That was a question that hovered over the San Manuel Amphitheater late Friday afternoon as thousands of electronic dance music fans poured in for the three-day Nocturnal Wonderland festival, now celebrating its 20th year.
The amphitheater became San Bernardino County’s home base for Nocturnal Wonderland in 2013 after a clash between the event’s promoter and San Bernardino officials over noise, drug use and sales and other illegal activity forced the promoter to move from the National Orange Show Events Center to the county-owned amphitheater in Devore.
Since then, two men have died from overdoses of Ecstasy, which they ingested while attending Nocturnal Wonderland and its companion dance festival, Beyond Wonderland, at the San Manuel Amphitheater, according to coroner investigation reports.
San Diego resident John Hoang Dinh Vo, 22, died at Loma Linda University Medical Center after suffering a seizure and collapsing at the Beyond Wonderland electronic dance festival in March. A red pill found in Vo’s possession, shaped like a shield with the letters “UPS” imprinted on it, tested positive for Ecstasy. A friend of Vo’s told investigators he observed Vo take Ecstasy and drink at least one beer at the festival, according to a coroner’s investigation report.
“Nothing saddens us more than when someone loses their life at a county facility. Every precaution is taken to prevent patrons from bringing dangerous contraband into the amphitheater,” county spokesman David Wert said Friday in an email. “We take extra precautions at EDM (electronic dance music) events. But when you have tens of thousands of people coming in, and some of them are bound and determined to sneak something in, something is going to get in. It happens at all types of events everywhere in the world.”
Other precautions taken at the events include ID scans, a surrender bin where people can abandon illegal items like drugs before entering, and a heavy law enforcement presence, including undercover officers. That’s a more intensive process than for other events held at San Manuel Amphitheater, but nothing that should be a problem for law-abiding people, Wert said.
In September 2013, about eight months after the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement allowing Live Nation to hold four electronic dance music shows a year at the amphitheater, Nocturnal Wonderland attendee Arrel Cochon, 22, of Hollywood suffered a seizure after ingesting Ecstasy and methamphetamine at the festival. He was taken to Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Los Angeles, where he died six days later, according to a coroner’s investigation report.
Cochon, according to his autopsy report, had no prior history of drug use, but did suffer from an autonomic disorder causing his system to shut down. He had previously suffered from seizures and constriction of the esophagus, which was corrected by surgery, according to the coroner’s report.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis called for a temporary ban on electronic dance music events last month in her county following the deaths of Tracy Nguyen, 18, and Katie Dix, 19, from suspected drug overdoses at the Hard Summer Festival at the Fairplex in Pomona.
In response, event promoter Live Nation canceled its next concert, capped attendance at 40,000 for an October concert, prohibited people under 21 years old from attending, and reduced festival hours.
The age limit to attend this weekend’s event in Devore is 18, but Wert said the county has nothing to do with setting the age limit. He said the county evaluates each event to determine if any kind of drug overdose should cause concern to the point that the county takes action.
“The county takes each incident very seriously, but each time it has come down to a matter of personal choice — a bad decision by a patron, never negligence by the county, the venue operator or the promoter,” Wert said.
In fact, San Bernardino County has served as an example for Los Angeles County, Wert said.
“They’re mirroring our process,” he said. “I know they did consult with our Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department. I think what they were mirroring more is the cooperative arrangement between the promoters and the Sheriff’s and Fire” departments.
Longtime rave attendees acknowledge the scene has changed given all the safety concerns, but some believe the issue is being overplayed in the media.
“You do have a party scene like anywhere. Even at spring break you have a party scene,” said Rob Harwood, 28, of Alhambra, who has been going to raves and music festivals since 2000. “I just think that since they have gotten more popular, the media has been focusing only on the negative. I go for the music.”
He believes the music festivals have gotten a bad rap.
“People need to go and experience one to know what it’s really about,” Harwood said. “I took my sister once. She thought people would poke you with needles and drugs, but she saw that it wasn’t like that and she really enjoyed it. You have to go once in your life and then you can make a judgment on it.”