Dehydration, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

Drug testing at festivals could minimise harm and save lives.
Losing control after taking drugs, drinking alcohol or a mix of both is common at music festivals. Add to that heat exhaustion and dehydration and it's easy to see why some young people end up in big trouble. Georgia Manning reports


By Georgia Manning

Eliza Hammond loves listening to music and socialising with friends at festivals. She hadn’t thought about the risks of attending such events until she recently witnessed a young woman unconscious in the middle of the crowd at Groovin the Moo Bendigo.

“It was horrifying seeing someone so young having no control over her body,” she says.

Eliza wasn’t sure what the girl had taken, but from watching what other festival-goers consume, she says it could have been a mixture of things.

Losing control after taking drugs, drinking alcohol or a mix of both is a regular occurrence at music festivals. Add to that heat exhaustion and dehydration, along with the ease of losing friends in the crowd, and it can be easy to see how some young people end up in big trouble. It’s not unusual to pass out, with some young people becoming seriously ill. Occasionally a life is lost.

It is difficult for supervisors at festivals to control large crowds of people, particularly when many of them are taking drugs and becoming drunk. Festivals these days are huge, with 20,000 people attending the Bunbury, Western Australia, leg of the Groovin the Moo regional festival (ABC).

Party drugs such as ecstasy give users a lasting high that can keep their energy and excitement up throughout the day. But the so-called party drug can dehydrate the body, leading to over-heating and in rare cases seizure and death.

Drug testing at festivals is seen by some as a helpful harm-minimisation intervention. Leading drug policy researcher Professor Alison Ritter says pill testing “provides feedback to users on the content of illegal drugs, allowing them to make informed choices”.

More than 82 per cent of the 2,300 young Australians aged between 16 and 25 years who were surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 supported its introduction.

Ecstasy pills are also dangerously popular in the nightclub scene as they can often be cheaper than alcohol. “I have heard that you can get one pill for $25, which will last you longer than having a few drinks at the club,” says Eliza.

Eliza knows a few people who have tried ecstasy, but says she hasn’t and “never ever will”.

Professor Ritter says while some oppose pill testing, arguing it sends the wrong message, she disagrees. “The messages we’re currently sending are that we don’t want informed consumers and we don’t want to reduce harm from illicit drug use.”

Drug testing is available in many European countries, she says, including Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France. European countries are home to some of the world’s biggest music events such as Tomorrowland festival held in Belgium.

It’s not just drugs that festival-goers have to watch out for. Aaron Scott was at Warped Tour festival in 2013 when he obtained second degree blistering sunburn on a third of his body. Extreme heat along with limited shade led to Aaron being admitted to hospital the next day.

“It was so uncomfortable. I couldn’t even sleep properly because lying down was so painful.”

Aaron had to take time off work because he had such limited movement in his arms and head. There was also a risk of infection which required him to return to hospital to change dressings for the next week.

His experience has not deterred him from attending more festivals, but he knows now how painful it can be if he doesn’t take care of himself. He says he loves going to festivals so he can listen to his favourite bands and “throw down in the pit”.

Extreme heat is a serious problem for drug-affected patrons. The dehydration of drugs on top of extreme weather conditions resulted in a death in December, when the temperature reached over 40 degrees. A 19-year-old man died from a suspected drug overdose at the Stereosonic music festival in Adelaide. Some argue festivals should be cancelled when the temperature exceeds 35 degrees.

Last year the Falls Music and Arts Festival’s usual Victorian location in Lorne was moved elsewhere due to bushfires in the area. The site was deemed ‘potentially high risk’ for the 16,000 revellers.

Fortunately for those who get into trouble, there are support programs such as the Red Frogs, who provide attendees with relief and care. A spokesman stated: “We have recognised the value in providing such services to increase the harm minimisation in festivals.”

Red Frogs promotes the importance of staying hydrated, and its members roam through the event giving out Red Frog lollies and icy poles, as well as looking out for any people needing help.

Festival organisers are also trying to deter patrons from bringing drugs to festivals. Rainbow Serpent festival in Lexton, Victoria, states on its website that people are strongly advised not to not bring illegal substances to the site.

The website states: “With a number of incredibly sad tragedies this summer the risk is just not worth it!”  It also mentions the elevated Victoria Police presence in the area, and free alcohol and drug testing when patrons are concerned about their ability to drive.”