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Australian Study Finds That Harm Reduction Could Prevent Overdoses At Music Festivals

Emily Mullins

by Emily Mullins

February 6, 2024 01:35 pm ET Estimated Read Time: 4 Minutes
Fact checked by Kymberly Drapcho
Australian Study Finds That Harm Reduction Could Prevent Overdoses At Music Festivals

Music festivals are famous for drug use, whether it’s celebrities shrooming at Coachella and Burning Man or Britons taking MDMA (also known as molly or ecstasy) at underground raves. Illicit drug use is part of the culture–so much so that more and more events worldwide are implementing harm reduction policies to prevent overdoses, deaths, and other mishaps from occurring.

A new study analyzing drug overdose deaths at music festivals in Australia between 2000 and 2019 takes a look at what caused the overdoses and what policies may have helped prevent them.

What Causes Overdoses at Music Festivals?

The study, which was published by the International Journal of Drug Policylooked at 64 total deaths. The most common culprits were MDMA toxicity and alcohol, and a third of the cases involved a combination of two or more substances.

While studies on psychedelics like MDMA are increasingly looking at its therapeutic potential, taking it illicitly is not without risks. Many people who purchase MDMA on the black market buy products that have been laced with harmful additives, such as fentanyl or methamphetamine, and are not receiving the pure psychedelic substance. Additionally, mixing it with alcohol or even just taking large doses can quickly lead to toxicity, which was the primary cause of deaths noted in the study.

Overheating, dehydration, lack of food, and physical exhaustion can also contribute to overdoses, particularly among people who may not realize what’s happening until it’s too late.

Implementing Harm Reduction Policies

There are a number of ways to successfully help music festival attendees party in safer ways. Harm reduction can look like the Shambhala Music Festival in Canada providing free drug testing or St. John Ambulance in Australia offering specialized training to workers to address substance-related problems. While the United States still makes certain harm reduction policies difficult due to the RAVE Act of 2002, which prevents event organizers from providing services like free drug testing, the tide is beginning to turn in favor of these options as other countries and events successfully implement them.

The study outlined some harm reduction policies that may have prevented the music festival deaths, including drug-checking services, increased access to medical care, and drug education and awareness.

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Drug testing is one of the most crucial ways to stop overdoses. It allows attendees to ensure they are taking a pure form of the substance as well as determining how much of a substance they are taking, which helps prevent toxicity. Another study cited by researchers determined that music festival attendees will consume substances regardless of testing services, but offering them does help save lives.

“The importance of drug counsellors on-site as part of the drug checking operation, to provide context to the results provided and to counsel consumers on how to avoid harm from drug use, is integral to reducing harm,” researchers write.

Other easy-to-implement harm reduction policies can include hydration stations, offering free naloxone to attendees to reverse overdoses, or providing safe spaces with peer workers who can calm people who may be tripping too hard.

Some policies, such as the use of drug detection dogs, actually increase harm as attendees may attempt to hide their substances by ingesting them all at once without testing or measuring doses.

Final Thoughts

In the study, researchers outlined how important it is to provide drug testing and other harm reduction policies. “This approach is favoured by festival patrons,” they stated, “and [it] has resulted in positive outcomes including changing dosing patterns, trust of health providers, and increased drug harm reduction knowledge.”

Two out of three Australians are in favor of offering drug testing services, highlighting the importance of progressive policies. If even one music festival death can be prevented, the safety measures would be well worth it.

Last year, Australia notably became the first country in the world to authorize psilocybin and MDMA for therapeutic use. However, it’s important to note that these substances are strictly tested and regulated in these settings.

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