Music festivals are incredibly popular, with tens of millions of attendees spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Many get high as they watch their favorite artists, but this comes with a lot of risks. Fortunately, there are safe ways to have fun at music festivals.
Drug Use at Music Festivals
There is a long tradition of drug use at music festivals. Many people enjoy being free from their everyday responsibilities, seeing their favorite artists, and doing something extra to enjoy the experience.
Drug use is an open phenomenon at such events. In many cases, there is no attempt to make sure that the consumption of controlled substances is regulated or properly sourced.
In “Transformative Experience and Social Connectedness Mediate the Mood-enhancing Effects of Psychedelic Use in Naturalistic Settings,” the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal explains that festival attendees look for experiences that are markedly different from their everyday lives.
Even if such people don’t identify as “hippies,” they want to be part of an experience that changes their moods and their outlooks. They get that in large part from the experience of being outdoors — of seeing a lineup of their favorite musicians perform some of their favorite songs in the company of good friends and, sometimes, with substances to make all the components of that experience stronger.
The drugs that tend to be consumed at music festivals are often associated with the type of music and subculture being engaged. At electronic dance music festivals, for example, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known as Molly or ecstasy, is the drug most commonly brought, bought, and consumed.
In 2018, the Harm Reduction Journal reported that 73.4 percent of people who went to an Australian music festival had consumed some type of the drug in the past year. While cannabis was the leading drug with 63.9 percent of responders, MDMA came in second at 59.8 percent, followed by cocaine at 34.1 percent.
Other substances commonly traded and taken at festivals include the following:
- LSD and other hallucinogens
- Psychedelic mushrooms
A study in Denmark looked at 44 urine samples taken at a music festival and found 77 different drugs. Researchers detected everything, including amphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, marijuana, ketamine, and synthetic cannabis.
Music Festivals & Drug Use
Why do people take drugs at music festivals? There are many reasons.
Drugs are often easily obtained at such events, and they are frequently targeted by sellers. The ubiquity of drug use around music festivals, and the concept of peer pressure, leads to a large spike in drug use when a festival comes to town. Partly because of this, security personnel cannot confiscate all drugs that are smuggled into festivals. The knowledge of this compels some people to consume drugs at such events.
Many people consume drugs at music festivals because they believe being high will enhance their enjoyment of the music and visuals on display. A number of clinical studies that have looked at the effects of LSD on volunteers have shown that being on LSD evokes strong emotions linked to music in people. The volunteers were more likely to say they felt more powerful and transcendent, more wonderment and tenderness, than they were when they listened to music without LSD.
Legal substances, like alcohol, are heavily promoted at music events. Manufacturers are often major sponsors, adding to the culture and environment of consumption.
Freedom & Stamina
Music festivals are often held over weekends (sometimes holiday weekends, especially during the summer and fall seasons), in places where attendees might not live and work. This contributes to the sense of freedom and fun, which makes people more likely to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t — everything from uncharacteristic sexual behavior to drug consumption.
Some music performances at festivals go late into the early morning hours, so festival-goers may take stimulants to stay awake longer. In other cases, some people take stimulants to “better” enjoy up-tempo, fast music, especially when their own energy is flagging.
Public Health Risks
Music festivals have brought a lot to the pop culture landscape, but they’ve also brought issues of public health risks, like sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, and drug misuse. One study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that as many as half the people who attend music festivals would participate in an activity that they would not normally do. Approximately 21 percent of festival attendees say that behavior includes drug use.
People who attend music festivals are more likely than the general population to engage in drug and alcohol use (not necessarily at the festivals). As much as 75 percent of festival attendees say that they used some illicit drugs in the previous year.
Different music festivals (which feature different genres of music) attract different audiences, and those audiences tend to bring (and consume) different drugs. Burning Man, for example, is home to hallucinogens like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who attend Marley Fest (a reggae music festival started in honor of Bob Marley) have a preference for marijuana. Coachella attendees use cocaine more.
