Miami-Dade County

Researchers document drug use among Ultra Music Festival attendees

The main stage at the 2013 Ultra Music Festival in Miami.
The main stage at the 2013 Ultra Music Festival in Miami. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Fair or not, after 16 years Ultra Music Festival has developed a reputation not only as a cornucopia of lights and sounds, but also as a smorgasbord of psychotropic uppers and downers. Some of the crazy things concert attendees have done, like making out with a tree, have contributed to the image.

But according to a federally funded study, if you ask 100 audience members to pee in a cup in exchange for a $20 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card, 80 just might test positive for drugs.

At least, researchers from the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education said that was their experience last year when they set up camp outside Bayfront Park and sought to document drug use among the thousands of ticket holders who flock to downtown Miami each year for three days of electronic dance music. The event typically sells more than 160,000 tickets.

Out of 145 voluntary participants, 72 percent admitted to having consumed marijuana, cocaine, molly or ecstasy during the past week. And for the 100-plus brave souls who went a step further and agreed to have their blood taken, or give a urine sample, researchers said they found that 58 percent and 80 percent, respectively, had recently consumed designer drugs.

The goal of the study, according to a summary of the results, was not to find out how many at Ultra are on drugs, but to get a better grasp of “some of the newly emerging and potentially dangerous new drugs popular in the [electronic dance music] community.”

“We found the participants at the event were very open with us about their knowledge of the drug scene and drug use,” said Barry Logan, the Pennsylvania-based center’s executive director. “We found a lot of the time what they thought they were taking was not what they were taking.”

Logan late last month sent the results of the National Institute of Justice-funded study to Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who has argued that Miami should end its long-standing relationship with Ultra, one of the world’s largest music festivals. The event grossed close to $20 million in ticket sales alone last year, according to the city’s auditor, but also saw gate-crashers trample a security guard and one ticket-holder die of a drug overdose.

The physical samples taken during the survey provided hard documentation of the drugs in circulation among attendees, according to Logan. Of the 104 urine samples, more than 80 percent tested positive for a synthetic drug, most commonly molly, followed by Alpha-PVP, a synthetic bath salt known as gravel, which ultimately killed 21-year-old Adonis Peña Escoto last year.

“It proved my point that the festival should not be in downtown Miami or in the city of Miami,” said Regalado. “The numbers are very concerning.”

However, Logan said the survey was conducted with far too small a sample size — less than one tenth of a percent of the tickets sold for the festival — to be taken as any kind of statistical representation of the drug use at Ultra.

“A lot of people who read this assume it’s an indicator of prevalence, which I don’t think it is,” said Logan.

He acknowledged that the way the study was conducted could have skewed the ratio of users to non-users, though he said his team didn’t take samples from anyone who was obviously intoxicated. He also said researchers didn’t start asking to see subjects’ Ultra tickets until days two and three of the study.

Now in its 16th year, Ultra is returning to downtown Miami in late March as an 18-and-older festival. The festival has a zero tolerance policy for drug use. They hired former Miami Beach police chief Ray Martinez last year to help with security efforts, deploy undercover officers on the festival grounds and keep “amnesty boxes” outside the event to encourage attendees to discard illegal drugs with no questions asked.

“The safety and security of our attendees, artists/performers, and personnel remain our utmost priority and concern,” Martinez wrote in a statement. “The organizers of Ultra Music Festival have a long-standing zero tolerance drug policy and continually work with law enforcement officials to enforce such policy.”

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