Masterclass: Drug Policy Alliance’s Stefanie Jones on Effective Festival Harm Reduction

When it comes to raising awareness about the broad conversation around festival harm reduction and drug safety, few people are as well versed as the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) director of audience development Stefanie Jones. Known for bringing the frank and pragmatic perspectives of Europe to the North American festival scene, Stefanie has been a vanguard of progressive festival harm reduction methods and has brought her pioneering Project #OpenTalk initiative to major events across the United States.

Being such an important conversation in the festival community, we asked Stefanie to outline the most important changes that event producers can make to their operations in order to better safeguard their patrons.

Be Realistic About Drug Use at Your Event

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“Regardless of whatever laws that you have to uphold—the prohibition laws, zero-tolerance laws, etc.—being realistic about the fact that drugs are going to get inside your event is step number one,” said Stefanie frankly. “You can put as many security measures in place as possible, but people will find a way around them if they really want to.”

It’s unrealistic to expect security searches thorough enough to catch everything that people try to sneak into an event, so working under that assumption and aligning your focusing towards safety is an imperative first step.

“Having any kind of festival harm reduction philosophy is extremely important,” she adds. DPA defines harm reduction as a “public health philosophy and intervention that seeks to reduce the harms associated with drug use”, and Stefanie strongly recommends that event producers spend less time thinking about prohibition and more time planning how to keep people safe.

Having a Well-Versed Medical Team

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Festivals are challenging places to establish an adequate medical facility, but Stefanie insists that having the right kind of staff with the right kind of attitude can make a huge difference to the quality and efficiency of treatment.

“Not all medical staff are created equal,” she says. “You really need to have the training and personality to thrive in a festival environment. You’re going to be seeing people on various substances, and that’s an important thing to be prepared for when you’re thinking about putting your medical team together and hiring a really good service.”

Insomniac has arguably most sophisticated on-site medical facilities in the North American festival scene, and their director of health and safety Maren Steiner is considered one of the foremost experts in large-scale event safety. Steiner’s team are very well versed in treating problems relating to drugs, alcohol, and dehydration, and they work alongside C&C Medical Events and American Medical Response subsidiary MidWest to bring doctors, physicians, nurses, assistants and medical staff members to the festival.

“We pride ourselves on having an industry-leading safety program, and we are constantly looking at ways to improve our proactive response to safety issues,” Steiner told fans during a Reddit AMA.

Peer Security is an Effective Way to Layer Safety Opps

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Another element of Insomniac’s operation that is particularly effective is their Ground Control unit. The 400-strong army of volunteers wanders around the site keeping an eye on their fellow fans, and are often the first point of contact for anyone having difficulties.

“This is called peer security. They’re roaming the grounds and engaging with the audience on a friendly basis,” Jones explains. “Your medical staff is going to be in a fixed location, and not everybody’s going to make their way there. Having passionate festival goers who are just looking around and trained to identify these problems and escalate them if necessary is a very successful initiative that more festivals should be doing.”

There often exists an unfortunate apprehension towards security at festivals, so empowering and training fans to act as the first point of contact can help to convince some patrons that they may require medical attention.

Psychological Support is Also Important

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“Another adjunct of medical services that is very important is psychological support, which is assistance for people who may or may not be on drugs but are having a dark moment,” says Stefanie. She references psychedelic harm reduction organization Zendo Project as a particularly effective psychological support group. Through their well-trained staff and safe space, “they’re making every effort in a tough environment to keep their attendees safe.”

“These aren’t strictly medical concerns, but they do involve sitting or spending some time with someone. I think that a lot of festivals kind of skip over that when developing a festival harm reduction program.”

You can read more about the Zendo Project and how to integrate psychological support into your event here.

Be Brave. Utilize Social Media

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Due to the strict drug prohibition laws that exist in most countries, discussing drug safety with your fans in a pragmatic way is fraught with difficulties. Often the events that try to discuss it publically are hampered by vagueness, imploring fans to “stay hydrated”, “take regular breaks” and “look out for one another”.

“[Using social media] is an advanced maneuver for festival harm reduction. As far as I know, only Lightning in a Bottle has ever pushed effective harm reduction messaging on Twitter or Instagram post in the US,” explains Jones. “It would be really helpful if more festivals did this because not everyone’s going to come on site and immediately get acquainted with the harm reduction tent or booth, but everybody’s checking their phones all the time.”

Amsterdam Dance Event has been a pioneering force in on-site safety messaging for a number of years, partnering with Dutch organization Celebrate Safe to use social media and app push notifications. These notifications take the form of general safety messaging, but also pill warnings if the organizers get wind of a particularly dangerous batch of ecstasy.

“This is a really great way to connect with a larger number of attendees and remind them to keep their health in mind and to really make smarter choices when it comes to alcohol and other drug use.”

Free Water is Essential For Festival Harm Reduction

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“I honestly can’t believe that festivals are still not doing that,” says Jones when asked about the necessity for free water stations. “It’s crazy that providing free water hasn’t become mandatory at events.”

With dehydration being one of the most common reasons for patrons seeking medical attention at festivals, advocates of free water are often staunch in their belief that this should be mandatory. While the logistics and economics of free water might be a little daunting to smaller events, Jones insists that there are ways around it.

“Festivals are hugely expensive operations and free water is a cost that some producers really don’t feel they can justify, but they can at least allow people to bring their Camelbacks in from the campsite,” Stefanie explains.

Clearly acknowledging the large volumes of their backpacks being sold to festival goers, Camelback made a very positive contribution to the scene when it brought its free water refill activation to events like Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza. Brands are often looking for ways that they can be integrated into events in a useful way, and supplying free water could be the most effective use of their support.

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You can read more about Stefanie Jones’ work with the Drug Policy Alliance here, and you can contact her for festival harm reduction support here.

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