When banning drugs doesn't work

Story highlights

  • It was a big deal when a group that promotes health and safety at electronic music concerts was allowed at the Mysteryland festival
  • That's because it promoted safer drug use practices, and Mysteryland operates under a "zero tolerance" drug policy
  • It's time for such policies to change, because using safer drug practices can reduce harm, Stefanie Jones says

Stefanie Jones is nightlife community engagement manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, where she runs the Music Fan program, which advocates for harm reduction principles and drug policy alternatives at music festivals. The views expressed are her own. Go inside the massive electronic dance music festival "Mysteryland" on the next episode of "This is Life with Lisa Ling," Wednesday, November 4, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN TV.

(CNN)I attended the first Mysteryland electronic dance festival last year as a DanceSafe volunteer: My job was to talk to the festivalgoers about how to stay healthy over the course of the three-day festival. We told people how to protect their hearing, how often to drink water, and we chatted with them about drugs and safer use practices.

For anyone familiar with the realities of the festival scene, none of that is very controversial. But the fact that the Mysteryland organizers allowed DanceSafe -- a nonprofit organization that promotes health and safety at electronic dance music concerts -- to be on site and even marked DanceSafe's location on the festival map was a big deal.
Stefanie Jones
Mysteryland, like every other U.S. festival, operates under a "zero tolerance" drug policy, meaning the use of illegal drugs is prohibited and users will be punished. Because of that -- and legislation that holds event producers responsible for the drug use of their patrons -- any mention of drugs beyond "don't do them" has been pretty unthinkable, until very recently.
    It's a sad reason but true: Over the past few years, we've seen more young people dying or being sent to the hospital as a result of drug use at festivals. The attempt to ban all drugs hasn't been successful, nor has it stopped deaths.
    We're seeing a turn toward another approach, one that emphasizes education and open dialogue: harm reduction.
    Harm reduction is a philosophy that recognizes that despite all efforts to maintain a drug-free event, people will nonetheless use drugs, so our primary concern should be keeping these people and others around them safe.
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    Mysteryland allowing DanceSafe volunteers to implement this harm reduction philosophy at its festivals is a great beginning, but there's much further to go.
    At the California-based Lightning in a Bottle festival, harm reduction is the guiding principle. This year's festival not only had DanceSafe volunteers for a third year, it once again allowed the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies' Zendo Project, which creates a safe space for people having a difficult psychological experience, whether drug-related or not.
    Lightning in a Bottle organizers also invited the PLUR Angels, a group rising out of the festival scene that uses roaming volunteers to spot anyone who may be having a tough time and connect them to medical services or Zendo.
    What's the result of all this? A festival with no deaths, no major medical incidents, and a persistent feeling of goodwill among attendees and their local law enforcement and public health hosts in Monterey County.
    Lightning in a Bottle may have set the bar for the United States, but in many other countries, comprehensive harm reduction is the norm. Portugal's Boom Festival, for instance, incorporates one element that even LiB does not: drug checking.
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    Drug checking -- onsite testing of drugs for dangerous adulterants -- is a crucial intervention, given the rapidly diversifying synthetic drug market. It allows people to determine if the substance they intend to take is what they expect and keep themselves safe.
    In the United States, drug checking is often prevented from taking place because the practice requires the presence of small amounts of drugs, and the personal use kits are sometimes (though not always) considered drug paraphernalia under state laws.
    Portugal's Boom Festival gets to sidestep all that, since the country has decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs since 2001. This clears the path for a truly health-focused event.
    We are at a crossroads when it comes to how we handle drug use at festivals. We can keep on with the fiction that we can always keep drugs out, or that arrests deter use in any meaningful way, or we can start thinking about how to change our drug laws and policies to allow for more education and harm reduction services.
    As a longtime festivalgoer myself, I'm proud to be working toward the latter every day through the Music Fan program at the Drug Policy Alliance.
    And whether it's at Mysteryland or other festivals, I hope we'll start to see the results soon.
    "This is Life with Lisa Ling" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m.
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