POLITICS

This Music Festival Knows It Can't Stop People From Doing Drugs, So It's Trying To Keep Them Safe Instead

05/20/2015 05:01 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2015
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The upcoming Lightning in a Bottle Music Festival, which starts Thursday in Bradley, California, is a drug-free event. But rather than pretend this label and any effort to enforce it will create a drug-repellant force field around the festival, organizers say they're preparing for the inevitable: They know some drugs will find their way through security and into people's bodies, so they're offering a host of resources to help minimize the potential negative effects on users.

As part of this effort, Lightning in a Bottle and its coordinators at the Do Lab are partnering with two groups, DanceSafe -- a health organization that focuses on harm reduction and education at music festivals and nightlife venues -- and the Zendo Project -- a program sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies that offers help to anyone going through a difficult experience while on psychedelic drugs.

Part of DanceSafe's operation involves providing a judgment-free space to proactively address drug dangers before they emerge. The group believes educating people about potential problem signs associated with recreational drug use -- often simple things like heat stroke, dehydration and even hyponatremia, a life-threatening condition brought on by drinking too much water -- will help users seek treatment earlier rather than later. DanceSafe also offers condoms, earplugs, free water and an open line of communication to anyone who wants to talk about how they can make sure their good time doesn't become a bad time.

Meanwhile, the Zendo Project offers what Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager for Drug Policy Alliance, a progressive nonprofit that advocates for drug policy reform, referred to as "mental health services" for people on psychedelic drugs. Anyone who may find themselves confused, upset, uncomfortable or in need of help anywhere else along their psychedelic trip can turn to one of the project's trained therapists.

DanceSafe has also made a name for itself by offering on-site drug checking, which tells users which substances they actually have and how to use them responsibly. Jones told The Huffington Post that these services will not be available at Lightning in a Bottle due to concerns that organizers could be prosecuted under a federal law that prohibits the "maintaining of a drug-involved premise."

Music festivals have attracted scrutiny in recent years following a spate of drug overdoses and drug-related deaths. With the growth of cheaper and ever-changing synthetic substances, the music festival drug market -- where baggies of different colored powders and pills are often passed between strangers in porta-potties -- is only getting harder and more risky to navigate.

Last year, a documentary filmmaker followed a group that offered drug testing services at popular festivals and found that 100 percent of the people who came to them thinking they had MDMA, also called "molly" or "ecstasy," actually had bath salts, a term that has come to refer to any of a number of popular synthetic drugs. They also found examples of drugs being cut with powerful or dangerous adulterants that would almost certainly change a user's predicted experience.

While these trends are frightening, they don't mean fewer people are experimenting with drugs at festivals. This has led to some differing opinions on how to approach the problem.

In New York, the popular electronic music festival Electric Zoo rebooted in 2014, a year after two drug-related deaths made national headlines and forced the event to shut down a day early. Hoping to avoid another death or PR disaster, organizers opted for an enforcement-first approach. Here's how Billboard described the scene:

In an effort to prevent against casualties, the festival has overcorrected and made widely known its use of high-tech cameras, drug-sniffing dogs and ramped-up security. The substance checkpoints are more thorough, requiring attendees to remove shoes, and cops -- both in uniform and undercover -- seemed to almost outnumber the fans.

Festival-goers were also required to watch an anti-drug PSA before attending, and organizers dispatched a group of medical students called "Zookeepers" to help with any emerging issues.

In past years, Lightning in a Bottle has also been targeted by intense drug enforcement activity. In 2013, when the event was held in Temecula, California, undercover officers arrested 58 people for drug-related offenses. Many of the suspects claimed they were coerced into selling drugs and accused officers of calling them "hippies" and "brain-dead retards."

Organizers at Lightning in a Bottle have limited control over how law enforcement chooses to get involved with their event, but they're being more vocal about their harm-reduction policies this year than they've been in the past.

While DanceSafe has been present at Lightning in a Bottle since 2013 and the Zendo Project joined last year, the festival is making a greater effort this time around to let attendees know that these services are available. They've built a "harm reduction" section into the festival's official code of conduct and will link to the page in a newsletter they send to attendees, according to DPA. The Zendo Project has also scheduled a basic training on Friday to tell attendees about its services.

After the festival ends, organizers will coordinate with Mutual Aid Response Services, a risk management consulting company, to evaluate the effectiveness of the services and the efforts to promote them, and to determine ways to better integrate these approaches into future events.

Harm reduction is one of many issues being championed by Lightning in a Bottle, which, according to its website, include encouraging people to think hard about whether they should wear a Native American headdress to the festival. To anyone coming from Coachella, the answer is no.

Jones said Lightning in a Bottle is one of the first festivals to get on board with DPA's push to encourage groups to take more pragmatic approaches to drug use. A guide released by DPA lays out the essential considerations and strategies for anyone planning a large-scale event.

And while Jones admitted there is still work to do to break the stigma surrounding drug use -- including allowing for on-site drug checking so people can make sure they're not about to eat rat poison -- she praised Lightning in a Bottle for taking such an open and comprehensive stance on harm reduction.

"What they're doing is a heroic," Jones said. "They're making every effort in a tough environment to keep their attendees safe."

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