Newsflash: There Are Drugs at Coachella—Let’s Help People Use Them Safely

    Coachella, the giant annual music and arts festival in California’s Colorado Desert, began April 12 and ends nine days later. As America’s largest event of its kind, it kicks off festival season with a bang. Festivalgoers prepared by packing everything from camping equipment to fashionable outfits to gallons of sunscreen to drugs.

    Yes, people take drugs at music festivals. Not everyone, of course—but many. Some are experienced psychonauts, who have traveled from the vast depths of their souls into the beautiful expanses of their own minds. These people tend to take the proper dose of the proper drug at the proper time, allowing for a relatively safe, even educational experience.

    Others toss back Molly (MDMA) as though it were Skittles, or experiment with hallucinogenics for the first time—while spending the whole day getting blasted by the sun and drinking only Bud Lights for hydration.

    Fortunately, the majority of these festivalgoers go home with only a headache and memories to last a lifetime. But for a festival that welcomes 250,000 over two weekends, there are sure to be some bad, and potentially even deadly, experiences, as has occasionally happened in the past.

    Music and art festivals can be magical places, filled experiences where people make some of their fondest memories, but their freewheeling atmosphere can also facilitate risky behaviors. As the American festival frontrunner, Coachella should be setting an example for others, not only on production and execution, but also on drug safety. And it is here that Americans can learn from our friends abroad.

    Over 25 percent of those who checked their drugs disposed of them, after finding out that they were not what they expected.

    In the United Kingdom, a nonprofit harm-reduction and drug-testing organization known as The Loop, recognizing that there was no safe way for festivalgoers to check their drugs before use without risk of arrest or confiscation, has worked with law enforcement and festival sponsors to offer drug testing services at several festivals, including the UK’s Secret Garden Party. A recent associated study found that at one festival, over 25 percent of those who checked their drugs disposed of them, after finding out that they were not what they expected. People who’d had the chance to check their drugs also spread the word via social media, helping to increase awareness of very high-dose MDMA, as well as laced and counterfeit drugs.

    All of this resulted in a 95 percent decrease in hospitalizations for adverse drug effects or overdoses.

    More mainstream outlets like Coachella should join forces with harm reduction organizations.

    Similar organizations do exist in the United States. The Zendo Project provides psychedelic harm reduction services aiming to “transform difficult psychedelic and psychological experiences into opportunities for learning and growth.” DanceSafe, which has been in operation since 1998, has provided harm reduction services at over 200 events in the last year—often with the tacit consent of law enforcement officers who recognize that harm reduction results in fewer ambulance rides and fewer deaths. American festivals like Burning Man and the Do Lab’s Lightning in a Bottle have started incorporating these programs to provide help during unsafe or unstable situations, and they should be applauded for their efforts.

    But that isn’t enough. More mainstream outlets like Coachella should join forces with harm reduction organizations in offering services to their attendees.

    This would be easy to do. The Do Lab—already a pioneer in offering harm reduction at their own events—has been involved in Coachella for over a decade. Partnering with Goldenvoice, the producer of Coachella, and others to publicly offer harm reduction services could literally save lives.

    While harm reduction services may not be explicitly offered at Coachella or most American festivals, there is still plenty attendees can do to protect themselves. Sensible measures include staying near friends, not using alone and keeping hydrated (bringing a reusable water bottle is a smart idea). Festivalgoers should also consider investing in their safety by purchasing potentially lifesaving drug-checking kits and naloxone. The opioid overdose reversal drug is worth getting even if you don’t intend to taking opioids, given the current presence of fentanyl in many different US drug supplies, and the possibility that someone else might need it.

    Most importantly, anyone who attends a festival or similar event should know themselves and their limits. Whether or not drugs are part of the plan, all festivalgoers should have fun and stay safe.  


    Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

    • Ryan Mirvis & Carrie Wade

      Ryan Mirvis is a Los Angeles local as well as an actor and comedian. He will be attending Coachella’s Weekend 2.

      Carrie Wade, PhD, is a senior fellow and the harm reduction policy director for the R Street Institute, where she is responsible for directing R Street’s harm reduction agenda, including opioids, tobacco and sexual health. She is a regular contributor to Filter.

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