This Is How Festivals Can Stop Encouraging Drug Abuse

“I had been in the sun all day, seeing bands and smoking pot, which made me drowsy. I tried an energy drink, but it didn’t have enough kick.”

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Jul 26 2018, 8:01pm

Aaron Davidson / Getty

This past March, I was in Miami for Ultra when I learned Above and Beyond was performing at 2 am the night before the festival. “There’s no way I’ll make it up that late,” I thought. “Unless…” and then my mind turned to drugs.

At the festival itself, which ran from noon until midnight, the drinks sold included a “Miami mule,” which contained vodka, ginger beer, and Red Bull. Still, the stimulant use I noticed there was nothing compared to Germany’s Time Warp, a festival which runs from 7:30 pm on a Saturday to 2 pm on a Sunday. Nearly everyone there seemed to have giant pupils and/or grinding jaws, and two strangers asked me if I had ecstasy. (I did, and I took more than I’d planned, partly because I’d otherwise have crashed before my favorite DJs hit the stage.)

People use drugs at music festivals for all sorts of reasons, but could one of them be the desire to stay awake for the headliners at the end of the night—or, in some cases, the following morning or afternoon?

“A wide range of stimulants are commonly used by party attendees to stay awake,” says Joseph J. Palamar, associate professor of population health at New York University Langone Medical Center. “These drugs range from caffeine to methamphetamine, with many drugs in between.” Some people use pharmaceutical drugs like Adderall for this purpose, while others use speed or MDMA, which are sometimes mixed with methamphetamine or bath salts. “People often use cocaine so they can keep pounding down drinks and not fall over,” he adds.

Anton Gomez-Escolar, a technician for the drug checking and harm reduction organization Energy Control, has also seen this type of drug use at events he’s staffed, but he believes the reason is twofold. People are using stimulants like cocaine, speed, and energy drinks to stay awake, but they’re also using more drugs at events that go late simply because these events often last longer. Another issue, he says, is that people take more drugs as the days go on because they’re tired and have built up a tolerance to drugs. In addition, people often begin buying drugs on-site, which are more likely to be adulterated, toward the end of events.


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Most US festivals tend to end before midnight, Palamar says, but their attendees are more likely to use drugs to make it through afterparties or keep themselves going throughout the weekend. “It’s attending a festival multiple days in a row that can become really exhausting and even dangerous if you’re partying too hard or not sleeping, eating, or drinking enough fluids,” he adds.

Tessa Torgeson, a 31-year-old student in Minnesota, remembers using cocaine and Adderall to stay awake through a music festival that ended at midnight and after parties that went until sunrise. “I had been in the sun all day, seeing bands and smoking pot, which made me drowsy,” she says. “I tried an energy drink, but it didn’t have enough kick.” (Torgeson asked that we mention that this was seven years ago and she’s now in recovery.) One 33-year-old Madrid-based writer, who avoided using her name so clients won’t learn about her drug use, remembers smoking cocaine-laced weed and doing bumps throughout a concert that went from 1 am to 6 am.

While many people don’t think of caffeine as a drug, coffee and energy drinks can be risky when overused, which they often are at festivals and parties with challenging schedules. Jaime Schultz, a 24-year-old freelance photographer in California, remembers using an assortment of legal drugs to get through BottleRock. “I’d start my day with a cup of coffee, drink a Monster energy drink on my way to an event, have one to three beers or hard liquor beverages, then probably take the second half of the day to drink caffeine and water or a Coke at some point.”

Using any stimulant to stay awake when your body needs to sleep can lead to exhaustion, as well as undernourishment due to loss of appetite, Palamar says. “Being awake for too long on stimulants can also have an adverse effect on your mind,” he adds. “Typically, the real paranoia doesn't kick in until you've been up for 48 or more hours, but it can kick in sooner, especially if large amounts of stimulants are taken.” Under any condition, stimulant abuse can lead to heart problems, heat stroke, and anxiety, Gomez-Escolar says, and these drugs become especially risky when combined with other stimulants or depressants like alcohol or GHB.

Though we’d need more research to confirm this, Gomez-Escolar suspects that events could reduce drug use by having less demanding schedules. “Probably, by making festivals not too long in days and days not too long in hours, they could better promote rest and decrease the absolute consumption of drugs for festival goers, but at the same time, problems related to binge consumption might be derived from making festivals too short,” he says. “So it might be a delicate balance to study.”

If you’re going to a festival or another event with difficult hours, Palamar recommends getting plenty of rest beforehand (which could include a nap right before you leave), eating well, and staying hydrated. Gomez-Escolar suggests testing your drugs and deciding in advance how much of each drug you’ll take so that you’re less tempted to exceed it. And if you’re going to use stimulants, like cocaine or especially MDMA, don’t mix them with alcohol.

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