Deaths draw attention to drugs in EDM scene

2 dead, 19 hospitalized at Mad Decent Block Party; 2-day Moonrise Festival planned this weekend

August 05, 2014|Wesley Case, Justin George, Jessica Anderson | The Baltimore Sun

Does the EDM scene have a drug problem?

The question, which has followed the increasingly mainstream electronic dance music genre for years, is being raised again in the wake of the deaths of two males, ages 20 and 17, who attended an all-day EDM show last weekend in Columbia.

Nineteen other people were sent to hospitals from Friday’s Mad Decent Block Party at Merriweather Post Pavilion, which featured artists such as Diplo, Flux Pavilion and Dillon Francis. The concerns come as Baltimore prepares for the first-ever Moonrise Festival, which will take place Saturday and Sunday at Pimlico Race Course and feature genre heavyweights Kaskade and Bassnectar.

“Most of the people, I don't think they would go if they didn't have [drugs], to be honest, because I don't think they would enjoy the music as much as everyone else,” said Andrew Guiliani, 21, of Ellicott City, who attended the all-ages Mad Decent show.

Drug use at live concerts is not new, but the use of MDMA — also known as Ecstasy or “Molly” — has been closely associated with EDM culture, according to Dr. Matthew Johnson, associate professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the Johns Hopkins University. 

Other high-profile deaths of EDM concertgoers in recent years have drawn attention to drug use in the scene. Publications such as Rolling Stone and Billboard have explored the relationship.

In a statement Monday, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman drew a link as well.

“Substances that are becoming increasingly prevalent at certain concerts are incredibly dangerous,” he said, “and as a parent I am concerned that our children may be taking unnecessary risks.” 

Baltimore County former drug czar Mike Gimbel warned Towson University freshman football players on Monday about the dangers of MDMA and its prevalence at EDM concerts.

“You might not even know what you’re getting,” Gimbel said. “This is the worst I’ve seen in 30 years. ... You are the vulnerable customers.”

Investigators said they suspected that MDMA was the most commonly used drug at Friday's Block Party and Howard County officials said they were investigating security and screening procedures at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Family members of one of the two concertgoers who died said they believe he had a toxic reaction to a drink handed to him by another concertgoer.

The family of Tyler Fox Viscardi, 20, of Raleigh, N.C., said they do not know exactly what caused Viscardi to suffer a medical emergency.

“He was the victim of a terrible mishap,” Viscardi's family said in a statement to WJZ-TV. “… According to his close college friend who was with him, the afternoon was hot and he drank water that was given to him by others who were in the area. We believe that this contained a substance, unbeknownst to him, to which he had a toxic reaction.”

Autopsy results are pending for Viscardi and the 17-year-old, whose identity police did not reveal. Police are awaiting test results to determine what substances they and other concertgoers who fell ill might may have ingested, said Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

Guiliani said he was surprised by how “drunk” and “immature” the young crowd seemed. He said that he did not see drugs openly sold at Merriweather but it was obvious some attendees had used substances beyond alcohol.

“Kids were acting strange. Kids were shaking,” Guiliani said, describing the scene by the portable toilets. “They were definitely acting different. You could just tell from the way they acted, like their body language.”

Doug Williams, 29, of Columbia said that it seemed as if more younger attendees were under the influence of drugs or alcohol than at past concerts he attended, including last year's Mad Decent festival.

“There was quite a few kids laying in grass, their pupils dilated,” he said. “They really can't stand still. You can tell. If you were there, you would've looked at the crowd and, 'Oh yeah, a lot of kids that shouldn't be here. They are wasted out of their minds ...’”

He said he saw EMTs carry a concertgoer out on a stretcher and wished Merriweather security had been more focused on young people who appeared drug-impaired rather than looking to stop people from smoking marijuana.

Also last weekend, an attendee at the Hard Summer EDM festival in Los Angeles died of an apparent drug overdose, according to L.A. Weekly.

In recent years, other deaths resulting from drugs taken at EDM concerts have made national headlines. 

A 24-year-old California man overdosed on Ecstasy at the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas in June while two people officials say ingested the drug died at the Electric Zoo festival in New York City in 2013. In 2010, a 15-year-old died from a suspected MDMA overdose after attending the Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles, which led to a public service announcement on the dangers of MDMA from the genre's top stars, including Kaskade and Steve Aoki. On Monday, Pollstar reported attendees of this month's Electric Zoo in New York will have to watch this two-minute video, titled "The Molly," before gaining entry to the festival.

Not everyone thinks EDM and its concerts should be held responsible for the MDMA problem. (One reason is that it's not exclusive to the genre; rappers have glorified its use in recent years.)

Johnson said that while EDM and MDMA are often linked, he would not blame the genre and its culture for the drug's prevalence in society. He pointed out that most people at these events are not using MDMA.

“I have no doubt that if electronic dance music didn't exist that people would be using MDMA,” Johnson said. “Most people that are exposed to MDMA aren't taking it to a rave or another dance music venue. They've gotten it from their friend. They're trying it at home or somewhere else at a party.”

