Music Festivals Need Better Strategies For Party Drugs, Health Advocates Say

The Toronto Star interviews harm reduction advocates about various methods that could improve safety standards for attendees at large-scale music events. “We need to discuss this not in a prohibition context, but an education context,” explains MAPS Founder Rick Doblin. “You will still end up with the fact that there are risks, but how do we, as a society, respond to that?”

Originally appearing here.

Two families are gathering for funerals this weekend, mourning after yet another Canadian music festival was hit by tragedy.

Willard Amurao, 22, and Annie Truong-Le, 20, both died after taking what police have called “party drugs” at the VELD Music Festival in Downsview Park last weekend.

Their deaths are prompting some to ask why festival organizers are so slow to adopt better strategies for preventing such deaths — strategies that focus on harm reduction, rather than acting out the charade they can be a drug-free zone.

Amurao’s funeral was held Friday morning at St. Francis de Sales Church in Ajax. Truong-Le’s service will be Saturday morning in Toronto.

This year, the drug-related death toll has included a 24-year-old at the Boonstock festival in Penticton, B.C., and a 19-year-old at the Escapade Music Festival in Ottawa. Police haven’t confirmed a cause of death for a 21-year-old who died at B.C.’s Pemberton Music Festival, but have ruled out foul play.

Toronto police still can’t say what caused the VELD deaths, with toxicology results expected next week, but the culprits behind most music festival deaths are ecstasy and molly, synthetic street drugs containing MDMA.

“There should be an active effort to learn from these tragedies,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of the U.S.-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

The association funds medical research on MDMA, LSD, and other psychedelic drugs, but Doblin said his organization is increasingly funding harm-reduction strategies for events where such drugs are taken recreationally.

“After this happens, you always hear, ‘Oh my God, kids are dying, let’s increase the criminal penalties,’ ” Doblin said. “I think the idea that the use of MDMA could be completely risk-free is false, but how do we help people make judgments for themselves about what risks they want to take?”

The cause of death from party drugs is usually obscured by calling it an “overdose,” said Andrew Feldmár, a Vancouver-based psychotherapist who holds — as far he knows — the only licence in Canada to import pure MDMA from a Swiss laboratory. He uses it for research into therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Nobody dies of taking MDMA, it’s a misreporting,” Feldmár said. “What the person could die of is whatever it’s mixed with, or dehydration, or some other constellation of factors that have nothing to do with MDMA itself.”

One problem, Feldmár said, is that because MDMA is illegal, its production is uncontrolled. Ecstasy and molly often contain additives its users aren’t aware of, such as methamphetamine (crystal meth).

Another problem is the environment. The drugs are often consumed at hot, crowded shows, and even when medical help is nearby it might be avoided due to fear of arrest.

Missi Wooldridge, executive director of DanceSafe, a non-profit that works with electronic music event organizers in the U.S. and Canada, said you can’t overcome these challenges by pretending drugs can be kept out.

“We encourage organizers to acknowledge the drug use, because not acknowledging it is negligent,” she said. “It’s usually an uphill battle. They’re fearful of any potential legal liabilities in working with us. It’s easier for them to just say, ‘This is a drug-free event.’ ”

In Toronto, a non-profit called Trip works on harm reduction at festivals. Lori Kufner, Trip’s co-ordinator, said they leave the emergency work to professionals and focus on helping people deal with a “bad trip.”
“We do a lot of reminding people to drink water, and we keep an eye on the dance floor,” she said. “We try to catch people before things get bad.”

Although Trip staff were at VELD, Kufner said the organizers hadn’t invited them. They were there at the request of the private-sector medics who had been contracted for the event. Trip had six staff members for the 38,000 attendees, and they didn’t have a booth.

“It definitely wasn’t enough,” Kufner said.

A spokesperson for INK Entertainment, which organized VELD, declined comment, pointing to their statement last week that they hired 40 medics for the event, along with eight Toronto EMS staff.
Digital Dreams, an electronic music festival held at Ontario Place in June with 30,000 in attendance, wouldn’t let Trip in unless they paid for a booth, which Kufner said they couldn’t afford.

Mike Perreault, the Toronto police staff sergeant in charge of special events planning, said he doesn’t know of an “official standpoint” by Toronto police on harm-reduction strategies around party drugs. He said event organizers consult with many stakeholders before holding an event, but are largely responsible for providing their own safe environment, with police there as support.

Doblin said his group is preparing literature about party drug use for festival organizers. He wishes MDMA would just be decriminalized, but in the meantime there is much to be done to make its use safer.
“We need to discuss this not in a prohibition context, but an education context,” he said. “You will still end up with the fact that there are risks, but how do we, as a society, respond to that?”