdose and death. Anyone interested in the music festival scene should understand the drugs that are commonly used, the risks of abusing these drugs, and measures to keep themselves and other festival-goers safe.
What Are the Most Popular Music Festivals & Who Attends Them?
Music festivals have skyrocketed in popularity with millions attending one or more concerts each year. These multiday, outdoor events involve opportunities to see popular musical acts, gather information from various vendors on site, and engage with people who have similar interests, all while trading the rigors of everyday life for a tent in an open space.
To many, music festivals offer the ultimate escape from reality. These appealing characteristics resulted in approximately 32 million people attending at least one music festival in the U.S. in 2014, with about 14.7 million of them being Millennials. These people are willing to go extraordinary distances with the average person traveling more than 900 miles to attend their festival.1
Rock and hip-hop festivals have dominated the scene for years, but lately, electronic dance music (EDM) festivals have been increasingly popular, particularly with Millennials.2 In fact, festivals that exclusively played electronic music account for 8 out of the top 25 festivals.2 Rather than being like rock concerts, EDM festivals resemble rave dance parties that continue throughout the night.
Some of the festivals, both EDM and others, creating buzz in the U.S. include:2
- South by Southwest (SXSW).
- Sun City.
- Electric Zoo.
- Electric Daisy Carnival.
- Warped Tour.
- Burning Man.
Music festivals are not a U.S. exclusive, though. These events are popular all over the globe.
Music festivals draw enormous crowds, bring in huge amounts of money, and generate tremendous interest on social media with more than 20 million conversations involving music festivals.2 Women make up about 55% of all music festival fans with more than half of festival-goers being between the ages of 17 and 24.2
People come to music festivals for a unique musical and social experience, but these events also have a dark side as many also come to experiment and indulge in potentially dangerous drug use.
What Substances Are Most Commonly Used?
Nearly 50% of people attending music festivals report that they are willing to engage in activities during the event that they wouldn’t otherwise do.3 About 21% of festival attendees report using illegal drugs at the events.3
As a group, people attending music festivals are more likely than the general population to use drugs and alcohol. Nearly 75% of people surveyed at music festivals report using illicit drugs within the last year, with the most commonly used drugs being:4
- Prescription medications, including opioids and benzodiazepines/sedatives.
- Synthetic cannabis, like Spice and K2.
A Danish study analyzed urine from a music festival and found 77 different drugs in 44 samples.5 The most frequently encountered substances included:5
- Synthetic cannabis.
In some cases, specific events are associated with their own characteristic types of drug abuse.
For instance, Burning Man patrons opt for more hallucinogens like psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), LSD, and DMT, Marley Fest users tend to prefer marijuana, and Coachella attendees are in favor of cocaine.6
Each person will have their own motivations for drug use, but many report using substances to enhance the music and enrich the social experience by bringing them closer to others in attendance.7 People may use cocaine and amphetamine to increase their energy and decrease the need for sleep.8 Hallucinogens may be used for their ability to distort sensory perceptions.8
Despite the popularity of drugs at music festivals, many organizers have specific rules excluding any illicit substances from being brought into the venue. Even with California’s new legislation legalizing marijuana for recreational use, people attending Coachella in 2018 still cannot bring the substance, in any form, to the show.9
What Are the Dangers?
Even relatively mild drug use can result in a number of unwanted repercussions. These effects can range from slightly uncomfortable to intensely distressing and life-threatening. The environment at music festivals and the common practice of combining substances only amplifies the risk.
Between 1999 and 2014, drugs and alcohol were responsible for 75% of all non-trauma deaths at music festivals.10 During a music festival in Ohio in 2016, 24 people had to be hospitalized due to suspected overconsumption of marijuana edibles.11 In 2017 at an Australian festival, 21 people were hospitalized following consumption of what was believed to be GHB, a depressant drug sometimes called liquid ecstasy.12
The dangers vary greatly depending on the drug or drugs someone is using, but there are many common risks associated with some of the more popular drugs used at these festivals.
