The Parties Are Virtual, but the Drugs Are Real

The Brooklyn hip-hop group Flatbush Zombies takes the stage at Lavapalooza 2020, a virtual music festival hosted in the videogame Minecraft by digital venue organizer Open Pit in mid-August. (Photo courtesy of Discord user Ritual.)

(CN) — The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down nightclubs, music festivals, concerts and raves worldwide, leaving many partygoers in a lurch. But New York University researchers have found the parties are moving online — and many socially distanced partiers are using drugs in these digital settings.

“We explored whether stay-at-home orders changed how people use drugs — and it appears that drug use during virtual gatherings is somewhat prevalent among the partygoing population we studied,” said Joseph Palamar, associate professor of population health at NYU Langone and lead author of a study published Wednesday in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Friend groups and families have moved their happy hour hangouts from local bars and restaurants to online platforms that allow video conferencing, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Discord, where participants can drink in the comfort of their own homes.

Likewise, music festivals, canceled for fear of spreading the novel coronavirus, have moved their parties online as well, with artists hosting sets that are broadcast to audiences listening at home.

For instance, Electric Daisy Carnival, the United States’ largest electronic dance music festival, was meant to be held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in May. After the pandemic broke out, festival organizers pivoted to a virtual rave, and broadcasted popular DJs like Tokimonsta and Afrojack live to viewers on YouTube and Twitch, a streaming platform popular among videogame players and their audiences.

The pandemic has also produced a new crop of virtual event organizers such as Open Pit, which has hosted no fewer than four charity music concerts in the hit sandbox videogame Minecraft — complete with cheeky names such as Lavapalooza, Square Garden and Coalchella.

Event organizers prepared a digital venue space, where blocky representations of music artists like 100 Gecs and Dorian Electra blasted their beats before hundreds of jumping player avatars and thousands more listeners tuned in to streams of the in-game concert on YouTube and Twitch.

Traditional nightlife has long been associated with drug use, including so-called party drugs such as ecstasy and psychedelics like LSD. According to Wednesday’s study, use of these drugs is following the parties online.

Palamar and his NYU colleague Patricia Acosta took to social media to recruit 128 virtual partygoers living in New York who reported recent drug use and asked them about drug use in virtual settings.

Of those surveyed, 55.5% said they attended virtual raves, and nearly seven in 10 said they’ve attended virtual happy hours during the pandemic. About four in 10 virtual ravers said they used illegal drugs during them.

At 70%, alcohol was far and away the most commonly used drug in both virtual happy hours and virtual concert. Marijuana, used by almost 30% of participants, came in second.

Ecstasy was used by 8.5% of the ravers, LSD by 7% and cocaine by 4.2%. Happy hour attendees took it somewhat easier – 3.4% reported cocaine use and another 3.4% said they used ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic.

With this data in hand, the researchers said virtual events could provide an opportunity for harm reduction and drug prevention advocates to reach their audiences.

“My main concern is that some people are using drugs in front of their webcams. A screenshot of someone using drugs—even if it’s just weed—can really have adverse consequences on people’s careers,” Palamar said in an email. “If people decide to party when in a virtual happy hour or virtual rave, they need to make sure they’re careful.”

He noted that other research indicates that cocaine, ecstasy and LSD are being used less under Covid-19 lockdowns.

“We’ve conducted another study, also on EDM partygoers, and we’re learning that the use of drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD, has been dropping since the Covid-19 lockdown,” Palamar said in a press release on the study. “This shouldn’t be unexpected as many of these drugs are most commonly used in social and party settings, but social distancing measures have certainly changed drug use behaviors.”

And while illicit drug use at home might reduce users’ risk of suffering adverse outcomes compounded by hot, crowded festivals where water and rest areas may be few and far between, the study authors note that using certain drugs alone may be more dangerous than using them among others, writing that more research on virtual partying is necessary.

Though Palamar says this portion of his research is completed, he and his colleagues will once again survey people at nightclubs and festivals once the lockdown measures have passed.

“We’ll return to surveying in-person if and when Covid passes and nightclubs open up again,” he said via email.

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