Who the drugs kill

Young Asian-Americans in Southern California’s MDMA- and ecstasy-filled rave and festival circuit are dying in alarming numbers.

The first time I took ecstasy, I sat in my Los Angeles college’s freshman dorm room with two of my closest friends. We swallowed the pills, acquired through an acquaintance, and closed the door at sunset, venturing out only for snacks. Eventually, we put on The Land Before Time and passed out. The goal hadn’t been to get high and party hard, but to test our personal limits with the drug.

I’m Chinese-American. My friends were Filipina-American and Taiwanese-American. This had been our first encounter with a “hard” drug, and we’d prepared well beforehand — plenty of water bottles, fans running, and phones filled with notes on what to expect. It wouldn’t be the last time for any of us; I spent the next couple of years in and out of the rave scene. Right around when I left, in 2014, the deaths began.

There are certain things Southern Californian residents and visitors can expect from the region’s large raves and electronic dance music (EDM) festivals: young people of all genders wearing costumes or neon or almost nothing; miles of kandi accessories; and nowadays, multiple deaths, reportedly related to MDMA, ecstasy, and other “club drug” ingestion. In July 2016, for example, three people died at the HARD Summer festival, held at the Auto Club Speedway in San Bernardino. HARD Summer belongs to the Southern California HARD concert circuit that was started by music promoter and DJ Gary Richards in 2007.

Last year wasn’t the first time people died at HARD Summer, nor was it the first time that deaths were reported at a concert of any genre or scale. But all of the victims were Asian, and it was then I noticed that the drug-related deaths within the Southern California EDM festival scene seem to affect Asians most acutely. (Here, I use “Asian” to refer to people of East and Southeast Asian descent.) Of course, young Asian people aren’t the only ones dying from drug-related causes at festivals — but they’re dying at the highest concentration in Southern California’s rave scene, in what appears to be a perfect storm of demographics, cultural norms, and possibly biology.

Since 2013, at least one Asian person has died at HARD Summer every year. In 2013, it was Jonathan Reyes; in 2014, Emily Tran; in 2015, Tracy Nguyen. The official cause of death for 2016 HARD Summer attendees Derek Lee, Roxanne Ngo, and Alyssa Dominguez was, according to the San Bernardino County coroner, “acute MDMA toxicity.”

Ravers at HARD Summer Music Festival 2015 in Pomona, California.

Ravers at HARD Summer Music Festival 2015 in Pomona, California.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to HARD. Kenani Kaimuloa died at EDC Las Vegas last June; Nicholas Tom died at the festival in 2015; Montgomery Tsang was among the three victims who died at the festival in 2014. Meanwhile, John Hoang Dinh Vo died in 2015 at Beyond Wonderland, which, like EDC, is held by event production company Insomniac. And Kimchi Truong died at Coachella in 2014. They were all between the ages of 18 and 24. (Arrel Christopher Cochon, 22, died in 2013 at Beyond Wonderland. His race and ethnicity couldn’t be confirmed through public information, but at least one Facebook post suggested he was Filipino.)

All of them showed traces of at least one non-weed illegal drug in their system, though most of the actual causes of death were attributed on coroners’ reports to heat exhaustion. As temperatures at these summertime events often rise above 100 degrees, dehydration and other medical conditions can be exacerbated. And as recreational drug use includes more and more chemically engineered pills, bad drugs are also a possibility. (In Canada, several MDMA and ecstasy overdoses have been linked to batches that contained fentanyl.)

The headlines around MDMA and ecstasy-related overdoses, especially in connection to music festival deaths, suggest that these drugs have become exponentially more popular in the past decade and that EDM festivals are a hotbed for their abuse. But that claim is tricky to support with data alone. According to a survey from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the percentage of teens who reported having tried ecstasy dropped to 3.6 percent as recently as 2015, compared with almost 6 percent in the early 2000s. This is, depending on where you live, something that can be disputed anecdotally. Many hard drugs have their moments in the sun, but MDMA and ecstasy, or “molly,” have become prevalent in pop culture in recent years.

The drug-related deaths within the Southern California EDM festival scene seem to affect Asians most acutely.

