A man in his 20s died last Friday night after attending Halloween electronic dance music festival FreakNight at WaMu Theatre. The cause of death has been cited but not confirmed as an overdose on MDMA (known currently as molly; formerly as ecstasy). FreakNight's second night was canceled on Saturday in the wake of the news. The death marks the second drug-related death at a major Washington EDM event in as many years after 21-year-old Patrick D. Witkowski died at the Gorge's Paradiso fest in 2013 (a death original cited as an MDMA overdose, but a coroner later determined to be a combination of methamphetamine use and dehydration). While it's not breaking news that the EDM scene has a drug problem, the deaths are on the rise. As the subculture continues to grow (around 44,000 tickets were sold for FreakNight), the question becomes, what can be done to stop the problem?
The issue with EDM and MDMA is complicated. First off, the EDM scene is a drug scene; molly is woven into the fabric of the subculture. That's not saying everyone at these events is using, but for a large portion of the attendees it's an essential element of the experience.
Promoters can take security measures to stop the illicit drug use; per the Seattle Times, FreakNight’s organizers, USC Events, hired 326 security personnel for this year’s festival, and 18 Seattle Fire Department medics were on-site. Additionally, USC manages what it calls the Conscious Crew, a volunteer crew of people who typically attend festivals and roam around to check on people, provide food and water, and basically act as a buffer between the ravers and security or medics. But it's still easy to sneak in the tiny pills or consume them beforehand.
Further complicating the issue is the nature of the drugs themselves. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in its pure form MDMA is actually a difficult drug on which to overdose. Many of the issues arise from dehydration, or, ironically, excessive water consumption, which leads to brain swelling. This can be a huge problem at a summer outdoor event like Paradiso. In addition to Witkowski's death, Paradiso 2013 saw over 70 hospitalizations. As a person with an active role in the scene explained to me, the drug-related issues at Paradiso “had a lot to do with the heat and with people not really knowing how to handle themselves. With the scene being (relatively) fresh, it was a lot of new experiences for people."
But perhaps the biggest problem is that the MDMA sold outside EDM fests isn't always pure—and sometimes it’s not even MDMA at all. In some cases manufacturers will taint the drug with other more addictive substances, but more often dealers claiming to have molly will actually be peddling much more dangerous drugs (methamphetamines, etc.) and claiming that it’s molly. In the words of the same source, "I would say almost anytime there is an ‘overdose’ or injury, it usually isn't from taking molly, even though whoever it was probably thought they were taking molly."
There is at least one way to mitigate the problem, but it pits safety versus legality. There are cheap kits that can test the purity of MDMA, and in an ideal world they could be provided to attendees. But, technically speaking, concert promoters and venues can't provide them because they’d be acknowledging that illegal drug use was going on at their events. There has to be a better solution than willful ignorance. Acknowledging the problem and taking steps to deal with it is better than pretending like there’s no problem at all.