The county government will study a possible ban on raves after two teenagers who attended the HARD Summer festival in Pomona died of suspected drug overdoses over the weekend.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to have staffers study the idea of banning electronic dance music events at county-run venues like the Pomona Fairplex, which hosted the two-day, 65,000-capacity HARD.
Supervisor Hilda Solis proposed the ban.
“I am deeply troubled by the fact that this is the third such death to happen in my district in the last year and a half,” she told reporters.
At last year's HARD Summer at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, 19-year-old Emily Tran experienced a seizure and later died of what coroner's officials called an ecstasy overdose.
This year 18-year-old Tracy Nguyen of West Covina and 19-year-old Katie Dix of Camarillo died after day one of the electronic dance music festival. It could take four to six weeks to determine the exact cause of death in both cases, but speculation centers on possible overdoses.
Five years ago, in the wake of controversy over the MDMA death of a 15-year-old who sneaked into an L.A. Coliseum rave, county government formed a task force that relied heavily on the opinions of scene boosters including DJs, promoters and writers who favored a “harm-reduction” approach to ecstasy use. (The Cow Palace in the Bay Area tried it; it didn't work).
That approach, promoted by some in rave culture for nearly 20 years, encourages young people to use the drug in conjunction with cool surroundings and plenty of water. The county was so enamored with the idea that it printed fliers instructing festivalgoers how to take ecstasy. Leaders nixed the idea, however, after they received bad press.
Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon, now the top cop for the LAX police force, told us then that he reported unflattering cop-deployment stats to the task force — including that raves at the government-run Coliseum and Sports Arena drew one out of every three officers normally assigned to the high-crime communities south of the 10 freeway.
He said that after he reported his sobering stats, he wasn't invited to participate in the task force further.
Warnings about the warlike triage response to overdoses at big raves at the Coliseum and Sports Arena fell on deaf ears on the task force, too, Brian Johnston, chief of emergency services at White Memorial Hospital, told us in 2010.
“I did not hear one other physician raise their voice in support of raves — not one,” he said.
Yet the task force relied on folks like Todd DeStefano, the onetime Coliseum events manager who is now a defendant in a corruption case alleging that rave promoters paid him under the table for access to the venue. A DJ came forward to this writer and asked how she could get on the task force. We pointed her to a county supervisor's office, and she was accepted. The editor of a music magazine was on the task force. So was a lobbyist for rave promoters.
The result was a video and a flier aimed at ravers. Both were buried by the county following criticism that they encouraged ecstasy use.
“Most medical emergencies or deaths are from heart problems or complications from hypothermia (increased body temperature) and hyponatremia (electrolyte imbalance from drinking too much water too fast),” the flier produced by the task force asserts, although it would be hard to believe this illustrious group of EDM enthusiasts parsed all the research on ecstasy mortality.
A key recommendation of the task force was to provide harm-reduction education to concertgoers. It also recommended tougher security, certain alcohol restrictions and free water distribution.
Solis now wants to know if, five years later, HARD was being held to these questionably sourced recommendations.
Harm-reduction advocates are calling for more education about how being overheated at a rave or not drinking water can trigger problems when partygoers have taken ecstasy. Research has documented that drinking too much water while on MDMA can also cause death, however.
Says one study on the “Acute Toxic Effects of 'Ecstasy,'” “The practice of drinking large amounts of water, sugared/carbonated drinks or both appears to be a major contributory factor” in some MDMA deaths.
The harm-reduction approach has been tried in various forms since the 1990s, but the number of deaths is much greater today (and, yes, so is the fan base). The organization DanceSafe, run by non–medical doctors, has advocated pill testing so that concertgoers know what they're getting.
The underlying suggestion here has been that adulterated or “bad batch” versions of MDMA are the real killers and that pure ecstasy is mostly safe to use. It's an idea that has been adopted wholeheartedly by the rave scene.
But many recent deaths, including that of 24-year-old Nicholas Austin Tom of San Francisco, who attended Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas in June, have been attributed solely to “MDMA intoxication.”
Some harm-reduction advocates (very few of whom are medical doctors or hands-on researchers) say that ecstasy deaths aren't technically overdoses — it's raves' hot environments and heart-pumping dancing that, in combination with the drug, leads to death by organ failure.
If true, and plenty of research supports that victims were indeed overheated and had organs that shut down, it would argue that raves and amphetamine-related stimulant MDMA just don't mix. Indeed, quantifying fatal dosages of ecstasy remains elusive to researchers. But one could also argue that the point at which a drug triggers a fatal response in a user is an overdose.
It's certainly a term that has been used by coroner's investigators and hands-on MDMA researchers.
But as you can see from the task force's endorsement of recommending that ravers “stay hydrated,” relying on scene boosters for your drug information can present a slippery slope. Too much water can be fatal for an MDMA user, too.
Which one is it — stay hydrated or beware of too much water? And do you really want DJs, music writers or events managers telling kids what's best for their drug trip?
One study, “The Agony of Ecstasy…,” says, “The risk for death from ecstasy in first-time users has been estimated to be between one in 2,000 and one in 50,000.”
That latter number seems to be close in light of the average of one death a year seen at Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas (capacity 100,000-plus) and three deaths at HARD (capacity now 65,000) in two years.
HARD Presents … A Night at Fairplex was scheduled for Sept. 10.
Solis' motion instructs county staffers to report back in two weeks on “what measures need to be considered to create a safe environment for all patrons at these events,” according to her motion.
She also wants “the Department of Public Health to explore options for a culturally competent education campaign on the adverse effects of ecstasy and other drugs.”
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