For instance, people may use MDMA – often called Molly or ecstasy – as a way to boost their energy, increase their emotional connection to others, and enhance their sensory perceptions of the show, but MDMA use can also result in dangers like hyperthermia.13 Hyperthermia is risky in a normal environment, but when combined with high temperatures, limited water, and increased activity levels from dancing at a festival, the dangers of seizures, coma, and death grow. Without proper treatment for hyperthermia, it can progress to muscle breakdown and even kidney failure.13
Dehydration, which is always a risk at music festivals, is compounded by substance use. Someone consuming large amounts of alcohol will struggle to drink the needed amounts of water on hot days. Also, vomiting – which often accompanies the use of drugs and high levels of alcohol – can result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.14
Another risk, regardless of the substance, is that of impaired judgment, which can lead to accidents, injuries, and violent or erratic behaviors. Drug and alcohol abuse also increases the risk of engaging in unsafe sexual practices, which could lead to the contraction of a sexually-transmitted disease (STD), such as HIV or herpes, or an unplanned pregnancy.8
Abusing stimulants, such as cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamine, or bath salts, raises the risk of experiencing cardiovascular complications, such as arrhythmias, heart attack, and stroke.
When cocaine is combined with alcohol, there is an increased risk of cardiac toxicity, or heart damage, than with either substance alone.8
Using drugs at music festivals also places your mental health at risk. Hallucinogens, like LSD and mushrooms, are known to produce “bad trips,” which are terrifying experiences fueled by hallucinations and delusions based on fear, anxiety, and death.14 Having a “bad trip” at a music festival is problematic because the new location and overstimulation will intensify symptoms.14
Another significant danger of drug use at music festivals is the uncertainty regarding the precise chemical make-up of the drug sample in hand. By buying or trading substances with a stranger, you could expose yourself to a slew of unknown or unwanted chemicals, since illicit drugs are not federally regulated.
Products sold as ecstasy at festivals may have little or no MDMA in it. Instead, it could be contaminated with adulterants like:13
- Ephedrine, the diet drug.
- Phencyclidine (PCP).
- Dextromethorphan (DXM).
- Bath salts.
Further, research chemicals, synthetic drugs that can be purchased online, are a cheap alternative to other popularly abused illegal drugs, which is why dealers will often sell these research chemicals to users under the façade that they are MDMA, LSD, or other more commonly known drugs.
Harm Reduction Practices
In an effort to reduce the risks of using alcohol and other drugs at music festivals, organizers are experimenting with harm reduction. Harm reduction practices offer practical ways to combat the danger of drugs, rather than attempting to simply ban all illicit substances.15
Harm reduction measures at concerts include:15
- Offering education about substances and their dangers.
- Providing information regarding the warning signs of dehydration and heat stroke.
- Creating a safe, supportive place for people experiencing “bad trips” from hallucinogens.
- Distributing drug testing kits or offering testing stations, so the individual can identify what substance they are about to consume.
These testing kits work by checking the drug type and purity. This way, the individual can make an informed decision before using any uncertain substance.15 More than 87% of festival attendees surveyed said they would likely utilize drug testing kits/stations and use the information to avoid undesirable drugs like methamphetamine and ketamine.4
Concert venues may also offer free water and medical services for those in need.
Other Safety Measures You Can Take
You can never be too careful at music festivals. To aid in your safety, consider:
- Drinking plenty of water and eating an adequate amount of food.
- Always attending with a friend or group of friends to create a support system.
- Avoiding the use of any substance without knowledge of what it is.
- Gathering information about medical services at the venue and their locations.
- Setting a schedule to allow plenty of time for breaks during the day and for sleep at night.
- Keeping your phone handy and charged in case you need to contact help.
Signs & Symptoms of Overdose
Perhaps one of the best methods to improve safety during a music festival is knowing the signs and symptoms of a drug overdose or substance toxicity. By learning the warning signs, you can act quickly to reduce dangers and hopefully prevent death.