Hospitals in the Baltimore area, generally, are facing a rise in MDMA overdoses, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Over the past year or so, we're seeing a significant increase in the use of Ecstasy in the Baltimore area,” said DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Gary Tuggle of the Baltimore office. “It's becoming an increasing public hazard. They don't realize how dangerous this stuff is.”

Given the recent news from the Mad Decent event, reinforcing safety measures has become the focus leading up to this weekend's Moonrise, according to organizer Evan Weinstein.

“We've been working closely with the city from the beginning, to go above and beyond on the safety protocol,” Weinstein said.

Karin De Francis, a consultant to the Maryland Jockey Club who has worked with Weinstein to bring Moonrise to Pimlico, said she and Weinstein have coordinated “very closely with all levels of city, police, fire and emergency medical services to ensure the safest event possible.”

For years, Weinstein and his company Steez Promo have promoted and organized many EDM concerts in the area and along the East Coast. Most occurred without issue. But in 2012, Weinstein was the promoter, not organizer, of the city's 14th and final Starscape Festival, which City Councilman Edward Reisinger called “a drug party” that unnecessarily stretched Baltimore's emergency medical crews. At least seven people were arrested on drug charges during the festival, and police confiscated 20 grams of suspected marijuana, two MDMA pills and almost 10 grams of liquid and tab form of LSD. The Baltimore Sun also reported that emergency medical crews struggled to keep up with calls for help from the venue, responding to Fort Armistead Park “continuously” for 12 hours.

Last year, Weinstein was the promoter for what was to be the inaugural Moonrise Festival, but organizers didn’t obtain proper permits for the EDM fest, to be held at the Baltimore Sun Media Group property in Port Covington.

Ty Xanders, a 23-year-old living in Federal Hill, said he was “heartbroken” over last year's cancellation but encouraged that the Maryland Jockey Club agreed to host this weekend's Moonrise. There was also a recent precedent: In June, Steez brought EDM star Skrillex to the Club's Pimlico Race Course for what all parties considered a trouble-free success.

“I went to the Skrillex show, and I thought that was phenomenal. I thought it was a really good venue for it,” Xanders said. “If Moonrise is successful, then I think even bigger companies will want to come and throw a festival there.”

Especially after last weekend's Mad Decent Block Party, the success of any local EDM show will be measured not only by attendance and profit, but also by safety.

At Mad Decent, people who showed signs of being under the influence of an illegal substance were turned away, according to Audrey Fix Schaefer, spokeswoman for I.M.P., Merriweather’s operator. Backpacks, food and beverages were confiscated; empty water bottles were allowed to help concertgoers stay hydrated. Purses were searched.

Police became involved when illegal substances were found, she said. Merriweather officials believe they took proper security precautions but said “it is unfortunately difficult to protect fans from their own actions, particularly if committed before they enter the venue,” said Schaefer.

So, how to achieve safety? Is the zero-tolerance message of “Just say no” effective?

“I wish that ending this new drug abuse epidemic, which is everywhere, was as simple as eliminating the type of concert people like to go see,” I.M.P. chairman Seth Hurwitz said in a statement he issued Monday, mourning the victims. “But that wouldn't solve this problem any more than stopping the drug problems in the ’60s by ending rock concerts back then, or the violence at some rap concerts by stopping all of those. We need to work on convincing kids that those pills they put in their mouth could kill them.”

Weinstein said his team was developing precautions for this weekend’s Moonrise, including providing access to free water to minimize dehydration, which can be a risk.

“With the planning of Moonrise for this year, safety has been our Number One focus from the beginning,” he said. “We're reassuring everyone that this is a safe event, and we're doing everything that we can to make it safe event and keep it a safe event.”

Missi Wooldridge, executive director of DanceSafe, a national public health organization based in Denver and focused on the electronic dance community, said her group does not support or promote drug use, but acknowledges it. A supporter of harm reduction philosophy, she aims to educate EDM fans on drug screening (the DanceSafe website sells kits that “helps drug users avoid ingesting unknown ... adulterants found in street drugs”) and reducing drug misuse. Wooldridge said the D.C. chapter of DanceSafe, which did not have a presence at Mad Decent, reached out to Moonrise organizers about having an information booth at Pimlico this weekend but had not received a response.

She said those focused on recreational drug use at EDM concerts are missing the bigger issue.

“You can't blame it on a genre of music, but you can definitely blame it on ... not being pragmatic about how we handle it,” Wooldridge said. “We're seeing that simply security messages that say 'no' or law enforcement don't appropriately prevent anything. ... We're really trying to figure out how we can address drug use.

“I think ... drug education and harm reduction is probably going to be your answer,” she said.

UPDATE:

Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman Ian Brennan released the following statement about Moonrise security via email Tuesday night: 

"As with every major event that takes place in Baltimore City, we have developed a thorough safety plan that includes the robust deployment of public safety assets and emergency medical technicians, as well as the placement of cooling and hydration stations to minimize the occurrence of medical emergencies related to hyperthermia.  On site, over four dozen city and private EMTs will be present, as well as 2 state licensed physicians and incident command staff to monitor conditions during the festival. City agencies, including Fire, Police, and Transportation, along with our private partners, are committed to ensuring the festival is safe for all attendees.”

Erin Cox contributed to this article.  

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