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Are “Safe” Drugs the Answer?

What would you rather lose, a few dollars or your life? That is the idea behind DanceSafe, an awareness and education organization that offered drug testing at Coachella and other music festivals, dance events and raves. Specifically targeting the drug 3.4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), otherwise known as “Molly,” a synthetic amphetamine derivative, the people behind DanceSafe take a practical approach to the festival scene. DanceSafe would rather see concert-goers spend a few dollars on a drug-testing kit to ensure the purity of what they buy than see the same people die from adulterated drugs. They know kids are going to do drugs, so they aim to ensure they know what they ingest. It is an approach fraught with controversy, but the reasons behind the group’s edgy choice of combating drug deaths makes sense in consideration of recent events.

Deaths at Music Events From MDMA on the Rise

Deaths from illicit substance abuse during music festivals are on the rise. While festival goers have died from health issues, crimes and crowding, 2014 saw an unusual spike in the number of deaths from drug abuse, especially MDMA. Billboard reports that 15 people died during 2014’s festival season. Some people, like the 67-year-old man who died at a Glastonbury festival, died from natural causes, but others succumbed to drug abuse deaths or deaths influenced by drugs. Although festival hosts hate to admit there is a problem, it is common knowledge among people who enjoy the live music scene that illegal drugs are rampant. It is not a new phenomena: Many concert-goers in the 1960s, 70s and 80s sniffed the telltale odor of pot from the seats around them during their favorite artist’s performance, too. Today’s drugs are a far cry from those of previous generations, and the modern festival scene creates conditions that add heat stroke, dehydration and other medical factors to partygoers’ already stressed systems. A hefty dose of adulterated MDMA to someone suffering from the first stages of heat stroke and dehydration can be disastrous.

What Is MDMA and What Are Its Effects?

MDMA is a laboratory-derived stimulant created in 1912 by the drug manufacturer Merck. Like many early laboratory-designed stimulants, it was originally marketed as a weight-loss aid until doctors realized it had negative side effects. It was eventually added to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list of dangerous substances. MDMA is taken in a powdered form and causes an initial sense of euphoria after ingestion. It acts upon three neurotransmitters that regulate mood and a sense of well-being: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. After the initial rush of euphoria, users report a heightened sense of well-being, relaxation and happiness. Anxiety diminishes, but so do inhibitions. Senses are distorted, including a sense of time, which makes concert goers feel very happy and is thought to increase their enjoyment of the event.But coming off of an MDMA high can be a nightmare. After three to six hours of a high, the crash is intense. Anxiety, shakiness, hallucinations, chills and restlessness caused by a sudden decrease in neurotransmitters makes users reach for more. Worse still, dehydration often results, which makes for a dangerous combination for people dancing in a hot, crowded venue for several hours. People often couple MDMA with alcohol, which also contributes to dehydration. The results are a disaster. Many MDMA users at concerts get very sick from dehydration. Undetected heart disease can also be exacerbated by MDMA. Lastly, many people take several drugs when they go to a concert or festival, and when those drugs mix, the results can be even more powerful. MDMA and music festivals are a dangerous combination. We recently created a video on the side effects of MDMA – you can watch it here. You can also learn more about the drug’s popularity here.

Drug Testing at Coachella

Enter DanceSafe, a non-profit organization founded in 1998 in the San Francisco Bay area. The group has two approaches: non-judgmental drug testing and awareness and education about drug use. DanceSafe is most known for the former, bringing on-site drug testing kits to raves and concerts so users can test what they bought to ensure purity. DanceSafe offers drug testing for MDMA, ecstasy and other substances throughout North America. It focuses on the rave and festival scene, where drug abuse is rampant and where they believe their peer-focused, non-judgmental testing makes them more approachable than other groups. It is a low-key approach that opens the door to awareness about the effects of drug use, with the ultimate goal of empowering young people through knowledge. Other services the group offers include providing free water and electrolytes to concert attendees. Dehydration is one of the biggest problems at concerts, especially among those using MDMA and other drugs. The free water and electrolytes might just save someone’s life. Free earplugs and safe-sex paraphernalia distributed at concerts focus on other areas of health. DanceSafe emphasizes that it focuses only on recreational, non-addicted drug users, or those who occasionally use illicit substances.

Controversial Approach

DanceSafe’s approach to drug testing at Coachella and substance abuse at raves and concerts is highly controversial. Critics contend that it is enabling the illegal drug scene to proliferate. Rather than stopping drugs from entering concerts in the first place, DanceSafe simply makes it easier for attendees to indulge in illegal activities. Critics say making drugs safer to take is an implicit acceptance of drug use and drug culture.

Should DanceSafe and Other Groups Be Banned?

DanceSafe and similar groups are now being denied access to the same festivals they once served. While the group states it tries to work with concert promoters and organizers, some events are forbidding DanceSafe from conducting its work. Proponents of the DanceSafe approach claim that recreational drug use at raves and festivals is normal. Many say that the open experimentation and easy access to drugs enables young people to freely experiment with substances they are afraid to try elsewhere. People will try drugs anyway, supporters state, so the concept is to at least make the drugs safe to use and test them to be sure they are pure and not cut with something deadly. Those who believe DanceSafe’s approach is the right way to go say that the “just say no” campaigns of the 1980s and 90s are ineffective. Many people believe that because kids still experiment with drugs, raves and concerts are safe places to find and use them because of most concert goers’ non-judgmental approach to substance use. They believe a group like DanceSafe at the festival keeps people from dying or getting injured, so it is a worthwhile cause. Lastly, those who like the idea of a group like DanceSafe complain that the naysayers are like the abstinence-only sex education programs. These programs teach just enough to make kids want to experiment with sex, without empowering them with the knowledge about how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy. In the end, these programs fail in their stated goal to prevent both STDs and pregnancy, similarly to how the “just say no to drugs” campaigns fail. The idea is that experimentation with what is forbidden, like drugs and sex, keeps people safer in the long run. It is almost as if people who promote causes like DanceSafe hope that kids will try drugs that are tested and confirmed as pure, take those drugs in a safe place, and then decide to be drug-free of their own accord.

