Following the high-profile deaths linked to drug overdoses at major dance music events at home and abroad, an international festival promoter and an Australian youth support group have both spoken out saying that music festivals are unfairly targeted as simply drug-taking events.

Music festivals have come under scrutiny this month following the death of a 23-year-old man who swallowed “three pills”, according to Police reports, at West Sydney’s Defqon.1 “hardcore” dance festival, where 14 more were hospitalised and 84 arrested on drugs charges.

News that followed closely after organisers of New York’s Electric Zoo festival cancelled the third and final day of the EDM festival after two punters died with MDMA found in their systems.

The director of Red Frogs Australia, a youth support group that provides educational programs to almost 40,000 high school students, believes that music festivals are just part of a bigger picture of drug culture in society. “Festivals and events are really just a snapshot of what’s going on every weekend anyway, so I think that they are targeted a bit unfairly in some ways,” Andy Gourley tells ABC News.

“It has always been there in a lot of youth culture events right through from Schoolies to festivals, particularly a lot of our pubs and clubs… so it is definitely out there,” remarked Mr Gourley.

The youth support worker’s comments echo those of Pasquale Rotella of event promoters Insomniac Events, who present New York’s Electric Daisy Carnival and are holding their Nocturnal Wonderland this weekend, featuring the likes of Fatboy Slim, Martin Solveig, Green Velvet, and Benny Benassi among 40+ acts across several stages. “It’s horrible, but unfortunately if someone is going to take a risk, it doesn’t matter where they are in the world – in their own bedroom, at a festival.”

Rotella tells Rolling Stone that media attention on the annual dance music event has been particularly focussed following the Electric Zoo tragedy, “It’s horrible, but unfortunately if someone is going to take a risk, it doesn’t matter where they are in the world – in their own bedroom, at a festival. They take that risk, and it’s sad if it ends tragically,” he says. “It happens every day, but there’s this attention that dance music events get that is unfair.”

Rotella, who’s had 20 years experience in presenting dance music, says that being targeted by media is inevitable. “Unfortunately, death at a music festival means national media attention,” he says, but further pronounced that it was merely, to use Mr Gourley’s terminology, a ‘snapshot’ of a wider drug-taking culture.

“I think the general public thinks maybe this only happens at festivals, dance music events – that it doesn’t happen at college frat parties, house parties, sporting events or rock festivals because it’s not covered, basically,” says the Insomniac Events promoter. The responsibility for ensuring the highest safety measures at events falls not just to the event’s promoters, but also the ticket-holders as well, argues Rotella.

“It’s the promoter’s responsibility to do everything possible to protect the attendees, and after you’ve covered all your bases and done everything you can do, it really comes down to people handling their own business, people being responsible for themselves,” he says.

Mr Gourley held a similar view, reasoning that festival organisers are doing enough to minimise the risks of drug use with multiple medical and support initiatives. “Looking at all the support services with the triage, ambos, security, save-a-mate and all these different organisations, festivals are really treating their duty of care quite seriously and getting a lot more support services in,” he said.

Music festivals have not increased recreational drug use, argues Mr Gourley, but instead give an insight into a broader scale of drug-taking that’s happening throughout society. However, Mr Gourley proposes that music festivals can be enjoyed without the association of drug use.

“It is a bit of a myth that you have to be off your chops to enjoy good music and there are a lot of countries that can enjoy good music without getting tripped off your head,” he said, pointing towards Malaysia – which has very strict drug laws – as an example.

“Sometimes when you get a bit hyped up at an event you can push your limits too far… so I think it is just personally guarding yourself against the hype factor,” adds Mr Gourley, who points out the greater threat with casual drug use – at festivals or otherwise – is in developing an addiction, leading to substance abuse and graver consequences.“It is a bit of a myth that you have to be off your chops to enjoy good music… it is a bit of Russian roulette with drugs.”

But Mr Gourley also acknowledged that the illegitimate source and production of illicit substances was an issue; “you are rolling the dice every time you have a stab at something like that, cause you just do not know where it is coming from or what it is,” he said. “Drugs are dangerous, you just do not know what you are getting and you do not know who is making them or what is going on so it is a bit of Russian roulette with drugs.”

Speaking about the death of the 23-year-old punter at Defqon.1 from a reported overdose of “three pills” of unknown origin, NSW Police’s Detective Superintendent Arthur Katsogiannis made an identical assessment; “don’t play Russian roulette with your life – it is as simple as that.”

While the festival overdose deaths have sparked media attention and public debate, Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, tells ABC that a push for government regulation on the supply of drugs would prevent further fatalities, and far more effective that attempting to prohibit them with hefty jail terms.

“Why does the only answer to this tragedy have to be improved drug education?,” says Mr Wodak. “Surely at least part of the answer, I think the major part, is developing a different supply system to respond to a demand that we have never been able to suppress.” He pointed to a New Zealand bill for an effective example, while likening the issue to the America’s prohibition era – reformation over education.

The attention on drug culture – especially at music festivals – as a dangerous culture still falls behind the dangerous effects of alcohol, as research from the National Health and Medical Research Control demonstrates, estimating that alcohol cost the community approximately $15.3 billion in 2004-2005 while still ranking as the second-most preventable cause of drug-related hospitalisations and deaths.

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