MDMA at EDM Festivals: Drug Safety Concerns

By Natalie Ortiz

Beaming lights, high energy and beat drops make electronic dance music, or EDM, festivals popular events. But some attendees look for a higher experience, possibly risking their lives by doing so.

Photo provided by WikiMedia.

Some concert-goers fall victim to the psychoactive drug, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, because of lack of education about potential side effects.

MDMA generates feelings of altered time perception, pleasure, a spike in energy, distorted senses and a sharp rise in body temperature, which can lead to liver, kidney or heart failure and death. Signs of overdose include high blood pressure, faintness, panic attacks, loss of consciousness and seizures, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Data gathered by National Institute on Drug Abuse. To interact with the data set, click here.

This past summer, numerous deaths and hospitalizations resulted from dehydration or misuse of MDMA, also known as “ecstasy” or “molly,” at music festivals where EDM is showcased. The deaths and hospitalizations have resulted in reports of “fake” versions of MDMA across the country.

Texas Tech student Jerry Hernandez attends EDM concerts and festivals frequently, and takes part in the culture associated with this genre of music because it makes him feel energetic. Although he said he does not fear coming across this type of MDMA, he often tests his drugs with a drug-checking kit like ones sold by DanceSafe.

“I’m smart with the way I do things,” Hernandez said. “I get it from trusted people, or I test the drugs themselves.”

DanceSafe Drug Checking Kit color chart indicates what reagent reacts with what drug and the reactions a user should look out for.

DanceSafe is an organization that promotes safety within the EDM community by providing education on psychoactive substances and their effects, according to Kristin Karas, manager of health communications and programs at DanceSafe. The organization sells testing kits that are able to detect the presence of various substances, which may be found in adulterated MDMA.

“There is no such thing as safe drug use,” Karas said. “Even in the event that you had a 100 percent pure sample of MDMA, there are known risks of consuming pure MDMA.”

Reportedly “fake” MDMA has been said to contain research chemicals. Distributors use the chemicals to cut their product and sell it for a larger profit. In some cases, the MDMA is completely swapped out for the research chemicals, labeled “bath salts” or “plant food,” according to whatsinmybaggie.com.

However, Karas said terms like “bad batches” and “bath salts” are used sensationally, and it is not so much the extra chemicals in the drug that are hurting MDMA users. It is mostly the lack of preparation for the side effects of MDMA.

“There’s a lot of sensationalization in the press about these batches of MDMA and how they’re killing people,” Karas said. “What we’re seeing that’s more often is that someone would’ve taken an MDMA-like substance and then they suffer from heat stroke because they didn’t properly hydrate.”

In 2003, former Senator and now Vice President, Joe Biden passed a bill titled, The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, also known as The RAVE Act, as an expansion of 1980s drug laws. Essentially, the bill holds business owners and landowners liable for any drug use on the property.

“Now in 2016, we’re seeing these unintended consequences where venue owners or event producers take it as being that they’re not to be providing harm reduction services because in their mind, harm-reduction services acknowledge that drug use is taking place, and if you’re acknowledging that drug use is taking place, then you must be maintaining a drug-involved premise,” Karas said.

Dede Goldsmith began a campaign called Amend the RAVE Act after the loss of her daughter, 19-year-old University of Virginia student Shelley Goldsmith. Shelley died in the summer of 2013 after attending an EDM concert with her friends. She took MDMA on her way to the concert for the first time, and later suffered a heat stroke during the event.

Shelley Goldsmith photographed with Vice President Joe Biden one year before her death. Photo from amendtheraveact.org.

Goldsmith’s campaign is pushing to have the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act amended. It may have worked when the bill was first enacted, but Goldsmith says it does not work for the large-scale music events we have today.

“I’ve got over 16,000-16,500 that have signed the petition. Mostly young people saying, ‘We need a change here,’” Goldsmith said. “At the time, it worked. Now its outdated and it needs to be updated.”

Zach Daniels is an event promoter and the college ambassador for Lubbock’s After Dark Entertainment. Daniels does not fear the possibility of a tragic accident at any of the events he helps organize. He said they are prepared and take safety as a major priority.

“Nobody sees or experiences the amount of work I put in to try and prevent [accidents],” Daniels said.

Daniels said EDM festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, Nevada, who have been criticized in the past for not properly handling drug-related health emergencies, are better preparing for these kinds of incidents.

“After seeing the results of EDC this year, who have well over 400,000 attendants and no one died, well actually someone died on the way from leaving it…but nobody [else] died out of 400,000 people in three days,” Daniels said. “They just had proper management and the skills to monitor their party properly and keep it safe.”

In addition to her petition, Goldsmith has worked with Virginia Senator and former Vice Presidential Candidate, Tim Kaine, on amending the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act to motivate EDM event holders to allow harm reduction groups like DanceSafe on the premise. These organizations are able to provide education to the event’s attendees on how to remain safe while taking a psychoactive substance to prevent deaths and other accidents.

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