In a study that could be subtitled "Which Festival to Go to If You Like to Get High," the Coalition Against Drug Abuse found that cocaine rules Coachella, DMT is rampant at Burning Man, Electric Daisy Carnival is a veritable supermarket of MDMA, and (surprise!) people smoke pot at Marley Fest. Or at least they Instagram about smoking it. Whether they're actually doing so, the study fails to answer.
Taking the most methodologically lazy approach imaginable, the Coalition's study didn't arrive at its conclusions about drug use at music festivals — a potentially useful data set — by scanning emergency room records, surveying med tent staffers or EMT's, or even doing any on-the-ground research. Instead, the apparently armchair-conducted study simply counts Instagram posts that mention a a festival name and a drug term in the same post. (Requests for information about who funded this study, or its methodology, went unanswered.)
This study — if you could even call it that — is almost totally devoid of meaningful information. An excerpt:
Music festivals aren’t always just for listening, though. To some, music festivals are a time to get away from life, to party with friends, and to experiment with a wide range of illicit drugs.
Sometimes, these experiments have disastrous outcomes. A Billboard article in July 2014 tallied 15 deaths at music festivals at that point in the year. Not all were attributed to drug use. But that’s not to say drugs at festivals can’t be fatal — quite the contrary.
Okay, so Billboard magazine said that 15 people (out of how many total? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?) died at music festivals, but not all (OK, how many? Half? Three? One?) died as a result of drugs. Finding actual numbers of how many did die as a result of drug use might be useful in advancing the Coalition's cause, but apparently, they couldn't be bothered.
The study's first graphic (above) begins with a huge showing for Electric Daisy Carnival: 42,000 "substance mentions," far outstripping next closest competitor, Ultra Music Festival. But the study explains that EDC and Ultra take the top two spots because, "Whereas most festivals take place only once, big-brand festivals such as EDC and Ultra occur in several locations around the world each year." So how then, is comparing these multi-location festivals to one-time festivals useful? It isn't, other than to further bolster the stereotype of EDM events as drug havens, without meaningful data to back up that conclusion.
However, Missi Wooldridge, executive director of DanceSafe, an organization that does on-the-ground research (including onsite testing) of drugs at music festivals, generously points out that the Coalition's study doesn't just limit their focus to EDM events, but a variety of festivals. "it's important to reinforce that drugs are used in all music settings... [that] helps reduce the stigma associated with the electronic music community," Woolridge said via email.
Further, Wooldridge said, "It acknowledges that drug use is a reality, and despite prohibition, people use drugs. Not only do people use drugs, but they are comfortable publicly identifying as a person who uses drugs. This also helps to decrease stigma and normalize the behavior. It also reinforces the need for education and harm reduction geared towards people in music settings."
The study's next graphic shows the percentage of posts that mention substances and — no surprise — Marley Fest tops the list. But why? Perhaps it's because the attendees of Marley Fest are those festivalgoers most desperately in need of an intervention, but it could just as easily be that the pairing of reggae and pot is such a tried-and-true joke that even Marley Fest's crowd can't resist it. The study doesn't offer any data or even any substantive theories about what's actually taking place at the festival — only on social media.
"Additionally," Wooldridge said, "you could say that Instagram is not representative of all those who attended the festivals. And, those who posted about their substance use are not representative of those who post on Instagram. So, what it does show is the prevalence of substance-related posts by those who attended these festivals, used Instagram, and were willing to post about their or their friends’ substance use on Instagram."
Moving on, the study presents a chart of the most-mentioned substances at concerts and festivals, explaining that for the purposes of this study, "'General drug terms' consist of words such as 'drug' and 'tripping.'"
Said Wooldridge, "The prevalence may be inflated if one poster mentioned molly and ecstasy in one post (that could be counted as two posts), or if one poster posted about a marijuana experience that another poster also posted about (that would also be counted twice). Furthermore, no context on the posts is presented. What if someone’s name was Molly or someone mentioned coke in regards to Coca-Cola or herb in regards to an herbal remedy or blow in regards to the wind or drank in regards to water etc.? Some may be a stretch — but it could be an issue."
Preventing drug abuse and drug-related deaths is a truly admirable cause, but unfortunately, this so-called "study" does nothing to advance or assist in that cause. Essentially, it does little more than dress up propaganda as science, and that's a shame. Irresponsible music festival drug use can have tragic consequences, and adding to our body of knowledge about how to most effectively address a host of very real dangers would be a far nobler undertaking than assembling a collection of colorful yet ultimately meaningless bar graphs.
Of course, it's a lot less work to trot out graphics and platitudes than it is to conduct actual scientific research.
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See the full study at drugabuse.com.