Coachella is the staple music festival for most California festival goers: if you don’t go anymore it is almost surely where you started. With no age limit and two weekends of fun many young people go to experience their first festival event.

For a lot of young people today experience goes hand in hand with experiment and, though the drug stigma in festival culture has been addressed before, it is time to shine a new light on this “taboo” subject and address what we are doing in the US by constantly shaming drug use. Yes, drugs are illegal. No, you are not supposed to have them in the festival. However, many people will obtain and use drugs on the Empire Polo Fields this year regardless. And whether you are a member of the indie rock Coachella clan or the more modern (and ever expansive) electronic music presence, the question remains the same: should we continue to deny this problem? It is difficult to ignore when people pull your sleeve when they see you having a good time and ask “Are you rolling?” or when young people ask strangers in line for the bathroom if they have any “Molly.” Will we continue to ignore that our youth is actively seeking out MDMA? Maybe its time we consciously make an effort to begin a conversation about health, sobriety, support, and safety in these situations?

Two years ago at Coachella a group of people carried a young girl into the medical tent who could not have been older than 17. She had passed out. They said they had found her trampled on the ground by the mainstage, “People were just walking over her, we thought we should help,” they told the medics on duty. She was resuscitated and her mother came to retrieve her a couple of hours later. It was never said aloud what she was on, she refused to say and was very upset at having lost her friends when she came to. Regardless, her and her friends had been experimenting and when it all hit the fan the “friends” bolted. Why? Because they were afraid.

“For a lot of young people today experience goes hand in hand with experiment”

In the US we are taught about drug use and abuse through DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a program designed to prevent addiction, drug use, and violence. The problem: it focuses on scare tactics. In the same way the US saw a rise of teen pregnancies due to poor sexual education it may be we are having such a rise of drug abuse amongst our youth because of inadequate drug education. Now, I am not promoting teaching young people how to use drugs. I am promoting a discussion that encourages engagement without shame. Young people are going to be curious. Since the rise of consciousness people have searched for ways to turn it all off. That is one of the reasons we love festivals, drugs aside. Festivals give us the opportunity to forget the outside world and be whoever and whatever we want. However, there is a fine line between having a good time and numbing the world out.

That is where the drug game gets dangerous and shame plays a large hand in this. We want to be liked. It is human. We want our friends and family to love and support us. In US culture we have a tendency to ignore that which is shameful or taboo. This is hurting our society and feeding our youth’s drug problem. DARE focuses on a very young audience and their youth allows them to accept cultural beliefs about drugs. The problem with these deep seeded cultural beliefs is that they support shame. Shame has roots in belief. When an entire culture views drug users as addicts and criminals we cannot be surprised when our youth has misconceived notions about drug use and support. Shame carries a sense of guilt on its back, it is self diminishing, this comes from having done something against a core personal or societal belief. It is peer pressure and societal pressure and the more ashamed you become the more you want to use to make it all go away. You feel you have no support to change: you’re friends may judge you for quitting and you’re family may judge you for having started in the first place. This carries over into more than just drug use. It is the binging and purging we have become so accustomed to. It can be related to slut-shaming, gay-bashing, victim blaming, domestic abuse, etc. It is the shame that comes from an uncomfortable conversation. When we feel ashamed we are paralyzed to act against it and in that stuck place we continue the same pattern of abuse.

“We aren’t here to judge,” Sgt. Marshall from Indio Police Department commented when asked about youth drug use at festivals. He continued to explain that law enforcements number one priority will always be to protect lives. Yes, law enforcement does have a duty to enforce the law; but safety is their top priority. For this reason you can find amnesty boxes on the festival’s grounds, a place you can turn in drugs without shame or fear of persecution (something quite common at European festivals already). If you or a friend are ill or needs medical attention law enforcement considers it their duty to get you the help you need. “We love our Coachella,” Sgt. Marshall continued, “We are not there to upset it. We are there to ensure everyone has a safe and sane time at this event.” Festival goers are encouraged not to avoid law enforcement but work with them. The police are not there to catch you or judge you: they aren’t even looking for you. Unless you need them. Sgt. Marshall and those like him are present to maintain the safety of the festival community.

“In the same way the US saw a rise of teen pregnancies due to poor sexual education it may be we are having such a rise of drug abuse amongst our youth because of inadequate drug education.”

As we shift away from shaming we can continue to encourage young people to honor their bodies; to know what they are putting into them (legal or illegal). Organizations like Dancesafe exist exclusively for this reason. Their message states: “We neither condone nor condemn drug use. Rather, we provide a non-judgmental perspective to help support people who use drugs in making informed decisions about their health and safety.”  It is easy to order a test kit online from their website and know exactly what you are putting in your body. Many people think “Molly” is synonymous with pure: this is not true. Most of these crystal chemical structures appear the same in powder form. Imagine thinking you had MDMA and had actually obtained PMA or PMMA, a different chemical known to induce a similar feeling of euphoria. However, this chemical becomes highly toxic to the body at much lower doses and takes longer to effect the person. If it looks the same and it has not been tested a user could easily take too much. This could quickly lead to heat stroke, the main cause of death to substance users in festival settings. In this case, ignorance is not bliss.

Why take that risk of ingesting unknown substances? Human life is much more valuable than that. Look out for those around you, split a test kit with your crew, offer it to those camping by you. The festival grounds are a community. Illegal drugs may not be permitted on the grounds of the festival, but we cannot deny they will be present. Medical professionals and law enforcement are present to ensure the safety of the entire community, including yours, use them. Take away the shame. Choice requires responsibility and if you choose to use drugs in Indio make the smartest choice you can and admit that choice if something does go wrong. Do this without shame. Follow the example of Sgt Marshall, don’t be there to judge.

One of the most beautiful elements of festival culture is that it is a place without judgement: where anyone can dance to the beat of their own drum. We must be the change in this culture and in the world. What if instead it was okay to say something? To have an authentic voice? What if we talked about drug abuse? Or alcohol abuse? What if we encouraged an enhancing of life rather than a numbing out? What if for a few moments we could stop judging and start listening? What if those of us who are seasoned festival goers supported the experimental youth instead of turning up our noses at their “lack” of taste in EDM? Or their inexperience with drugs? What if we took these poor lost souls under our wings and taught them about the community the way we were introduced to it: one of peace, love, unity, and respect? Instead of shaming why not encourage a healthier attitude towards this conversation? Let us strive to be in the world they way we are in the festival: authentic and free.

– Carolyne DeBlois

Carolyne DeBlois is an actress and writer currently living, writing, and dancing in Los Angeles, CA. For more of her writing please follow her on Instagram @carolyne_deblois