The NIDA Blog Team
June 9 2015

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?

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