Health

The Truth About Party Drugs

Recently, two people died of suspected drug overdoses at the Hard Summer Music Festival in Southern California. This is not new. It is reported that people die from suspected drug overdoses literally every summer, and it's often connected to raves, festivals and concerts. Some have gone as far as to say raves should be banned, because there are too many dangerous drug incidents. While you are more likely to encounter drugs at a music festival than in a public park, there is reason to believe the drugs are not the main issue and that there are ways to prevent these deaths that do not involve banning all music performances.

"The dangers of party drugs don't often come from the drugs themselves, although sometimes they do," Brad Burge, director of communications and marketing at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), told ATTN:. "The real danger with party drugs has to do with the legal environment surrounding them and the stigma against them."

Burge believes the fact the drugs are illegal and the fact that them being illegal means it's hard to know what's happening in the drug scene creates a dangerous situation. While drugs remain illegal, people typically do not have access to proper drug education, safe environments for doing them and they often are not sure of what they take.

MAPS runs something called Zendo Project, which involves volunteers going to music festivals and setting up tents where people can go if they have a bad time with the drugs they take.

"With the Zendo Project, we're just bringing people in who are having a difficult experience or if their friends believe they are having a difficult experience, maybe from taking too much of something or they're not sure what they've taken and they've been separated from their friends," Burge said.

Zendo Project volunteers are trained to identify if the person is in serious medical trouble, and they would refer them to emergency services in such a situation. Burge said people often come in when they are severely dehydrated, so they will give those people a place to lay down where they won't be harassed by law enforcement or fellow festival attendees, and they can give them water or a snack. They plan on helping people at Burning Man at the end of the August.

burning man zendo

There are many drugs people can have a bad time with in the wrong situation or with the wrong dosage. MDMA is the most popular drug at music festivals and raves, and there is a lot of misinformation surrounding it that came from the War on Drugs. While taking MDMA in certain situations or at certain doses can become dangerous, organizations such as MAPS that have used MDMA for therapy trials have seen it is not dangerous in a controlled setting.

"We're treating subjects in clinical studies with pure MDMA and not seeing any evidence of harm," Burge said. "Nobody is getting heat stroke, nobody is getting too thirsty, nobody is drinking too much water, nobody is getting into all of these situations that are common when people take MDMA in crowded environments with no harm reduction available." The problem is people sometimes don't realize when they need to stay hydrated, or that they should be in a comfortable environment or perhaps that they shouldn't keep dancing for hours on end without a break. MDMA raises the heart rate, which can be dangerous if someone is not properly hydrated or if they are overheating from too much activity.

While it takes quite a bit of MDMA to overdose, similar drugs on the black market are much more toxic. A drug family called 2Cs (e.g. 2C-I, 2C-B, 2C-E) is related to MDMA and is often confused for it, but it is supposed to be taken in low doses, and tainted versions of those drugs have hit many clubs and festivals.

Tainted doses

At the proper doses, 2Cs are often considered relatively safe to consume, but high doses can be lethal. 2Cs typically give people the body high of MDMA but with psychedelic visuals. One of the tainted versions of the 2Cs is a drug called 25I-NBOMe, which is a manipulated version of 2C-I, and it has been connected to many deaths. 2Cs are "active in much lower doses than MDMA is and with a much sharper curve of effects than MDMA has," Burge said. "You can take twice as much MDMA and your risks increase a little bit, but you're not going to have any kind of surprising effects... With 2Cs, you get a much sharper curve, so if you take twice as much 2C-I or twice as much 25I-NBOMe, you get into dangerous territory."

Another way 25I-NBOMe has been presented in clubs is by people blotting it on paper and selling it in a similar way to LSD. Once again, when you take twice as much LSD, you are usually okay, but when you take twice as much 25I-NBOMe, you could be in trouble.

"With LSD, there's no known toxic dose," Burge said. "There has never been a recorded case of someone dying from just taking too much LSD." People have died while on LSD, but there are always external factors involved.

The main issue is that people don't always know what they buy, or how much of it is safe to consume if they do know what it is. "If people could know what they were getting, and if they didn't have to rely on what the shady guy with a backpack told them at the rave, they'd be a lot safer," Burge said.

While Zendo Project helps people who are having psychological issues or need a place to relax at festivals, other organizations are also going. Some are even taking a different route. DanceSafe is a harm reduction organization that will actually test people's drugs for them to make sure it's the drug they think it is. If they know what it is, they can hopefully figure out the right dosage and that it's not something dangerous.

The conversation about drugs and law enforcement is changing.

"It's just been too many years with the War on Drugs, and we haven't seen any improvement," Burge said. "We're still getting these annual or, during the summer, monthly or weekly stories about people dying from drug overdoses."

Burge thinks that people need to realize putting a criminal consequence behind doing or having drugs doesn't stop people from doing it. "We've got Miley Cyrus and Kanye West--everyone singing about LSD and MDMA--and it's more and more popular," he said. "The War on Drugs isn't doing a thing."

Banning raves wouldn't stop raves from happening, as they'll likely just move underground into more dangerous and unregulated territories. As for drugs, banning them only seems to create a dearth of knowledge and dangerous situations. Zendo Project has helped more than 500 people so far at a variety of festivals. Those people could have ended up hospitalized or in prison, and the push to help people instead of punishing them is growing.

Correction: This article was updated to replace 25I-NDOME with 25I-NBOMe. ATTN: regrets this error. 
This story first published on August 16, 2015 at 5:30 p.m.