Death by ecstasy?
So bad is the Philippines’ drug problem that Filipinos overwhelmingly voted into the presidency a man whose main platform centers on stamping out crime, particularly the trade in illegal drugs, within three to six months after assuming office.
The deaths of five people who attended the open-air Closeup Forever Summer Concert at the Mall of Asia on May 21 suggest the pervasiveness of the drug culture and the easy access to highly regulated substances even in very public venues.
The five fatalities—aged 18 to 33, one an American—were found unconscious at different places in the concert grounds; they died in hospitals hours later. Autopsies on two of them showed that they died of a massive heart attack; two others, autopsied only last Tuesday, indicated “sudden cardiac death.” Investigators earlier said the heart attack could have been the result of a heatstroke or dehydration because of current sweltering temperatures. The Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation are conducting parallel inquiries. At this writing, no one in authority has formally announced drug overdose as cause of death.
But heart attack in people so young is unusual. And indeed, investigators said the massive heart attack that killed two of the concertgoers was due to high blood pressure, kidney failure and dehydration—all indicators of drug overdose. The five, it appears, were also under the influence of alcohol, which makes for a fatal brew with drugs in most cases.
Expressing regret over the deaths, the concert organizers said they were cooperating with authorities in the investigation and that “very stringent measures and precautions” were in place during the event. And yet, according to reports, while some 70 cops were deployed at the venue, no security personnel were visible at the center of the gathering, where the party was said to have been at its wildest. At the admission desks, concertgoers were told to list their names, ages and e-mail addresses as they presented their tickets, but there was no need for IDs. Thus, it must have been fairly easy for minors to get in, or for others to sneak in drugs or spiked drinks under their clothes as only bags were inspected. And alcoholic drinks, including hard liquor, were sold at the venue.
Police have disavowed responsibility for the incident, citing an internal arrangement with organizers about taking charge only of perimeter security. With such lax security measures, and the young’s famous battle cry “Yolo”—you only live once—it’s not unreasonable to suspect that drug pushers and users had their day (and night) at the concert.
Dancing to and otherwise enthused by the music, some 14,000 young bodies gratefully partook of cold drinks reportedly being passed around. How easy it must have been to get the sweaty crowd primed for the party.
Investigators are looking into reports that the five had taken party drugs that contain a cocktail of shabu, the recreational drug ecstasy, and cialis, a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction. Unfortunately, such party drugs are often sold online, making it easier for young people with an internet connection to be on party mode. Monitoring such e-commerce sites should certainly be a priority of drug enforcement agents.
And the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) must push for an intensive investigation: Should a new police protocol be drafted to make law enforcement more effective even in private and ticketed events? Can drug-sniffing dogs be deployed at concert venues to allow security personnel proper monitoring? How about the deployment of undercover agents, to spot possible drug trade during open-air events, or even just to douse the chutzpah of drug dealers?
Meanwhile, how can organizers check for hidden drugs without violating personal privacy? And shouldn’t they have medical personnel trained to handle drug-related emergencies at the venue? Would it hurt to have posters warning of the fatal mix of party drugs and alcohol, and loudspeakers blaring the same warning before the start of an event?
The deaths of five concert goers are five too many. But the body count can only go higher, as a recent PDEA report has indicated that in Metro Manila alone, 92 percent of barangays are drug-infested. Also, the Philippines has the highest abuse rate for shabu in East Asia, according to the latest UN World Drug Report.
It’s a distinction we can definitely do without.
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