Mitchell Gomez, the executive director of the peer harm reduction organization DanceSafe, objected to the NIDA figure. “Does that scan with you at all? Missing a 0, at the bare minimum,” he told The Outline. For example, he pointed out, the percentage of under-21 MDMA and ecstasy users who’ve been hospitalized has gone up sharply, from 2,899 cases in 2005 to 7,236 cases in 2011 — a 145 percent increase in less than a decade. “Even a few years ago, we would maybe fill an amnesty bin [where concert-goers could drop off illicit substances with no repercussions] in a night. Now, it’s filled up in thirty minutes,” said Gomez.

But of course, not all deaths at music festivals are drug-related; you’re at a much greater risk of being trampled at an event, according to data compiled by researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Emergency Medicine. And Gomez cautioned against rising tides pushing for even more demonization of MDMA and ecstasy users, especially within state legislatures and local law enforcement. “In any population of 100,000 people, x number of people are going to die from undiagnosed conditions. Sometimes that’s gonna happen at church, and sometimes that’s gonna happen at a rave,” he said. “There might actually not be a connection between drug use three days prior, eight days prior, with some of these drugs that stay in your system for weeks and weeks and weeks.”

Yet the larger discourse around recreational MDMA and ecstasy overdoses and rave culture elides the fact that most of the people dying at festivals in the Southern California region are young and Asian. An August 2016 Los Angeles Times report counted at least 29 drug-related deaths from rave events sponsored by Southern California festival companies over the past decade. Out of 21 victims IDed in the report, 12 were Asian. And of the report’s 14 festival-related deaths that have occurred since 2013, at least nine were Asian.

I’ve been working as a live music reporter in Los Angeles for about five years. Through my work, I’ve attended shows and festivals of every genre. Though this observation has shifted as festival culture and taste has begun to blur genres, I saw more Asian faces in the crowd when I went to raves and electronic music-centered shows than anywhere else.

Some research supports the notion that young Asians are prevalent in EDM scenes, as does the growing crossover and collaborative environment between the Korean and Japanese pop industries and Western producers like Skrillex. But it’s mostly in other anecdotal reports that Asian fans of EDM are discussed. A Reddit r/EDM thread on a Nielsen study about EDM listeners noted multiple times that Asians are underrepresented, while Asians get their own category in a Magnetic Mag piece titled "EDM Culture: 11 People You Don't Want To Meet at a Rave."

“It seems like a very big stage to rebel against what we’re stereotypically [expected] to do and act in life.”

When contacted, neither HARD nor Insomniac could provide demographic details for their Southern California festival attendance. Most promoters don’t formally collect that information through, say, a ticket check-out queue. Alarming drug-related deaths within the SoCal Asian population shouldn’t be placed on festivals’ shoulders. Both HARD and Insomniac’s websites have warnings and guides on how to stay healthy and hydrated at their events and explicitly ban MDMA and ecstasy; there are medical tents at their festival sites, and security staff are trained to recognize and call attention to attendees who show signs of intoxication or overdoses of any kind. (Though DanceSafe isn’t present at any HARD or Insomniac events because it’s seen as a legal risk, the organization is present at other large EDM events.)

“I’ve gone to my fair share of raves, and my instinct behind [using ecstasy] is that ecstasy is fun,” MK, a 24-year-old, quarter-Chinese Los Angeles native said. “When I go [to raves]... it is a stereotypical thing where you see your fair share of Asian kids there,” he said, speaking in sudden bursts. He was hesitant to draw a direct link between his and his mainly Asian friends’ ethnicities and their rave-going partying. But I was introduced to him by a mutual friend because of his unusual connection with the phenomenon I’ve been investigating.

MK knew two people — high school and college friends — who died at HARD Summer in recent years. (He declined to give further information about himself, which attendees he knew, or further details about his relationships to them.) “When I meet Asian-Americans, specifically in Southern California, they tend to come from these very small bubble cities that are predominantly Asian-American families, where their families [immigrated] from Asia,” he explained, citing SoCal cities West Covina and Chino Hills as examples. “Usually when I see kids that come out of those places, they rebel in one aspect or another, whether it be they trick the shit out of their car, or they start getting cool tattoos, or now it’s… I’m generalizing, but, ‘Hey, let’s go to a rave.’”