In addition to taking drugs as a way of enjoying their sensory experiences more, many people at music festivals consume illicit substances to feel emotionally closer to the other people in attendance. MDMA, for example, has been used for experiments in therapeutic settings because of how it makes people feel connected to each other, a phenomenon sought after by some people who attend electronic music festivals.
Who Attends Music Festivals?
Research from YouGov Plan and Track has found that people between the ages of 30 to 44 said they “regularly” attend music festivals. People ages 44 to 65 were the next age range of attendees, and those younger than 30 came last.
Those who are between the ages of 30 to 44 report enjoying alcohol, telling researchers that they like to try new drinks, and were more likely to agree with the statement, “When I drink, I drink to get drunk.”
The History & Business of Music Festivals
How did music festivals get so popular? And how have they become known for feats of physical and mental toughness, like sleeping in a tent for days just to catch a glimpse of a world famous artist? Experiences like these have made music festivals a key part of cultural life in America and around the world.
TIME magazine writes that since the 2010s, music festivals have become a major industry in their own right, resulting in hundreds of festivals taking place every year. Some of them have become household names, like Lollapalooza, Coachella, Outside Lands, and Governors Ball, where tickets can cost hundreds of dollars, dozens of artists perform across multiple stages, and where groups of friends effectively live together for a short time to enjoy music they all love.
In addition to the big name festivals, hundreds of smaller festivals, some based entirely on genre (or even subgenre) have come up. They may not cost as much as Coachella, but the fervor they generate is no less.
Music festivals are not a recent phenomenon, existing as far back as the ancient world. The modern incarnation traces its origins back to the 1969 Woodstock festival. Other, smaller events had preceded Woodstock, but the size and scope of Woodstock 1969 changed the course of pop culture history.
While that event is still remembered for its communal, do-it-yourself spirit, the mainstream business of festivals today bears little resemblance. Such events make tens of millions of dollars that go to corporate sponsors.
Coachella, for example, made $114.6 million in 2017, partly due to 52,000 more people attending the event than the previous year. In all, 32 million people go to at least one music festival every year in the United States.
Is It Legal to Use Drugs at a Festival?
Drug use may be an open secret at music festivals, but many organizers have clear rules that prohibit the smuggling, distribution, sale, and consumption of illicit substances at the event. For example, even after California legalized the use of recreational marijuana for personal use, attendees to the 2018 Coachella festival were banned from bringing any cannabis products onto the premises.
And despite the culture of drug use at music festivals, there is good reason why festival organizers do not want to be seen condoning substance abuse. A study out of Canada in 2015 found that drug and alcohol use were implicated in 13 percent of all the deaths reported at music festivals between 1999 and 2014.
When traumatic deaths (crowd surges, structural collapses, and vehicular accidents) were taken out of the equation, drug use was the highest nonviolent form of death for festival attendees.
Dangers of Drug Use at Festivals
Notwithstanding the illegality of consuming controlled substances at a music festival, the practice does continue. Unfortunately, it often continues in an unsafe way.
People take more of a substance than they should and frequently overdose. Dealers often lie about the products they are selling, so a person might be taking a deadly drug when all they thought they were getting was a much lighter substance. For example, drug dealers at electronic music shows in the United Kingdom have been known to sell N-ethylpentylone (a stimulant linked to psychosis and death) as MDMA.
Additionally, in the environments of certain music festivals — where there is a lot of physical activity or the ambient temperature is very high — certain drugs like MDMA can cause the body to rapidly overheat. This can send the user into hyperthermia, which can cause everything from strokes and organ failures to death. Sexual predators can also take advantage of people who are feeling disoriented from drug intoxication.
How to Be Safe & Have Fun
Drug awareness groups recommend not accepting any substances from strangers and to definitely avoid taking substances that you’ve never had firsthand experience with before. People who have a lower body weight (and who have a lower physical tolerance for drugs) should never take a high dose of any substance (even alcohol).
