New non-profit aims to reduce fentanyl-related overdoses at US music festivals

This Must Be The Place told NME how they distributed 10,000 free Narcan kits at festivals like Burning Man and Bonnaroo

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 150 people in the US die from fentanyl-related overdoses every day.

This Must Be The Place, a non-profit that distributes free Naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses opioid overdose, is working to reduce fentanyl-related deaths at music festivals. The organisation, which started earlier this year is built on the idea that drug treatment, not punishment and judgement, is the way forward.

Co-founders Ingela Travers-Hayward and William Perry spoke with NME about the importance of Naloxone in treating overdoses, why they started their non-profit, and how they hope to continue breaking the stigmas around drug use and treatment.

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This Must Be The Place decided to distribute Narcan (a brand of Naloxone) kits at music festivals because they wanted to get them into the hands of people who may not even realize they needed them. So, this year, they started setting up booths at events where attendees could pick up kits and receive free training on how to use the product. For the non-profit founders, their desire to help festival attendees comes from their personal experience.

Travers-Hayward got to know music festival culture as a journalist for MTV News Canada. Perry, however, had a more “nefarious” experience with music festivals, recalling how he and his friends would sneak into events and see where the day and drugs would take them from there. “We would party really hard going to this festival, that festival, that was our lifestyle,” Perry told NME. “Doing that led me into a whole lot of substance use problems.”

As a denizen of the Midwestern US, known for its carceral, punitive policies towards drug use, Perry’s substance use also led to a decade in prison. While there, he would hear stories about friends he used to go to festivals with dying of fentanyl overdoses. Now, as a sober recovery counsellor, he wanted to do what the government at large wasn’t: provide education, resources, and in some cases treatment for those affected by drug abuse.

That desire to provide education and resources increased over the pandemic lockdown. As Perry and Travers-Hayward were holed up in their house in Columbus, Ohio, they noticed a distressing pattern in many of the news stories they read. “There were a lot of news stories about how people were doing cocaine and dying, and doing molly and dying,” Travers-Hayward told us. Then as lockdown ended and concerts and festivals became the norm again, they worried this trend would continue at an even quicker pace.

“When people came out of their houses this year, we knew they were going to party and make up for lost time and go to music events they couldn’t go to during lockdown,” Perry said. “Those are just the spaces we know how to exist in. So we were like, ‘Let’s try to get ahead of it. Instead of there being this really bad event that happens, let’s be on site and provide people with Narcan.’”

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Travers-Hayward and Perry applied for 501(c)(3) status, and, after a few logistical headaches, This Must Be the Place became an official non-profit organization. Next, they started pitching festivals across the US, asking if they could distribute free Narcan and set up their own booth. They were told “no” far more than “yes,” but, once they got their first greenlight from a major festival, everything fell into place.

The first festival the organization worked at was Maple House Fest in Pittsburgh in May. Although it was a one-day festival, it still demanded plenty of energy, gas, and time. “I distinctly remember the next morning, we woke up, and thought, ‘Oh my god, I am more exhausted than ever. How in the hell are we going to pull off Bonnaroo,” Travers-Hayward said.

After distributing Narcan at Maple House Fest, they did it again at the two-day festival, WonderRoad in Indianapolis in June. It ended on a Sunday, and Perry and Travers-Hayward had to execute a quick turnaround to get to their next festival on Thursday. They departed Indianapolis for Columbus by car, loaded up their vehicle with as many Naloxone kits as possible, and drove straight to Manchester, Tennessee, for the four-day-long Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival.

Although the experience was physically draining, the duo was pleased to see that despite providing thousands of Narcan kits at Bonnaroo (even handing one to Machine Gun Kelly), they didn’t see a single one of those kits littered on the festival grounds.

“People were taking it seriously, not just because it was something that was being handed out, but because they were taking it with meaning,” Perry said. “If we had seen it on the ground, it would be heartbreaking, but everyone was taking this stuff or putting it somewhere safe and taking it home with them.”

Still, This Must Be the Place is fighting the stigma surrounding drug treatment. Travers-Hayward said that they had many “difficult conversations” with event promoters. Perry said that for every “yes,” they received at festivals like Burning Man, they got “20 nos” in turn.

“There are still very archaic views about this stuff out there,” Travers-Hayward said. “But the reality is that Naloxone is not going to hurt you. I could shove one up my nose right now, and it’s not going to make a difference, except I’m going to have the shitty feeling of water up my nose.”

They also had to convince promoters and industry staff that their organization was not “opening a safe injection site.” Rather, “you’re protecting your fans [and] for once getting out in front of something before something bad happens,” Perry said.

Throughout the nine festivals that This Must Be the Place worked over the summer, they’ve handed out a total of 10,887 free Naloxone kits. Although they have provided kits for thousands of people, they still remember individual stories that resonated with them. One of those stories came from a young woman who took a Narcan kit at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party festival in August.

“She texted us that she took Narcan from us, even though she rarely uses drugs, and ended up using it on a stranger within 24 hours of us giving it to her,” Travers-Hayward said. “Both of her parents messaged us and said, ‘You allowed us to have a dialogue with our kid about this stuff.’ They had this really meaningful conversation about what it means to help a stranger.”

Asked about their future hopes, This Must Be The Place told NME they want to “go out of business.” Although neither of them makes a single cent doing this work, they hope one day, there won’t be a need for them to distribute Naloxone at festivals in the first place.

“Anyone who has power to do something should be doing something,” Perry said. “This summer was incredibly successful. Because of that, our goal is to be in 25 cities next year and to hand out 20,000 kits and make sure people are kept safe. We want to do what music has always done, which is be on the cutting edge, be part of social change, and fight for a cause.”

Meanwhile in the UK, Reading & Leeds Festival issued a warning earlier this year about the use of drugs at their 2022 festivals, noting that “ecstasy deaths appear to be rising year on year”. The warning followed organisers of Boardmasters warning attendees of dangerously high-strength MDMA that was found on-site at the festival.

Another recent warning was sounded after pills that were tested at Secret Garden Party 2022 were found to contain more than 2.5 times the typical amount of ecstasy.

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