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High-risk high [Editorial]

Labor Day

The deaths of two young men at a music festival in Howard County's Merriweather Post Pavilion Friday has prompted an investigation into whether security and screening procedures there were adequate to protect concertgoers. Officials suspect many in the audience may have been under the influence of the drug Ecstasy or "Molly," which produces a mild euphoria in users but which also has been linked to several deaths at similar events around the country. Whether Ecstasy played a role in last weekend's tragedy is unclear, but it certainly wouldn't be surprising if it turns out audience members had relatively easy access to it despite the best efforts of concert organizers and police.

The drug, formally known as MDMA, belongs to the same family of drugs as methamphetamine. It has become popular among young people attending raves, all-night dance parties and concert festivals like the Mad Decent Block Party at Merriweather because of the mellow, warm feelings it induces and because its risks are perceived as small compared to other illegal drugs like cocaine or heroin. In pure form the drug works by increasing the production of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain's pleasure centers, but it can also cause rapid rises in body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate that result in death.

Last year, Ecstasy was linked to the death of a 19-year-old woman at a music club in Boston after she became unresponsive during a Labor Day concert. Two other people at the event, a man in his 20s and a 25-year-old woman, were also hospitalized for suspected drug reactions that evening, as well as several people attending similar events in the region, including two who died in New York City. In all those cases police believed Ecstasy played a role in the fatalities yet found that club owners and event organizers' security and screening procedures were not at fault.

The investigation into the deaths at Merriweather may well produce a similar result, and though it is frustrating for the authorities and heartbreaking for the families of victims, the reality is that there is no foolproof way of ensuring such drugs will never be used at future events. Police search hundreds of pocketbooks, bags and backpacks carried by concertgoers entering venues like Merriweather, but mostly they're checking for alcohol, illegal weapons or street drugs like marijuana or heroin that are readily identifiable from a cursory inspection. They also look for people who are clearly intoxicated or out of control. But they can't be expected to examine (or even find) every pill people are carrying, and there's even less they can do to stop people who ingest drugs like Ecstasy before arriving at the gate.

Given the difficulty of completely eliminating these drugs, the best approach for limiting the damage they cause may be a strategy of harm reduction. Officials can and should publicize the dangers of drugs like Ecstasy in hopes of persuading young people not to take them in the first place. But they also need to face the reality that some will anyway and that a necessary component of efforts to prevent deaths related to the drug is an outreach focused on educating potential users and their peers on the warning signs of bad reactions and the dangers of mixing Ecstasy with alcohol or other drugs. Officials at such events need better training as well. As a practical matter it's a lot harder to find a pill and confiscate it than it is to educate people about the risks of Ecstasy and the warning signs that someone who has taken it may be in imminent danger.

Reacting to these deaths by banning events like the Mad Decent Block Party may prove counter-productive. There are some people, unfortunately, who will simply go underground — to private house parties, unregulated after-hours clubs, etc. — in order to indulge their appetite for drugs, and in those places authorities have no way of reaching them with information about the risks they are taking or intervening when things go wrong.

That is why organizations like DanceSafe, a nonprofit that promotes health and safety within the electronic dance music community, have embraced the harm-reduction strategy as the most efficient way of changing the behaviors of audiences at raves and other events targeting young people. If peer-level persuasion can prevent tragic deaths like those at Merriweather this weekend, officials in Maryland need to take heed of that fact even as they continue to check pocketbooks and purses for illicit pills.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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