EDM's Head-in-the-Sand Approach to Drugs Needs to End

Gary Richards will perform as Destructo at the Holy Ship! Pre-Party.
Gary Richards will perform as Destructo at the Holy Ship! Pre-Party.
Photo by Piper Ferguson

With the recent release of the phase one Ultra 2016 lineup, more than a few people in Miami, and indeed around the world, will be beset by visions of lollipops, body glitter, and more neon than downtown Tokyo and Times Square combined. One thing almost none of those potential ravers imagines is ending the party early with a trip to the hospital or, worse, the morgue.

In November, South Florida and the EDM community at large were dealt a blow when 24-year-old Kaylyn Rose Sommer went overboard — intentionally, according to reports — off the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship during day one of this year's Mad Decent Boat Party, most likely to her death.

Skrillex, one-half of Jack U and a mainstay of electronic festivals worldwide, responded to the incident by telling TMZ: "Things happen. And on cruise ships a lot of times there's 3,000 people, and something really awful happens and you have the rest of the people who paid like all of their money to have an amazing weekend. And it's something... that none of us ever foresaw or would've ever wanted to be a part of."

Yes, tragedy, death, shock, the unexpected — they all happen. We still don't know what caused Rose Sommer to jump from a 93-ton, 965-foot ship. Thanks to cruise lines' notorious lack of transparency and the unlikelihood of recovering a body, we may never know. But dance music festivals are no strangers to tragedies. Most often, they involve drugs.

This issue should be at the forefront of the minds of both EDM festival organizers and attendees. There are plenty of past examples.

During Ultra 2014, 21-year-old Adonis Escoto died after ingesting a synthetic bath salt because his friends believed he was simply drunk and left him in the car to sleep it off. In June that year, 36 people were hospitalized after attending an Avicii concert in Boston, mostly due to drug-related injuries. This past May, 20-year-old Shane Zimmardi died at Life in Color in Seattle after taking what his friends suspect was bad molly that turned out to be amphetamines. In June, two men at Paradiso 2015 in Portland passed away due to a combination of drugs and heat. That same month, Nicholas Austin Tom, a 24-year-old concertgoer at EDC Las Vegas, overdosed on what was supposedly ecstasy (MDMA). Two women, ages 18 and 19, passed away in early August after fatal overdoses while attending Hard Summer in Pomona, California.

Aboard Holy Ship!
Aboard Holy Ship!
Photo by Ian Witlen

None of that is news to anyone who even remotely follows dance music's lavish festivals. Drugs certainly aren't a new phenomenon in the world of music fests. Folks have been getting high — and dying — since Woodstock. But just because a problem has existed for a long time doesn't mean it's not worth fixing.

Still, some people are sick of hearing about all the deaths at EDM events. One of them is Gary Richards, the man behind the popular EDM cruise Holy Ship! — which will set sail January 3 to 6 and February 10 to 13 from Miami to Coco Cay, Bahamas, on the MSC Divina. Also known by his stage name, Destructo, Richards is the founder of Hard, the event company that runs Holy Ship! I set up an interview with Richards to talk about the upcoming cruise, and my first question addressed safety concerns people might have. It turned out to be a short discussion.

"You know what? Let's just stop the interview. I really don't want to comment on any of that kind of stuff. I didn't know that's what this interview was going to be about. So let's just take a pass. OK? Thanks for your time."


It was hardly the first time Richards and Hard have attempted to avoid the tough subject of people losing their lives at music festivals. During Hard Summer, where two women died, officials at the company initially denied credentials to all media for Hard's Day of the Dead festival in October. After a collective outcry, they lifted the blackout the very same day.

Yet the question remains: Why make that move in the first place?

The answer is simple. Conversations about drugs are bad business. Unfortunately for those in the industry, these are conversations that must happen, or else business will just be bad.

Some industry leaders are willing to address the situation. After offering his condolences and some personal insight about losing friends to overdoses, Pasquale Rotella, founder of Insomniac events (Electric Daisy Carnival and others), closed his statement with the following:

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"If we're trying to create a safe and secure environment for these passionate fans, sending them back into the unregulated underground isn't a step in the right direction. We all need to do our part in creating a national dialogue that educates our youth and encourages them to be accountable for their choices — especially when it comes to drugs."

That dialogue is something many are afraid to initiate. EDM organizers usually ignore the gorilla in the room, while others — like Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado — would rather ban EDM festivals outright, ignoring the millions of dollars they bring in yearly revenue to the city.

Many have taken to advocating "personal responsibility" as the only true form of preventing drug-related deaths. The most obvious solution would be to not do drugs. Follow Mr. Mackey's mantra that "drugs are bad, mkay?" and there's no guarantee you won't die the moment you step out the front door, but at least it won't be from an overdose. Popular DJs such as Sebastian Ingrosso and Zedd have spoken out against using drugs — not so much for any cultural stigma or for law-abiding reasons but more in an effort to keep their fans safe at shows.

That solution is not only based in fantasy but also ignorant of the reason death tolls are unnecessarily high at EDM festivals. Policymakers believe the best way to combat drug use is to double-down on zero tolerance. Try that approach with a 19-year-old hellbent on seeing all the colors and feeling all the feels and he'll give you some version of "Fuck off."

The crowd of Holy Ship! 2014.
The crowd of Holy Ship! 2014.
Photo by Ian Witlen

The smart alternative is drug checking. In other countries, onsite personnel armed with kits have been used to determine if your cocaine is cut with dental anesthetic and horse medicine, if your MDMA is mostly caffeine, or if your ecstasy is a heartburn pill. Evolve Festival in Nova Scotia recently announced it will provide pill testing during its July 2016 festival. British Columbia's Shambhala Music Festival has offered free drug testing to its attendees as well.

The popular debate over drug checking is whether it can save lives and if it will lead to more people using. It's a discussion that music fans, local governments, congressmen, and event organizers all must have — soon. But first, unlike Gary Richards, they need to be willing and able.

Holy Ship! Pre-Party

With Destructo, Justin Martin, Jai Wolf, and Wax Motif. 11 p.m. Saturday, January 2, at Space, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-375-0001; clubspace.com. Tickets cost $30 plus fees via wantickets.com.

Holy Ship!

With Kaskade, Dillon Francis, Flosstradamus, and others. Sunday, January 3, through Wednesday, January 6. Tickets are sold out; visit holyship.com to join the waiting list.

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34 NE 11th St.
Miami, FL 33132



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