Ravers at HARD Summer Music Festival 2015 in Pomona, California.

Ravers at HARD Summer Music Festival 2015 in Pomona, California.

Sixty percent of L.A.’s counties have significant Asian populations. The national average is 5.6 percent; within these counties, the average is 17.1 percent. So, statistically, it makes sense that events in Southern California would have a noticeable Asian attendance. But that alone doesn’t account for the overwhelming number of drug-related Asian deaths, especially once you consider that, based on demographics alone, there isn’t a comparable amount of Latinx deaths at these events.

But while academic studies on MDMA and ecstasy use go back decades, there are only a handful of studies specifically examining Asian-American drug use, let alone within the EDM/rave setting. Dr. Geoffrey Hunt, a professor at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Denmark's Aarhus University and a senior scientist at the Institute for Scientific Analysis in Alameda, California, has conducted several of those studies, including one about the intersection of queerness with Asian-American club drug use.

In an email conversation, he stressed the importance of not conflating all Asian-American ethnic groups and their individual drug use patterns with one another, but also that “there is much less research on Asian-American youth culture than on Caucasian youth culture or on African-American or Latino culture.” And the research that does exist on the latter two is less concerned with what they do for fun and more so with perceived issues like gangs and teen pregnancy. Asian-American youth, he said, are perceived as having fewer social problems, and so they “fly under the radar.”

There’s an inescapable visual element to modern EDM and rave culture, and part of it includes the ability to peacock in the middle of a friendly crowd.

This lack of research, and the many cultural differences between Asian ethnic groups, complicates the idea that young Asian-Americans across the board are rapidly adopting and abusing MDMA and ecstasy. But as Hunt’s research suggests, the majority of Asian-Americans who use drugs turn to them either because of American culture or in defiance of Asian cultural norms. Many of the young Asian-Americans Hunt interviewed suggested that they dealt with the trope of “culture clash,” trying to reconcile their own identities with the those of their first-generation Asian immigrant parents as they navigated taboos like drugs.

In another study examining young Asians and EDM culture, researcher Judy Soojin Park interviewed several Asian-American rave attendees who tentatively connected EDM and rave spaces with whiteness. White people go to raves, and white people do drugs, the cultural understanding goes. “The reason is because when all those events put up photos, it’s always like white people photos,” said one interviewee. “Like, white people are still generally the main characters… Attendees, DJs are generally white people.” Another of Park’s interview subjects shared that “even though he attends EDM festivals with predominantly Asian-American groups, he is entering a space that signifies a type of whiteness that he perceives to be ‘cool’ and seeks to adopt.”

There’s an inescapable visual element to modern EDM and rave culture, and part of it includes the ability to peacock in the middle of a friendly crowd. Though raves, especially in Southern California, are not necessarily dominated by white people, there’s still an expectation to play into a white gaze. Part of it means having an optimal “rave body,” and another part means openly behaving in a “white” and drug-accepting way.

Ravers at HARD Summer Music Festival 2015 in Pomona, California.

Ravers at HARD Summer Music Festival 2015 in Pomona, California.

My college friend Megan’s parents, who are Taiwanese immigrants, imparted her with strict anti-drug ideology. “When [my parents] grew up in Taiwan, weed was illegal, and it’s still really illegal… That has an influence on my parents’ perspectives on drugs, which is that they’re super dangerous, they’re super illegal. ‘If you do it, we’ll cast you aside,’” she said. “[If] you’re white; there’s definitely more of a lax feeling. John Mulaney has this joke in his stand-up where he’s like, “Weed is legalized now!” People go woo, and he’s like, ‘If you’re white, don’t go woo. It’s been legalized for us for decades.’”

Though these young people may not be consciously thinking about bending to perceptions of whiteness, especially through partying culture, they still engage with their own cultural archetypes — that of the timid Asian nerd, for example. One of Park’s subjects shared, “At least all or most of the Asian-Americans that I’ve seen growing up in high school or middle school, they always wanted like a sense of belonging, to belong to something, whether they found like electronic music or something… For the most part, Asians, they’re always like, ‘Oh, he’s probably all weak, can’t protect himself.’ He’s always picked on so [he wants] to belong, like having a sense of family.”