Is There Really Such a Thing as “Safe” Drug Use?

The most logical explanation presented by the critics of the “safe” drugs approach comes from those who have seriously studied the patterns of drug abuse and addiction. Critics say that although it is true that people will continue to experiment with drugs just as they do with alcohol and sex, these behaviors create changes in the brain, which can lead to addiction. No one knows the exact mechanism by which some people become addicted to drugs and others do not. Some people can smoke one cigarette and put the pack away for months. Others get one taste of tobacco and a hit of nicotine and they have to smoke the whole pack. The explanation is probably a complicated mix of genetics, environment, family history, chemical changes in the brain and personal behavior that makes one person struggle with addiction and another able to use drugs, alcohol or tobacco recreationally. The problem is that you do not know if you are one of the lucky ones who does not easily succumb to addiction. You also may not know you carry a genetic predisposition to addiction until you realize you cannot quit your formerly recreational use. You wake up one day and realize you are in trouble. Most addictions start gradually. They begin with recreational use, the same kind of use many people behind the drug testing at Coachella claim is safe. Occasional recreational use then slips or spills into frequent use, until finally it is impossible to quit. Some of this can be explained by the complex activity of neurotransmitters in the brain of people struggling with addiction. As these individuals ingest the substance, a rush of chemicals spill into the brain. These chemicals, especially dopamine, work on the pleasure center of the brain. It is the same pleasure center that is activated when you eat a delicious piece of chocolate. But with drugs, it is much more intense. The human brain is wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So to get more of that wonderful, pleasurable feeling, the addict seeks greater quantities of the substance. What began, perhaps, as a one-time-only experimentation with MDMA at a rave ends up becoming a tangled mess of addiction to stimulants to feel good, sedatives to relax and sleep, and other drugs to try to feel good again.

Early Use Can Increase the Risk of Addiction

Another flaw in the logic of those who promote safe drug use is that early drug use increases the chance of addiction. The earlier someone experiments with drugs, the greater the risk of becoming addicted. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cautions that the brains of teens and young adults are still developing. Giving those developing brains a rush of artificial stimulation such as that achieved by MDMA or ecstasy — even if only now and then at a concert — may rewire a developing brain. This could make the person more prone to addiction and other brain-chemical imbalances later in life.

The Answers May Be in Between the Extremes

Perhaps the best course of action lies between the two extremes of “just say no” and “test and take your drugs — it is okay.” Harsh judgment has not worked, but total acceptance is not a good way to go, either. Instead, empowerment through education and awareness, while keeping concert goers healthy, may be the smartest path to take. Sometimes it is the mystery behind something that makes people want to “peek behind the curtain” and get a better look. In Greek mythology, Pandora could not resist opening the box that let all the world’s evils out, and in folklore, Blue Beard’s bride could not resist peeking into the forbidden room, uncovering the horror of his murdered previous wives. Such tales hint at a deep need in the human psyche to delve into the forbidden. When we know what is behind the curtain, what is inside the box or behind the door, it loses its allure. A good mystery novel derives much of its power from its page-turning ability to keep readers hooked until they know who did it. If drugs are so enticing that people will experiment with them anyway, a middle ground between no information and experimentation may be the best way to go. That middle ground is knowledge. Instead of condoning or condemning drug abuse, empowering people with information about the effects of drugs may be the solution. When young people see the damage that addiction does to people’s health, families and finances, they may come to their senses. It is one thing to hear your parents say that drugs are bad. It is quite another to sit in a room with someone your own age and listen to their story about waking up in an emergency room after an overdose. Yes, it is important to keep people safe, and drug testing at Coachella, free earplugs and safe sex items given away by DanceSafe may be useful. But in the end, anytime you or any of your friends takes a drug like MDMA, ecstasy or even marijuana, you run the risk of addiction. You never know when recreational use will turn on you, leaving you addicted. By then, you may need additional help and support to kick what was once just an “innocent habit.” The next time you go to a rave, festival or concert, think twice before you say “yes” to drugs or alcohol. Sure, spending a few dollars on a drug test is better than dying. But it is even better to keep your mind and body free from the influence of illegal drugs.

Help for Addictions

If you or someone you love has a drug or alcohol problem, it is time to talk to someone about getting help. Recreational drug use can quickly spiral out of control into addiction. There is no safe level of taking an illegal drug. The Ranch PA is an inpatient drug and alcohol recovery center that can help you overcome an addiction to MDMA, other drugs or alcohol. The one-to-one approach provides personalized guidance, with an individualized treatment program created for each client. Drug and alcohol addiction affects the entire person — the mind, body and spirit. The Ranch PA takes a holistic approach to recovery by encompassing each of these three areas in our treatment plans. The inpatient rehab center includes individual counseling, group sessions, holistic therapies such as acupuncture and life coaching sessions to help you attain sobriety. Our compassionate and highly qualified staff is prepared to help, and we are a Joint Commission Accredited facility. Don’t let addiction rule your life. Contact us anytime, 24 hours a day, for more information on our services.

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