MANILA, Philippines – The crowd was huge, the stage lights overpowering, and the music strong enough to last until the wee hours of the morning.
Thousands gathered at the Mall of Asia (MOA) concert grounds on May 21 for what was to be the last music festival to be hosted by a toothpaste company-turned-party organizer, the Closeup Forever Summer open-air concert.
As in previous years, the scene that Saturday night was the same: a throng of sweaty youth dancing to the beat of the music, long lines at the food trucks, and alcohol bottles being finished one after another.
The difference is that this time around, at the end of the party, 5 concert-goers were declared dead.
Authorities are investigating what caused the deaths of Bianca Fontejon, 18; Ariel Leal, 22; Lance Garcia, 36; Ken Migawa, 18; and Eric Anthony Miller, 33.
Initial probe results by the police and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) point to possible drug overdose, as autopsy results showed 4 of the victims suffered from heart failure despite their young age.
They had blackened hearts and watery fluid in their internal organs, and suffered from internal bleeding.
Social media was abuzz with reports that concert-goers allegedly took the illegal designer drug called “green amore,” a mixture of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or ecstasy, methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, and cialis, a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction.
Investigators, however, emphasized they have yet to conclusively determine what led to the victims’ demise. (READ: NBI nabs alleged drug dealer at Closeup concert)
As the probe continues, the spotlight is on the local party scene: is it a hot spot for drug use?
Not the primary purpose
“No, no, no. As a DJ, we’ve never even pushed drugs,” said Philippine house music stalwart DJ Manolet Dario.
“The music should get the people high first and foremost. You don’t need anything else to enjoy it. Maybe a little alcohol, which is normal in a bar, but you don’t have to be intoxicated to enjoy it,” said Manolet.
In the late 1990s, Manolet, his brother Teddy, and British Ian Carless created the Natural Born Klubbers, one of the groups that pioneered house music and warehouse parties in the country.
Teddy Dario, who now manages Prive Luxury Club, said such gatherings were held in old or abandoned warehouses (thus the name), where DJs play music often unheard in mainstream radio.
“It’s more eclectic. They're attended by a lot of creative people from the ad agencies, people who are well-traveled and who have been part of the rave scenes in Europe, [United] States, North America, and the balikbayans, ‘cause they sort of missed that when they moved back to the Philippines,” said Teddy.
These days, most people head to clubs, bars, and electronic dance music (EDM) festivals to party, with the more popular venues playing Top 40 songs.
Still, alcohol and drugs have been permanent fixtures in parties across the globe for several decades now, regardless of whether they are held in clubs or open-air concert fields.
“Let’s put it this way: in the clubbing industry, there will be drugs involved. The more important [aspect] is education. I think people should be educated the right way, what these things are,” said Manolet.
Andrea Santos*, a 21-year-old college student, said she often goes clubbing.
“I go partying to destress, to meet new people, when I feel like moving. I go to parties so I can dance,” Santos said.
She admitted, however, that she sometimes takes valium, a sedative-hypnotic prescription drug, to help the alcohol kick in faster and to make herself a “happy drunk.”
Valium decreases the nervous system’s activity, leading to euphoria, lack of coordination, and the feeling of drunkenness.
"The music should get the people high first and foremost. You don’t need anything else to enjoy it." - DJ Manolet Dario
PARTY GONE BAD. Controversy follows the latest Closeup Forever Summer rave concert after 5 attendees die. File photo of the 2015 Closeup Forever Summer event by Jansen Romero/Rappler
"Not a lot of my friends take drugs. Those who do know how to control themselves when they take it," said Santos.
John Cruz*, a young DJ of 4 years, also noticed that in music festivals, some “go there not necessarily because they are big fans of the genre of the music, but some of them go there to get high.”
He said the drug of choice is often ecstasy, one of the substances he has tried, along with marijuana or "weed."
“Mixed with this high energy of electronic music – it’s loud, it’s uplifting, it keeps you pumped up – and that mixed with ecstasy makes you higher,” said Cruz.
This was confirmed by NBI medico legal division assistant chief Dr Wilfredo Tierra, who said the environment in music festivals, with its blaring sounds and light shows onstage, can influence ecstasy’s effects on a person.
“Oo, kasi ‘yung ecstasy kasi hallucinogenic ‘yan e. Pakiramdam niya lumulutang siya e. Magkakaroon ka ng increase in sensation and perception,” said the medical practitioner of 20 years.
(Yes, ecstasy is hallucinogenic. The person feels like he’s floating. You will have an increase in sensations and perception.)
