Last August at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, two people died, reportedly of drug overdoses, and 20 others were hospitalized after the local stop of the Mad Decent Block Party—an annual touring festival of electronic dance music (EDM).
A week later when the Moonrise Festival—another EDM event—was held at Pimlico Race Course, the relief that no one died was reflected in a Sun headline, "No major incidents reported Saturday at Moonrise Festival."
The relief may be warranted. Besides the deaths at Mad Decent, three people have died over the past two years at EchoStage, a Washington, D.C. club known for hosting raves and EDM artists, and deaths at similar venues and events are regularly reported across the country. Moonrise returns to Pimlico this weekend amid a growing focus on safety and health standards at EDM festivals.
Many event organizers, such as those in charge of Moonrise, have taken notice of these conversations and begun implementing better safety initiatives. But some in the EDM world believe that these larger festivals are not utilizing all of the resources available to them.
The 501(c)(3) national public health organization DanceSafe has been an active element of the EDM community since 1998. It uses a variety of methods to help promote harm reduction at EDM concerts and festivals, including giving away earplugs, condoms, water, pamphlets on the effects and risks of drug use, and, most controversial of all, the "adulterant screening" or on-site drug-testing kits they sell to individuals looking to check what chemicals are really hiding in the drugs they purchased.
"We provide information for those in attendance so they can make safe informed decisions," says Cedrice Gamble, the chapter head of the D.C. branch of DanceSafe. "We just try to meet people where they are and give them what they need to make informed decisions, not necessarily to tell them what to do."
While its website states that they "neither condone nor condemn drug use," many still consider DanceSafe's harm-reduction techniques to be advocating the use of drugs. With the sensitivity surrounding the war on drugs, DanceSafe is often under a great deal of scrutiny by police, security, and event organizers, which alienates them from big festivals and raves such as Moonrise. Most of this fear from the promoters, security, and venue owners comes primarily from the vague wording of an outdated law from 2003 known as The RAVE Act.
Originally the Reducing American's Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act, also known as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, was intended to give law enforcement the ability to shut down underground raves where promoters were intentionally encouraging drug use. Yet as years have passed, drugs and drug culture have become more widespread and raves have moved outside of the underground scene, and the law now unintentionally restricts legitimate EDM concert organizers from putting safety measures into effect at their shows. An "Amend the RAVE Act" petition was launched in August 2014 by Dede Goldsmith after her daughter Shelley passed away from heat stroke after taking MDMA at a show at EchoStage.It has gathered 10,700 signatures so far.
"They made it so it's harder for promoters to provide these services legally," Gamble says. "And usually when they ask for our services they have to do it in a way that could be a liability to them, so sometimes we are not allowed to do the very thing they asked us to come there to do."
DanceSafe is also able to intervene in ways that police or security may be unable to. At Renegade Festival in April, Gamble says that after she and the DanceSafe team in attendance were able to provide help to an individual who was under the influence of a research chemical, they were able to trace the substance to its distribution source and stop all sale of the drug at the festival. Unfortunately, the many advocates who do attend the festivals and concerts for the organization are repeatedly shut down, thrown out, treated like criminals, and sometimes have their resources confiscated even after receiving permission to attend. Gamble attributes this to a lack of communication between promoters and security.
One way to think of what DanceSafe does is to consider applying the "abstinence vs. safe sex" debate to its harm-reduction approach.
A study released in 2007 conclusively showed that programs that teach teens to abstain from sex had no impact on teen sexual behavior, while also stating that recent declines in the U.S. rate of teen pregnancy were "mainly a result of the improved use of contraception rather than decreases in sexual activity."
In a statement released by the Canadian Paediatric Society and published online at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, harm reduction was described as a public health strategy developed for individuals unable to comply with the abstinence approach. It has been applied successfully to sexual health education, has helped to lower risky alcohol use, and has been "effective in reducing morbidity and mortality in these adult populations."
"Harm reduction and peer-based, popular education" are the two fundamental principles that DanceSafe operates on, according to its website.
Gamble says DanceSafe reached out to the promoters of the Moonrise Festival about providing its services there, but the promoters said no. "We imagine that it is probably because of the RAVE Act but we are usually denied any opportunity to work with that promotional crew," she says.
Evan Weinstein, co-founder of Steez Promo, which is one of the primary promotional teams for Moonrise, says he hasn't heard anything from DanceSafe and that the group won't be part of Moonrise this year.
Still, Weinstein says Steez is doing all it can to keep its patrons safe. He says that the planning that goes into an event the size of Moonrise is incredibly extensive and revisited many times throughout the various stages of organizing.
He says that this year's safety measures will be similar to but larger than last year's, to accommodate the growing crowd of roughly 22,000 to 25,000 individuals. Weinstein stresses that "growing organically" is important to them, looking to festivals such as EDC Las Vegas, which grew in a similar, linear fashion, as a model.
Water stations, cool-down stations, and even roving teams who check on patrons and distribute water and bags of ice were all put into effect last year and are intended to return again this year. Lack of access to water has been one of the largest complaints among supporters of harm reduction, as injury is often due to dehydration or heat stroke as a result of drug use, rather than the drugs themselves.
In the past weeks, the Moonrise Instagram account has posted photos of a volunteer squirting water from a Gatorade bottle over the barrier at the front of the stage, into the mouths of those at the front of the crowd.
"I was very proud of the environment that we created last year," Weinstein says. "The feedback from the fans, the interaction between fans and security and fans and staff and things like that, we are going to make sure moving forward that as we grow, we can still create that environment."