This Friday, at 11:15 a.m., bands will take the stage for Round Two of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. For three more days, the festival will again transform Zilker Park into the epicenter of the music world. And just like last weekend, hordes of UT students will hop on their bikes, grab the free shuttle bus or even drive their own cars — and risk getting stuck in traffic for hours — to be part of the action. Over the years, ACL has become a veritable UT tradition, complete with professors putting off assignments and tests, well aware of what many of their students will be doing that weekend. Even if it has to compete with the Red River Rivalry, ACL has truly become part of the UT experience. But for some concertgoers, the weekend is about more than music.
It’s no secret that music festivals and drug use often go hand in hand. The thick, skunky smell of marijuana smoke is everywhere at ACL; anyone who has ever been can tell you just how hard it can be to escape it. But several recent drug-related deaths at music festivals around the country have made two facts very clear: Festival attendees are using drugs that are far more serious than marijuana, and they aren’t using them safely. Over Labor Day weekend, two concertgoers at the Electric Zoo music festival in New York City died after overdosing on MDMA — the pure chemical form of ecstasy. The last day of the festival was canceled and everyone who bought a ticket got a refund, but what happened at Electric Zoo was more than an isolated tragedy. The deaths are part of an alarming larger trend that has seen at least seven deaths from ecstasy or MDMA overdoses, according to The New York Times.
Granted, these deaths have mostly occurred at festivals that focus solely on electronic music — a genre known for its “rave” culture that emphasizes the use of party drugs like MDMA. But even if ACL doesn’t exclusively book electronic acts, some of the genre’s biggest names have performed at the event in recent years, such as Deadmau5 and AVICII, and there is little doubt that the culture — and the drugs — are present to some extent at Zilker Park every year.
These recent deaths, however, shed light on a more general problem in the music festival culture: the zero-tolerance policy that nearly every event chooses to adopt. In the U.S., it is nearly unheard-of for a festival to adopt any policy other than zero tolerance toward drugs. But is there a smarter way? In Europe — the cradle of electronic music — festivals tend to take a more holistic, educational approach. According to The New York Times, organizers of European festivals pass out fliers with correct dosage information and DJs make public service announcements in between their sets about not mixing party drugs with alcohol and other ways to stay safe. In the U.S., however, these preventive methods are rarely attempted since festivals can easily lose their permits if local authorities think that the policies encourage drug use. But such an attitude perpetuates the problem, and U.S. music festivals would be safer if they adopted European attitudes toward the drug problem.
Even though ACL isn’t primarily an electronic music festival, every attendee would benefit from a more realistic approach to overdose prevention on the part of festivalgoers. The simple and unavoidable fact is that concertgoers will be using drugs at Zilker Park this weekend, and education is simply smarter than pretending it doesn’t happen. Providing dosage information to prevent overdoses and offering cool-down areas and medical staff for the sole purpose of helping attendees who have made poor choices will only keep the festival safer and improve the environment for the vast majority of us who won’t be doing drugs.
There is a difference between drug education and encouragement. These types of programs could certainly be offered without crossing the line and promoting drug use. Festivals have every right to prohibit illegal substances and do whatever they can to prevent drugs from getting in. But the fact is, people at every music festival will be using drugs. It is clearly the safer and smarter choice to recognize this fact and try to educate.
Nikolaides is a government and Spanish senior from Cincinnati. Follow Nikolaides on Twitter @eric_KTurner.