The history of electronic music in Southern California, while vibrant, is shadowed by its accompanying death toll. In the past decade alone, more than a dozen people in SoCal and Vegas, several of them teenagers, have died from drug-related complications after attending festivals organized by L.A.-based festival brands including Insomniac, Coachella and Hard Summer.
The latter event, the ninth incarnation of which took place last weekend at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, has seen five attendees die in just the past two years. Two teenage women died from drug overdoses after attending the fest at its former home, the Pomona Fairplex, in 2015, leading representatives for the venue to announce in March that they, “are not looking to host [electronic dance music] concerts or related events in 2016.” That prompted Hard Summer's move to the speedway, where one man and two women, all in their early 20s, died after attending the festival last weekend. Their causes of death remain undetermined. (A representative for Hard Summer shared a statement saying festival producers were “deeply saddened” by the deaths, but declined further comment.)
As festival promoters in L.A. and beyond navigate the delicate relationship between fans, drugs and law enforcement, the scene has found an unlikely advocate in Dede Goldsmith. Based in Virginia, 60-year-old Goldsmith knew nothing about dance music until August 2013, when her daughter, Shelley, died after taking MDMA, or ecstasy, and attending a Dada Life show at a Washington, D.C., club. Shelley danced for hours in the hot, crowded venue before dying of cardiac arrest caused by overheating. She was 19.
The final hours of Shelley’s life were heavily covered by the media, who marveled that an honors student with political aspirations and a full college scholarship could die from drugs. Her daughter's death sent Goldsmith into what she calls a “crazy” 10-month tailspin, from which she emerged determined to educate young people about the pragmatic realities of drug use, specifically MDMA, information she feels might have saved Shelley’s life.
“I don’t object to the music. I’m not Tipper Gore. It looks like a fun party to me,” Goldsmith says. “But these kids need to have access to information warning them about things that might happen under the influence of drugs, should they choose to use.”
Goldsmith’s mission is to amend a piece of federal legislation called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, commonly known as the RAVE Act. (RAVE in this case stands for Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy.) This act, Goldsmith and her allies believe, is the key impediment to harm reduction services at festivals. (Her effort would not apply to one of the most controversial harm reduction strategies, on-site drug testing.) But while her Amend the RAVE Act petition now has over 15,000 signatures, the complex political and economic web surrounding dance events, especially in Los Angeles, creates additional barriers between young fans and potentially life-saving information.
Sponsored by then-senator Joe Biden, the RAVE Act went into effect in 2003 and, essentially, made it illegal for event promoters to offer harm-reduction and drug-education services like DanceSafe, an organization that provides educational materials and expert advice at festivals throughout the U.S. While DanceSafe has long had a presence at smaller festivals like Lightning in a Bottle, hosting the group is more complicated for large-scale, corporate-owned festivals nervous about how on-site drug education might be perceived by venue owners, insurers and local government agencies — all of which can block an event from happening.
“There have never actually been any prosecutions under the RAVE Act,” says Stefanie Jones, director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), “but the law is on the books, and lawyers and festival producers who don’t want to ruffle any feathers will still refuse to have drug education and other harm reduction services because of that law.”
Instead of petitioning for a formal amendment to the act, a complicated and likely time-consuming political process, Goldsmith and her allies, the DPA and DanceSafe, are asking for the Department of Justice to offer a clarification stipulating that promoters who do offer harm reduction services will not be prosecuted under the RAVE Act.
“Biden has said that he never intended to go after responsible event producers,” Jones says. “He was trying to aim the law go after producers who were using raves as a front for drug sales. But that’s certainly not how it’s been interpreted.”
Goldsmith worked with her local senators (one of whom, Tim Kaine, is now the Democratic vice-presidential nominee) to draft a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking her to issue the clarification. While there has not yet been a response from the Department of Justice, the hope is that Biden will lend his influence to move the process along before the end of the Obama administration.
“This law has stood out symbolically as the biggest thing that has prevented people from doing something,” Jones says. “If this campaign is successful, it’s a huge demonstration [on] the federal level that the message has been heard.”
Others, however, wonder why the responsibility to educate audiences falls on promoters rather than parents and educators, and question whether or not harm-reduction resources are worth the cost.
“There are things that could be done,” says an industry professional who requested anonymity, “but for most [promoters] it’s also a financial question. Am I really going to spend money on this, because ultimately it goes back to that question of who is responsible, and how do you stop that dealer/buyer transaction from happening in the first place?”
Goldsmith rejects that line of reasoning. “Putting finances before safety goes against the whole PLUR thing,” says Goldsmith, citing the dance world’s core values of peace, love, unity and respect. “If that’s what you’re really about, prove it.”
Many promoters are doing what they can. Insomniac, the producer of events including EDC Las Vegas, released a public service video in 2015 saying that festival attendees will not get in trouble for going to the authorities when they or a friend need help — a message many promoters cite as the most important to get across to festival attendees. (Full disclosure: I worked for Insomniac at the time and appear in the video.) Insomniac also deploys an on-the-ground assistance crew called Ground Control, whose members patrol the festival looking for attendees who might need medical attention or other assistance, and this year posted signs at EDC warning about the dangers of adulterated molly, the powder form of MDMA. Hard released a similar PSA video last year and recently announced its own peer safety team, Stand Up + Dance. And in the past few years, more and more events have incorporated free water stations and “chill-out” zones where people can rest and rehydrate in an air-conditioned space.
But Goldsmith argues that it hasn't been enough. “Whatever we’re doing, we’re not doing a very good job,” she counters. “We’re suffering hundreds of medical emergencies at these events, and often deaths.”
Independently operated events like Lightning in a Bottle, which relocated from SoCal to Monterey County in 2014 after a suspicious sting operation by a Riverside County task force at the 2013 event, often have more leeway than corporate events. LiB has long hosted DanceSafe and Zendo, an area for people experiencing bad trips to get counseling. This year, they also worked with the DPA on social media messaging to create greater awareness about the availability of harm reduction resources.
Dede Flemming, a co-founder of the Do Lab, (the company behind LiB), says the solid relationships they’ve forged with local agencies in Orange and Monterey counties have allowed them to have realistic conversations about health and safety, along with their proactive approach to harm reduction.
“We feel like we can have a fairly open dialogue with these entities,” Flemming says, “and that’s what really enables us to do these things and talk more openly about it, instead of trying to hide it.
“It seems like L.A. County is much more hostile, less forgiving and more into the political aspects and public face on all their decisions,” Flemming continues. “L.A. County doesn’t make it easy. If more county and city agencies were receptive to these types of educational approaches, the whole industry would be safer and better.”
Following Hard Summer 2015, the DPA's Stefanie Jones participated in a task force led by the L.A. Department of Health that included community partners and medical and law enforcement representatives. The goal was to determine ways to make events safer. The initiative resulted in a comprehensive list of health and safety recommendations that Jones felt was progressive, but she was discouraged when L.A. County venues including the Fairplex decided to stop hosting dance events before promoters could implement the proposals.
Goldsmith and Jones believe that if their petition gets enough signatures, Biden is more likely to push for clarification. But whether changes to the RAVE Act would make dance music events safer, or encourage politicians and venue owners to bring them back to L.A. County, remains to be seen.
“What a crazy relationship Southern California has with this scene,” Jones says. “They’ve fostered it, and such a strong part of the scene has always come out of SoCal. But the community itself cannot seem to wrap its arms around how to handle it. That’s really unfortunate.”