When Death Strikes a Music Festival, Is It Time to Make a Change?

Fans look on as a fan receives medical attention at Free Press Summer Fest earlier this month.
Fans look on as a fan receives medical attention at Free Press Summer Fest earlier this month.
Photos by Jack Gorman

After so many music festivals come familiar headlines:

"Police investigating death of UM student who attended Ultra Music Festival." (Miami)

"At least 2 dead and nearly 60 others hospitalized after Florida music festival." (Tampa)

"Five die at Argentina Time Warp electronic music festival." (Buenos Aires)

And those headlines? Those are all just from the past year.

Of course, no headlines hit Houston harder than the ones that contained the name of Megan Tilton, the 18-year-old who died from suspected drug complications earlier on June 5 after attending Free Press Summer Festival, an annual Houston music event that bills itself as "epic, amazing, badass, and fun." But beyond the expression of condolences and the outpouring of support for her family, the news cycle has moved on from her death: HPD isn't investigating it. FPSF did not announce any potential updates to safety measures. Tilton's death, while a catalyst for thoughts and prayers, has not been a catalyst for change.

But in other municipalities, the reaction to festival deaths is not the same. The city of Buenos Aires stopped issuing permits for electronic music festivals in response to five overdose deaths at the Time Warp festival. The mayor of Tampa Bay expressed his desire to ban Sunset Music Fest after over 50 people were hospitalized and two left dead, again, from suspected overdoses. Los Angeles County, in response to the death of two young women at the HARD Summer music festival, considered banning festivals temporarily, but ultimately opted for case-by-case consideration of events and the proposal of stricter regulations: everything from limiting admissions to those who are under 18 to conducting sobriety checkpoints to monitoring social media for "potential threats to safety and health."

Whether or not FPSF should change its security policy would require a better sense of what its current security policy is, and on that note, sources are less than forthcoming. A Houston Police Department spokesperson stated that FPSF security is not provided by on-duty uniformed officers, though HPD officers may serve FPSF in an off-duty capacity. A representative from NRG Park, where FPSF was held this year and last due to weather concerns, did not disclose information on security, even the name of the company who provides it, in the interest of (wait for it) security. FPSF also did not disclose information regarding security measures taken at this year's festival. Beyond visible, on-the-ground reports of standard bag searches, FPSF's practical policies are opaque, shielded by a perfunctory ban on illegal and illicit substances.

When Death Strikes a Music Festival, Is It Time to Make a Change?

Texas already has strong legal deterrents against possession of ecstasy. Just one gram of MDMA carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence of two years in the state of Texas. Even less than a gram carries a minimum sentence of 180 days. But these legal deterrents don't seem to stop festivalgoers from taking drugs, and the nature these hallucinogens — small, odorless, and quick to ingest — makes them easy to take without detection at a festival. "In a world where it's widely known that it's easy to get drugs in jail, it's hard to imagine ANY security apparatus being able to stop an appreciable amount of drugs coming in to any event," says Mitchell Gomez, National Outreach Director for DanceSafe, a nonprofit public health organization that promotes "harm reduction" techniques for music events. Gomez mentioned by email several non-punitive safety measures festivals could employ to promote drug safety, including "drug amnesty" bins, medical staff education and on-site "drug checking" for adulterants. "Having done testing at dozens of events over the last few years, I have seen literally hundreds of people decide not to take a substance that was not what they anticipated it to be," he adds.

So why doesn't FPSF embrace these harm-reduction techniques? The answer might lie in the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003, more commonly known by its earlier name, the RAVE Act. The federal law proposes stiff penalties — upwards of $250,000 — for maintaining a so-called "drug involved premises" or knowingly profiting from a place "for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance." According to Cameron Bowman, a lawyer writing for Fest300, what constitutes a "drug-involved premises" hasn't come under much scrutiny under the law, and only one festival has been prosecuted under the RAVE Act since 2010 (in that case, the promoter was suspected of being directly involved in drug sales). But that doesn't stop festival organizers from sticking with what Bowman considers to be ineffective zero-tolerance policies. "This is why I call the RAVE Act the Keyzer Soze of laws," he writes. "It’s that the existence of the law hangs over everything, causing uncertainty and fear."

Some organizations are concerned that the fear of legal repercussions lead festivalgoers, particularly young ones, to avoid seeking medical care when they need it the most. Alex Pollak, a representative for Ambassador's Foundation, Inc., is one such person. Ambassador's Foundation is nonprofit collective of medical students who provide a "peer-based early alert system" to identify festival attendees who might need medical attention. "Most festival attendees have a notion that if they come and seek out medical help then they will either be kicked out of the festival or get in some type of trouble," writes Pollak in an email. "We are working very hard to break that stigma and create a safe, no-judgment medical tent [so] that people can feel comfortable to seek out help if needed." For Pollak and the Ambassadors, a proactive medical team is key. "We never wait for patients to come to us," he writes. "Getting to patients before they drop and [need] aggressive high-caliber treatment (onsite doctors and nurses) is crucial for any large festival."

When Death Strikes a Music Festival, Is It Time to Make a Change?

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It's hard to say whether or not FPSF would consider itself a festival with one of these "proactive medical providers." The Houston Press reached out to Harris County Emergency Corps, the medical-services organization who staffed this year's festival. Their CEO, Jeremy Hyde, declined an interview and did not respond to emailed questions about the services HCEC provides, how they respond to drug reactions or drug overdoses, and the strategies they employ to prevent loss of life at festivals. FPSF, for its part, would not comment on its medical staff or on how their choices might be influenced by the RAVE Act. Gomez suspects that fear of the RAVE Act makes festival organizers resistant to promoting proactive, harm-reduction strategies. "No promoter has ever been arrested for providing harm-reduction services, but because of their concerns that they might be, we are often asked not to test or have kits on-site," he notes.

Both Gomez and Pollak admit that fatalities at mass gatherings are a complicated matter. "I think that all activities contain risk, and that most activities (from driving a car, to flying in a plane, to going to a festival) have some statistical risk of death," writes Gomez. But both also asserted concrete, actionable steps to minimize the risk of death at large music events. FPSF offered up words, in an official statement that failed to name the festival's victim: “We are saddened to learn of the death of an individual who passed away following Free Press Summer Festival last weekend. Our thoughts are with her family and loved ones during this difficult time.” But neither words nor actionable steps taken now, sadly, will bring Megan Tilton back to life. 


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