Drugs and EDM: Health Consequences of a Growing Culture

Illustration by Shiqi Wang

Illustration by Shiqi Wang

As summer approaches, it is inevitable that young music enthusiasts all across the country will once again flock to the many annual electronic dance music concerts, colloquially known as EDM festivals or raves, that take place all over the United States. These types of fair-like festivals, characteristic of multiple concert stages and hundreds of performers over several days, have gained huge popularity relatively recently over the past decade, as they have grown to attract tens of thousands of people, who seek the thrill of dancing to their favorite music artists with their friends without the pressure of school or work. Festivals such as Coachella in California’s Inland Empire, Electric Daisy Carnival near Las Vegas, the Governor’s Ball in New York City, and Hard Summer in Los Angeles, have become popular among party-seekers who want to find an escape from their normal lives.

And therefore, unsurprisingly, these EDM festivals have lately become notorious for drug and alcohol usage, especially among attendees of the younger generation. MDMA, known informally as Molly and ecstasy, has become extremely popular at these events, and has led to nine deaths since 2006 in Southern California, with all victims under 22 years of age. Overdoses of MDMA in itself can cause fevers of up to 109 degrees, heart attacks, kidney failures, and extreme dehydration and seizures when coupled with crowds and hours of dancing under the summer sun. First aid and medical tents at EDM events can only handle so many rave-goers, and medical cases often spill over into hospital emergency rooms. At Hard Summer in Pomona, CA last August, 49 participants were transported to emergency rooms in the area surrounding the fairgrounds, a number not out of the ordinary among large multi-day raves. These hospitalizations occur from both prevalent hard drug and alcohol abuse and highlight the growing problem of subpar health and safety standards at these events.

Alcohol usage among young EDM concert attendees also constitutes a problem. A study across three late-night EDM venues, conducted by professor of epidemiology Debra Furr-Holden at Johns Hopkins University, indicated that 62 percent of those who planned to drive home the night of the concert tested positive for alcohol, drugs, or both upon leaving. The study identified that alcohol usage was lower in those individuals who planned to drive, but drug usage across both drivers and non-drivers was not significantly different, meaning that these ravers do not believe that drugs will impair their driving. More advertising against driving under the influence of drugs could be beneficial, as efforts to curb drunk driving seem to have worked to an extent among EDM event participants. The adverse effects of hard drug usage thus needs to be publicized just as much as that of alcohol, as young party-seekers do not fully understand the dangers and the extent to which ecstasy can affect one’s body. Not enough is done to advertise the health repercussions of recreational drugs among adolescents and young adults, which leads to injuries and unwanted publicity that unfortunately shame the dance music scene.  

The preventable danger that hard drugs pose to the public is only exacerbated by the increasing prevalence of EDM events, and these serious health incidents have prompted both the government and EDM festival companies to step in and regulate drug abuse through new safety protocols. New rules and regulations are slowly beginning to counteract the growing drug culture that has plagued electronic music.

For instance, at Electric Zoo in New York of 2013, 22 attendees were hospitalized for various reasons like fever, seizures, and abnormal heart rates. However, even after recommendations from New York health officials such as providing free and available water to rave-goers, preventing those obviously impaired from entering the venue, and using a well-planned surveillance system, hospitalizations the next year at the same event were reduced to just 10.  In another case, rather than implementing more extreme measures like completely shutting down events and increasing the age limit to attend, the L.A. community has taken a slightly less aggressive stance on the issue. After the deaths and hospitalizations last August at Hard Summer, the L.A. county Board of Supervisors created an Electronic Music Festival Task Force that “allows for case-by-case health and safety recommendations for events with 10,000 attendees or more.”. The recommendations that the task force provided, posted on the L.A. county website, generally include extra education and drug awareness on advertisements and around the venue, additional security and limited alcohol sales, and amnesty boxes where illegal drugs and weapons can be discarded without legal consequences, just to list a few. These measures have yet to be proven to be effective, but recent milder events across the nation that implement similar policies illustrate the potential for EDM festivals to be safe. According to the Miami Herald, the recent Ultra Music Festival, which takes place every March in Miami, saw less than 60 total hospital transports this year and a continued decreasing number of arrests from previous years, yet attendance soared to over 170,000 while maintaining the same joyful vibes. More logistical preparation, extra security and staff, a new no-backpack rule, and the use of amnesty boxes contributed to this effort.

The neutral stance taken by Los Angeles embodies the more moderate efforts to protect EDM culture, which has gained popularity in the general entertainment industry. Both electronic music artists and fans have made attempts to bring back the sense of community and peace-loving that had originally defined electronic dance music in the past. By reducing drug-related injuries and incidents, hopefully the popular culture of recreational drugs and alcohol that tarnishes today’s EDM will shift back into that of relaxation, a sense of community, and a natural high.


Undergrad at WashU studying bio on a pre-med track || From Los Angeles, CA || Interested in current social issues in medicine especially relevant to both LA and STL

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