Freaknight promoters reach out to UW researchers

This past June at the sold-out Paradiso Festival, 21-year-old Patrick Witkowski passed away, and over 100 people were hospitalized for drug overdoses or dehydration. In July, Paradiso host USC Events asked the King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) for help preparing a public health campaign around drug safety at the FreakNight Festival this past weekend. DCHS called in Caleb Banta-Green, a UW researcher who works with the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI).

FreakNight is a two-day, Halloween-themed event that takes place every year at the WaMu Theater downtown. An estimated 22,000 people attended the event each night. The event is also hosted by USC.

“We just discussed and educated them,” said Sharon Toquinto, a representative of DCHS. “This is the first time an event promoter has been the one to contact us. I think it’s really great that people are paying attention to that.”

The DCHS had worked previously with Banta-Green and knew he had a background in surveying about drug use in rave and electronic music scenes. Banta-Green advised USC to build a campaign based around “good, transparent information” about what attendees were already worried about, such as dangerous “bogus drugs and potential side effects.”

The goal of the plan was to improve drug safety and awareness of Washington’s Good Samaritan Law, which states that neither an overdose victim nor the person who gets help for them will be arrested for drug possession.

“The sweet spot is to get the message through without going over their heads or turning them off,” said Alex Fryer, a USC Events representative. “We didn’t even really know about the law [before], but we did know when there have been accidents around the country, [the victims] weren’t alone. They were with friends who didn’t know what to do … It brought the focus to: How do we do something and use [the] best practices and promote safety?”

USC Events consulted DCHS and Banta-Green to incorporate the safety message in a way that would be heard by the attendees and improve their methods overall. As such, organizers issued all FreakNight ticket-holders safety messages informing them about the law, increased security, and had at least 25 “safety ambassadors” walking the floor of the event making sure everyone was staying safe.

“The general message we were trying to promote was if you’re going to use drugs in that situation, you don’t know for sure what you’re taking, you don’t know how strong it is, and you don’t know how your body is going to react to it,” Banta-Green said.

USC also offered a survey similar to Banta-Green’s past work to those waiting in line for FreakNight about their habits and concerns about drug use at electronic music festivals. Fryer says the results will be processed by Banta-Green so they can better adapt their strategies in the future and maybe make a long-term relationship with his lab.

“From USC’s perspective, just putting these safety messages out and seeing the response people got on social media — that they didn’t have any negative attitudes getting a safety message from a promoter — shows that not only did they like it, they wanted to hear it,” Fryer said. “You never know how people will react to something new, but they reacted so favorably: It was really rewarding and very encouraging.”

Reach reporter Zosha Millman at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @zosham

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