With or without drugs, raves are traditionally havens of freedom and exploration. “When I go [to raves], it is a stereotypical thing where you see your fair share of Asian kids there,” said MK. “It seems like a very big stage to rebel against what we’re stereotypically [expected] to do and act in life.”

For those Asian families who’ve lost relatives to autopsy-determined drug-related causes, there’s pushback against the notion that their loved one could’ve used drugs recreationally. “One of [an attendee’s] relatives said [on Facebook] that her niece had now joined a better place and was no longer with us,” MK said. “It was a weird situation — [her family] didn’t say, for almost an entire week, what had really happened.” As for the other attendee he knew, MK confirmed that that person’s family still refuses to acknowledge that drugs might’ve played any contributing role in their death.

It’s also unclear how much Asian culture or historic biology actually, measurably come into play with these drug overdoses. (After all, “Asian glow” from alcohol is related to a specific genetic cause.) DanceSafe doesn’t track or cater its messaging to different racial demographics, but when asked about race-based drug interaction differences, Gomez pointed me toward two directions of inquiry: A discussion about Asian genes and MDMA potency (jumping off the Asian glow biological factor) and tentative research examining interactions between MDMA and cocaine with estrogen.

Youth of all races and ethnicities have bad trips, wild nights, strange powders and pills tempting them.

Still, most of these assumptions fall apart when faced with the fact that more and more club drugs these days are simply untraceable, even through on-site testing services like DanceSafe’s. “It’s not uncommon for someone to bring something to the booth and we do reagent testing on it, and it doesn’t match anything on our charts,” said Gomez. “The best I can tell this person is, ‘Here’s our reagent chart, there’s forty-something things it isn’t.’ That’s a terrible thing to tell someone; you bought a bag of something that you thought was MDMA, but it’s not even bath salts. It used to happen once a year; now it’s more like once every two or three events.”

And the industry’s biggest site of growth? China. To that, he tentatively asks whether counterfeit drugs are more likely to end up in the hands of young Asian-Americans because of a cultural proximity to where they’re being manufactured.

While Asian immigrant and first-generation immigrant youth cultures manifest differently, they all inherit a legacy, internalized within Asian communities and repeated by those outside of them, of rigid intolerance for “trouble” behavior — oftentimes coded with anti-black and/or anti-Latinx sentiments — like drug use and abuse. As Hunt suggested, this shifts research and resources away from the broad Asian demographic. (Though all areas of Asian-American-specific funding are underserved; as recently as this month, the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans was collecting signatures to ask the government to support more Asian-American-specific data.) This also concurrently strengthens both Asian immigrant families’ notions that their offspring and loved ones won’t (or rather can’t be) engaging in vice behavior, and young Asian recreational drug users’ discretion — except in those spaces, like at raves, where it finally seems possible to both find similar community and simply blow off steam.

The end result is a cultural imperative not to talk about these things, and therefore not to connect dots that can’t possibly exist. In fact, it was only when I asked to speak to MK that he began to question the link between ecstasy use, race, and the string of rave deaths, despite the fact that two of them had directly impacted him: “It’s something that comes to my attention, that people who are Asian are passing away at a higher rate at these events, but I never started unpacking that as, ‘Oh, are people who are Asian doing more drugs?’”

Ravers at Hard Summer Music Festival 2016 in Fontana, California.

Ravers at Hard Summer Music Festival 2016 in Fontana, California.

It’s not quite that; youth of all races and ethnicities have bad trips, wild nights, strange powders and pills tempting them. It’s not only Asian kids dying, but at least in Southern California, they’re seemingly bearing the brunt of these drugs’ most unpredictable effects.

The closest thing to a solution: More research done on the intersection of Asian cultural values, music festivals as unique social spaces, drug abuse, and inter-community dialogue around drug use to educate ourselves and others. These dialogues have been opened before. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Asian-American Movement mobilized youth and instigated community dialogue in response to rising drug abuse in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. We’re living in a very different moment with a very different kind of drug (and sociopolitical) culture, and the Asian diaspora itself is a much more fragmented thing. But the names of the dead are there, and they carry a common thread. Is there actually a problem here? I don’t want to wait until the summer is over to find out.


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Lilian Min is a journalist in Los Angeles.