How to Make EDM Festivals Safer for Young Fans

Drugs are a touchy subject. But last weekend’s MDMA-related deaths at Electric Zoo, and the festival’s subsequent cancellation, have forced the issue back into the national conversation. And it’s about time: the fact that practical discussions focusing on harm reduction seldom make it into the public dialogue is part of the reason why uninformed kids who get their hands on unregulated substances keep dying.

The US government’s zero-tolerance approach has created an environment that encourages misinformation and mislabeled drugs to proliferate. The “Drugs are bad! Don’t do them!” strategy used by our government and programs like D.A.R.E. has been shown to be completely ineffective — and even counterproductive, according to studies conducted by such venerable institutions as the General Accounting Office, US Surgeon General, National Institute of Justice, National Academy of Sciences, and the US Department of Education. And policies like the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003 (based on the RAVE Act) use language that’s intimidating to event producers who are in a position to distribute educational materials on harm reduction.

One-sided information only raises the level of mystique surrounding party drugs like MDMA. This further fascinates young people, whose undeveloped prefrontal cortexes (in charge of judgment and decision making) and highly developed nucleus accumbens (which seeks pleasure and reward) combine to make risk-taking totally worth the pursuit of good times. Unregulated distribution and incomplete education limited to (at best) a Google search or (at worst) word of mouth rumors from peers increase those risks.

It’s great that DJs like Kaskade have spoken up this week about the fact that music can be the only drug you need: “This music + its people can take you to the moon. Don’t put yourself in danger. Let the real magic get you there. Let me do the heavy lifting. That’s my job. I believe 100% it can be life-changing and uplifting when you are 100% sober.” In a culture that’s hinged increasingly on excess over the last few years, and as bigger numbers of underage party goers dive into a mindset of doing drugs to get wasted (rather than in the interest of supplementing their experience), these deaths are a timely reminder that dance-music events are about much more than the parts where you get so high you’re not actually present for the awesome shit happening around you: the music, the community, a sense of connectedness to yourself and everyone else who’s along for the ride.

Still, it’s not enough to just tell everyone not to do drugs. It’s time to fully acknowledge reality and take comprehensive steps to create safer and more enjoyable party environments. Here are a few things that music event producers and promoters can do to make that happen.

1. Work with and promote educational organizations like dancesafe.org — and take those partnerships seriously.

One blog post encouraging people to “take care of each other” and help anyone experiencing “muscle tremors” and “convulsions” get to a medical tent isn’t enough. Big events like Electric Zoo need to spread more information, more thoroughly, through more outlets. Those promoters worried about legal ramifications can choose to partner with separate organizations dedicated to this kind of work. Whatever the arrangement, it needs to be publicized widely.

2. Create a community-based volunteer force with the sole purpose of keeping people safe and helping those in need.

Burning Man’s Black Rock Rangers organization is an incredible example of how people can come together to strengthen and support their community. The sense of personal and communal responsibility that makes Burning Man so special would be a huge asset to the greater EDM community. Instead of vague pleas from festival organizers for attendees to “look out for each other,” volunteer programs that weave that sense of connectedness and support into the fabric of events could not only make things safer, but also positively affect the vibe of the whole party.

Instead of relying on your wasted friends to help you when you’re in trouble, imagine being intercepted by a compassionate volunteer whose sole purpose in that moment is to get you where you need to go.

3. Free water.

Coca-Cola owns SmartWater and Dasani. PepsiCo owns Aquafina. They can afford to give it away for free. Make them a product sponsor instead of profiting off the basic needs of attendees. Seriously, it’s only right.

4. Get DJs (even more) involved.

A couple tweets and Facebook posts from our favorite artists that hint at the issues around drug use are welcome, but not good enough. Let’s start a real conversation that not only deals with the importance of moderation, but also emphasizes everything else that’s awesome about big sound systems and epic dance parties. A conversation that shows the world outside looking in at the EDM community that it’s about so much more than drugs. A conversation that could potentially take away some of the fascination with vice that makes excess consumption appealing, and shift the focus back to the real reason why so many people feel nourished by gathering to dance to the music they love with the people who love it too: the music.