To be safe and have fun at a music festival, stay with your friends and to keep an eye on each other. This means that you should all have your phones charged and have everyone’s numbers. Download a festival map so you know some good meeting points and can easily identify a first-aid or a security station. Regularly check in with each other, and don’t be afraid to voice concern if something doesn’t feel right.
If anyone is feeling too hot, confused, or agitated, this can be a red flag that they may have knowingly or unknowingly consumed something dangerous. As a group, immediately seek medical assistance or security personnel. Their job is to help you.
Tips on Being Prepared
Knowing the dangers, some festival organizers are experimenting with harm reduction methods to try and practically combat the risks of drug consumption at events. This is done out of an acknowledgement that it will be all but impossible to stop all forms of drug consumption at festivals, so the better option is to try and offer safe ways for people to use drugs without putting themselves in danger.
Some ways that festival organizers are doing this include:
- Putting up signs about common drugs and their dangers.
- Giving attendees information about dehydration, hyperthermia, and other symptoms of overdose.
- Creating safe spaces for people who are having “bad trips.”
- Distributing drug testing kits or having testing stations, so people can learn the true identity and nature of the substance they’ve been given to consume.
A 2018 study in the Harm Reduction Journal found that over 87 percent of festival attendees said they would probably use a drug testing station to avoid unwittingly taking a harmful drug like methamphetamine or ketamine.
These are other ways to be prepared, be safe, and have fun at music festivals:
- Always have water and food with you. If you can, bring your own supplies, or purchase only from a licensed vendor.
- Don’t accept substances from strangers.
- Keep an eye on your friends.
- Familiarize yourself with where medical and support stations are.
- Make sure you take breaks from the music.
- Get plenty of sleep during the night.
- Check in with a friend or family member who is not at the festival.
- Always keep your phone with you, and make sure it is charged.
Transformative Experience and Social Connectedness Mediate the Mood-Enhancing Effects of Psychedelic Use in Naturalistic Settings. (February 2020). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Music Festival Attendees’ Illicit Drug Use, Knowledge and Practices Regarding Drug Content and Purity: A Cross-Sectional Survey. (January 2018). Harm Reduction Journal.
Recreational Drug Use at a Major Music Festival: Trend Analysis of Anonymised Pooled Urine. (August 2017). Clinical Toxicology (Philadelphia, Pa.)
The Link Between Drugs and Music Explained By Science. (January 2018). The Conversation.
33.6% of People That Go to Music Festivals Like to Have Sex at the Festival Itself. (May 2018). Digital Music News.
Drugs of Abuse and Novel Psychoactive Substances at Outdoor Music Festivals in Colorado. (November 2017). Substance Use and Misuse.
New Study Reveals Most Popular Drugs at American Music Festivals. (May 2015). Consequence.
People on Ecstasy Feel Loved-Up Because MDMA Boosts Trust. (April 2017). New Scientist.
Why Music Festivals Aren’t for Young People. (July 2019). YouGov America.
How Music Festivals Became a Massive Business in the 50 Years Since Woodstock. (August 2019). TIME.
Coachella Grossed Record-Breaking $114 Million This Year: Exclusive. (October 2017). Billboard.
Check Out These Surprising Stats About U.S. Music Festivals. (April 2015), Billboard.
New Study Finds 13% of Festival Deaths Worldwide Caused by Alcohol and Drugs. (December 2016). VICE News.
Effects of MDMA on Body Temperature in Humans. (Oct-Dec 2014). Temperature (Austin).
‘My Friends Are Taking MDMA at Raves and Music Festivals. Is It Safe?’ (October 2019). The Conversation.
Music Festival Attendees’ Illicit Drug Use, Knowledge and Practices Regarding Drug Content and Purity: A Cross-Sectional Survey. (2018). Harm Reduction Journal.
Patterns of Ecstasy Use Amongst Live Music Event Attendees and Their Opinions on Pill Testing: A Cross Sectional Study. (2020). Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy.