Substance use at events

Characteristics of substance use at music events

Illicit drug use

The types of substance consumed, and the way in which they are taken at music events and festivals, also carry risks. Drugs such as ecstasy and MDMA are commonly consumed by attendees of music events. The risks associated with the consumption of these substances include:

  • high body temperatures
  • dehydration
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • anxiety
  • irrational behaviour
  • visual and auditory hallucinations.11
Crowd at colour festival

Some of these effects can lead to behaviours such as excessive water consumption, which can be fatal – especially in first time users.12 The effects of these drugs can also be exacerbated by the festival environment, with attendees consuming in larger amounts to keep their energy levels up, coupled with elevated activity levels.

Environmental factors such as heat and sunstroke can lead to further overheating and dehydration.13 Many of the risks can be addressed or moderated by harm reduction strategies. Access to educational resources such as Text the Effects cards, hydration stations and chill out spaces can help.

Alcohol use

Alcohol is also widely consumed at music festivals. Alcohol licencing information will provide organisers with service guidelines and restrictions around alcohol consumption at these events. Organisers should also be aware of the impact that alcohol consumption can have on individuals who are also using other illicit substances.

Alcohol is a depressant, and when combined with stimulant drugs such as ecstasy, MDMA and amphetamines it often results in the effects of either or both substances being masked, leading to increased consumption and higher risks of overdose.14 Alcohol can also increase the dehydration risk associated with ecstasy use.15

Ensuring that staff are aware of these risks and are monitoring patrons’ alcohol consumption is important. Appropriate communication between staff members is also essential to ensure that all are informed and aware of any high-risk individuals.

Substance identity and purity

The other stand out issue at music festivals is that the potency and purity of substances can be questionable. While this is always a risk when taking substances, it tends to be more common in environments where demand is high.

Substances such as LSD, MDMA and ecstasy can be substituted with a range of different chemicals and can contain synthetic versions of the intended substance, which have much more serious risk profiles than more traditional illicit substances. This type of substitution has been demonstrated in international trials, and in a recent pill testing trial at a music event in Australia.16 Consumption of these chemicals has correlated with overdose in some cases.17,18

Drug use and event environments

Research has demonstrated that the environment in which drugs are consumed can often dictate the impact that consumption will have on the individual, and their behaviour toward others. Studies have demonstrated that no matter the type of substance taken (including alcohol) violent, aggressive or anti-social behaviour is more common in environments that do not promote cohesion. Physical characteristics of environments that have been demonstrated to be linked to aggressive or anti-social behaviour with substance use are poor ventilation, unclean conditions, negative attitudes of staff, management and security, and a lack of ‘chill out spaces’ or areas that provide a comfort and respite.19,22

Benefits of harm reduction at music events

There are many benefits to engaging in harm reduction strategies at music events.

Harm reduction strategies in these environments have significant reach. They target a broad sub-set of the population that is often immune to general health warnings about drug use, and as a result tend to be at higher risk of harm.20,21

This is important as many people, especially young people, experiment with recreational drugs for the first time at these events. Harm reduction interventions at music events also provide an important opportunity for education and awareness around the risks associated with recreational drug use. This may potentially disrupt drug use paths, as education and awareness has been demonstrated as an important factor in moderating risky behaviour. These interventions present an opportunity to potentially influence the frequency, intensity and risks associated with future drug use in individuals.22