We're Still a Long Way From Being Realistic About Drug Use at Festivals

DanceSafe is at Electric Forest to help people stay informed about their drug use, but they aren't allowed to sell testing kits.
DanceSafe is at Electric Forest to help people stay informed about their drug use, but they aren't allowed to sell testing kits.
Ben Westhoff

We all know kids die at raves. It happens all the time, including most recently at EDC last weekend in Las Vegas.

Usually, the cause is drugs. But not everyone who takes drugs dies. Those who know what they're actually taking, stay hydrated, and take other precautions have a better chance.

That's where DanceSafe comes in. Founded in the Bay Area in 1998, the organization promotes healthy partying, particularly when it comes to the intersection of drugs and electronic dance music. They set up their yellow and black tents at tons of events around the country, and serve partly as on-site bad trip navigators.

"People trust us," says Tre Meisel, co-head of the organization's Midwest branch. "They're worried that if they talk to EMS [emergency medical services], they'll get reported to the police. Sometimes people are freaking out, and you just need to talk to them."

But ideally, DanceSafe goes even further. At events like TomorrowWorld and the Movement festival, they test attendees' drugs for them, to make sure they're taking what they think they are.

Of course, this part of their mission is usually kept hush-hush. After all, festivals don't want to appear as though they're condoning drug use. But the reality is that, even with the best efforts to stop them, huge numbers of kids continue to ingest all manner of substances.

DanceSafe came to Electric Forest last year and says it was permitted to sell its drug-testing kits, which go for $65 and can determine the presence (or lack thereof) of dozens of drugs. And the organization thought it could do so again this year. In fact, DanceSafe thought it was in its contract. But Electric Forest management had other ideas, Meisel says. Not too long after the festival began, DanceSafe was told to cease selling the kits.

Festival representative Carrie Lombardi tell us that the issue isn't the kits. She says DanceSafe isn't allowed to sell anything at all, because the group is there as part of Electric Forest's nonprofit information booth program (other participants include Head Count and Conscious Alliance Art That Feeds), which waives the standard vendor fee but requires organizations to simply share information, as opposed to selling anything. The festival's organizers also tell us that DanceSafe had the same arrangement last year.

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So maybe the confusion between Electric Forest and DanceSafe is merely logistical. But if the issue is the kits themselves, it wouldn't be the first time an organization like DanceSafe has encountered resistance to its approach. As it stands, DanceSafe is here giving out water, earplugs, and condoms — cool, but not really in the group's wheelhouse.

The conservative/liberal fight over birth control mirrors this struggle: Right-wingers traditionally believe that free condoms only encourage kids to have sex. Meanwhile, those same teenagers are having sex anyway and may be getting pregnant.

We understand that big festival companies are worried; that the so-called "Rave Act" makes them vulnerable. But if Electric Forest is any indication, the common-sense movement to be realistic about festival drug use — to keep kids safe — is moving backward. One wonders how many people have to die before this changes. 

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