Could Making All Dance Music Festivals 21+ Save Ravers' Lives?

Hard Summer 2016EXPAND
Hard Summer 2016
Shane Lopes/L.A. Weekly

Every time someone dies following a rave or dance music festival, there's lots of guessing going on. The same guessing, in fact, has been happening for more than 20 years. 

Often a "bad batch" of drugs is blamed. Lack of water is a common diagnosis among amateurs. Hot conditions paired with dancing is another observation. Sometimes even drinking too much water is blamed — and it's a legit malady. The point is, everyone's a forensic pathologist all of a sudden.

Prevention efforts have ranged from "harm reduction" — trying to teach ravers how to take ecstasy and other drugs safely — to law enforcement crackdowns, increased security and extra paramedics, chill-out rooms and free water — you name it. But in two decades, none of it has worked.

But one thing has: When events are limited to those 21 and older, deaths are almost unheard of. Looking at a Los Angeles Times list of 24 rave deaths in the last 10 years, we couldn't find one event that was 21+.

In fact, the Times focused on Southern California promoters, such as Hard, that almost exclusively open their festival doors to the 18-and-older crowd. 

Yes, the tragic deaths at Hard Summer near Fontana over the weekend involved two 22-year-olds and a San Diego woman who was 21. Cause of death likely will be unknown for weeks, until coroners reports are made available.

But for whatever reason, 21-and-older parties just don't see this kind of thing. Why? Hard to say. It's possible the collective maturity of the crowd discourages wanton drug use; that drinking-age folks are experienced enough to avoid certain pitfalls; or that older patrons are just less likely to overwhelm on-site medical services.

"That's the best thing going for limiting it to 21 and older," said Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor-in-chief of concert bible Pollstar. "It's a better mindset. People aren't stumbling for the first time into the drug world."

EDM festivals such as TomorrowWorld and Mysteryland USA have been 21+. And CRRSD festival, which mixes indie rock with DJ culture on the San Diego waterfront, has been a critical and commercial success despite (or because of) its 21-and-older policy. Boutique festivals like last year's Transmit downtown also have tried to aim for more mature audiences.

In fact, an optional 21-and-older policy, based on case-by-case reviews, was instituted by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for raves after two teen attendees died during last year's Hard Summer, which was held at the county-run Fairplex in Pomona.

The county's measures for raves "included raising the minimum age of attendees to 21, the availability of emergency room physicians and EMS staff onsite, having free water and adequate cooling stations available, as well as free parking and law enforcement presence with K9 unit," according to a statement from the office of county Supervisor Hilda Solis, who first proposed the new rules for raves.

However, before any of the county's recommendations could be implemented, the Fairplex announced that it would not be hosting any "EDM concerts or related events" in 2016. Hard Summer moved to the Auto Club Speedway in San Bernardino County and kept its 18+ age limit.

"Making festivals 21+ is a fairly common suggestion for reducing adverse medical incidents and deaths," says Mitchell Gomez, national outreach director for harm-reduction group DanceSafe. "Although I'm not aware of any studies done on the effect of changing the minimum age of entry for events, there do seem to be a disproportionate number of people under the age of 21 who pass away at these events."

There's a problem with relying on a 21-and-older door policy as a lifesaver, however: Nobody wants to do it.

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The audiences for electronic dance music skew young. So young, in fact, that festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and Miami's Ultra were once all-ages. They instituted 18+ policies only after pressure from venues and authorities.

The MDMA death of 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez following EDC at the L.A. Coliseum (which at the time had a 16+ age limit) sparked political uproar and preceded the event's move to Las Vegas, where about one patron each year has died. 

Following last year's deaths, Hard made it annual fall Day of the Dead event 21+, but it seemed clear only a fraction of the audience was there. The capacity was 40,000, but daily attendance was said to be closer to 20,000. Hard at the Auto Club Speedway last weekend saw nearly 147,000 patrons over two days.

So going 21+ leaves money on the table.

"A large part of the audience is going to be below 21," says Bongiovanni of Pollstar.

Festival business consultant Phillip Blaine, who organized the legendary EDM festival Organic '96, says, "I've always thought events should be all ages."

"I hate to discriminate against fans of music," he said

Blaine did say that promoters can do a lot to influence drug use by booking the right acts. Certain public radio DJs, for example, can draw more refined audiences and set the tone as warm-up acts.

"The real problem, if we want to fix this on a big scale, is there needs to be more education," Blaine said.

Harm reduction proponents like the group DanceSafe, founded in 1998, have long been pitching the idea that kids should be taught how to take ecstasy safely.

They argue that harm reduction — including pill testing, fliers about drinking enough water and information about keeping cool — has never been given a full shot at success. But since the 1990s, many events have tried various harm reduction strategies with no clear evidence that it's made attendees safer.

Pill testing, in particular, could give ravers a false sense of safety. Ecstasy — not some mystery pill or "bad batch" — is the leading cause of death among Southern California ravers in recent years, according to coroner's reports.

"It seems likely that expanding educational and harm reduction services would cut down on these incidents, regardless of the age of the participants," Gomez of DanceSafe argues.

UCLA's Charles Grob, one of the foremost researchers on psychedelic drugs and an academic often revered in pro-ecstasy circles, says he would never recommend taking MDMA at a rave. 

"The degree to which its used as a party drug, that's where the risks lie," he told L.A. Weekly earlier this year.

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