Safety, music and education rank as top priorities at the Lightning in a Bottle event in Bradley, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Glassman)

Harm reduction is gaining followers and making more noise in the EDM businesss, especially in the wake of the tragic loss of three lives at Live Nation’s Hard Summer festival at the Auto Club Speedway of California, Fontana, at the end of July. By providing fact-based education about drug use, ample supplies of free water, well-trained personnel with knowledge of the topic, and safe spaces for attendees, harm reduction seeks to change the perspective from criminal prosecution to health-based goals for venues and organizers.

Given the meteoric rise of electronic dance music and the safety issues that have followed the movement, Stefanie Jones, director for the Safer Partying Campaign, spoke to the positive steps organizers and venue owners alike can take to ensure attendees are kept in good health.

“Issues about drug use and safety really cross all genres, they cross all venues,” Jones said. “It’s not just festivals; it’s not just clubs; it’s not just concerts; it’s really something that every music event has to think about.”

So far, the common approach for most events has been to have medical teams on site and establish a prohibition approach shared with law enforcement. But with the dangers that still lurk in the way of overdoses and deaths, Jones and others like her see a need for changes.

“I think we’ve reached the limits of the effectiveness of those approaches,” said Jones. “It’s time to really look into education and harm reduction as a way to make attendees to events safer.”

Mark Lawrence, chief executive of the Association for Electronic Music, recognized the taboo against talking about such issues. The vague language in the U.S. RAVE Act, seeking to penalize anyone benefitting from the distribution of illegal drugs through venues of any kind, can also complicate matters and lead to fears of prosecution.

To date, no one has been prosecuted under the act, and Lawrence made it clear that if a venue is complicit with drug use then “of course the promoter should feel the law.” But with an approach that is “constructive and needful,” Lawrence said operators can encourage good practices like drug education, rest breaks for dancers, open communication and meeting places with friends, and offer safe areas, information and free water.  

For Jones, the efforts to educate patrons about the realities of drug use parallels the discomfort that used to come with sex education, the idea being that even discussing the topic would put ideas into people’s heads. “Not really, actually,” Jones said. “Those ideas are already there and, if they’re not there, they probably will be there soon.”

Jones said that instead of turning a blind eye to these issues, promoters and host venues to music events can look at harm reduction in the same way they look at the rest of their safety practices. As venues keep their staff in all areas well-informed about their respective jobs, according to Jones, “You should treat the attendees to your venue the same way.”

Even though attendees may be making unsafe or even illegal decisions, the reality needs to be acknowledged and given a realistic response, Jones said. This is where a drug education group on site is important to start an informed conversation. Jones also encouraged venues and promoters to post health and safety-oriented content on social media before, during, and after events as well to bookend the attraction with useful information.

When developing this information, Jones said it was important to talk with event producers before creating content. Determining the needs of the venue, the age of the attendees, and the best messenger and tone for the information can all be gathered through cooperative efforts between the content creators and the venue’s staff.  Jones shared that when organizers have been hesitant to channel the content themselves, she has offered to deliver it through the Drug Policy Alliance as a trusted resource for information.

As important as information is, approaching safety from a variety of fronts is key to ensuring the safest place possible for attendees. Dede Flemming, co-founder, The Do LaB and Lightning in a Bottle, shared her organization’s multipronged approach to harm reduction. With over 25,000 people attending a five-day weekend at Lightning in a Bottle, as well as Woogie Weekend and Dirtybird Campout events that take in approximately 5,000, the need for a safe environment is met with a diverse collection of groups Flemming described as “the eyes and ears that are out on the ground, constantly roaming around and in fixed-position places in the harm reduction area.”

These groups include Dance Safe’s educational component on site, as well as around 100 EMTs, physicians, and nurses at their events. Apart from these, Flemming said Zendo Project’s safe spaces provide for the mental comfort of attendees as needed, and teams like PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect) Angels and the LIB Ranger Team take care to monitor the terrain for people who might need assistance. Specializing in everything from dispute resolution to green dot training (caring for people in altered states), these groups work in tandem to promote as secure and safe an environment as possible.

“We have a responsibility to our attendees, first and foremost,” said Flemming on the educational aspect of his organization’s harm reduction. “If that responsibility entails educating them in the effort to keep them safe, then we’re going to do that.”

To venues managers that might want to pursue similar harm reduction measures, Flemming said, “The people and the tools and the resources are out there, you just have to do a little digging, ask around and reach out to them and ask how they can help.”

Flemming also shared that these groups will be familiar with the laws involved and have the experience to bring more safety to the field, which they can then customize to whatever the respective needs of the venue may be.

As more of the industry gets involved in harm reduction, Flemming said that the climate around venues and events should find it more socially acceptable to talk about these issues on both the organizer and attendee sides.

“The more free people can be to talk about it, then the more accepted it’s going to be with the outside agencies and governments,” said Flemming.

“Ultimately, it is the right thing to do,” said Jones. “It’s not just a festival producer, it’s not just an advocacy organization like mine, but it’s also mothers like (Dede Goldsmith, Youth Advocate and President of Protect Our Youth, Inc.). As we get public health and local law enforcement on board, the more it piles on into a consensus that this is the right thing to do. I think a lot of the fear will evaporate, no matter how vaguely written laws are.”

When it comes to effective harm reduction, Lawrence said a candid approach is essential.

“Ultimately, the most effective harm reduction measure is to acknowledge that you need to have harm reduction. It sounds a bit trite, but if you don’t acknowledge that there is drug use, then it’s very hard to put in place the appropriate response and to be proactive.”

By shedding light on this terrain and actively engaging in harm reduction, Lawrence believes there is hope for live music events as a whole as to be more safe environments. “Understand it, ask an expert, and dig in and do something, because harm reduction isn’t just drugs, it’s alcohol, too,” Lawrence said. “It’s not just a dance-music thing, it’s an all-music thing.”

Interviewed for this story: Dede Flemming, info@thedolab.com; Stefanie Jones, (212) 613-8047; Mark Lawrence, +44 7949 450007