Dazed, but no longer confused: how harm reduction benefits the entire music community

Each summer, an unfortunate number of festival goers suffer from unintentional drug overdoses because they are either misinformed about the substances they are putting into their bodies or are not aware of the precautions substance users should be taking. Implementing harm reduction strategies into the organization of music festivals would help keep festival goers safe, and potentially save lives.
Photo by Phierce Photo by Keith G.
What is harm reduction?
“When I think of harm reduction, I think of safety, compassion, and human rights. Those are very general terms because I think harm reduction can and should be applied very generally,” said Vilmarie Narloch, Psy.D., Drug Education Manager for Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Simply put, harm reduction strategies are ideas that can be implemented to prevent negative consequences in any situation that could potentially have an unfavorable outcome. This includes wearing a seatbelt when driving a car, using contraceptives during intercourse, and wearing proper gear when playing contact sports.
Regarding substance use, the Harm Reduction Coalition, an organization that promotes the health and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by substance use, states that harm reduction acknowledges that licit and illicit drug use is inevitable and works to minimize its harmful effects rather than condemning and stigmatizing substance users.
Substance use harm reduction strategies can be as simple as preventing dehydration by providing free water for people drinking alcohol. They can also be more complex and specific, such as providing substance users with testing kits to prevent bad experiences, overdoses, and fatalities, or giving clean needles to intravenous substance users.
Harm reduction versus the War on Drugs
One popular argument against the harm reduction approach is that it accepts and encourages substance use. To protect themselves from this criticism, many festival promoters apply strict precautions, known as the War on Drugs approach, at their events. These precautions may include multiple security checkpoints, rigorous searches, or arresting anyone caught with an illegal substance.
However, the War on Drugs approach does not eliminate substance use. Instead, it stigmatizes substance users, leads to unnecessary mass incarceration, and fuels organized black market crime and violence.
“When you eliminate this idea that you’re doing a crime and you need to be punished for it, then it makes people more prone to seek help and to feel that maybe they could stop harmful substance use patterns before they even start. [Harm reduction] is treating people like adults who are capable of making their own decisions,” said Amy Hildebrand, president of DePaul’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
According to DanceSafe, a public health organization that promotes safety within the electronic music community, harm reduction actually does not condone risky behaviors associated with substance use. Harm reduction acknowledges that, regardless of laws, substance use will always happen. It meets substance users where they are currently at by providing them with the tools and information they need to stay safe while using substances.
As opposed to the War on Drugs, which punishes users for their actions, harm reduction strategies treat users as individuals with complex needs and acknowledge that they need extra care to remain safe. Because of the level of care and compassion that harm reduction employs, its results are more beneficial to substance users than the harsh repercussions of the War on Drugs approach.
How harm reduction benefits all festival-goers
According to Akemi Almedia, a frequent electronic concertgoer and substance user, there are three general types of electronic music fans. The first type of fan uses substances at every show. The second type of fan partakes in substance use to enhance their experiences, but can also enjoy shows while sober. Finally, the third type of fan not only chooses to remain sober, but typically condemns substance use. Almedia describes herself as the second type of fan.
“I can absolutely enjoy myself sober at a show with music I love, but I can have an even better time after smoking some weed or tripping or the occasional roll. There’s just nothing like having your senses heightened and feeling the music and the people around you even more; it’s almost therapeutic,” said Almedia.
Ideally, harm reduction at music festivals benefits each of these three kinds of fans. Having access to free water stations is crucial for substance users who may be under the influence of substances that make them more prone to dehydration, but it is also a staple for sober fans who experience the physical strains of dancing under the hot sun.

Including harm reduction organizations, such as DanceSafe or Bunk Police, in the assortment of vendors and booths at festivals introduces substance users to a wide array of services. These services may include access to harm reduction information and tips, or even access to substance testing kits. Sober fans can benefit from these services by learning tips that will allow them to help a friend, new dance buddy, or even a stranger who may be having a bad experience related to substance use.

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