Save lives at music festivals like Coachella
It’s festival season, which means fabulous wreaths of flowers, loud live music and narcan.
Yes, the overdose-reversing drug narcan (naloxone) will be available at music festivals near you this year — and with good reason, experts say.
Drugs and alcohol are a staple at music festivals and many often overdo it. Combine this with the overwhelming presence of fentanyl in the drug supply in recent years and the risk has become lethal.
“It’s just that you just die now instead of overdoing it,” says Dr. David Deyhimy from Pulse Addiction. “And that’s why we need this drug.”
What is naloxone?
You’ve probably heard of the drug naloxone, and can refer to it by its most common brand name, Narcan (another brand name is Kloxxado). It’s a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
“It’s really incredible,” says Susan G. Sherman, professor of American health in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society. “It blocks the effects of opioids in your brain.”
The FDA approved Narcan for over-the-counter use late last month — a welcome move, especially when the drug market is replete with fentanyl, a synthetic and potent opioid.
The number of drug overdose deaths in the US increased by 30% between 2019 and 2020, then by 15% in 2021. That same year, more than 100,000 people died. The rate of overdose deaths from synthetic opioids increased by 22%.
Many famous musicians have died from drug overdoses, but “we often don’t really feel all the people who are fans of this music that we’ve also lost,” says Nikki Jean, director of social responsibility at independent hip-hop label Rhymesayers.
Visual Explainer:How to use Narcan to treat a fentanyl overdose
How naloxone is used at music festivals
Many groups work in harm reduction, including DanceSafe, Beats Overdose, and This Must Be the Place. This Must Be the Place has distributed 14,178 naloxone kits since March of last year; at big festivals like Bonnaroo and Burning Man.
William Perry, co-founder of This Must Be The Place, is also a Certified Chemical Addiction Counselor. The idea for the nonprofit organization emerged during the pandemic amid concerns about the growing fentanyl crisis and people making up for lost time after quarantine by partying.
“It seems like a no-brainer to me,” says Robin A. Pollini, an associate professor in West Virginia University’s Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry.
Deyhimy adds generally, “At least people drink or smoke something (at music festivals), and from there it can easily lead to more experimentation or a greater desire to get high or feel different.”
Many people who use substances at music festivals are not used to using drugs. “You’re going to be taking what in the olden days you thought were safe recreational substances, and those aren’t your everyday users,” says Perry. “These are your special occasion users.”
They quickly realized the demand for their services: “People needed this stuff, it was on their must-have list” – they just didn’t know where to get it. Hikma Pharmaceuticals, makers of Kloxxado, donated 10,000 doses of naloxone to help last year. This year there are 24,000; This Must Be the Place will be appearing at 25 major festivals this year.
How naloxone is supposed to work at festivals
Like a fire extinguisher or AED, naloxone could, and often is, readily available to save lives. Death from fentanyl can occur within minutes, whereas heroin usually develops over hours.
Therefore, its presence at festivals is crucial.
Experts say those wanting to help at a music festival need to be sure the person actually needs naloxone before administering it. And pay attention to what else is happening to get this information out to professionals.
“When you convey what you saw and did, specifically and including the timelines of what you witness in someone else’s experience, it helps people who are more informed and more qualified to draw additional conclusions,” says Rachel Clark, Education Manager at DanceSafe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signs of an overdose include:
- “Small, constricted ‘pinpoint pupils’
- falling asleep or unconsciousness
- Slow, weak, or no breathing
- Choking or gurgling noises
- Flabby body
- Cold and/or clammy skin
- Discolored skin (especially on lips and nails)”
And if you think you’ve witnessed an overdose
- “Call 911 immediately.
- Administer naloxone if available.
- Try to keep the person awake and breathing.
- Lay the person on their side to prevent suffocation.
- Stay with the person until emergency help arrives.”
What about fentanyl test strips?
Naloxone is a great drug, but experts are rallying behind one with more legal complexity: fentanyl test strips.
Fentanyl test strips are small strips of paper that check for fentanyl in medicines; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on using fentanyl test strips.
Proponents argue that more mainstream acceptance is needed. Robert Valuck, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, says, “People usually say that a dead addict can’t recover, has no chance of recovery. So we’re trying to keep people alive, and fentanyl test strips will tell you if anything’s there.”
These strips aren’t legal everywhere, and festivals in particular have concerns about liability. Nonprofits like DanceSafe test people’s drugs at festivals and provide unbiased drug information; it also sells strips on their website.
This Must Be the Place educates festival-goers about harm reduction services and how to help someone. His naloxone distribution pays off as overdose reversals have occurred both on the festival site and the day after a festival.
“You wake up, you cry a little bit because you know it was all worth it,” says Perry. “And then you’re motivated to move on to the next one.”
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