Different substances create different overdose symptoms:16
- Stimulants – MDMA, amphetamines, cocaine, and bath salts produce:
- Hallucinations and delusions.
- High blood pressure.
- Opioids – heroin and prescription painkillers – and depressants –Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, etc. – produce:
- Slowed and shallow breathing.
- Extreme fatigue and drowsiness.
- Blue lips and fingers.
- Gurgling sounds or snoring.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Alcohol produces:
- Trouble staying awake.
- Slow or stopped breathing.
- Clammy skin.
- Slow heart rate.
- Dulled responses.
How to Help
If you notice the warning signs of overdose in someone at a music festival, take action. You could save their life by:14,16
- Contacting 911 or medical staff on site.
- Staying with the person.
- Providing reassurance while staying calm.
- Getting them into a comfortable position – preferably on their side to avoid choking.
- Giving them Narcan (naloxone), an opioid blocker, in the case of an opioid overdose.
- Moving them to a dark, quiet, and peaceful environment, in the case of a hallucinogen “bad trip” overdose.
Drug Abuse Treatment
Indulging in alcohol and drug use at a festival does not necessarily mean you have an addiction, however many people struggle daily with substance abuse, addiction, and dependence. You might be struggling with a drug addiction if:17
- You use larger amounts of drugs than intended for long periods of time.
- You have strong cravings for the substance when it is not available.
- You have made unsuccessful attempts to reduce or eliminate use.
- You experience interpersonal or social problems related to drug use.
- You find it increasingly difficult to meet your responsibilities at home, work, or school.
- You need more of the substance to achieve the desired results.
- You experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have the substance.
- You continue using despite real dangers to your mental or physical health.
Remember, formal addiction treatment can help you live a better life by replacing your maladaptive drug use with healthier behaviors and teaching you how to cope with cravings. Music festivals don’t have be hazardous experiences; without alcohol and drug abuse, you can enjoy the music and your friends without the risk of adverse consequences.
- Billboard.com. (2015). Check Out These Surprising Stats About U.S. Music Festivals.
- Eventbrite. (2014). Music Festival Study.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2013). Summer Music Festivals: More About Partying than Music?
- Day, N., Criss, J., Griffiths, B., Gujral, S. K., John-Leader, F., Johnston, J., & Pit, S. (2018). Music festival attendees’ illicit drug use, knowledge and practices regarding drug content and purity: a cross-sectional survey. Harm Reduction Journal, 15, 1.
- Hoegberg, L.C.G., Christiansen C., Soe J., Telving R., Andreasen M.F., Staerk D.(2017) Recreational drug use at a major music festival: trend analysis of anonymised pooled urine, Clinical Toxicology, 56:4, 245-255.
- Consequence of Sound. (2015). New Study Reveals Most Popular Drugs at American Music Festivals.
- Jacob Fox, Alexis Smith, Alexander Yale, Christopher Chow, Elsa Alaswad, Tracy Cushing & Andrew A. Monte. (2017). Drugs of Abuse and Novel Psychoactive Substances at Outdoor Music Festivals in Colorado, Substance Use & Misuse, Nov. 17.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Commonly Abused Drugs Charts.
- Fortune.com. (2018). Sorry California, You Still Can’t Bring Marijuana to Coachella.
- Vice.com. (2016). New Study Finds 13% of Festival Deaths Worldwide Caused by Alcohol and Drugs.
- CNN. (2016). 24 Hospitalized in Drug Overdose at Ohio Music Festival.
- ABC News Australia. (2017). GHB Suspected Drug Behind Overdoses at Melbourne Dance Party that Saw 21 People Hospitalised.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). MDMA (Ecstasy) Abuse.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2015). Concerts and Drugs: Is There a Way to Reduce the Dangers?
- Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. (n.d.). Overdose Overview.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.