November 6, 2015
By Emanuel Sferios

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend the fourth meeting of the Los Angeles County Electronic Music Festival Task Force. The task force was established by the County Board of Supervisors in response to the tragic deaths of two young people, Tracy Nguyen and Katie Dix, at the HARD Summer Music Festival on August 1st, 2015. Its purpose is to advise the board on whether they should continue to allow EDM festivals on county property, and if so what measures should be undertaken to protect public safety.

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Electronic Music Alliance founder, Janine Jordan, speaks to the task force about EDM culture.

Yesterday’s meeting was designated as the time for the EDM community itself to give recommendations to the task force. Led by Janine Jordan, founder and executive director of the Electronic Music Alliance (EMA), emphasis was placed on harm reduction as a practical approach to drug use at events, as opposed to zero-tolerance policies that have been proven ineffective at reducing drug use, and that often increase drug-related harm.

Below are my reflections on the meeting, the task force itself, and in general the state of drug policy enlightenment in Los Angeles county (or at least as much as I could glean from the conversations I had with police officers and other stakeholders in the room).

Let me start by saying I do not believe the Board of Supervisors is going to ban EDM festivals. Harm reduction has come a long way since I founded DanceSafe back in 1998, not to mention electronic dance music has become a multi-billion dollar industry, bringing much revenue and economic growth to the counties where EDM festivals are held. Long gone are the days where EDM was just a small counter-culture. With Justin Bieber making stage appearances at EDM festivals (for better or worse), nobody in the room seemed to harbor any illusions that a late-90s-style crackdown on EDM is going to make the culture go away. As one First Amendment lawyer in the room said during public comment, “If you prohibit these events on county property, they’re just going to happen elsewhere.”

I spoke during the public comment period about “social marketing” and harm reduction messaging.

Whether similar common sense existed in the room with regards to harm reduction as the only rational response to the ubiquitousness and permanency of MDMA use (at EDM festivals or within society in general), is another story. There were many who clearly understood that the drug war has been an abysmal failure, yet couldn’t bring themselves to admit (or at least state publicly) that the logical outcome of this fact is to end that war. The Pomona police made over 300 arrests at the HARD Day of the Dead Festival just a few days earlier, and while the police chief told the task force, “we didn’t set out to arrest that many people–it just happened,” I got the impression we’re going to see even higher arrest rates in the future.

To be fair, most of the arrests were for fake ID’s, not drugs, and this could be expected since the minimum age for entry to Live Nation events was recently raised from 18 to 21 (a concession the company agreed to after the two summer fatalities).

The Pomona police must also be given credit for distributing flyers at the festival with some fairly decent harm reduction information. Here’s a photo of one side of the flyer (the good side.)

The Pomona Police distributed harm reduction information at the HARD Day of the Dead Festival.

The Pomona Police distributed harm reduction information at the HARD Day of the Dead Festival.

The other side of the flyer, however, included such blatant exaggerations and falsehoods concerning the effects of MDMA that I worried young people would dismiss it as reefer-madness style propaganda. I brought this up during public comment and then after the meeting the Pomona police chief approached me about it. He insisted that he consulted with more than thirty people about the effects of MDMA and that I was the only one he’s ever heard say anything on this list was inaccurate. I responded by telling him that this was likely because MDMA is an illegal drug and information is therefore politicized. Nobody wants to admit any positive effects of the drug for fear of being accused of “encouraging” illegal drug use, and many people feel it is their duty to make any illegal drug appear as scary as possible. Hence the exaggerations and falsehoods. Here’s the other side of the flyer:

The other side of the flyer contained some reefer-madness-style misinformation on the effects of MDMA.

The other side of the flyer contained some reefer-madness-style misinformation on the effects of MDMA. While a few items in this list are in fact potential negative side effects, most conspicuous is the total absence of any positive effects whatsoever.

Now I believe the chief was telling me the truth. He didn’t seem like a drug warrior type, but rather someone who was honestly concerned about the health and safety of young people. But police more than any other profession are under a lot of pressure not to appear like they are in any way “condoning” illegal drug use. This makes it hard for them to admit publicly (or even to themselves perhaps) the obvious fact that drugs can produce positive effects. Yet we know that we have to acknowledge the benefits of drug use if we want young people to listen to us about the risks. This is especially true for a drug like MDMA, with known therapeutic effects and a large and enthusiastic community of advocates.

A famous psychologist once said that human beings are far more concerned about what other people will think and say about them than they are about actually knowing the truth, and this holds true especially in matters of morality and ethics. Drug use is unfortunately still seen as a moral issue to many people in our culture, and police have to keep up their reputation with all members of the community. This makes it particularly difficult for them to implement effective harm reduction messaging, but at least they tried. And this is why I think the Pomona police—all things considered—deserve praise for their handout. Now let’s hope some public health officials get into the game and create some better literature. Or perhaps Live Nation will invite DanceSafe into their future events.

The RAVE Act as an Excuse to Avoid Responsibility?

Not surprisingly, the RAVE Act was mentioned numerous times during the meeting. As a stumbling block to harm reduction, it was the first time I heard city officials (rather than promoters) say they can’t implement harm reduction measures in the most effective way due to the existence of the Act.  This even came from police representatives. It was as if they were justifying a zero-tolerance approach because, well, federal legislation is forcing them to do it. At one point I spoke up and pointed out that the language of the RAVE Act was vague enough that it didn’t specifically forbid any harm reduction service, and there was certainly a lot of room for experimentation. (After all, what does “maintaining a drug involved premises” mean anyway?) There was no response.

It’s hard for me to believe the feds would come down and arrest the local Sheriff or other city officials for implementing harm reduction measures at music festivals, but that appeared to be what some members of the police and task force were implying. “Our hands are tied,” was the implication. “We can’t do it because we’ll be in violation of the RAVE Act.”

I wondered if this was a legitimate fear on their part, or if they were hiding behind the RAVE Act in order to avoid taking responsibility for having to make recommendations to the board that they know are right, but that are controversial. Was there a lack of courage going on here? I don’t know. Either way, here was yet another way the RAVE Act was preventing appropriate harm reduction.

The task force heard presentations from Missi Wooldridge, DanceSafe Executive Director, Dina Perrone, professor of Criminology at California State University, Long Beach, and Mark Lawrence, CEO of the Association for Electronic Music. There were many comments from the public and at times the discussion became pretty lively. Lots of people hung around afterwards and talked, and although people definitely had different views on the issue, it felt as though a lot of progress had been made since I first started doing this work in the late 90s. Coming off the heals of our meeting last week with the White House ONDCP to discuss the RAVE Act, I drove back home feeling more hopeful than I have in a while.