A new tack on raves and drugs [updated]
November 9, 2010
At 63, John Viernes admittedly didn’t blend into the crowd. For one thing, he was wearing more clothes.
But there he was, director of Los Angeles County’s substance abuse and prevention office, positioned at the entrance of the Sports Arena, handing out 3-by-5 cards about the drug Ecstasy to the throngs at last month’s Monster Massive electronic music festival.
“This is really cool,” Viernes says he was told by a number of concertgoers, who actually kept the material. That included the scantily clad girl who gave him a high-five.
The cards—among dozens of recommendations offered this week by a task force on “rave” safety—represent a departure of sorts for the public health department as it experiments with a more credible way to connect with and influence its target audience.
The glossy, colorful cards carry the inherent message that public health officials know that some concertgoers are going to take Ecstasy and want to help them “minimize potential harms” by offering guidance on, among other things, the signs of an overdose, how to keep properly hydrated and the potentially lifesaving importance of keeping doses low and infrequent.
Viernes said some attendees seemed taken aback by the county’s open-minded approach. “I told them to read all the way to the bottom,” Viernes says, where the cards (which were funded by concert promoters) state: “The only way to completely avoid the risks is to avoid the drug, enjoy the music and dancing instead.”
Since the overdose death last summer of a 15-year-old girl who’d attended the annual Electric Daisy Carnival at the Coliseum, these huge electronic music festivals have come under intense scrutiny from health and public safety officials. Emergency room doctors have said that they prepare for concert nights as they would for such “multi-casualty incidents” as earthquakes because of the number of Ecstasy overdoses. Some critics called for an outright ban of raves at public venues, which reap considerable income from renting their facilities to concert promoters.
In the wake of the Electric Daisy Carnival, which drew a stunning 185,000 people during its two-day run in June, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe to create a task force comprised of public and private sector representatives to take a deeper look at the issues and come up with ways to enhance safety and educate the public on the perils of Ecstasy, a synthetic amphetamine that has become the drug of choice among a growing number of young teens.
In fact, last year the Los Angeles Unified School District sent an “information alert” to principals warning of a “sharp rise in the incidents of ecstasy use in our middle schools and high schools” that led some campuses “to call paramedics for students passed out at school.”
On Monday, the task force submitted to the board 42 recommendations encompassing such areas as emergency medical services, health precautions, law enforcement activities, alcohol policies, venue restrictions and public education campaigns. Participants, including concert promoters, have praised the effort for getting everyone in the same room and giving the issue the high priority that it deserves.
In a statement, a spokesman for Electric Daisy Carnival promoter Insomniac said: “We look forward to implementing these recommendations, in conjunction with Insomniac’s existing safety and security measures, to enhance the safety of events throughout the county while preserving the quality and fun of music fans’ experience.”
Already, some of the recommendations have been piloted at two festivals at the Sports Arena, where the crowds are a fraction of those at the Coliseum. Perhaps most significant for the moment, no one under 18 was allowed to attend the events and a medical station with a physician and nursing staff was set up inside the venue.
Cathy Chidester, director of the county’s emergency medical services agency, says the medical station eliminated the need for many people to be transported to overburdened emergency rooms, a significant change from the past.
Chidester, who attended the last two raves at the Sports Arena, says roving paramedics and emergency medical technicians brought a variety of ailing concertgoers to the physician, most of whom were “slightly altered and needed to be watched until the drug levels [in their systems] went down.” In the past, she says, these people would be transported to hospitals.
Meanwhile, outside the arena, another substantial change had taken root: the number of Los Angeles Police officers deployed in the parking lot had soared to 450 from the 250 assigned to the Coliseum’s Electric Daisy Carnival.
LAPD Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon says most everyone on the task force wanted to keep the raves alive so people could enjoy themselves. “But I don’t want to sanction a drug party either,” says Gannon, who is not happy about using officers “who are normally patrolling the streets of South L.A.”. The goal, he says, is to deter gate crashers and try to shut down drug sales outside so it becomes less problematic on the inside.
Because of the burden on the system, Gannon says he thinks concert promoters should be forced to pick up the tab. “I’ve had conversations with Councilman [Bernard] Parks. We don’t come close to agreeing.” Gannon says the former LAPD chief “thinks I over-deploy. I respectfully disagree. It’s been a long time since he’s deployed officers.”
Parks says he does, in fact, believe that deployment levels at the electronic music festivals have been disproportionate to the problems. He says Gannon’s desire to dry up parking lot drug sales is commendable. “But he should probably call in the Sheriff’s Department, the National Guard and the military if that’s his goal. There’s been drug usage at concerts since before his birth.”
Parks says that festival promoters at the Coliseum and Sports Arena should not be forced to pay for unnecessary officers outside the facility. “The fact that they [LAPD] have chosen to over deploy is on their dime not the dime of the promoter.”
Meanwhile, work continues on the educational component of the campaign. A public service announcement on the dangers of Ecstasy is being prepared for airing at venues and possibly on ticket services.
Financed by promoters, it’ll include such big-name DJ’s as Will.i.am and Tommie Sunshine, who looks into the camera and says: “Rolling on Ecstasy can cause heart problems, brain damage, stroke and possibly death.”
The task force, led by Public Health Director Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, is asking the Board of Supervisors to adopt the recommendations as “general policy direction” for electronic music festivals countywide and to encourage promoters and sponsoring entities to get on board, too.
Updated 12/7/10: The Board of Supervisors, acting on a second motion by Supervisors Yaroslavsky and Knabe, unanimously adopted the task force’s key recommendations as general policy direction for all electornic music festivals in Los Angeles County. Those key recommendations include, among other things, ensuring the presence of onsite medical and health personnel, requiring attendees to be 18 or older, creating a threat assessment and action plan for each event and distributing harm reduction materials to concertgoers.
The board also directed the Department of Public Health to report back by the end of September, 2011, with an evaluation of the succcess or failure of health and safety measures implemented at all major electronic music festivals in L.A. County between June of this year and August, 31, 2011.