Three Deaths at This Year's HARD Summer Festival Lead to Fresh Calls to Ban Raves

Lawmakers in Southern California are saying EDM festivals shouldn't be allowed on county property.

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Aug 3 2016, 10:15pm

Photo by Calder Wilson

Over the last decade, Southern California has been debating the idea of banning EDM raves as a response to drug-related deaths at festivals. Following the deaths of three people at HARD Summer this weekend, which took place at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, lawmakers are once again calling for a ban on raves, although the causes of death are not yet known.

In response to the events in Fontana this weekend San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford told THUMP she was committed to banning raves at the Amphitheater in an emailed statement. "While the cause of these deaths is unknown at this time, we know that illegal drug use is rampant at these events and that many young lives have been lost because of drug use at raves," she said. "In light of these recent deaths, the Board of Supervisors should seriously consider banning these events from taking place at the County-owned San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore."

In May, Rutherford announced a motion to ban all "rave-style" events at the county-owned San Manuel Amphitheater, following complaints from local residents about heavy traffic, excessive noise, and drug-related deaths. Two people have died of overdoses since festivals began at the venue in 2013, at Nocturnal Wonderland of that year and at Beyond Wonderland in 2015, respectively.

While Rutherford's initial bid for a ban ultimately failed to get the votes it needed for approval, it remains to be seen if she will pursue another motion. However harm reduction advocates such as criminal defense attorney Cameron Bowman, who specializes in festivals, do not believe banning raves is the solution. "Once you acknowledge the reality that you're always going to have drugs at music festivals, the question is: what's the best way to try to make it safer? There's no question in my mind that the safer approach is to take a harm reduction approach by giving out information and trying to mitigate the dangers of drug usage at festivals," he said.

There are a growing number of organizations around the country that advocate for this approach, including DanceSafe, a Denver-based nonprofit advocating for health and safety within the electronic music community. In Seattle there is an annual Music Safety Summit now in its third year; the most recent edition resulted in an extensive list of takeaways such as safety and best practices recommendations for festival promoters and attendees to take into consideration. Some advocates, including Stefanie Jones from the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, question whether a ban on raves at publicly-owned venues is even possible, suggesting it could be a First Amendment violation.

After two young teenage women died at HARD Summer last year because of suspected drug overdoses, LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis called for a temporary ban on raves on county property, which eventually led to the city's Board of Supervisors forming a regulatory committee called the Electronic Music Task Force. Following its recommendations, the LA Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance in March which allows case-by-case consideration of health and safety measures for mass gatherings, including raves, with an expected attendance of 10,000 or more on county property and in the unincorporated areas of the county. The measures also included raising the minimum attendance age to 21, having free water, cooling stations, emergency room physicians, and EMS staff on-site, as well as free parking and law enforcement presence with K9 units.

Following the deaths last year in Pomona, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Fair Association told the LA Times that they would not be hosting EDM festivals in 2016. This year, HARD moved from the Pomona Fairplex in LA county to Fontana in San Bernardino county, but they did not explicitly state that the move was because of the Fairplex's adjusted 2016 agenda.

Former DanceSafe director Missi Wooldridge has previously told THUMP that banning raves would simply push drugs underground, avoiding the hard work of dealing with the problem of drug deaths straight on. Bowman, the lawyer, agrees: "Banning raves is not a solution, but is a very politically convenient or popular approach," he said. "It's easy to say, 'Well, we'll just ban it.' I think it takes a little more courage, and I think you've gotta put yourself out there a little bit more as a politician to say, 'Okay, let's just make sure people are being safe there.' That's a riskier position for politicians to take."

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