Will the Drug Policy Alliance's "Best Practices" Lead to Fewer Overdoses at Festivals?

Some of these people are on drugs: A scene from Coachella's Sahara tent.
Some of these people are on drugs: A scene from Coachella's Sahara tent.

Recently, the Drug Policy Alliance issued a guide called "Managing Drug Use at Your Event: An Event Producer's Guide to Health and Safety Best Practices." The title alone is enough to raise eyebrows from the "Just Say No" crowd. But if a decades-long "drug war" has taught us anything, it's that tough law enforcement and public service announcements don't stamp out drug use.

So what are promoters and venue owners to do? In the opinion of the DPA, the answer is to create an environment where attendees can reach out for help without fear of legal repercussions.

Whether or not that actually works remains to be seen. Drug Policy Alliance offers a lot of tips that seem reasonable, but they don't provide much evidence that these "best practices" can actually curb drug use or, at the very least, lead to fewer overdoses.

Take, for example, Drug Policy Alliance's first recommendation. The group suggests the use of "amnesty bins," where people can toss out narcotics before going through the security check for an event.

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It's a given that venues aren't particularly cool with people bringing in illegal drugs. Sometimes, even the legal ones can set off a security guard. (At one event, my sealed dose of over-the-counter allergy pills was confiscated. Fortunately, cats don't hang out in nightclubs.)

Can an amnesty bin make the difference? Brooklyn Vegan wondered the same thing when drug dumpsters turned up at Electric Zoo last year. The blog pointed out that the bins were part of a greater effort to decrease drug use at the festival, where two people died in 2013. Electric Zoo didn't just have amnesty bins. As documented by Gothamist, they also had a pretty intense pre-entry search.

The DPA guide also suggests bringing drug education into the party setting and mentions the use of "drug checking" — that is, testing drugs to see if they contain adulterants. The DPA says that this is "effective at reducing deaths and hospitalizations," but doesn't offer any statistical evidence.

Some of the ideas the guide offers are a matter of common sense, even for events where drug use is less of an issue. For any festival or large-scale event, on-site medical assistance is a must, particularly at summer daytime events where even sober people run the risk of heat exhaustion.

Mental health assistance is a good idea, too. That's one of the features at Ultra this March, part of the requirements put forth by the city of Miami after a disastrous 2014 event that included the death of one attendee.

Then there are the issues of creating "rest and recovery" areas and providing enough free water for attendees. Whether you're at a dance event or a concert, there's a rush of excitement that comes with being part of a massive crowd. But that mass of people can get oppressively hot, turning every accidental moment of physical contact into a major, inescapable annoyance.

From my own experiences in the middle of the crowd, I recall lightheadedness, shortness of breath and an overall sick feeling that intensified if I couldn't find an escape route. It sucked, more so when I was sober (which was often the case) and ashamed to discover that I was too much of a wimp for the floor.

The "safe settings" that the Drug Policy Alliance advocates would benefit anyone who feels like being part of the crowd is too much to handle. Access to free water, in particular, is as much of a necessity at a club or event as it is at the gym. Dancing is a physical activity. People need to rehydrate.

Space to cool down is also necessary for the comfort and safety of the attendees. Think about those times when you really needed to chill. Maybe you were overheated. Maybe you danced so hard that you started to feel discomfort in your back or legs. All you wanted to do was sit for minute, but those spots were reserved for the bottle service crowd or other VIP types. You find a corner, crouch up against a wall and then a security guard yells at you.

That's the kind of situation that shouldn't happen at events. Venue and event owners and promoters need to give people space to breathe and relax.

The smartest aspect of the DPA's "best practices" is that they aren't scene-specific. Right now, the dance music scene has endured the most scrutiny, given the number of drug-related deaths that have occurred at major events in recent years. However, the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse have affected many music scenes. It's irresponsible to believe that this is solely a problem for the ravers. Regardless of what artists you dig and what parties you attend, everyone should make the effort to party responsibly. 

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