“It will increase the sensation, so kung may loud music, loudest ‘yan. Tayo, kung sa atin flickering lights ‘yan, sa kanila, lightning na ‘yan. Kung may nakikita silang maliit na ibon, parang agila na sa kanila,” Tierra added.
(It will increase the sensation, so if there’s loud music, it will be at the loudest volume for the drug user. If for us, the lights are just flickering, for them, they already see lightning. If they see a small bird, it will seem to them an eagle.)
Both Santos and Cruz said marijuana are being used in parties as well, but they are harder to hide from security.
How do the kids buy their drugs at parties? Cruz, the DJ, said you need to know the right people.
"Usually, you would have a friend of friend of a friend of a friend. I know some people who go there and just ask around," said Cruz, who said he has never personally bought drugs from a drug dealer who is directly part of a syndicate group.
Teddy Dario said security is always a challenge at parties, especially for big events like Closeup Forever Summer. (READ: Closeup concert security report: 400 men, 6 sniffer dogs deployed)
"You may check their pockets, but they may hide it in their shoes. They may not have drugs on them when they go inside, but they might have taken the drugs outside. And you can’t tell. They hide it well," he said.
The party drugs
Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler
According to NBI Anti-Illegal Drugs Division chief Joel Tovera, ecstasy and the “green amore” pill, which comes in many names, are usually popular among party-goers.
The “green amore” is similar to “fly high”, “party”, “superman”, and “green apple”. Their effects include insomnia, loss of appetite, and hypersexuality.
Ecstasy is priced at about P1,500 to P2,500 a tablet, while "green amore" pills range from P1,500 to P3,500 per capsule.
Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler
According to Tovera, these drugs are easy to sneak inside packed venues, as they can be crushed and placed inside generic capsules, which users can then pass off as regular painkillers.
Tovera said the NBI has interviewed security personnel deployed at the Closeup concert, who said they were able to find some concert-goers who brought such capsules to the venue.
“It doesn’t look like the traditional ecstasy na nakikita natin, so nakakalusot siya… Mahirap i-detect. Anong probable cause for security guard to confiscate and hulihin ‘yung taong may dalang Alaxan?” said Tovera, referring to a brand of painkiller.
(It doesn’t look like the traditional ecstasy, so they get away with it… It’s hard to detect. What’s the probable cause for a security guard to confiscate someone bringing in Alaxan?)
Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler
“Kaya puwede rin nating i-assume na ‘yung mga nakuhang inhalers na nandoon [sa Closeup venue], maaaring may nilagay na ecstasy dun saka ininhale (That’s why we can assume that the inhalers found at the Closeup venue may have been used to inhale ecstasy). But we can only assume,” he added.
Tovera said there also exists a substance called liquid ecstasy or gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), an alleged date-rape drug that is priced at P10,000 per 100 ml.
Fighting a menace
Drug abuse remains a perennial issue in the Philippines, with President-elect Rodrigo Duterte vowing to suppress it within 3 to 6 months.
Around one-fifth of barangays have drug-related cases, according to February 2015 data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
Duterte expressed anger over the deaths at the Closeup concerts, saying he would revamp the NBI and PDEA along with other agencies.
Authorities agreed that stricter security measures should be implemented at all party venues to prevent another Closeup incident from happening again.
PDEA wants to deploy narcotic-sniffing dogs at the entrances. It also wants organizers to allow their agents to monitor the situation inside parties, CNN Philippines reported.
Santos said there should be tighter security in clubs and bars as well, because some security personnel fail to properly inspect all zippers in party-goers’ bags, where they hide the illegal drugs.
Tovera also said the NBI and PDEA are working together to have stimulants that have the same effects as illegal drugs to finally be included in the country’s list of prohibited substances.
Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler
An example are synthetic cathinones from the khat plant. Drug dealers use synthetic cathinones in “green amore” pills because they have the same effects as ecstasy. But when the dealers are caught with the product, the authorities have no choice but to release the sellers because they are technically not violating any laws.
Ultimately, Teddy Dario advises parents that fighting drugs begins at home.
“I have kids who are 18 and 22 years old. I always tell them you shouldn’t succumb to peer pressure. If you really don’t want to take whatever your friends are giving you or drink whatever your friends are giving you, then don’t,” he said.
“You have to also make sure these kids are well-informed because sometimes, they don’t know what it is like. You have to tell them there are bad people there who will sell you these stuff and you shouldn’t take them,” he added. – Rappler.com
*Names have been replaced to protect the interviewees’ identities.
"...[You] shouldn’t succumb to peer pressure. If you really don’t want to take whatever your friends are giving you or drink whatever your friends are giving you, then don’t." - Teddy Dario